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Bobby Broom dispels the notion that guitar and piano can’t get along on the bandstand.
Bobby Broom wants to make it clear that he’s never avoided working with pianists, exactly. The fact that his own discography, which now spans more than four decades, is nearly devoid of guitar-piano interactions has nothing to do with the oft-repeated notion that the two chordal instruments tend to get in each other’s way.
“That’s a misconception,” Broom insists over the phone from his office at Northern Illinois University. “We’re all accompanists, and sometimes we’re accompanists working together in the case of a pianist and a guitarist. We should both be able to comp at the same time in a way that I do not get in the way of a pianist’s harmonic idea in the moment, and vice versa. It comes down to being sensitive enough to know how to not clutter up the space based on the sonic environment.”
Broom, 61, learned those lessons early in his career, playing alongside bebop pioneers like Al Haig and Walter Bishop Jr. He’s since become far more identified for his work with organists, including collaborations with Dr. Lonnie Smith and his own bands the Deep Blue Organ Trio and the Bobby Broom Organi-Sation. But Broom cites the support and encouragement of piano masters such as James Williams, Ramsey Lewis, Jodie Christian and Willie Pickens as vital to his career and evolution.
The guitarist pays back some of his favorite keyboard influences and mentors on his latest album, Keyed Up (Steele), which finds him leading a band with piano for the first time since 1995’s No Hype Blues with Ron Petrillo.
“The reason why I haven’t had a piano in my band is I haven’t gotten the feeling of comfort that would warrant me wanting to play with a pianist,” Broom explains. “I haven’t gotten that feeling very often in my time making music. Not to say that there aren’t some great pianists around, but it’s a special thing for me to be inspired that I need to do this. And it’s finally happened after quite a bit of time.”
Keyed Up features the young Chicago-based pianist Justin Dillard; Broom met him during a regular Sunday night jam session led by trumpeter Pharez Whitted. He was so taken by Dillard’s sound and approach that Broom invited the young pianist into the studio to augment the guitarist’s longtime trio with bassist Dennis Carroll and drummer Kobie Watkins. Only looking back does he realize what a gamble he’d taken, having never test-driven the quartet on stage.
“I had a hunch,” he says. “In hindsight, it was a bit of a risk to take that hunch into the recording studio, but I think we operate on musical intuition. I was 21 when Sonny [Rollins] brought me into the studio with Bob Cranshaw, Tony Williams and Bobby Hutcherson. What makes a person do that? That’s the thing about jazz: We never know exactly how it’s going to sound detail-wise, so we learn to work on trust and intuition.”
It remains to be seen if Broom’s hunch pays off as well as Rollins’ did, leading to a musical relationship that lasted for the remainder of the legendary saxophonist’s career. For now, it’s resulted in a scintillating and swinging set of tunes written or made famous by notable pianists. The repertoire includes a brisk, pugilistic take on Bud Powell’s “Hallucinations” and a swaying, harmonically rich exploration of Mulgrew Miller’s “Second Thoughts”; a sparkling, wistful version of James Williams’ ballad “Soulful Bill” and a lush, aching “Misty” that showcases Dillard’s ability to make sparse statements resonate while Broom luxuriates in that classic, yearning melody.
Two versions of McCoy Tyner’s “Blues on the Corner” leave no doubt what city these blues-versed musicians call home, whether you consider the keen, precise first take or the more freewheeling, spirited second.
“If you talk about seminal pianists in jazz,” Broom concludes, “that list becomes considerably shorter for me. But all of my most important mentors were piano players. Piano runs deep for me, although you may not know it from my body of work.” - Shaun Brady
Featured photo by Andrew Feller.