Pianist Noah Baerman’s Art and Activism Overcome Adversity | Connecticut Public Radio

Pianist Noah Baerman’s Art and Activism Overcome Adversity

Mar 13, 2014

Noah Baerman.
Credit Noah Baerman

With its heady mix of transcendence, activism, deep lyrical expression and soulful sense of swing, pianist/composer Noah Baerman’s triumphant new CD, Ripples, is one of the best and the brightest releases to grace our region in quite some time. It’s a bold, imaginative, inventive work that will, if there is any justice in the jazz world, have infinitely more than a rippling effect far beyond our borders along the Connecticut River.

Baerman is a humanist and activist who expresses his deeply-held philosophical ideals through musical expression in a way that somehow gets across his contemplative view of the world.

A deftly balanced blend of the cerebral and the visceral, Ripples, in fact, ought to propel the much respected Middletown musical maven and jazz educator/savant into the national limelight and beyond as a first-rate artist.

He’s a rare artist, at that, a humanist and activist who expresses his deeply-held philosophical ideals through musical expression in a way that somehow gets across his contemplative view of the world—his ideas on life ranging from overcoming an inherited physical disability to always remaining true to one’s inner self—yet, somehow, without ever once diminishing or compromising the depth and beauty of the music itself.

Noah Baerman during a visit to WNPR.
Credit Chion Wolf / WNPR

Baerman, who is 40, is afflicted with a painful, degenerative condition called Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (EDS), a rare genetic disorder of the body’s connective tissues that drains his energy and can aggravate all the joints in his body, including his fingers, prime tools in his artist’s physical tool kit. It’s a disease that he was born with and must deal with daily, an affliction so severely debilitating that it nearly forced him some years back to give up playing the piano.

Instead of just passively sitting-out this disorder for which there is no cure, he goes on because he must. Now he marks the latest triumph in his quest with Ripples, his ninth CD. It’s a work of the highest quality, an ode to joy and the overcoming of life’s sometimes stunning setbacks, while showcasing his robust skills as a composer, arranger and pianist, including his celebrated trio artistry with his long-running collaborators, bassist Henry Lugo and drummer Vinnie Sperrazza.

One way Baerman copes is by carefully conserving his energy and avoiding obvious daily hazards—things like falls that bruise him easily or heavy physical exertion that can cause residual pain and lingering consequences.

But, more importantly, he also employs a direct, proactive strategy which has allowed him to persevere. “It’s not so much the avoidance of falling down or exerting myself, though certain things associated with touring/gigging do make me take that perspective,” he says, “but the steadfast dedication to making the lifestyle adjustments-- diet, fitness, ergonomic adaptations, even mental health maintenance-- that maximize my physical capabilities.”

Noah Baerman performs during a Sandy Hook memorial concert in December 2012.
Credit Chion Wolf / WNPR

By coping through such steadfast self-discipline and a bit of wise daily caution, Baerman goes on creating. And he does it not just by dealing with adversity but by using the concept of overcoming his physical problems as one of his working themes, transforming a negative element into a positive catalyst for creativity. In this way, music and the creative act become a kind of jujitsu for him, giving Baerman, the artist, emotional and intellectual leverage that miraculously turns his heavyweight, life-long physical plight and daily antagonist upside down and on its head.

Using his humanistic beliefs and social consciousness as inspirational springboards, Baerman, who is both a long-term idealist as well as a working pragmatist in daily life, reflects through his art on issues he’s confronted as an individual, as an artist, educator and father, expressing his views and causes through his music. Music for him is a healing, consciousness-raising force, an active/creative way to expand awareness of issues. His reflections never preach, nor take a sanctimonious, holier than thou approach. Instead, they’re meant to inspire new perspectives and actions that nurture the greater good.

