Jazz pianist Taylor Eigsti is like most musicians who practice his art for a living — passionate about jazz and all other genres of music. But like most red-blooded, 21-year-old American males, Eigsti has another passion he loves to talk about.
“I’ve got an Xbox 360,” he says in a phone interview from his home in Glendale, California, not without a little bit of relish. “I grew up being a fan of all sports. If I could get out there and play a game of football rather than sitting down and watching, I would do it. But if I have to sit down, I love Madden football. For the 360 it is unbelievable. The best video game ever produced.”
The aspiring quarterback has released three CDs, gigs regularly with some of the best musicians on earth, and is one of the sunniest people you would ever want to speak with. He will perform with his quartet on Monday, March 27, at McCarter Theater, opening for the San Francisco Jazz Collective, led by saxophonist Joshua Redman.
Eigsti is one of those musicians who, for better or for worse, has had to deal with the “child prodigy” or “young lion” designation. He is matter-of-fact about his unease with both but understands that his problems are some that others might like to have.
Appropriately, the name of Eigsti’s latest album on Concord Records is “Lucky To Be Me.” The title tune was one of the standards written by Leonard Bernstein and covered by Tony Bennett, Kenny Burrell, Abbey Lincoln, and Bill Charlap, among others, that he has always wanted to perform.
But despite his small degree of material success and huge degree of critical and artistic success, Eigsti’s 21 years have been marred by tragedy. At the age of three, Eigsti’s older sister, Shannon, who was in high school and who had inspired him to learn the piano, died of extra-ossias Ewing’s sarcoma, a form of cancer. When Eigsti was 12, his father, Steve — a scientist working in meterology and physics, who had his own company, Western Engineering and Satellite Technology — died of colon cancer, leaving Eigsti and his mother, Nancy, by themselves in Menlo Park, California.
“I usually end my shows with the song, ‘Lucky to Be Me,’” he says. “There is a lot of crap that I have had to deal with in my life, with a lot of people close to me dying. Through this, music has been a very important thing for me to have, and I can say that I am very fortunate to be in my position. There are so many great musicians out there who haven’t had the opportunities I have had to record, to play with the great musicians I have played with.”
Some of those great musicians include the members of his quartet — Lewis Nash on drums, Reuben Rogers on bass, and Julian Lage, who, at 18, is even younger than Eigsti, on guitar. “Every other day, Julian or I will call the other, and tell him to check out a certain record, a certain kind of African music, or one day we’ll be flipping out over Bulgarian folk music.” Eigsti has also appeared on records or live with composer, pianist, and five-time Grammy nominee David Benoit; Al Jarreau; legendary jazz pianist and composer Marian McPartland; acoustic and electric bass virtuoso Christian McBride, drummer Billy Kilson, jazz vocalist Kevin Mahogany, and countless others.
Eigsti began playing piano at the age of three, and from the beginning, according to his mom, Nancy, he was improvising rather than playing something he was supposed to. Throughout his youth, he showed ability beyond his years, and his mother spent lots of time negotiating Eigsti between his need to practice and his desire to play football and other sports. By the time he entered the University of Southern California, though, he pretty much had his direction figured out.
Only problem was, he didn’t take too well to college life, at least not inside the classroom. “I learned a lot there, and there are a lot of great teachers there, but in the classroom it was a mixed bag. There were so many people who needed to learn so many different things.”
Instead, Eigsti learned the old-fashioned way — by going on the road and playing the music. He especially learned quickly by backing up singers. “For better or for worse, most musicians agree, you learn more playing with singers. If you are playing with a singer who does not have it together, you learn a lot helping them out.”
Before his McCarter performance, Eigsti will be in Germany accompanying the venerable singer, Ernestine Anderson, who does know what she is doing. “There is a lot to be learned in just playing with her, and hearing her sing, and just listening to her off the stage, the things she has to say, the stories and the places she has been.”
Bassists, too, help Eigsti learn. “Some don’t want me to comp at all during the bass solo,” he says. “Now, with Christian McBride, on ‘Giant Steps,’ which was one of the smoothest bass solos ever done, I wanted to stay out of his way, but he told me to play, he wanted me to outline the changes.”
Eigsti says he continues to listen to all genres of music. At home growing up, he was exposed to all kinds of jazz, popular, and classical music. Now he says he has expanded deeply into world music, into the compositions of musicians such as Herbie Hancock, pianist Geoff Keezer, and Wayne Shorter, the tenor and soprano sax player who was considered “the idea man” behind Miles Davis’s legendary 1960s quintet, and played with Davis and Herbie Hancock through the ‘60s, then formed Weather Report with Joe Zawinul.
Eigsti likes to tell a story about Shorter, who played both tenor and soprano sax on the Academy Award winning soundtrack for the film, ‘Round Midnight.’ “One Wayne story I heard is that when (drummer) Terri Lyne Carrington was going to be in Shorter’s band, he called her over to his house, brought her in, and didn’t really say anything to her. She sat down on his couch, and he put in the movie ‘Alien.’ So, they’re sitting in there and watching it, and there’s this scene where some alien thrusts itself out of a dude’s stomach. He freeze frames it, looks at her and says, ‘That’s what I want my band to sound like!’ That is the coolest thing I have ever heard!”
In addition to video games, Eigsti also likes reality TV and although his time is somewhat limited, he tuned into the recently ended train wreck of a reality show, VH1’s “Flavor of Love.” (According to Media Life Magazine, the show is the highest-rated cable reality show in history.) “It was one of those things you just couldn’t turn away from,” Eigsti says. Of star Flavor Flav’s ultimate choice of model Nikki “Hoopz” Alexander, Eigsti believes she was the only logical choice. “You could see from the beginning that she was the best one,” he said.
His personal life would also be a good setting for a reality show. Has anyone ever done a show focused on three young jazz musicians who share a house? Eigsti lives in Glendale, California, with bassist Harish Raghavan and trombonist Garrett Smith, all of whom are twentysomething working musicians. “It’s a pretty phat hookup. We’ve all got enough space, and we even have our own recording studio. Hard to find a place like this. From my deck I can look out and see lots of palm trees and forest, but if I get in my car and drive five minutes, I can be in downtown L.A.”
Sounds like a show in the making. Only there might be a problem with the taping schedule. “One or two of us at a time are always out somewhere on gigs.”
Oh well. What would he call the show, though?
“I dunno. ‘Lucky To Be Broke,’ I think.”
Jazz pianist Taylor Eigsti and quartet, Monday, March 27, 8 p.m., McCarter Theater, 91 University Place. Opening for Joshua Redman’s SF Jazz Collective. 609-258-2787.