Pianist Joanne Brackeen had just joined drummer Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers in 1970 when one night in Tokyo, Blakey announced from the stage that his new pianist would play a solo rendition of whatever tune she wished. It took her completely by surprise.
"I had no idea he was going to do that," she said from her home in New York. "There was so much energy and momentum going and all of a sudden they left the bandstand. It was a great setup. So that's really how I got the roots of how I play solo piano today."
How Brackeen, 62, plays solo will be in ample evidence when her new CD, Popsicle Illusion, comes out Tuesday on Arkadia Jazz. It will be her first solo piano outing since 1990's Live at Maybeck Recital Hall, and her 25th album altogether.
Popsicle Illusion features Brackeen lavishing her aggressive pianism on a few standards, a Beatles tune and four originals. Why call a tune, let alone a record, Popsicle Illusion?
"The tune (RealAudio excerpt of title track) sounded like something crazy. You hear it and it sounds like a funky groove, then it makes a few movements that you're not expecting, so it's like a Popsicle on a hot day. You lick it, maybe it melts, you never know."
The Los Angeles native's musical journey began when she attended a Los Angeles music conservatory for all of three days. Performing seemed a much more interesting thing to do, and she began gigging with saxophonists Harold Land and Charles Lloyd. Brackeen moved to New York in the mid-'60s and worked with trumpeter Woody Shaw and saxophonist Dave Liebman. Then she became the first female member of the Jazz Messengers. Blakey was fond of calling her his adopted daughter.
A Messenger's Daughter
"There was this energy from Blakey that I knew existed but had never been a part of," Brackeen said. "I never felt that he treated me any differently because of my gender. He was so perceptive about things. I really did feel like his adopted daughter."
After Blakey, Brackeen took a gig with tenor great Joe Henderson.
"I played with Joe from '72 [to] '75, again in the late '70s and a bit in the '80s. His music was very mysterious when I first got with him. I wasn't familiar with his approach."
A stint with sax legend Stan Getz in 1975 was the last she served as a side player. For the past 25 years, Brackeen has led her own quintets, quartets, trios and duos. Her 1999 Arkadia Jazz debut, Pink Elephant Magic, was nominated for a Grammy Award.
Popsicle Illusion features a version of "Michelle" (RealAudio excerpt).
"I just like the tune mainly because it has a nice minor sound," Brackeen said. "I played it a few times with bassist Cecil McBee and he just loved it," she said. "Bob Karcy from Arkadia Jazz might have asked if there was a Beatles thing I wanted to do."
The disc also features a stride version of Frank Loesser's "If I Were a Bell" (RealAudio excerpt). In stride, the left hand plays bass notes on the first and third beats of a musical measure, while the right hand plays chords or a solo line on the second and fourth beats.
"I had never heard that tune done in a stride fashion and I certainly had never heard it done in a rhythm of 7/4," she said.
Brackeen was attracted to stride as a child: "I grew up listening to [pianist] Frankie Carl. I didn't know he was playing stride, but when I was about 11, I transcribed about eight of his solos."
In Boston, Brackeen is usually called professor. She teaches piano and composition at Berklee College of Music a day and a half every week. She is also on the faculty of New School University in New York.
Head Of The Class
"Teaching and performing make a good balance," she said. Also, the students are really developing. My last class at Berklee had a piano player, Robert Glaspar, who is now working with guitarist Russell Malone."
Brackeen commutes from Boston to her New York home constantly. "I need to be in New York, because that's where my bands are!"
Looking at her schedule, it's amazing she has time to teach, perform and record. Brackeen performs in Pascara, Italy, next week with fellow pianists James Williams and Mulgrew Miller, then returns to Manhattan, N.Y., where she'll play a record release party for Popsicle Illusion at the Jazz Standard July 2530.
The band joining her will feature saxophonist Mark Turner, bassist Ugonna Okegwo and drummer Dion Parson.
"She's creatively animated. She's playful yet dead serious," said Parson, who's been working with Brackeen for a year. "Joanne is always challenging herself and those of us in her band. Even on a standard, there's never a dull moment. With her, things are never what they appear to be."