Q&A with Jazz pianist, organist, composer Ryan Slatko - his creative drive comes from many musical heroes

"I would just make people more open-minded. I would want people to be more receptive to new music, and ask that they be willing to challenge their own ideals. I feel that the music industry has gotten stagnant, and I believe this basic notion of shaking things up would help change that for the better."

Ryan Slatko: Black & White Jazz Keys

Pianist, composer, and arranger Ryan Slatko’s musical journey began with his father who played guitar and introduced him to jazz/fusion artists like Pat Metheny, Chick Corea and Weather Report; and to progressive rock greats such as Genesis, Kansas, Rush, Yes, and ELP. Slatko took up drums at 11 years old, also taking an interest in piano at 13 and eventually switching focus entirely to the latter. Slatko earned his bachelor’s degree at the University of North Florida, studying under the critically acclaimed pianist Lynne Arriale. In Fall 2015, Ryan moved to NYC to join the diverse music scene and to earn his master’s degree at New York University. Slatko has had the privilege of studying under great artists like Don Friedman, Alan Broadbent, Ari Hoenig, Gil Goldstein, Taylor Eigsti and Kenny Werner.                     Ryan Slatko / Photo by Gulnara Khamatova

Slatko’s achievements include placing 3rd in the 2014 Jacksonville Jazz Piano Competition, and making the semifinals for the American Jazz Pianist Competition two years in a row. His debut album “First Impressions” features Grammy-nominated drummer and producer, Ulysses Owens Jr. Slatko has also performed or recorded with Rich Perry, Alex Sipiagin, Chris Potter, Tom Scott, Linda Oh, Adam Rogers, Randy Brecker, Ari Hoenig and many more. He was the musical director for “Lights Out,” a play with song about Nat King Cole in which he worked with the likes of Patricia MacGregor, Colman Domingo, Dulé Hill and Daniel J. Watts. Having formerly been a drummer, Ryan brings a strong rhythmic concept to everything he does, whether it be his often percussive approach to piano playing or his inventive arrangements and compositions. In 2017, Florida-based Ryan Slatko released his debut album entitled First Impressions.

Interview by Michael Limnios                 Photos by Gulnara Khamatova

How has the Jazz and Rock music influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

Well, there’s such a variety of great music out there, and you can find inspiration everywhere. But for me, having been raised on rock, jazz, fusion; that stuff is what continues to inspire me. And there’s something about rock that speaks to me, about being bold and brave, putting yourself out there in a confident unapologetic way. And I try to take this attitude into the music and into life.

How do you describe your sound and music philosophy? Where does your creative drive come from?

I try to be confident in whatever I play. And whatever I’m doing, I always hope that it’s at least delivered in a clear way, and that it’s in time with a strong sense of rhythm. I also find melody to be extremely important, for me it’s the driving force behind a lot of the music I play and love. My creative drive comes from many musical heroes of mine, but especially those who had a high output, those with a large body of work, like Chick Corea, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, or even Bach or Mozart. I look at the amount of material they’ve put out and I think, “Wow! I want to do that!” And that’s where the urge to create comes from, for me.

Which meetings have been the most important experiences? What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?

Living in New York, I’ve had opportunities to meet all sorts of legends like Johnny O’Neil, Harold Mabern, and Roy Hargrove. But personally, I derive more meaning from the long-term relationships I’ve developed, and the mentor ships I was able to foster with people like Taylor Eigsti, Ari Hoenig, and Shai Maestro. There’s one piece of advice that Shai Maestro gave me that really stuck with me, which is being content with small increments of improvement. Sometimes in practicing we’re super eager to get a passage down, and we get impatient and “fake” the end result, or settle for less than our best. But if we slow down and take it step by step, we can achieve slow but true progress.

"Some of the most important lessons I’ve learned through experience deal with professionalism. It’s such an important part of being a freelance musician, and many musicians have struggle because they lack professionalism. You have to keep your calendar organized, show up on time, and be prepared. Study your music before you get to the rehearsal or gig. And be friendly and easy to work with!"

Are there any memories from gigs, jams, tours and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

Sure! There are a lot of “first” memories that stick out for me. The very first time I sat in at a jam session was in Miami, at a joint called “the Fish House.” I’d been attending the Frost Scool of Music Summer Camp and working with Ira Sullivan, who was hosting this particular jam. I was very nervous going up, but the musicians were cool and supportive, and it ended up being the most fun I’d ever had! And I think I was hooked on jazz after that! There are also significant performances that stick out to me, like the 2014 Jacksonville Piano Competition (where I placed 3rd), or Lights Out: Nat King Cole, which is a new musical in which I had a role as music director. Both were incredible, life-changing experiences.

What do you miss most nowadays from the Jazz of the past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

I think jazz has become a very broad term, that different people will use to mean different things. Some of these things have little or nothing to do with the tradition, and others are completely attached to the musings of the past. I feel like there’s a split in the music scene between those who embrace the tradition completely and those who play completely divorced of the tradition. And there are the very few who sit in the middle. I consider myself to be in this middle ground. While I acknowledge and respect the tradition and heritage of this music, I’m also trying to keep my music grounded in the present. And it is my hope that more people will strive to do the same.

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

I would just make people more open-minded. I would want people to be more receptive to new music, and ask that they be willing to challenge their own ideals. I feel that the music industry has gotten stagnant, and I believe this basic notion of shaking things up would help change that for the better.

"My creative drive comes from many musical heroes of mine, but especially those who had a high output, those with a large body of work, like Chick Corea, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, or even Bach or Mozart. I look at the amount of material they’ve put out and I think, “Wow! I want to do that!” And that’s where the urge to create comes from, for me." (Ryan Slatko / Photo by Gulnara Khamatova)

What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your experience in music paths?

Some of the most important lessons I’ve learned through experience deal with professionalism. It’s such an important part of being a freelance musician, and many musicians have struggle because they lack professionalism. You have to keep your calendar organized, show up on time, and be prepared. Study your music before you get to the rehearsal or gig. And be friendly and easy to work with!

What is the impact of Jazz on the socio-cultural implications? How do you want it to affect people?

I see jazz and all forms of music having this amazing effect of bringing people together. Live shows are truly special for me, because it’s an experience shared by everyone in the room on a given night, and the experience of any particular night is unique to all those in the room at that time. That performance has never happened that way before, and it will never happen that way again. And everybody in the room that night gets to share in that. And I think it brings us together also because enjoying music is such a uniquely human experience, and it just reminds us that despite our differences we’re all human in the end. And whoever’s enjoying the music, I would just hope that it makes their life a little bit brighter but maybe leaves them with a sense of enlightenment.

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really want to go for a whole day?

I don’t know! It would be cool to see New York in the 40’s when Jazz was popular, when we still had that 52nd Street scene. It would’ve been cool to hear Charlie Parker in person, and not with the poor sound quality of those early recordings. But I think it would also be cool to take a trip to the 70’s, to not only experience that groundbreaking music of the time, but to witness the political and cultural upheaval that created it. It would be fascinating to me, an outsider who wasn’t around to experience it firsthand!

Ryan Slatko Music - Home

Ryan Slatko / Photo by Gulnara Khamatova

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