Jazz pianist Steve Christofferson says he was in elementary school when he discovered his parents’ LP jazz collection. Long an accompanist for singers (think Nancy King), he’s just at home with his own music. Recently, we chatted about his guitar-influenced playing and his desire not to be too polished.
Are you a different player in 2014 than you were when you first expressed music?
In some ways, for sure. In other ways, not. What has probably remained consistent is it’s never been my goal to put a high polish on my music. I learned how to do that playing guitar. My influences were the rock ‘n roll players of the mid-1960s and they were very steeped in the blues. I’m talking about English guitar players mostly. I wanted to learn to play like them. I started to play guitar by ear, very much in the blues and rock tradition. When I learned piano later on, I wanted to retain that expressive vocabulary in the guitar. It’s difficult to translate to the piano; you can’t grab the string and you don’t strum the strings in a piano. It’s mechanical compared to a guitar, but I still wanted to play with that grit and that blues vernacular.
So, you’ve been successful in…
I think I’ve been successful in not being too polished. That’s what I’ve retained. I know I’ve changed in that I keep trying to play less, but I want to stretch myself. Stretch really has to do a lot with trying to be a disciplined pianist, not trying to play too much. But it’s fun. There are a million piano players in the world, but all I want to do is have an identifiable sound of my own. I guess I want to make it talk like the guitar. If I had to compete with every pianist who can make the piano sing, that’s not my thing. I do want to make it talk. I work with singers, so if my piano talks, it might just be a good foil.
You take a walk and come upon Art Tatum, Hank Jones and Erroll Garner; you can only talk to one — which one?
Erroll Garner. I love all those guys, but I think Erroll Garner. What I love about Erroll Garner — I’m very curious to know how Erroll Garner acquired his personal style. You know, all those guys listened to all types of music but I hear that so much in Erroll Garner’s. To me, he ended up with the most fascinating style and I’d be curious to see what led up to that.
You’ve played internationally, but what’s a country you’ve never been to and you’d like to go give them some jazz?
I’ll tell you where I’d like to go: South Africa. They don’t need me to bring music down there, but I’ve always wanted to go because of the photos I saw when I was a kid. I was into marine biology and I’d seen a lot of photographs taken around the Cape Town area and the coast line. The color in those photos, the light is very special down there. It has to be a thrilling place where the ocean is full of great white sharks and it’s so far away from any place I’ve been. That’s the place I’ve always wanted to go to see and feel the atmosphere.
Where will Steve Christofferson be in ten years?
Probably right here trying to fix up this fixer-upper that I’ve been trying to fix up the last 10 - 15 years out in Washougal, Washington. I’ve been out here with my wife and kids the last 22 years. It’s a fantastic place to come home to after I do a gig in Portland. A half hour that’s good for de-stressing; there are no stop lights. I’m very comfortable. I like to travel. I’ve traveled the world and played everywhere and played with a lot of different people, but I don’t expect to move my residence from where it is. I have so much to do out here!