My senior year in college, back when you put a needle on vinyl, a friend turned me on to “Swiss Movement,” a 1969 album featuring pianist Les McCann and saxophonist Eddie Harris.
That recording remains a personal favorite, so when I met pianist and composer Joe Alterman a couple of years ago, I was disposed to like him, just for the reverence with which he discussed McCann as a friend and mentor.
I’ve heard Alterman at the keyboard in a few settings since and found myself either leaning in and tapping my feet or leaning back and nodding my head, and sometimes both.
This also applies to his fifth album, “More Cornbread,” recorded live at The Jazz Corner in Hilton Head, S.C., and released last November. He is backed up by bassist Kevin Smith and drummer Justin Chesarek, Atlanta musicians with whom he often performs.
“I’ve never felt totally comfortable in the studio. I love the live thing. I feed off the audience,” Alterman, the new executive director of the Atlanta Jewish Music Festival, said over coffee near his home in Virginia-Highland.
The album’s title stems from the way Alterman felt about his music when he returned to Atlanta after nine years in New York, where he studied music in college and launched his professional career.
“‘More Cornbread’ is to me the way of saying Southern jazz without it being called Southern jazz,” he said.
The album includes a live recording of “Georgia Sunset,” an Alterman composition and the title track of his third album, released in 2015.
The ninth and final cut, “Les is More,” is an homage by the 30-year-old Alterman to the 83-year-old McCann.
Alterman is a proponent of making jazz accessible to people (including some of his friends, he jokes) who say they don’t like jazz but may not know when they’re listening to it.
For that segment of the audience, Alterman works modern and pop tunes into his performances, to supplement jazz standards and his own compositions.
“More Cornbread” includes his arrangements of such well-known songs as “Blue Moon,” “I Heard it Through the Grapevine,” “Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise,” and “Over the Rainbow.”
It was not the genre’s “crazy improvisations,” as much as the way other musicians interpreted familiar tunes that drew Alterman to jazz as an art form. “So, when people can hear a melody that they know, and hear what I do to the melody, hopefully they can relate to the music in a similar way to what turned me on to the music,” he said.
“I think that if people just didn’t have such strong preconceived notions about the word ‘jazz,’ that anyone would like it. … I enjoy fighting preconceived notions, whether it’s jazz or Jewish music,” Alterman said.
That is one of the challenges he faces as the new AJMF director. Alterman was named last August to succeed AJMF founder Russell Gottschalk.
“My whole goal growing up was just to move to New York and play piano. It happened, but what I realized after six years of doing that, like every night, was that I was enjoying only two or three out of the six nights,” Alterman said.
The night Alterman made the decision to leave New York, he wrote “Comin’ Home to You” – a tune you swear you’ve heard elsewhere but haven’t – the title track of his fourth album, released in December 2016.
Alterman self-produced “More Cornbread,” “Comin’ Home to You,” and “Piano Tracks,” his 2009 debut. “Give Me the Simple Life” (2012) was produced by Todd Barkan, with whom Alterman interned. “Georgia Sunset” (2015) was produced by saxophonist Houston Person, who Alterman counts as among his professional mentors.
The Sandy Springs native began playing piano as a 5-year-old. At 12, when he wanted to give it up for the guitar, his parents made him a deal. He could study guitar so long as he kept up his piano lessons. Alterman’s father brought home recordings by such artists as Oscar Peterson, Ramsey Lewis and Jimmy Smith, enticing his son back to the keyboard full-time.
Alterman attended The Epstein School and Riverwood High School, and then New York University, where he earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in jazz piano.
He has performed at Lincoln Center, Birdland Jazz Club, and the Blue Note Jazz Club in New York; The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.; Preservation Hall in New Orleans, and, particularly in the past couple of years, Winter’s Jazz Club in Chicago and The Jazz Corner in Hilton Head.
Alterman is an inveterate storyteller, particularly about musicians who have become friends and provided him with valuable musical and life lessons.
McCann suggested that Alterman practice less (six hours a day at the time, half that much most days now) and get out and live more. Asked if that advice inspired the song title “Les is More,” Alterman said no, but chuckled at the suggestion.
In a December 2017 TEDx talk at Riverwood High School, Alterman told students how, “The great pianist, Ramsey Lewis, gave me the confidence to be me. I was nervous before a gig once and I asked him if he ever gets nervous. And he said, ‘No, I only knew that I could do what I could do the best that I could do it, so I did it.’”
On the personal side, when Alterman was having girlfriend trouble a few years ago, the pianist Ahmad Jamal asked him: Is she a muse or a distraction?
They broke up the next day. (For those inclined to ask, Alterman is single).
Alterman will need a young man’s stamina. In addition to his AJMF duties, his 2019 performing schedule takes him to New York, Chicago and other venues. He also plays at private events, sometimes two or three times in a week.