Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Jazz pianist Paul Tillotson is here for the winter

Express Staff Writer

Paul Tillotson. Courtesy photo

Paul Tillotson already has the patience he needs to be a father—he spent 20 plus years nurturing a happenstance switch from trumpet to piano into a coast-to-coast career as a jazz musician.

And, he's not afraid to be goofy either, something handy for new dads and a part of his personality that's left an imprint on people who've seen him play.

A Boise Weekly writer once wrote of Tillotson that he "leers over the ivories like a horny teenager. He dances, he prances, he makes funny faces, he laughs and howls and sticks out his tongue. He squeezes and tweaks the audience like a balloon animal and in return, they do anything he asks. They compete in sing-alongs like toddlers at a Barney matinee. They make monkey grunts and they screech like parrots. And remember, this is a jazz crowd and Tillotson is a jazz player."

During this interview, which was to announce his return with his trio for a 15th season to the Sun Valley Resort where he will play all winter, what Tillotson wants to talk about first is one of his favorite performances of the year, a party filled with daughter Charlotte's 18-month-old peers, proudly leading them and their parents in Christmas carols.

"That's what it's all about. She knows how to clap after solos," he said with pride.

It's just what he was looking for when he found out he and wife, Janie, were expecting.

Then living in New York, the Boise native decided he needed easier access to other parents and a place that felt like community.

"After 18 months of parenting in [the valley], I feel like this is my community."

It was one of the few deliberate decisions that Tillotson has made in his music career. After his brother convinced him that the trumpet was too hard and to take on the piano, he tinkered along joyfully for years, putting himself in the company of jazz legends and asking to sit in.

He found a mentor in Gene Harris.

"We used to hang out after hours in the bar after Gene's gig in the lobby of the Idanha Hotel," he recalled. "We talked about everything from philosophy, relationships, politics, adventure, life, love, to music. By example, he instilled in me his love of musical details, love of life and how these things reflect in music. He helped me understand that the path to great music is peaceful, fun and rewarding."

Over the years, Tillotson has played with Harris, Lynn Seaton, Vernel Fournier, Mike Merritt and more, and appeared on Letterman and Conan O'Brien's nighttime talk shows. He's performed in jazz festivals across the globe.

Most of his experiences have come not so much from an ambition to hit a financial pinnacle, but of meeting a personal one.

"My mission is to play great improvised music, deeply touching the souls of audiences around the world, spreading the joy that is created while making music that comes from love."

And to mentor the same way he was mentored, by asking to, and offering, to just jam. He said he's learned "to practice the things you don't know—then you'll grow."

"Playing four hours a day five days a week is different from practicing. You don't want to hear me practice!"

For him, music in its rawest form is that which occurs in a moment during a performance, when you know you've hit a special stride.

"Those are the things you can't do the same again, but they're the forward movements that keep you working. Getting those glimpses, it's still a thrill."

Tillotson said he realized he had a fan base here after playing a few times and then being sidelined with a broken back. More than 100 fans signed a petition to bring him back. He continues to pack the room when his gigs are announced around the valley. A trial run this summer at Trail Creek was a success.

He started a scholarship at Borah High School in Boise that gives a music student with at least a 3.0 grade-point average who writes a winning essay to spend the day with Tillotson to jam and to earn some money for school.

"The music is staying alive through these kids," he said. "I don't try to teach them, I just try to be an example. I surround myself with the best around and that's how I rise. I have an amazing Rolodex of players living and dead who made me who I am.

"There's no magic pill, it's not a particular song. It's all about experience."

Doing his thing

Where: Duchin Lounge

When: Today, Dec. 21, through Jan. 1 (excluding Dec. 25), 5:15-8:45 p.m.

Then Tuesday through Saturdays starting Jan. 3, from 4:30-8:30 p.m. throughout the ski season.

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