Artist: Roberta Piket
Title: Domestic Harmony: Piket Plays Mintz
Release Date: December 6th, 2019
Release Number: TNR-012
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Roberta Piket, piano; vocal on track 6
Talk about a labor of love: Pianist Roberta Piket was simply making a present for her husband’s (drummer Billy Mintz) birthday when she arranged, recorded, edited, mastered, and produced an album’s worth of solo piano performances of his compositions. The idea of making a commercial release out of it simply never occurred to her. “I really didn’t think about it,” she says. “It was just something I was doing for Billy, and not for anybody else… It was only later that I started to think about putting it out.” As a result, what Piket committed to tape was an intimate and unfettered piece of music, intended for an audience of one. It is only now that an open invitation has been attached to Domestic Harmony: Piket Plays Mintz, welcoming all of us to the beauty of Piket’s deeply personal gift to her partner.
The intensely private Mintz is highly regarded for his skill and versatility behind the kit as well as the writing desk. His compositions, playful with rhythm and meter, are pregnant with melody and feeling. They have also become increasingly popular in recent years, recorded by such august musicians as saxophonist Adam Kolker and pianist Russ Lossing. Then, of course, there’s Piket herself, who has frequently been in Mintz’s bands when he recorded or performed his tunes. She’s recorded a few of them under her own leadership as well.
“He has a very personal voice,” Piket says. “Billy is exceptionally and very naturally talented. He doesn’t have any formal education in composition, but despite that—or maybe because of that—he writes in a very simple, direct way that’s incredibly appealing.”
We don’t have to take her word for it. Domestic Harmony demonstrates the appeal of his work from its opening, “Ghost Sanctuary,” a suitably haunting tune whose warmth goes straight to the heart even before Piket begins her lustrous improvisation. The closing “Cannonball” is a plainspoken blues, uproarious even through its seemingly somber first statement. Mintz’s expressive melodic sense is confirmed in her rendition of “Flight,” a favorite among Mintz’s friends and colleagues, and the delicate but powerful “Destiny,” which also features Piket singing Mintz’s lyrics with a tender, assured delivery.
“Billy is one of the people who encourages me to sing,” says Piket, who has only rarely sung on record but does so more frequently in live performance. “We’re very honest with each other, so if he tells me that he thinks there’s something there, I believe him. I’ve recorded this tune vocally before [on 2005’s Love and Beauty] but I feel that I’ve become much stronger as a vocalist in the time since then.”
That said, Piket gives ample time to some of Mintz’s less conventional adventures in writing. As freewheeling as it is freeform, “Shmear” is the sound of both composer and pianist letting loose (albeit with minimal harmony) on a rhythmic motif. By contrast, “Blinds Eye” and “Ugly Beautiful” (no relation to the similarly named Thelonious Monk tune) are both dense, highly composed pieces that demand rhythmic and harmonic precision—which Piket delivers in spades, coupled with off-kilter inventions of her own. “Beautiful You” imbues its graceful romance with faintly spiky melodic ideas and an unusual array of chord changes.
Then there are the tunes that Piket included on the album because of their personal significance. “Destiny” is one, for reasons that its lyrics make obvious. The exquisite ballad “Looking Down at the Stars” was inspired by an evening walk the couple took together in Manhattan. “Your Touch,” with its dueling senses of majesty and mystery, was the first piece for which Piket assisted Mintz on the harmonies. This, incidentally, is the song’s public debut. “I don’t know why he doesn’t perform it,” the pianist says. “He’s just got so many compositions, that one fell to the side for some reason. It’s a great tune.”
The honesty and intimacy of solo performance were deciding factors in Piket’s recording of Domestic Harmony as such. However, another factor equally decisive: the element of surprise. Piket is amused by the contradiction between those factors. “I recorded it on a couple of nights when he was out of town; then when he was around, I had to sneak back to the studio for editing. We kind of laughed about it, because we’re very straightforward with each other, and so the idea that I could successfully lie to him was surprising.”
White lies notwithstanding, intimacy and straightforwardness were what Mintz got when he finally opened the package on his birthday. He was also surprised—doubly so, since the drummer-composer’s own view of his writing is quite modest. When Piket told him this year that she’d like to release the album, she recalls, “his reaction was ‘Why would anyone want to hear an entire recording of my tunes? They’re not that interesting.’” Domestic Harmony makes apparent just how interesting they really are, and how deeply Piket appreciates her husband.
Roberta Piket was born in New York City on August 9, 1965. Her father, Frederick, was an Austrian composer of classical and liturgical music; her mother, Cynthia, was an American pop singer. Though he passed away when she was only eight years old, her father gave Roberta her first music lessons at the piano. She also learned from her mother, who sang staples of the Great American Songbook around the house and kept the sheet music from which she had learned them.
Despite this early immersion, Roberta had no particular designs on becoming a musician. Then, when she was 14, she went to a bazaar at her synagogue and discovered a 25-cent copy of pianist Walter Bishop Jr.’s album Speak Low. “That was life-changing,” she remembers. “I had been messing around a little bit on the piano, and then I heard that record and I just flipped. That’s when I really got serious about music.” She even took several lessons with Bishop at his midtown apartment.
She was a quick study, in just a few years advancing enough to be accepted at Boston’s prestigious New England Conservatory. However, at her mother’s urging, she completed a joint five-year double-degree program at both NEC, where she studied piano with Fred Hersch and Stanley Cowell, and Tufts University, where she studied computer science. The latter degree provided Piket’s first employment as a software engineer in Boston. After a year, frustrated that the job left little time for music, she quit and returned to New York to make her way on the jazz scene.
Upon her arrival in late 1989, “I just started playing all kinds of gigs, from weddings to solo piano to $50 jazz hits.” She also started making connections. One of them was with Marian McPartland, who encountered Piket at the 1993 Thelonious Monk Composers Competition; impressed, McPartland booked Piket on her National Public Radio program Piano Jazz despite being an unknown. Another connection, Lionel Hampton, included her in his 1995 all-star session For the Love of Music—her recording debut. The following year, she made a recording of her own with Unbroken Line.
In the more than two decades since, Piket has tried her hand at various musical ventures, including various trios and other small ensembles; Alternating Current, her electric band; Nabokov Project, which fuses jazz with poetry and chamber classical music; and solo projects. She also performs regularly with Victor Jones’s bands, Orchestrio and Spigame; the Virginia Mayhew Quartet; and Mintz’s sextet and quintet. Her 2018 album, West Coast Trio, placed her in a core unit with L.A.-based bassist Darek Oleszkiewicz and drummer Joe La Barbera (with Mintz and guitarist Larry Koonse as special guests).
In a separate context from her public career, however, Domestic Harmony was wrapped up and presented to Mintz for his birthday. “He was just completely floored when he got it,” she says. “He put it on and at first it didn’t even register—it took him a minute to realize what I’d actually done, that I’d recorded a whole program of his music.” The surprise and joy of that moment was something she wanted the world to experience.
Roberta Piket: Domestic Harmony: Piket Plays Mintz
(Thirteenth Note Records)
Street Date: December 6, 2019
Web Site: www.robertajazz.com
“Mr. Mintz is an underrated composer, and these performances convey a warmth that goes beyond the collegiality of most jazz.”
–Martin Johnson, Wall Street Journal
“Domestic Harmony is a strikingly sensitive tribute from one brilliant artist to another.”
–Donald Elfman, NYC Jazz Record