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Aaron Diehl wins APA jazz fellowship

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Aaron Diehl
  • Aaron Diehl
It's easy to guess why Wynton Marsalis is so impressed with Aaron Diehl, the 25-year-old pianist who became the American Pianists Association's Cole Porter Fellow in Jazz Saturday night. It has to do with Diehl's knowledge of jazz history, his facility with everything from ragtime to R&B, his thorough immersion in the tradition — all qualities Marsalis values highly in his own work.

And no less importantly, Diehl is comfortable before a crowd. He was emotionally present while accompanying the rather bawdy Dee Dee Bridgewater, who makes no secret of her interest in young talented menfolk — and, in a much different way, while tearfully accepting the award at the close of the night. Diehl will receive over $100,000 worth of cash and in-kind assistance as part of his award, and he acknowledged as much during his acceptance speech, noting that receiving the Fellowship was important, in part, because of its "professional incentives."

But perhaps paramount, he noted during the same speech, was the opportunity to share his music with such a substantial crowd, and to hold up his end of the axiom: "To whom much is given, much is required." It was an appropriate enough for Diehl to quote from the Book of Luke; between an active solo performance schedule, the Ohio-born pianist serves as music director at St. Joseph of the Holy Family Church in Central Harlem.

Each finalist performed two songs during the final round of the Jazz Fellowship competition at the Athenaeum Theatre: one with Bridgewater and the other with the Buselli-Wallarab Jazz Orchestra. Diehl and Bridgewater's take on Porter's "Just One of Those Things" was impressive, with Diehl energetically matching Bridgewater's scat vocals after getting the song going with a boisterous, R&B-inflected opening. Equally impressive, in a quite different way, was Zach Laipdus's take on "Embraceable You," a muted, will-of-the-wisp interpretation where each beat fell like a heartbeat, challenging Bridgewater to move to expressive, wistful heights.

There could only be one winner, and Diehl certainly seemed deserving. But all of the finalists were immensely talented — and for the most part, sensitive to the needs of their collaborators. All of them have raw talent, and the most impressive performers were those who had a distinctive attack and voice: Diehl, certainly, partly because of his use of ragtime, which doesn't always find its way so easily and effectively into a modern jazz tune like "Nardis," the Miles Davis-penned piece he performed with the BWJO; but also Jeremy Siskind, who managed to quote from Monk during his big-band piece without aping his style, and who plays in a lyrical mode that's perfectly suited to jazz-pop hybrids like his interpretation of Michael Jackson's "Black or White," performed during Friday's semi-finals at The Jazz Kitchen; and Lapidus, the sole local finalist, who stopped time during his performance with Bridgewater, then picked it back up during his big band performance, demonstrating the most dynamic contrast of the night.

Diehl will be in town often during the next couple years, taking advantage of performance opportunities afforded by the fellowship. Take the time to check him out, and to support an organization that makes it its mission to support young talent.

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