Album: Gratitude
Artist: Joe Heinemann

gratitude-front-picThe Latin root of the word “gratitude,” means “pleasing.” The new album by pianist and composer Joe Heinemann, which bears the name Gratitude certainly lives up to the origin of its title, as the word “pleasing” provides a perfect description of the graceful and elegant melodies found within it’s 11 tracks. Although Joe has had a long and extensive professional career as a jazz and blues keyboardist, recording and sharing the stage with well-known artists such as Steve Miller, Bonnie Raitt, Robert Cray, Albert Collins, Charlie Musselwhite, and more, this album marks his debut as a solo pianist playing his own music. In our interview Joe shared: “It’s great to have arrived at my first love, solo piano. Now it can be most of what inspires me musically – especially original music. Playing piano is very personal and playing my own music at the piano is totally personal, and very gratifying. I use gratifying, gratitude and grateful in my vocabulary a lot now – fitting!”


In a sense, the analogy of a caterpillar emerging from a chrysalis to become a butterfly is somewhat apt here. As accomplished as he had become freelancing and playing in other people’s bands, something was missing. According to Joe: “In my mind I have always been a solo pianist. In 50 years, no year went by when I didn’t spend more time improvising at the piano than any other music related activity. Through almost 15 years of classical training, 30 years of professional performing and recording,Joe Heinemann 12 years of teaching private piano lessons, I had a public presence of recitals, adjudications, solo cocktail gigs, many bands, records, TV, concerts and a motion picture. But, only now am I positioned to take my own ‘private until this point’ original solo piano music and for the first time make it my new public presence. I’m very excited!”


Interestingly, an early influence along these lines was George Winston. But while Joe was inspired by this new musical direction, at that time in his career he was not ready to follow it. However, to quote a song popularized in the ‘60’s by The Byrds: “To everything, turn, turn, turn. There is a season… and a time to every purpose under heaven.” That season finally came when Joe met the GRAMMY winning producer and founder of Windham Hill Records, Will Ackerman last year in New York. Ironically, Will was the one who brought George Winston and his iconic style of solo piano to light back in the early 80’s. The idea of Joe recording an album with Will was considered, and now here we are talking about the fruits of that collaboration.


However, as he soon found out, working together with Will was not without its challenges. In Joe’s words: “Because improvising is my most comfortable state to play the piano, Will was not sure he could produce me. He works with a unique map of each song that prepares him for how the piece goes down on the track, and none of my other songs sounded fresh and surprising enough when pre-composed, arranged, over-practiced or thought-out. So we both had to meet at a place in the middle and do it right there in the studio. It was quite intense at times!” Although in spite of, or perhaps because of Will’s imaginary-road-studiosometimes brutal honesty and tough love approach, as Joe refers to it, they found common ground and were able to create an album’s worth of beautiful recordings. According to Joe: “Will seems to instinctively know how to get the best from me in the studio.” Other factors include the well-trained ear and advice of highly regarded engineer and producer Tom Eaton who works with Will. And the natural beauty of their Imaginary Road Studios in rural Vermont provided much-appreciated inspiration and a complete change of scene from New York City where Joe currently lives.


The first thing that struck me about the opening track, entitled “Lenape,” was the spaciousness of Joe’s simple piano arpeggios and the sparse, yet perfectly tasteful accompaniment of Paul Winter Consort cellist, Eugene Friesen. For Joe, this is a huge switch from what he was used to playing. With Will and Tom’s guidance, Joe realized: “I needed to think more linearly, simple, and melodic. My jazz background had me doing more with vertical chords and rhythm, and it was too much – too dense. While subtle elements of jazz can be heard on the album, with this music I’m doing now, melody is primary. Will stresses this and I think it’s part of why his judgment is so valuable. I will probably revere melody more for the rest of my life because of Will’s influence.”


There is no mistaking the source of inspiration on a solo piano piece entitled “For Satie.” Joe’s elegant and understated composition is a fitting homage to this well-known eccentric French composer. From there the musical tide flows into a more up-tempo ensemble piece called “Sea Dream – Away” that includes cellist Eugene Friesen, Jill Haley on English horn, bassist Paul Kochanski, and the wondrously multi-talented Tom Eaton on hand percussion. It’s a beautifully arranged and appropriately dreamy composition, and it was interesting to hear Joe in a larger context as a contrast to his solo pieces.


“Sign Of Spring” is a lovely pastoral solo track where the space between the notes play almost as much of a role as the notes themselves, and create an air of expectation that draws the listener in. A real highlight for me was another ensemble piece entitled “My Song – Carried Away” which featured the same configuration of accompanists as mentioned earlier. The track is moving, both emotionally and rhythmically, and does indeed carry you away. A pensive and meditative piano solo called “Late At Night” puts the album to bed leaving the listener in a state of peaceful reverie.


Imaginary Road pianoI must, once again, remark on the spaciousness, melodic simplicity, and contemplative quality of many of the compositions, especially the solo pieces. It’s not what I expected from someone coming from such an extensive jazz and blues background. But I loved every minute and appreciate it as a reflection of Joe expressing another facet of his creative spectrum and following his muse in a long-desired direction. As with any recording that comes out of Imaginary Road Studios, the sound and production quality is exquisite. One of the many benefits a pianist is entitled to in recording there is the opportunity to use their highly modified Steinway grand piano, which has been heard on the albums of some of the most celebrated artists in this genre.


Although the terms “composition” and “improvisation” may seem contradictory, Joe has combined them to create a stunning body of work that draws from the best of both of them. I am greatly impressed by the expressive and evocative music on Gratitude and am also inspired by Joe Heinemann’s courage to change his career course in pursuit of a long-cherished creative dream. In working with Will and Tom, Joe remarked: “I feel like I enrolled in a class to discover how to be a Contemporary Instrumental Pianist and came out of it discovering myself.” To which I would say that he has graduated with honors.


Click the links below to hear samples and/or purchase this album:



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