Frank Todaro reaches higher
For 18 years, for several nights a week, Frank Todaro has played piano for the dinner crowd at Syzygy restaurant. Looking back he can see that most of that time was spent in artistic cruise control. The music was good enough to provide a pleasant sonic ambience, and Todaro was personable and professional, but he brought little more to the music than he needed to.”I was just sitting there having a glass of wine,” said Todaro. “It didn’t get any better or any worse.”In fact the casual approach to music has gone on for longer than 17 years. Todaro has never made a recording under his own name. He went years where he hardly played the piano. For a stretch in the mid-’70s, his primary musical outlet was playing mandolin, accompanying the belly dancers at the Armenian restaurant Sayat Nova, in the Hotel Jerome. A pianist from the age of 5, he didn’t get remotely serious about performing until his 40s, when a friend bought him a digital keyboard that produced a passable piano tone.Last May at the age of 67, Todaro had his awakening. Riding motorcycles down Castle Creek Road with his son Anthony, Todaro wiped out. The accident brought him close to death; the ultimate tally was four broken ribs, a broken clavicle, a punctured lung and a busted spleen. Surgery to repair the spleen resulted in a further injury to his liver. When he left the hospital, he was 70 pounds lighter than when he went in.”I saw some stuff. White light and shit,” said Todaro. “It could have been the drugs they gave me. It could’ve been something else.”Todaro took it as something more momentous than the morphine. He fell in love all over again with his wife, Melody. He began lifting weights. And he stopped drinking – a major step, considering that Todaro is a certified sommelier, headed the wine program at the Cooking School of Aspen for six years and managed Aspen Wine & Spirits another 10, and, at the time of the accident, was co-owner of Jimbo’s Liquors in Basalt (he has since sold his share).”I don’t think I was in good enough shape, eating and drinking,” said Todaro, whose parents opened Wisconsin’s first pizzeria, the Caradaro Club in Milwaukee, in 1948. “I’ve said, if it ever came to choosing between wine and music, I’d give up wine.”
Todaro wasn’t exactly forced to choose between the two passions. Alcohol played no part in the accident, nor had it caused other visible damage to his life. But the ever-present glass of wine, he came to believe, blocked his musical expression, or just as bad, his desire to fully express himself at the piano. Todaro returned to the Syzygy piano last winter sans le vin and found himself more satisfied than ever with his playing.”I played better than I ever have in my life,” said Todaro, who plays at Syzygy Thursday through Saturday, from 6:30-9:30 p.m., through the summer. “I was able to focus. I’m not preaching – wine is good medicine, great for digestion. Wine adds to food, conversation – I still believe in all that. But for me personally, this is what works.”Todaro sees his post-accident existence as a gift, and earlier this spring, he combined his newfound appreciation for the two most important elements in his life, family and music. He went to Florida to work with his grandson, Tommy Simms, a musician and music producer, to record his first-ever CD. Todaro hopes to have the album – featuring standards such as “Here’s That Rainy Day” and “I’m a Fool to Want You,” three bass-and-piano tunes featuring Tommy, and three original numbers – available by the end of the month.
