Brian Charette (Interview): "Johann Sebastian Bach was a jazz cat!"
Updated: May 10, 2021
Brian Charette did not plan a career as a Hammond organ player, but by coincidence became one of New York City's busiest ones. Born in Meriden, Connecticut in 1972, Charette started out on the piano and became a working musician in his teenage years, regularly playing gigs in the Connecticut area.
Before he was 18, he was already performing with well-known, significantly older musicians on a regular basis. After studying classical piano at the University of Connecticut, he decided to move to New York in 1994. It was there that Charette started to play organ in various bands – and thus got employed more and more as a Hammond player. While New York City has been his primary home base ever since, Charette has also a strong bond to Prague, where he spent a good amount of his time teaching at the conservatory. He has extensively toured Europe various times with different line-ups.
The list of Charette's collaborations is long: In his early years, he has performed with Lou Donaldson, Jimmy Greene, Gregg Bisonette and many others. He has recorded with guitar player Oz Noy, played Carnegie Hall with Cindy Lauper and performed on stage with Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon and Chaka Khan. Apart from being a performer and composer he is also an educator. He has written articles for Downbeat, Jazz Times and Keyboard Magazine among others and is the author of the well known book "101 Hammond B3 Tips: Stuff all the Pros Know and Use" (published by Hal Leonard).
In November 2020, Charette released his album "Like The Sun", on which he goes all electronic, playing his organ over beats and loops. His next record will be a contrast to that: "Power From The Air" will be out on March 15th, 2021 and features a woodwind ensemble on top of Charette's organ.
Hyperlocrian.com spoke to Brian Charette about his career, his newest projects, living in New York City and the difference between the European and American jazz scenes. Read the full interview below.
Brian, let's talk about your beginnings. What made you choose the Hammond organ as your primary instrument?
I came to the organ very much by mistake. I was a pianist first. I moved to New York in 1994, at that time I was playing with a lot of blues groups. I started playing organ in some of those bands, which at that time I really didn't know a lot about at all. I bought a Hammond XB-1, one of the first modern organ clone keyboards. I got it for a particular tour. After that, I started getting calls in New York from people who wanted me to play organ for them, even though I was really a pianist. In those days in the East Village in New York there were a lot of gigs and many places to play. I started doing exactly that – but on organ, not on piano.
You were born in Meriden, Connecticut. What was your musical upbringing and youth like?
My mother played the piano. We had one in our house and at a very early age I'd just sit in front of it and play for hours. Because my mom saw that I liked it, I started taking piano lessons when I was really young. Where I grew up, there was actually a lot of work for musicians. So I started to play a lot when I was 15 or 16. I had gigs all the time, even when I was still in high school. It was something that I just stumbled into, that I never had to think about.
When you started to play the piano, were you already into jazz?
No, not at all. I played classical stuff. When I was a kid, we had those books by John W. Schaum. Those were piano exercise books by grade. I went through those all of these books. They had little songs in them and taught you how to read music. Then I started to play more advanced music. I learnt all the scales. That to me was the biggest thing. We have those books called Hanon Scale Books, those were very much drilled into me in every key. When I was around 15 or 16, I was playing jazz music already. That's how I got into it, because at the gigs I was playing I needed to improvise. It came naturally.
Did you study with teachers as a young player?
Yes, I had a lot of teachers! I studied with Kenny Warner a very long time ago. And I studied with a Boston Guru called Charlie Banacos, who is someone a lot of people study with for those kinds of patterns in modern, post 1964 jazz music, I guess you could say. I studied all kinds of music. I studied the organ, looking for all the information that I could find. And I was playing constantly.
Did you know early on that you wanted to become a professional musician?
Yes. I never even thought about doing anything else at a certain point. By the time I was 15, 16 I was already doing it all the time. I didn't spend a lot of time thinking about what I wanted to do when I grew up. It found me somehow.
As a teenager, you were already playing with well-known, much older musicians such as Lou Donaldson.