Kris Allen, left, and Noah Baerman during a visit to WNPR.
Credit Chion Wolf / WNPR
Noah Baerman's Ripples.
Credit Noah Baerman

Even the title, Ripples, for his new CD, which is dedicated to his late Aunt Margie Pozefsky who died in 2012, rings with philosophical and metaphoric resonance adding a layer of meaning to the music. His Aunt Margie’s kindness and tirelessness as a philanthropist and activist, Baerman writes, brought about actions that “had a ripple effect, often causing ripples that went far beyond the circle of people with whom she directly came into contact.”

“The songs presented here,” Baerman writes in his CD dedication, “reflect this spirit of striving for a better, kinder world and the need to use whatever we do, however humble it may seem, to create these positive ripples.”

Striving for a better world and praising the irrepressible will to go on are the underlying themes of the suite-like work’s bittersweet, yet often robustly celebratory and always life-affirming pieces. These include nine original Baerman compositions and an exciting reworking of the classic spiritual, Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child. Taking the melodic line from the traditional spiritual, the emotion-packed music of Baerman and his collaborators moves passionately from the plaintive to soulful to exuberant exaltation.

As always, there’s a personal experience and deeply held belief at the root of Baerman’s music. This nearly 12 minutes of premier music and profound emotion reflects his deep devotion to the cause of foster care and adoption. Baerman and his wife, the artist Kate Ten Eyck, who created the album’s cover painting and photo, are the adoptive parents of three grown children.

Noah Baerman on piano.
Credit Chion Wolf / WNPR

Of course, you don’t necessarily have to know anything about the sources of Baerman’s inspiration to dig his music, or to be moved by its emotive power. You don’t have to know, for example, that The Outer Circle is dedicated to a cancer survivor, or have a clue about the grim tragedy that inspired Lester in order to get inside the music, or to let the music get inside your head, or maybe even in your heart. You immediately sense that, through the medium of jazz, it’s a compelling celebration of the human condition from cradle to grave, from joy to sorrow, through the best and the worst of times.

Baerman works with a rich palette as he paints his thematic portraits. His album features two distinct ensembles: the Jazz Samaritan Alliance and his Chamber Octet, his trio supplemented by strings, flute and clarinet. Plus there’s a choir added on a couple tracks and sparkling cameo appearances by the young wizard bassist Linda Oh and the great pianist Kenny Barron, Baerman’s mentor and friend from his student days at Rutgers University.

The Jazz Samaritan Alliance features Baerman on piano, Fender Rhodes, organ, slide guitar and vocals; saxophonists Jimmy Greene and Kris Allen; vibraphonist Chris Dingman and drummer Johnathan Blake. The chamber ensemble features Dave Eggar, cello; Meg Okura, violin; Zach Brock, violin; Erica von Kleist, flute and alto flute; and Ben Fingland, clarinet. The choir choristers are Claire Randall, Garth Taylor, Jessica Best and Erica Bryan.

The album was released on Tuesday, March 11, and a promotional tour kicks off on Thursday, March 13, with The Jazz Samaritan Alliance performing at New York’s Jazz Gallery. The tour, which includes dates in Philadelphia, Washington, DC and Baltimore, features two Connecticut stops: the art of the trio with Baerman, Lugo and Sperrazza March 29 at The Side Door Jazz Cub, Old Lyme, and the tour’s grand finale, with the Jazz Samaritan Alliance performing on May 9 at Firehouse 12 in New Haven.

Noah Baerman during a visit to WNPR.
Credit Chion Wolf / WNPR

In describing his artistic credo, Baerman has said, “I feel a responsibility to use my music in service of the issues that matter to me, while those issues add an important layer of substance to the music itself. At this point I scarcely know how to separate my art from my commitment to love, understanding and healing.”

As the great Irish poet William Butler Yeats once asked in his poem, "Among School Children," how can we know the dancer from the dance? Yeats was saying that you can’t separate one part from the other because they’re bonded into one, entirely interdependent on one another, suspended in a graceful state of symbiosis.

