When just playing the music is an education | AspenTimes.com

When just playing the music is an education

Stewart Oksenhorn
Mark Fox/Aspen Times Weekly

Several months ago, while studying a reforestation project in Panama City, Michael Lichtenfeld stumbled upon one of the most blistering jam sessions he’d ever seen. Lichtenfeld, a formidable pianist himself, joined the group for a take on Miles Davis’ “Solar,” but became self-conscious when he noticed the bandleader, saxophonist Carlos Garnett ” a Panamanian who actually played with Davis in the ’70s ” had left the bandstand and taken up a spot directly behind the piano, where he could watch Lichtenfeld’s hands.

“He said, ‘Have you gone to music school?'” recalled Lichtenfeld. The pianist replied that he hadn’t, an answer that caused him some discomfort. But Garnett was pleased: “No, you shouldn’t go. I can tell from your playing,” said the saxophonist. “People who go to music school all sound the same. You take a different approach to music.”

Garnett’s words are, perhaps, just what the 26-year-old Lichtenfeld needs to hear. Since he dropped out of classical piano lessons before he was even 10, a crux issue has been whether to study formally, or rely on instincts, enthusiasm and natural-born talent. The question has not left Lichtenfeld over the ensuing decade-and-a-half; the subject took up the majority of a 40-minute interview.

It seems to be in his blood to take a less studious approach to music. The son, grandson and nephew of accomplished amateur musicians, Lichtenfeld started lessons at 6.

“But I tended to fall back on my ear,” said Lichtenfeld, who plays Wednesdays through Saturdays ” solo from 4-6:30 p.m., and then in the M.S.T. Trio, with bassist James March and drummer Chris Goplerud, from 7-11 p.m. ” in the lobby of the St. Regis Aspen through Jan. 21. “I wouldn’t practice. I didn’t like classical. My piano teacher would show up and I’d say, ‘Oh, can you play that piece?’ I’d watch her hands, and then fake my way through it.”

That trick didn’t last long ” not because Lichtenfeld couldn’t pull it off, but because he didn’t care to. When he was 11, his father introduced him, in a most casual way, to a hip, young jazz pianist. The two would just jam, with no thoughts of theory or composition. That training worked for Lichtenfeld, as he happily jammed his way through a variety of bands: high school jazz bands and a Grateful Dead cover band (in which he played lead guitar) while attending Greenwich (Conn.) High, and big funk groups while studying sustainable development at Colorado College.

All the while, however, Lichtenfeld noticed that many of his favorite players had taken a different path. “The greatest jazz musicians coming out today ” [jazz pianists] Brad Mehldau, Keith Jarrett ” all have hard-core musical training,” he noted. “They have that technical base they bring into jazz.”

Lichtenfeld was aware of the pitfalls of formal training: “I know so many people who took lessons as a child and got burned out. They got turned off by playing notes on a page, playing this old music, the mean old teacher comes in and you play to the metronome and they hate it. That’s a tragedy.” On the other hand, Lichtenfeld has witnessed the sublime combination of intense training and resilient passion. “Those who have the fire, the flame ” and the classical background ” those are the badass players,” he said.

Those who have seen Lichtenfeld play would have little trouble lumping him in as a badass. After graduating from college, he moved to Aspen, where he combined two careers. He advanced his environmental knowledge working for the U.S. Forest Service, ACES and C.O.R.E. Nights he could be found playing piano ” first at the Colony, then at Syzygy and 39 Degrees, and, since the winter of 2003-04, at the St. Regis. A year ago, Lichtenfeld moved back to Connecticut to attend school. But not music school. He is pursuing a double degree in environmental business. But he has spent winter breaks and two summers back in Aspen. (Lichtenfeld has also spent a good deal of time traveling, and has picked up musical skills along the way: He has rudimentary skills on the Zimbabwean mbira, an advanced thumb piano; and on the Indonesian gamelan, a form of vibraphone.)

While Lichtenfeld confesses to some insecurity over his lack of musical schooling, on balance he seems to trust the route he has chosen. For one thing, he loves playing. Even though he is studying environmental business, when asked what he intends to do down the road, the typical answer is music. For another, the Deadhead in him is strong, and with it comes a desire to improvise and be spontaneous.

“I’ve felt, somewhat naively, that music is not about what’s written on paper,” said Lichtenfeld. “What’s written on paper is a way to communicate an idea. But in my mind, it’s an oral tradition. It’s about playing live.

“The downside is I can’t read music, which is a significant drawback. The nice thing is, I never look at music in front of me. I play four nights a week, seven hours a night without looking at any music. Just as I think being unable to read music is an obstacle, or a challenge ” like I can’t sight-read a new piece of music ” but I can take a new approach to everything. My solos are never the same; the feel is never the same. It’s more of an immediate relationship.

“If I was a classical musician, there might not be this live, organic, growing experience going on.”

– – – –

If Lichtenfeld had needed more assurance about the benefits of occasionally sloppy spontaneity over rigid preparation, he might have taken in the New Year’s Day performance of the David Bromberg Quartet at the Wheeler Opera House.

The 60-year-old Bromberg ” who was raised in New York’s Westchester County, where Lichtenfeld was born and some dozen miles from where Lichtenfeld was raised ” got a most informal education in the coffeehouses of Greenwich Village. And Bromberg, who had a notable career through the ’70s, further eroded his technical sharpness by pretty much taking 20 years off from music. (From performance, anyway, as Bromberg spent those two decades becoming a noted violin dealer and appraiser.)

Those spotty chops were soon evident in the concert (which opened with a marvelous set by Aspen singer-songwriter Dan Sheridan). Bromberg, on acoustic guitar, played solos that verged on total collapse. But the joy was Bromberg’s going for it on every solo, taking musical chances and trusting that he would land safely. It helped immensely that the other two soloists ” mandolinist Mitch Corbin and, especially, violinist Jeff Wisor ” were steadier, and bassist Butch Amiot took on the role of an anchor.

The crowd loved Bromberg, cheering his recklessness every step of the way. And Bromberg had more to offer than just dicey licks; the humor in the blues tune “I’ll Take You Back” put the picker in the mode of a comedian. The four-part harmonies of the band were irresistible.

And when those untrained 60-year-old hands warmed up after a few tunes, it made no difference where Bromberg did his learning. Bromberg’s chops got more assured through the night, with no loss of the go-for-it mentality. Roughly alternating between folky blues and folky bluegrass, Bromberg put on a show that electrified the audience.

And not one of them thought it necessary to ask Bromberg for his resume.

Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com

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