Yeah. I was lucky to know someone who booked concerts in the Hartford area, which was a very good place to play jazz music. This is the area where Brad Mehldau and Joel Frahm come from. I got to see these guys when I was kid and I was playing there. I got those gigs because I knew a booker. A lot of musicians were touring without a pianist – and I got recommended to them. Usually it went very well, and that's how I started playing bigger gigs.
Did you also tour?
Yes, I was also already touring by then. I started to go on pretty long tours when I was around 17 or 18.
Did your mother support you?
It was tough for my mom. I was very young and I was hanging out with a lot of older people. But I didn't get into trouble, I was cool. I was just working. I have very fond memories of those times. Those were my best times.
"Keith Emerson was a wonderful man."
Who were your early influences?
I really fell in love with keyboard music when I heard the bands Yes and Emerson, Lake & Palmer. Those were my two early important influences. Especially Keith Emerson, who I met and got to play with. We both worked for Hammond. Keith was a wonderful man. I would say he is my biggest influence. I started getting into his music when I was 10 or 11. His music taught me a lot about jazz harmony. Keith Emerson's favorite organ player was Jack McDuff. Keith started getting into organ because of "Rock Candy", a song by Jack McDuff. These guys were also using the synthesizers that I was very interested in. Later, when I learnt jazz piano, I got into guys like Bud Powell, Bill Evans, all those players that everybody listens to. And talking about organ again, I was also very much into Melvin Rhyne, who played with Wes Montgomery. He was actually the organist that I checked out the most. And of course Larry Young and everybody who came after.
Later you went to university in Connecticut and studied classical piano. How do you remember that time?
It was amazing. I learnt a lot about music. About form and analysis, about writing for different instruments. I had access to a practice room that had a grand piano and a great stereo. I stayed there all the time, it was like my office. University was a place where I could really cultivate my place in music. I was around a lot of cool people, I was playing in a lot of bands.
Was there a strict division between classical and jazz piano?
I'd say yes. I was not playing Liszt's Transcendental Etudes on classical piano though, I have to say. I was an okay classical pianist. Even though I was studying that music, I was already working in jazz music back then. I got more into classical repertoire after I was in school. But I studied all of that music. I would have to give concerts in front of juries. I played mostly slower music, Brahms, Ravel, I wasn't playing anything crazy. I love "The Well-Tempered Clavier", but that's a piece of music I got into later. The best part of those studies were analyzing what it was that those composers did. To see the form and to understand the harmony.
What often strikes me as an odd thing: Improvisation is often something that's completely absent in the musical spheres of classical players.
It is. The original composers were great improvisers. Johann Sebastian Bach was a jazz cat. Back then they didn't have the influence of the African rhythms. But he could improvise those fugues with six voices in any key. It doesn't get any heavier than that for improvisation. He would follow all those rather complicated rules – that he invented! When classical music started getting taught in schools, they just didn't teach classical musicians how to improvise anymore. They teach them how to get this killer program together, which is a lot in itself. But not a lot of classical musicians know how to improvise. In baroque times, when you went to play a concert as a Clavierist, you would have to realize figured bass. They would have a bass line and a bunch of numbers and you would have to provide the accompaniment. Improvisation was a bigger part of the music that we now call classical music.
After your degree you went to Europe to tour – but you also lived in Prague for a while.
Yeah, meaning that I was basically there half of the time for a few years. I had visas to be there, but yes, I was there for extended periods. I first went to the Czech Republic when I was still in college. I fell in love with the country. I was in Germany, in a lot of Central European countries. I loved it there and I started to go back all the time. I started to do my own concerts there. I was based in Prague, because I had a lot of friends in this city. I started teaching at Jaroslav Ježek Conservatory. They had something called the Czech Jazz workshop, where students from all over the world would come and take masterclasses. It is a lovely city, I have such fondness for it.
As somebody coming from the birth place of Jazz: How did you experience the European Jazz scene?
