When Fats Waller tells you your kid should be playing piano, you get your kid on piano. And so, at the behest of her famous cousin, that’s exactly what Charles Boles’ mother did with him at the tender age of five. Eight decades later, jazz pianist Charles Boles is living proof that Fats knew a piano player when he saw one.
On the new release Blue Continuum by the Charles Boles Quartet featuring Ron English, Boles’ piano playing is a perfectly seasoned mix of post bop and blues. Jazz and blues enthusiasts alike can rest assured; each cut on this record is a tasty morsel of music. All but two of the tracks are original compositions, four written by guitarist Ron English and five by Boles.
Boles’ favorite track on Blue Continuum, “Liz,” is dedicated to his mother, herself a piano player who provided much of his early musical inspiration. “Liz” is an unyielding example of the solid sound that runs consistently throughout the recording. According to Boles, it’s all in the connection between the musicians, which on this album also includes bassist John Dana and drummer Renell Gonsalves.
Growing up in Detroit’s famed Black Bottom, Boles’ earliest memories of musical influence came late in the night and early in the morning as he lay in bed listening to the jam sessions and rent parties in the apartments below. As a young student, Boles was mentored by the legendary pianist Barry Harris, regularly sitting in on brutally challenging and exciting jam sessions at Harris’ house. “There was always something going on over there,” says Boles. “Back then, jam sessions were mostly a learning experience, especially at Barry’s house. Musically, you were going to get your ass kicked and humbled at the same time.” (From “Jam On” by Charles Latimer, Metro Times, 8/4/2010.)
By the time he was 12, Boles was sitting in with the big fellas, cutting his chops with the likes of famed trumpeter Donald Byrd, bassist Paul Chambers and pianist Tommy Flanagan. Charles Boles has spent a lifetime zeroing in on the sound that has made him a sought-after piano player. He has shared stage and studio with such legendary figures as Etta James, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, Moms Mabley, The Dells, Mary Wells, Dinah Washington, Lou Rawls and host of others. His personal crown jewel: recording and touring Europe in 1969 with BB King on the Live and Well tour.
For years Boles has enjoyed the experience of playing on countless recordings by world-class musicians, but it was the challenge of producing an album of his own music that reinvigorated the musical experience for him. “When you play on someone else’s music, you can concentrate on just playing the music,” acknowledges Boles. “When it’s your own music, it’s a whole other experience.” Never one to shy away from a challenge, Boles, at age 81, dove head first into the project, and came out the other end with a renewed sense of excitement for the process. “It’s always great when people enjoy something you’ve written,” he says. “I love writing. I’ve been writing a long time.”
Charles Boles is more than just another great jazz artist in Detroit—and indeed there are many. He is one of the last standing of an old vanguard, a Detroit gem and a musical torchbearer who can still light up a stage every week.