Grammy®-nominated pianist Gary Schunk may be a multifaceted player—he’s played in a range of musical backdrops from Donna Summer to the Detroit Symphony Orchestra—but make no mistake; Schunk is, first and foremost, a jazz man.
When internationally acclaimed jazz greats come to the D, Schunk is at the top of the call list, and he’s also done his fair share of touring. Over the course of a career that has spanned several decades, Schunk has played with the likes of Joe Williams, Earl Klugh, Kenny Burrell, Anita O’Day, Mark Murphy, Pepper Adams, Terumasa Hino, Dave Valentin, David “Fathead” Newman, Sonny Stitt and countless others.
“Technique is indispensable,” says Schunk. An intensely studied musician, he is a classically trained pianist who gravitated to jazz in the early 1970s. Schunk immersed himself in the style and mastered the elements of technique that are distinctive to the genre.
In an interview conducted by Nkenge Zola for the video production of Jazz Masters: Gary Schunk, world- famous trumpeter and fellow Detroit musician Marcus Belgrave says, “Gary Schunk is probably one of the greatest pianists around, because he can do it all. He’s really studied the music and every aspect of it; he doesn’t shirk any responsibilities of the music...he keeps me on my toes.”
On his new release, Kayak, Schunk creates a spontaneous, inspired collection of originals and standards that hold together like an intimate evening of repartee among old friends. “It’s a three-way conversation,” says Schunk of the dynamics of the album’s trio, which features Schunk, Ray Parker on bass and acclaimed drummer/composer Peter Erskine. Contributing to the album’s variety of styles are several of Erskine’s tunes, including “Twelve” and “Something I Said.”
“When it works, it’s like a conversation,” says Schunk. “You create popular ideas, comment on the music, playing off what you hear. Everyone gets their licks in, everyone has their say.” Schunk knows what he’s talking about when it comes to making outstanding music. No stranger to a recording studio, he has played on some 30-odd recordings, including Mark Murphy’s Grammy-nominated tribute to Nat King Cole.
On Kayak, however, this renowned Detroit jazz treasure showcases his ability to engage his fellow musicians in a sophisticated musical exchange. Recorded in its entirety in a single day, Kayak demonstrates how the right combination of veteran musicians is a solid recipe for improvisational music at its best. The recording excels partly because of what Schunk does so well, what he draws out of the trio; or perhaps what he just allows to happen organically; it is the space, the opportunity, that he presents for each of the group’s musicians to react and contribute, to communicate.
“The musicians are there to comment on what I’m doing,” he says. “If I’m doing something that makes them want to react, a rhythm or a little motif, it might just be a fleeting moment.” Schunk’s own musical voice is one with that plays with mutations of melody and rhythm to keep the course of the dialogue lively, rushing notes the way one might excitedly rush words to express an idea or delaying them as if to ponder it. The effect is one that roams in and out of familiarity and discovery, the way a good conversation should. “It comes so naturally when the players are right,” he says. “It’s spur-of-the-moment jazz.”
Is there any better way to spend an evening?