It is great. It is a little different. I would say that New York is into… well, there's a lot of different scenes in New York, but the scene that I work in the most is some sort of modern bebop kind of jazz scene. In Berlin the music is much more avant-garde, much more electronic. You don't have that standard based blowing session kind of vibe, which is what New York City pretty much is about. Prague is also very different. There are a lot of folk music elements, a lot of gipsy music elements. Incredible bands. Every place has a different sound. They bring their whole cultural identity to their sound. I don't think that any scene is better than the other, there is incredible music everywhere.
"If you lined up all the musicians in New York City, the line for Hammond players would be the shortest."
How was it like to move to New York in 1994?
I was young. I was 21 years old. New York was a lot wilder then in a lot of respects. There was fewer police, it was long before 9/11. It was a very different environment. I love New York, then and now, and there's good things about both times. It is much more expensive now, much more conservative. A lot of artistic people can't afford to live in New York, especially Manhattan. That drove the artistic element of the city. It's still an incredible city, I love it here.
Was there something that surprised you when you first played there?
What surprised me is that it wasn't that nice as it is today. It was a little bit more cut throat with musicians. It was a little more street than it is now. New York City to me is much more polite than it was 25 years ago.
Some people miss that about New York.
There's good things and bad things about it.
Was it easy to get work in New York when you started out?
In those years it was easier than it is now. But remember, I play Hammond Organ. If you lined up all the musicians in New York City, the line for Hammond players would be the shortest. Even if you were doing it just a little bit, in those years, you'd be someone a lot of people would be calling for gigs. Because then they wouldn't need a bass player and a piano player. It sounded good, they were starting to come out with these keyboards that were very convincing. It had a kind of renaissance. Uptown, Larry Goldings was playing, Sam Yahel was playing. Those guys were becoming giants of Hammond Organ. Larry was playing with Maceo Parker, Organ was a big thing in those years. If you were someone who did it and people knew you were there – I was playing downtown, people saw me play the Organ. It came about very organic, just like that.
So you were very busy immediately.
I had tons of gigs. I still miraculously have tons of work. If you play piano, if you play a keyboard kind of instrument and if you're a cool person, you'll get work. It's needed.
In 2000, you released your first solo record. How did you juggle between your work as a sideman and as a solo artist and band leader?
In those years, I was working very much in production. I'd produce beats and mix. This was when pro Tools first came out and I had a little rig in my apartment in the East Village. I was doing a lot of production work. I wasn't doing that much Jazz, I was even playing in a few rock bands. I was doing a lot of different things. I was also traveling a lot. In the 2010s I was gone half the time. I was on tour a lot. I wasn't playing a lot of gigs.
"There is nothing like a real Hammond organ."
What are your favorite on stage memories? You've performed with a lot of great people like Joni Mitchell and Paul Simon, you've collaborated with a huge number of people.
I played a concert in Central Park called "Joni's Jazz" a few years ago. I only played one song with Joni, she sang at the end of the concert. There were a lot of other great singers on stage, Chaka Khan was there, she was incredible. Also Joe Jackson, that was an amazing concert. I also have very fond memories of my European concerts, especially when I was young, playing for Czech girls – a great audience, I believe. I played with Laco Deczi, a trumpet player from Bratislava. His music is almost fusion, young people really loved it. For us to be playing concerts in those years, it was very wild. It was not long after the wall had come down. It was very fortunate for me to see this world which I wouldn't have been exposed to any other way. With Paul Simon I've also only performed one song. This particular event was the Mark Twain Awards at the Kennedy Center. They were honoring the comedian Steve Martin. They give out lifetime achievement awards, so we played with Paul Simon. I think Scarlett Johansson was there, Tom Hanks was the moderator, Larry David, all kinds of stars. I was very lucky. I worked with a music team who used to play for the Conan O' Brien show. When musical acts came to New York City, they were very often in charge of putting the bands together. I played with Cindy Lauper in Carnegie Hall in that way. We had a concert with Michael MacDonald. Those were amazing years when I was young in New York, to be around those guys with the cool gigs.
You also worked together with the great guitarist Oz Noy.
