When John Bianculli was in college in the 1970s and 1980s, the now established pianist, vocalist, arranger, composer, and bandleader changed his major two or three times before finally settling on jazz piano and jazz piano composition. Bianculli, raised in New York’s Little Italy and Fort Lee, enrolled at Rutgers in 1974, but he did not graduate — and finally make his parents happy — until 1983.
Bianculli got his love of music from those Italian-American parents. His father — who sang and played bass as an avocation — was a waiter who often waited on Frank Sinatra at Jilly’s on 52nd Street in Manhattan; his mother was a housewife as well as an actress and playwright.
By the time he had graduated from Rutgers, Bianculli already had begun what would turn out to be a long residency as the house pianist at the then-new New Brunswick Hyatt Regency Hotel. He was also busy the other nights of the week working with icons in the jazz world including Charlie Rouse, Steve Nelson, Frank Lacy, and Terence Blanchard.
“The whole time I was in college I was exploring and studying different things on my own and performing with different people, mostly black musicians, in clubs in Philly, Newark, and Harlem, and I learned a lot,” he says from his home in Highland Park, not far from the Italian Bistro Restaurant where he performs solo piano on Friday nights and with a combo on Saturdays.
Bianculli began piano studies in his youth and led a procession of pop and rock bands through high school. He made his professional debut while still in high school at the Fort Lee Recreation Center, playing Santana, the Beatles, and James Taylor tunes with a band. In his senior year in high school in 1973, WRVR-FM, a station that used to broadcast jazz, played an album by Chick Corea and Gary Burton, “Crystal Silence.” It proved to be a revelatory moment, and Bianculli knew from that point on he wanted to study jazz, even though he entered Rutgers as a pre-med major and later switched to bio science.
“Something in the music spoke to me; it was a spiritual spark, a wake-up call. I couldn’t put my finger on it,” he says. “It just awakened something emotionally in me, and I started improvising on the piano a whole lot more.”
On jazz piano Bianculli says his main influences are Bill Evans, Wynton Kelly, Keith Jarrett, and Herbie Hancock. “Of course, I loved Oscar Peterson and Art Tatum, but those four were the ones I really focused on.”
After settling into the jazz studies program at Rutgers’ Mason Gross School for the Arts, Bianculli organized the New Brunswick Jazz Collective with organist Radam Schwartz and bassist Russell Branca. They put on once-a-month shows at the long-gone Loft on Albany Street, and also coordinated a lunch-time series at the Ledge on George Street, a lounge for commuter students at Rutgers.
“Every month we’d have six hours of music, and all kinds of great people were a part of it; [trombonist] Frank Lacy, [vibraphonist] Steve Nelson, [drummer] Ralph Peterson, and [vocalist] Jeanie Bryson were all part of that scene,” he says, noting that all of these people have gone on in the world of jazz to forge their own careers with their own recording contracts.
Although he sometimes plays at the Americana Diner on Route 130 in East Windsor and is a regular at the Italian Bistro, you can also catch him playing yoga music a few times each month at Soma Yoga Center, run by wife, Bobbie Ellis, and located on Raritan Avenue (Route 27) in Highland Park. There he provides background music for continuum sessions, a form of yoga that incorporates elements of dance.
“Bobbie brings a lot to my life with her yoga practice,” Bianculli says, who married her in 2007. “What I do with her classes — I mainly play keyboards, because we don’t have a piano in the [upstairs] yoga studios — I use a variety of textures and sounds and sometimes use recorded sounds, but I don’t play any songs. It’s totally improvised, based on what’s happening in the room. It’s called embodied meditation with live music,” he says.
Ellis’ blend of yoga, dance, and movement is something she has been developing in her yoga teaching practice. “It’s really something that she has specialized in over a long period of time, combining yoga, movement, meditation, and sound. It’s totally changed her view of yoga. We’ve even recorded a CD of that kind of music,” Bianculli says.
That led to Ellis and Bianculli being invited to prestigious yoga centers in California, the Kripalu Yoga Center in upstate New York, the Omega Center, and to a number of yoga centers in New York City to present embodied meditation to classes.
“She does this once a week at her studio without music or with recorded music,” he explains, noting when their respective schedules permit he joins her live for special classes and plays keyboards.
These days, Bianculli — who still hasn’t recorded an album under his own name but enjoys a reputation as a jazz pianist and teacher beyond the borders of New Jersey — divides his time between the Italian Bistro, other live gigs around central New Jersey, his wife’s yoga studio, and a half-dozen piano and voice students.
He has also recorded and can be heard on albums by Bryson, Doris Spears, Christy Baron, and his former student, Sandy Zio. One of Bianculli’s compositions, “Bittersweet,” sung by Bryson, is on a compilation album, “The Best of Telarc Jazz,” where he is featured alongside the likes of Joe Williams, Count Basie, and other titans in the jazz world.
“The piano and voice coaching, that’s only come about in the last 10 years or so,” he says, adding, “I have a wide variety of students; one is seven years old, and I have another two students who are in their 80s.”
There is no changing his major now.
John Bianculli, Italian Bistro Bar, 441 Highland Avenue, Highland Park. Solo piano on Fridays, jazz duos and trios on Saturdays, 6:30 to 10 p.m. No cover charge. 732-640-1959.
Bernards Inn, 27 Mine Brook Road, Bernardsville. Thursdays, 6:30 to 10 p.m. 908-766-0002.
For performance schedule and other information, go to www.JohnBianculliMusic.com.