(Tommy’s sister, Juliet, a rock singer-songwriter, is set to have a CD released on the Epic label. Their mother, Frank’s daughter Natalie Simms, is a violinist in the Tucson and Reno symphony orchestras. Todaro’s youngest son Anthony, who lives in Aspen, is a bassist and occasionally sits in at Syzygy.)Todaro has also put together a local trio with bassist John Zajicek and guitarist Ben Diamond. The trio is aiming at a Diana Krall-inspired combo, and the piano, bass, guitar offer challenges both rhythmic (having no drums) and melodic (with piano and guitar potentially doing battle). But Todaro is up for it.”It’s challenging for a keyboard player, because with guitar and piano, you can overload,” he said. “So I can do simple things – one or two notes. It makes for a nice sound if you can do it.”Bigger than the technical breakthroughs are the personal and spiritual ones. Given the gift of continued life, Todaro figures he is bound to make the most of it, and that includes upping the ante in his self-image as a musician. Rather than extend that 17-year run of professional competence, Todaro is reaching higher – to make the music better, give it more of a purpose, make it more personally meaningful.”John Coltrane figured he could reach a state of samadhi, this higher Hindu state of consciousness,” said Todaro. “He thought music could bring him to that. And I can see that. Sometimes as a musician you get into a zone. It’s magic. It’s the source power of the universe. You get in touch with that. You see that in Beethoven, Mozart – even Dave Schappert,” a pianist who has shared the Syzygy piano stool with Todaro on occasion.”I don’t know where I fit in with all that,” he continued, “but even as a cocktail piano player, I can add to the mood of the restaurant, the setting. I know I’ve touched that. I’ve added something. It doesn’t have to be complex. But that’s the job now; that’s what I want to do.”‘Music wasn’t a choice’
Wine and song were vital parts of Todaro’s early life. He grew up around his parents’ restaurant, which still exists, under different ownership, and named “a culinary and social icon” on a plaque awarded by the city of Milwaukee a few years ago. “I figured my parents invented red-checked tablecloths and Chianti bottles with candles in them,” he said.Music was perhaps an even bigger part, but a more complex part, of his childhood. “They sent me to the nuns to begin with,” is how Todaro puts it, describing his early piano training. “It was like the hall of depression – in the convent, three practice rooms on one side, two on the other, filled with kids playing. And you knew they didn’t want to be there.”But I enjoyed it.”Todaro was also sent for lessons at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music, where he discovered a distaste for learning classical music. “I was trying to make up music. They’d slap my hands. So my formal training ended at 8,” he said. Todaro added guitar to his repertoire after he met Les Paul, a Wisconsin native and regular customer at the pizzeria.After high school, though, food won out. Todaro entered the Culinary Institute of America in New Haven, Conn., before its move to Hyde Park, N.Y. But he never really found his way into the kitchen. In 1970 Todaro moved to Aspen, spending his first winter in a tepee near the Slaughterhouse bridge. He spent several years living and lumbering in Lenado.In the mid-’70s he took a busboy job at Sayat Nova; the next day he was promoted to waiter, and the next, to dining room manager. But he soon gave up that position to play mandolin – on his grandfather’s 1930s Gibson model – with the Bedouin Brothers, backing the belly dancers as they led diners on a dance through the kitchen. From 1980-86, Todaro was head captain at the Copper Kettle, a noted restaurant at the base of Aspen Mountain. There he finally employed his culinary skills, making tableside Caesar salads, shrimp scampi and his specialty, fettucine with escargot.In the mid-’80s Todaro received a Korg digital keyboard as a gift. Impressed with its piano sound, he began playing at weddings and funerals. Playing one night at the R Bar, above the old Renaissance restaurant, Walt Harris, owner of Syzygy, heard him and invited Todaro to play dinner music at his place.
For 17 years Todaro has been playing the same gig. For the last few months, however, it has been a different sort of gig, and Todaro is a different kind of pianist – even a different sort of person.Todaro told me an anecdote about his violin-playing daughter meeting Yehudi Menuhin. She asked the great violinist how he coped with coughing, whispering, inattentive audiences. Menuhin responded that he didn’t care: “I’m playing for myself, and if people want to listen, great.”As a kid Todaro says he’d get stomachaches from seeing a piano. “From my desire to play it,” he said. “Music wasn’t a choice. I had to play it.”Now he has recovered some of that hunger. “If there’s ambition, it’s just arrived,” he said about his career as a musician. “To be better than I was.”Now I don’t feel that there are any limits. I’m not Oscar Peterson, but I know there’s good music in me. I don’t want to be thought of as background. Because I’m intensely interested in what I do. I’m part of what’s going on. I’m here playing because I love to play the piano. And if people want to listen, fine.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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