He's incredible. We're friends, we play tons of gigs together. He's a brilliant guitarist, trained in Bebop and all kinds of guitar music. On his recording sessions we got to play with Vinnie Colaiuta, that was amazing. Dave Weckl was on one too. These are great moments. Wonderful times.
Besides being a composer and performer, you are also an educator. You're doing masterclasses, you're an author of books and articles.
Now I really do that a lot, it has become my main source of income. I'm very grateful for that. I teach through Zoom. I teach piano for all different stages – and my students are doing great. They have a lot of time to practise right now.
You started teaching quite early. Were you already teaching before your time in the Czech Republic?
I started teaching already before that. I used to write instructional articles for Keyboard Magazine, that's how it all started. If they would interview a keyboard artist like Donald Fagan, I would write exercises so people could try to get the style of Donald Fagan. I did that for many years and through that I wrote a book about the organ called "101 Hammond B-3 Tips". Kind of through those things I started to give masterclasses at places that I would go to give concerts, cause people knew the books. I had videos, too. I made these instructional materials starting about 10 or 15 years ago. I also teach for the 92nd Street Y in New York City. And I have private students.
You're about to release a new album, "Power From The Air", which consists of a wind ensemble and you on organ, released on March 15th 2021.
This group has actually been together for a while. We record for a straight jazz record label called SteepleChase Records. The idea of the band very much came from John Ellis' group Double Wide. I fell in love with the bass clarinet. I wanted to make a Wind ensemble front line with a Hammond organ rhythm section. I didn't know a group that had that kind of formation. This is the third album from the group. It's very hypnotic and meditative, whereas the first album is almost contemporary classical. The second one is an oddball mix off things, the new one is kind of minimal, trance inducing music. It almost sounds like people playing on computers, which must be influenced by me working on machines a lot.
In November 2020, you released a record called "Like The Sun", an electronic album.
For years I've usually been making records with drummers and guitarists and me on hammond organ. I had begun to experiment with using sequencers and drum machines and mixing that with the organ a while ago. I've been working on it for a few years, getting some synths. When we went into the first lockdown, I didn't have anybody to play music with. I had my machines, and that is how I recorded the tracks for "Like The Sun".
Would the album not have happened if it weren't for the unexpected tie alone during lockdown?
I was kind of going into that direction anyway. I was already working on it when the lockdown happened, but the solitude of it went together somehow.
What was the recording process like?
The strange thing about the album is: Those are live takes for the most parts. I am playing all of the things live. A sequencer or an arpeggiator can remember a pattern that I do, but I am making the pattern in real time. That was the challenging thing and the thing that I spent the most amount of time perfecting: the performance. It was done in a very low budget way. It's eight or nine tracks usually. I spent a lot of time working with the samples, working out the different parts until I got the performance right Then I recorded the takes.
What kind of equipment did you use?
I'll show you. [Brian gives a little camera tour through his studio setup] This is a Korg Minilogue, where I play a lot of the bass. The drum machine is an Arturia DrumBrute Impact. A lot of my arpeggios and the things I play chordwise come from this MicroFreak, which is also made by Arturia. Then I have this control keyboard where I play my organ. An analogue synthesizer. Then of course my computer. Another drum machine. A Casio Trivia piano. A guitar – and that's basically what I use to make my albums with.
So you work with organ samples.
Yes, I use a few different things for that. For instance, I use the IK Multimedia B3X, because it works great with Hammond. I work a lot with Hammond too. They're very much going into this virtual world with organ stuff.
Which is quite a practical thing, because Hammond organs aren't really portable and easy to carry around.
And it's hard to make them work. Hammonds are very old, you know, sometimes they're 80 years old. I love them, though. There is nothing like a real Hammond organ. But I don't have a real Hammond organ in my house, it wouldn't even fit through the door. I couldn't even get it through my hallway! (laughs)
Find out more about Brian Charette, his new album "Like The Sun“ and his upcoming record "Power From The Air" (out March 15th on his official website. Also check out his YouTube channel. He also has a Patreon page where you can get lessons, masterclasses and support his art.