Similarly, with Baerman, the question is, how can we know the activist from the artist? Well, you can’t. Not even Baerman, as he readily admits, knows how to separate his art from his commitment.

All of us benefit from his inability to answer that question that riddles as much as it ripples. It’s a conundrum that, for all of us as listeners, and for Baerman as a creator, just keeps on giving.

Homage to Ed Blackwell

Best known for his classic collaborations with Ornette Coleman, the late Ed Blackwell, one of the master innovative drummers of the 20th Century, will be honored by tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano and friends in a tribute concert at 8 pm on Thursday, March 13, at The Magic Triangle Jazz Series at the Fine Arts Center, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Mass.

Lovano will be joined by bassist Mark Helias and drummer Tom Giampietro, a faculty member of the UMass music department.

Lovano and Helias performed extensively with Blackwell, a New Orleans native who taught at Middletown’s Wesleyan University for many years before his death at 62 in 1992 after a heroic, 20-year battle with kidney disease. Even in his final year of failing health, the soft-spoken, modest rhythm master continued presenting his subtle, swinging, melodic artistry on tour-- including a performance at The Magic Triangle Series-- as well as in the recording studio. Among recordings he made that final year was From the Soul, as a sideman with Lovano on the saxophonist’s first release for Blue Note Records.

As Blackwell lay dying in the fall of 1992, his hospital room was filled with the sound of From the Soul played over and over by loved ones who felt he was aware of the music in his final hours. Besides comforting him, they believed, the music was a profound way to mark the great drummer and a good man’s sad, much too early passing. Tickets: $12.00, general public; $7.00, students, at (800) 999-UMAS and fineartscenter.com/magictriangle. The series is produced by WMUA-FM and the Fine Arts Center.

Byrd’s Royal Roost

Pianist/singer/composer Warren Byrd, a Hartford native whose imaginative jazz flights have taken him around the world, performs at 3:00 pm on Sunday, March 16, in the admission-free Baby Grand Jazz Series in the atrium at the Hartford Public Library. 

The cozy atrium has become a royal roost for Byrd who has delighted Sunday jazz matinee crowds that have flocked there to observe his top-shelf, seasonal appearances at the downtown library. Information: (860) 695-6295.

Jazz Lord of the Rings

A devout boxing enthusiast, saxophonist Noah Preminger has been enjoying knockout reviews for his third album, Haymaker, which just might be on the budding young jazz champ’s mind as he appears as the main event at 8:30 pm on Friday, March 14, at The Side Door Jazz Club in Old Lyme.

“Boxing is like improvising,” Preminger said of his dual love for boxing and jazz, “in that you want it to become second nature.” Both jabbing and jamming, he noted, require you to “have a free mind and be in the moment.”

Haymaker is the sequel to Preminger’s earlier releases, Dry Bridge Road and Before the Rain. While pulling no punches in his three consecutive victorious CD bouts, Preminger displays a wide-ranging style, including dazzling feats of lyrical expression. His dexterous, power-packed poetic techniques on saxophone are not covered by the Sweet Science, a term for boxing brought back into usage in mid-20th century by the superb New Yorker writer/journalist A. J. Liebling, the finest chronicler of pugilistic art of that period.

Preminger enters the prize ring at the shoreline club accompanied by his top cornermen, pianist Dan Tepferbassist Matt Clohesy and drummer Rudy Royston. Tickets: $20.00. Information: (860) 434-0886.

Ushering in the Ides of March

Pianist Peter LaMalfa leads his quartet at 2 pm on Saturday, March 15, at Ed Krech’s admission-free jazz series at Integrity ‘n Music, Wethersfield. Ushering in the Ides of March with LaMalfa are guitarist Benno Marmur, bassist Dean Torrey and drummer Mike Camacho. Information: (860) 563-4005.

Please submit press releases on upcoming jazz events at least two weeks before the publication date to omac28@gmail.com. Comments and suggestions left below are also most welcome.