Keys To Success

The Piano Is Dead! Long Live the Piano!

Even as traditional keyboards disappear from mainstream culture, the piano enjoys a renaissance in jazz.

01.18.15 11:45 AM ET

Is piano music in a state of irreversible decline? If you believe the news stories, the situation has never been worse. If the piano were a NBA team, it would be the New York Knicks, losing game after game with an old-fashioned offensive scheme from the last century. With only this difference: in music, losers don’t get the first pick in next year’s draft.

A few days ago, the Associated Press reported that piano stores across the country are closing because fewer youngsters are taking lessons. Almost at that same moment, Steinway finalized its move out of its historic New York flagship store, its midtown home for ninety years, to make way for the construction of luxury condos. And just the previous week, a renowned British music teacher, Dame Fanny Waterman complained about the declining skills of young pianists, and testily announced that the future of piano playing in the U.K. was in peril.

Her doom-and-gloom prediction is hardly an exaggeration—in fact, demand for pianos has sunk so low that many owners give up on selling a second-hand instrument and simply send it to the garbage dump.

I got a taste of this recently, when I decided to upgrade my home piano to a Steinway. I found no shortage of owners willing to cut me a sweet deal on a used instrument, but selling my current piano—a choice 1922 Ivers & Pond grand in pristine shape—proved a nightmare. Over the course of a year, I kept cutting the price, and when I eventually found a buyer, I had to accept less than half of what I thought the instrument was worth.

I grumbled at the transaction, but at least I didn’t need to send my classic piano to the landfill!

Yet is this state of affairs so surprising? Aspiring musicians nowadays spend lots of time at a keyboard—but usually they are making their tracks at a computer keyboard. Judging by the hit records and most-watched videos, it’s probably wiser to learn how to manipulate software and sound files than spend years mastering a traditional instrument. Sure, a few hit songs still rely on the old 88 keys. Adele’s “Someone Like You” or John Legend’s “All of Me” each prominently feature the piano, and both rose to the top of chart. But these are exceptions in an environment in which acoustic instruments are mostly viewed as anachronisms.

In the midst of this decline, the jazz world has gone the opposite direction. The piano has not only survived in jazz, but is thriving. As I look back at my favorite jazz albums of recent months, almost all of them feature an acoustic piano, and pianists are leaders of the band in close to half of these recordings.

You might think that this state of affairs is driven by a respect for tradition or nostalgia. But the leaders of this movement are forward-looking artists at mid-career who are creating fresh and exciting music—and find no contradiction in relying on the centuries-old technology of the piano to make it.

In fact, the stability of old technology may even be an advantage for these musicians. “Telephones and computers are out-of-date after a year,” explains pianist Aaron Goldberg, whose trio album The Now is one of the most exciting jazz releases I’ve heard so far in 2015. But “from a design perspective,” he notes, “the piano long ago achieved something surprisingly close to perfection.”

But if the instrument has stopped evolving, the performers continue to move ahead. And the piano serves their needs because of its flexibility in adapting to the personality and vision of each new generation of artists. “For a pianist,” Goldberg notes, “sound and style go together. Ten pianists will all sound totally different playing the same piano, which makes the instrument versatile.”

But when forced to identify a limitation of the traditional keyboard, Goldberg does lament one problem. “The only thing I wish at times is that I could tote one around in an overhead compartment of an airplane.”

This same flexibility in the piano is even more evident in the work of Vijay Iyer, a brilliant artist who has enjoyed an extraordinary run of successes over the last 18 months. During this period, Iyer has earned a MacArthur “genius grant,” got named to an endowed chair at Harvard, and signed a record contract with the ECM label. His debut ECM album, Mutations, features Iyer’s ambitious ten-part suite for piano, string quartet, and electronics. There isn’t a single measure of nostalgia or retro posturing in this work, but the piano is central to its success.

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Iyer admits that he makes “a lot of electronic music,” but that this isn’t a substitute for the tone of a traditional piano. “I still like the sound of the piano in the midst of it. It’s partly because there’s infinite real-time expressive possibility at the piano, to which we devote whole lifetimes. A pianist grows and evolves for decades in relation to the instrument, eventually reaching a point where his or her sound might be identifiable in a single note.”

The piano is even more prominent in Iyer’s latest album, Break Stuff, slated for February release. Here the pianist is joined by long-standing colleagues bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Marcus Gilmore in a trio outing that promises to be one of the high-profile jazz projects of the year. Iyer explains the album’s title as referring to “the moment when everything comes to life,” and the music lives up to this boast. It is very much immersed in the energies and exigencies of jazz in the current moment.

Iyer is well-versed in the heritage of the instrument in the jazz idiom. “Pianist-composers have always had a central position in the history of this music, from Joplin to Jelly Roll Morton to James P. Johnson to Monk to Sun Ra to Tyner to Hancock to Taylor to Muhal Richard Abrams,” he notes. This legacy informs his music, but does not constrain it.

“The piano is a remarkably efficient way for a single person to express most of the fundamentals of music—pitch, rhythm, harmony, and dynamics—in real-time,” comments Dan Tepfer, another pianist who is charting the course for the keyboard in the 21st century. Recently I have been listening over and over to an advance copy of Tepfer’s collaboration with vocalist Joanna Wallfisch, The Origin of Adjustable Things, scheduled for release in March. It is bittersweet and heartfelt, and boldly breaks free of the prevalent formulas for jazz albums, but with the tones and textures of the musical accompaniment almost entirely built on acoustic piano.

Pianist Eric Reed is another of the prominent jazz artists at mid-career who find continued inspiration in the traditional keyboard. Reed has no complaints about plugged-in artists and software-driven songs. “These days, I’m taking on a less defining position about art,” he remarks. But Reed’s Groovewise album, one of my favorite releases of 2014, gets its electric charge from the familiar instruments of the time-honored jazz quartet. “I feel the piano functions like any kind of dish that has a filling: the cream in a doughnut, the filling in any kind of pie,” he explains.

I’ve followed the career of pianist Helen Sung with interest over the last decade, but her latest album Anthem for a New Day is, in my opinion, her breakout release. At mid-career, she seems poised to move into the top tier of jazz artists. But like these other pianists, Sung remains enthusiastic about the old instruments. “As long as folks care about sound, tone, expression, etc.,” she remarks, “I don’t think instruments like the piano, the violin, horns, reeds, can be ignored or discarded.”

But this is also a matter of her personal temperament and preferences. “For me,” Sung explains, “there’s something about things like wood and metal, with their organic connection to sound, that is earthy and comforting.”

I suspect that many music fans, even those unfamiliar with jazz, also find the sound of the traditional piano “earthy and comforting.” I imagine this is part of the reason why piano-driven tracks by Adele and John Legend still manage to captivate in an age of beats, samples and Auto-Tune. Jazz isn’t immune to these newer technologies, and has always managed to learn from the changing styles of popular music. But, perhaps in this case, popular music might learn a thing or two from jazz.