Dec. 7 2011 03:22 PM

Up-and-coming jazz pianist isn’t ‘comfortable unless it’s uncomfortable’

Joshua White got into jazz when he started attending jazz camp at UCSD in 2003.
Photo by Kamau Kenyatta
At Downtown’s Lyceum Theatre on Nov. 14, jazz pianist Joshua White delivered a characteristically stunning performance.

At one point, accompanied by drummer Duncan Moore and bassist Rob Thorsen, he deconstructed and re-imagined the 1930s Broadway show tune “April in Paris.” Playing off the well-womelody, he dished out skeins of dissonance and maintained a wicked sense of swing. In the hands of a lesser performer, the result might’ve sounded jarring. But White’s treatment was strangely organic and apropos.

Later, when Moore and Thorsen left the stage, the 26-year-old pianist began a slow rubato of cloud-like harmonies that darkened suddenly into a maelstrom of left- and right-hand explosions. Gradually, the familiar theme of “Body and Soul” began to surface in fragments. Finally, a fully formed arrangement appeared out of the ether.

It’s no wonder why White is quickly becoming the most talked-about jazz musician in San Diego. Ask any of his cohorts and they’ll agree that he has incredible technical facility, a commitment to exploratory principles and the ability to hear and respond on the deepest possible level.

“He can read, of course, but his process isn’t about reading. It is that he listens and listens until he absorbs and internalizes the music,” says Mark Dresser, a bassist and composer who regularly plays with White. “When you play with him, he hears so quickly and feels what’s going on [so] that he can not only respond, but offer abstractions. Because of this, his vocabulary is growing seemingly by leaps and bounds. He brings so much to the table.”

Lately, White’s profile has been growing outside the city. In September, he won second place at the Thelonious Monk international Jazz Piano Competition at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., beating out a field of more than 160 applicants from around the world. In the process, he wowed jazz giants like Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock and, for good measure, scored a meet-and-greet photo-op with President Obama.

But White remains a fixture in the local jazz scene, regularly playing with everyone from trumpet virtuoso Gilbert Castellanos to be-bop legend Charles McPherson. And it’s at these local shows where he really shines.

In October, at a Bass Summit concert at Dizzy’s, the Downtown jazz venue, White and Dresser showed off their virtuosic technique in a spontaneous, improvised duet. returning to Dizzy’s a few weeks later, this time with bassist J.P. Maramba and drummer Dan Schnelle, White delivered 90 minutes of the best jazz the city has to offer.

Using jazz standards as a vehicle for exploration, White took the familiar far afield with elastic phrasing and a colorful kind of dissonance. He showed a gift for bridging different styles, laying out lyrical lines that evoked Bill Evans and pounding at the keys in stormy, tension-building clusters like Andrew Hill.

Boin Los Angeles, raised in El Cajon, White was reared on classical and gospel music. He played organ in his church’s gospel choir and later played flute in orchestras at SDSU and Grossmont College. He got into jazz in 2003, when he started attending Jazz Camp at UCSD. In the years since, he’s cultivated a core value of listening and creating in the moment.

“It’s like I’m gonna go 100 percent, and, hopefully, I’ll be able to express myself in such a way where they understand where I’m going and what I’m feeling,” White says. “So, we’ll follow the ideas; we’ll follow the music. It’s about that moment and that music.”

White likes to perform with different groups of musicians to keep things fresh. “I’m not comfortable unless it’s uncomfortable,” he says. “It’s not about preconceived notions or what you bring to the bandstand. I want the music to be found within the conversation we’re having as a group.”

For Thorsen, White’s approach is inspirational.

“Joshua is so adaptive to any situation, it’s incredibly easy to play with him,” he says. “It’s a challenge, but also very easy, because he’s very receptive to a lot of ideas onstage— not verbally, but ideas expressed musically.”

Dresser, who hand-picked White for his quintet, says: “He operates on the feeling and vibrational level, his roots are so deep. I hear gospel at the core of his playing, which, for me, has some of the deepest feeling of all. He’s used to operating at this level.”

Placing so high in the finals of the Monk competition has opened some new doors for White. On Nov. 30, he played at Blue Whale, a jazz bar in Los Angeles. In February, he’ll perform in New York for the Tribeca Performing Arts Center’s “Monk in Motion” series, which honors the top three finalists.

Indeed, White may soon outgrow the confines of San Diego’s jazz scene. Catch him while you can.

Joshua White plays with Edwin Livingst on and Dan Schnelle at 98 Bottles (2400 Kettner Blvd., Suite 110) on Thursday, Dec. 15.