June 17. 2007
Chance to play in combo strikes a chord
Tribune Staff Writer -- Howard Dukes
SOUTH BEND -- If Joan Hickey gets that been-here- before feeling during her concert on Wednesday, nobody will blame her. Hickey, who will be the guest performer for the June installment of the Merrimans' Playhouse Jazz Performance Series, has been here before.
Perhaps not here as in the Century Center, but the Chicago-based pianist was in South Bend in February. Back then, Hickey served as one of the judges for the University of Notre Dame's Collegiate Jazz Festival, where drummer Stephen Merriman heard her perform during the judge's jam that takes place at the end of the festival's Friday night program."I had the idea then to ask her if she might be available to do (The Merrimans') Playhouse," he says.
Merriman made his move the next day at a workshop held by the judges. "I went up and told her what we were trying to do, which is to create a jazz scene here," he says. "Then I asked her if she would be interested, and she said, 'Yeah.' " What Hickey agreed to do is occupy The Merriman Trio's rotating chair -- Merriman and his wife, upright bass player Mary Merriman, invite a guest each month to round out their trio for their concert series at the Century Center.
The Merrimans have employed a pedal steel guitarist and a saxophonist at previous concerts, but piano players have been the most frequent occupants of that rotating spot. Four of the six shows so far, including Hickey's show, have featured a pianist."Mostly, it's because that's the more traditional setup," Stephen Merriman says. "That's the rhythm section -- drums, bass and piano -- that came out of the big-band format and then became an art form of its own." Besides, the three instruments complement each other, Merriman says. "It's really good because the three instruments don't step on each other," he says. "They can each play both melodically and rhythmically."
Hickey says she jumped at the chance to join the Merrimans because it gives her an opportunity to play in a small combo that includes a drum and upright bass. "There's not a lot of opportunity to play in an acoustic piano trio here," she says. "I thought that would be fun. Around the Chicago area, there's a few places where they have larger groups, and there's places where they have solo piano. There's places where they have duos, and the places that have a trio, you play with a singer or they don't have piano."Hickey agrees that the trio setup of piano, upright bass and drums is an important part of the jazz tradition. "In that format, the piano becomes the leader in that we have to lead the group, we have to play the melody," she says. "The pianist's improvisational style is showcased in that situation."
"The setup used at the Playhouse concerts," Hickey says, "will allow audience members to appreciate how the musicians work together." The concerts take place in the Century Center's Recital Hall -- a room large enough to seat 166 people but small enough to provide the intimacy a trio needs. "The concentration is higher in this situation because it's like recording," Hickey says. "The listening and awareness is also at a higher level."
Staff writer Howard Dukes: