How does a classical pianist meld her training with a passion for jazz? It’s been a fascinating odyssey, musical and otherwise, for Meral Guneyman, a classical pianist, composer, and teacher, who has been enjoying her recent flirtations with jazz.
A native of Istanbul, Turkey, the pianist, who now lives in Pennington with Troy, her younger of two sons, and their dog, Snoop, has become fascinated with the unique rhythmic characteristics of boogie-woogie and for a little while now has been composing and recording straight-ahead jazz. She also teaches young musicians at Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music.
Her newest record, Playful Virtuosity, was released last month. The record is a collaboration with 80-year-old jazz warhorse Dick Hyman, who has also delved into almost every major jazz piano style (at least those developed until the 1960s). The CD includes classics like “Embraceable You,” “Fascinating Rhythm,” and “The Man I Love” interpreted as “Etudes and Improvisations” as well as variations, django, and rags for two pianos.
Guneyman will perform Saturday, July 22, at Jacobs Music Center, 2540 Brunswick Pike, Lawrenceville.
Guneyman — the name is pronounced GOO-nee-mon, won’t reveal her age exactly but says she came to the United States in the 1970s, when she was a teenager. “Or should I say, I am old enough to play the piano very well.”
Her father was a medical chemist who worked to put himself and his brother through medical school. Guneyman says he was very musical, a man who could whistle his favorite operas, symphonic songs, and Nat King Cole tunes with perfect pitch. “He took piano lessons as a child, from the same lady who taught me years later, believe it or not.” At 11, he had to quit his piano lessons to help support his family. He was the oldest of five siblings, and he had to help Guneyman’s grandfather, who founded one of the first medical labs in Turkey.
Guneyman’s mom, she says, was a very artistic but not very musical homemaker “who did the most sacred job in the world and did it beautifully. She devoted her life completely to our upbringing and education,” says Guneyman, referring to herself and her older sister, Tiraje.
Guneyman began playing piano at the age of 4. Her father prevailed upon her mother — or perhaps it was the other way around — and, she says, one day a piano appeared in her home. “I’ll never forget. I walked right up to it, stood there with my chin at the key level and pressed down some keys at random. I must have somehow pushed the damper pedal simultaneously, and struck a major 7th or 9th or something by pure luck, and out came this heavenly sound with reverberation, and I was instantly in love with the piano.”
Later, the Guneyman sisters both went to the Istanbul Conservatory, and their parents made sure they practiced and worked hard. “We had no choices. We had love with discipline and parental involvement, and that meant everything. “
The sisters, and their parents, were always surrounded by music, Guneyman says. Her parents loved classical music and jazz, and they took the sisters to concerts and plays each week. They also loved pop music such as Elvis and the Beatles, French and Italian pop music, but, interestingly, not Turkish music.
“In the music schools I attended, I learned the classical and contemporary Western repertoire, and I am still learning,” says Guneyman. “There are not enough years in a lifetime to possibly go through it all. So I really had no time to experiment with Turkish music.”
But she had lots of time for classical music and, then, jazz. When she was a teenager, she was encouraged by her piano teacher to try to attend Juilliard. She had wanted to study in Paris, but she was reluctantly convinced to go to New York. “Little did I know that I was not only going to fall in love with studying at Juilliard, but also with life in New York and this whole country and make my home here,” says Guneyman. “My experience was not just about starting college but it was also about moving to a different continent and a very different culture.”
In New York, to support herself and pay tuition, she worked as a stagehand and as a waitress for the faculty cafeteria, and she performed other jobs at the school. She says the experience was invaluable. “Juilliard and New York taught me many kinds of disciplines, in life and in music.”
While still a student, Guneyman made her concert debut at Carnegie Hall. She began entering, and winning, competitions. She has also won the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra’s Young Artist Competition, the East & West Artists’ International Competition, the William Kappell International Competition at the University of Maryland, the Juilliard School’s Chopin Concerto Competition, and the International Naumburg Competition.
“My teacher used to say, in the old days, all you had to do was play a New York debut and get a good review from the Times and voila! you would be under management. Those days are long gone, and competitions have become a necessary evil,” says Guneyman. “They are the route to exposure and opportunities.”
Still, it is very hard to make it in classical music. Everyone has skills. In addition to that, a successful player needs luck, a good promotional machine, and lots of hard work. “Long after the victories and the glory are gone, you have to practice and play until your last day. It’s what you do,” she says.
Most pianists also teach. Guneyman started teaching at 16 and has done so, on and off, since. “I (used to have) my own music school, for which I had to humble myself, to learn early childhood methods and psychology,” she says. “I do a limited amount of teaching now. I love teaching if I can create a spark in a child’s heart. (At Curtis) I have taught some of the world’s most gifted kids, really. I also love the challenge of teaching adults and university masterclasses. I like the interaction with an audience of students, and this is always mutual, you know.”
Of course, jazz is also about interaction, both with the audience and with the music itself. Immersing herself in the genre, Guneyman began, as exercises, transcribing the music of jazz pioneers such as boogie-woogie great Meade Lux Lewis. “One day I found myself face to face with the works of Dick Hyman. I found his Jazz Etudes and studied them and added a line here and a note there, some octaves, or a whole added Chopinesque section,” she says. “I called Dick and he said go for it, it’s jazz after all, change, improvise, I welcome whatever you do.”
Hyman and Guneyman struck up a friendship, and began collaborating. Two years ago, they played a show in Carnegie Hall, and after that they recorded together.
She says she enjoys playing both styles of music, and even fusing them. “Jazz is brain stimulating just like classical music, and challenging technically, just as classical music is, to the jazz player, but liberating from the dictates of classical training. The spontaneity requires mastery of runs and patterns, which can be quite different in modern modal jazz, and jazz improvisation requires an excellent ear. Without going into too much technicality, I can also say that the jazz piano fingering can be so different that to the classically conditioned hands much of it can sometimes feel like it’s written for the hand of an alien.”
On Guneyman’s website, meralguneyman.com, she shows her home studio, her dog, and pictures of herself in yoga poses. Guneyman said she has been interested in yoga for some time, but that she doesn’t have time to take classes. “I just have a very flexible body and can do all these things with my arms and legs.” Apparently her fingers — and her mind — are just as flexible and versatile.
Meral Guneyman CD Release Party, Sunday, July 22, 4 p.m., Steinway Musical Society, Jacobs Music, 2540 Brunswick Pike, Lawrenceville. Guneyman, a Pennington resident, performs classical and jazz transcriptions of Gershwin songs from her new album “Playing Virtuosity.” Register. 609-434-0222.