Instruments: Piano, Keyboards
"For me, the main thing is spontaneity and taking chances", says Dave Kikoski. "You have to study and know the traditions, but then you have to play things that haven't been played before. It becomes a balance of knowing the tradition and using your own original voice to add to it."
On his self-titled album on Epicure - the new Epic Records imprint created to showcase young jazz players and composers in the post-bop mode - this pianist and composer has realized that delicate balance of tradition and innovation with the help of veteran drummer Al Foster and bassist Essiet Essiet. After two independent label releases and some two dozen recording dates as a sideman - with trumpeter Randy Brecker and the late Red Rodney, drummers Roy Haynes and Billy Hart, saxophonists Craig Handy and Ralph Moore - Dave Kikoski now steps forward as a leader to demonstrate the impressive development of his own music.
The album's opening track, "E", could well stand for "experimental": it's a veritable textbook of the unconventional harmonic devices - the unusual intervals, counterpoint, and triads over bass notes - on which Kikoski bases his tunes. The "E" of the title is actually the key used as a pedal point in this bright, fast-moving piece, with Kikoski and drummer Foster trading shout choruses on the bridge. "Chant" by contrast, harmonizes in parallel fifths - a convention of Gregorian chants which gives Kikoski's piece its distinctively somber atmosphere.
But Dave Kikoski's compositions are not simply pianistic experiments out on the fingers of jazz. "E" swings right along like any good tune from a blowing session, and on "Giant Steps" the pianist finds avenues to his harmonic concept while adhering to the symmetry of John Coltrane's fleet-footed chord progressions. Another Kikoski original, "B Flat Tune", draws on styles as diverse as Brazilian samba and English progressive rock.
Born in Milltown, New Jersey, Dave Kikoski's first music lessons came from his father, a part-time musician who sat his son at the piano and taught him songs by Count Basie and Duke Ellington as well as the basics of Chopin and Beethoven. "If you start like that, when you're seven or eight, you know what jazz is, it's in you," says Dave. "It's not like I went to Berkley and learned to play jazz." He did attend Boston's Berkley School of Music after graduating from New Brunswick High School, however, where he played in the school jazz band as well as with rock bands whose repertoire ranged from Emerson, Lake & Palmer to Sly & The Family Stone.
Kikoski's fellow Berkley students in the early '80s included Branford Marsalis, Donald Harrison, Ralph Moore, and Tery Lynn Carrington as well as his future wife, Cecilia Tenconi, a reed player from Argentina. After Dave graduated in 1984 with a degree in piano performance, the couple stayed in Boston with Kikoski holding a regular gig downstairs at Ryle's. On his breaks, he would check out the bands being featured upstairs - such as a combo comprised of drummer Roy Haynes, bassist Miroslav Vitous, and guitarist Pat Metheny. (Metheny's brother brought Pat downstairs to check out Kikoski's group. The guitarist later sat in for the whole night, and in 1994 joined Kikoski in the recording of a new Roy Haynes album on the Dreyfus label).
After Dave and Cecilia had spent several months in her native Argentina, Kikoski felt ready to take on Manhattan - still the jazz capitol of the universe. But first he contacted drummer Les DeMerle, a friend from Boston, who helped him tap into the wedding/bar mitzvah/club scene in New Jersey and suburban Long Island. "I've got nothing against playing a Led Zeppelin tune on a gig", says Dave. "The groups on some of those gigs were pretty good - better than on some jazz gigs - and shit could be happening even when it was an R&B cover tune at a bar mitzvah."
Saxophonist Ralph Moore introduced Dave to Roy Haynes in 1986, and Kikoski is still a first-call member of Haynes' band. Trumpeter Randy Brecker also heard Kikoski, hired him for some gigs, and eventually called him in for a recording date - the pianist's first. That recording, Brecker's In The Idiom (Denon) with Joe Henderson, included bassist Ron Carter and drummer Al Foster; the latter were at that time the regular members of Herbie Hancock's trio. "Herbie's my favourite piano player ever, my idol. So to play with Herbie's rhythm section, guys who had played in Miles' rhythm section, was a real honour."
A few days later, Kikoski made his second recording as a sideman: Roy Haynes' True Or False (Freelance), a live date recorded in France. That date led to the pianist's debut recording, on the same French Freelance label. Walter Becker of Steely Dan heard Dave with Randy Brecker's band during a West Coast tour; he promptly offered to produce Kikoski's second album, Persistent Dreams (Triloka). With his own compositions now in circulation, Kikoski began fielding calls from musicians who wanted him to play on their dates in order to record his tunes. On the Latin-jazz scene, he gigged with bassist Santi Dibriano, recorded with percussionist Guilherme Franco in his group Pe De Boi, and is a regular with the quartet of saxophonist David Sanchez. All these influences and more can be heard in the grooves of Dave Kikoski.
"The hardest thing about being a young musician on the jazz scene," says the artist, "is that there are so many styles of music, jazz and otherwise, that you're exposed to. The challenge is to use all that in your own way, to personalize all that has come before you and all that is happening around you. To get the music the way you want it, there's a lot of work involved."
Biography courtesy of Epicure - Epic Records (February 1997).