When I met pianist, composer and music instructor Eric Jones to talk him for my podcast, it was at Savannah State University’s Kennedy Fine Arts Building.
In our pre-interview banter, in the hallway, we talked about the first few weeks of spring semester.
And I got the impression that this musician, one of Savannah’s most versatile, never thought that he’d be in that space as a teacher.
“We said we would never teach,” he says. “I remember one of my first piano teachers said ‘That’s the first thing and the last thing that you’ll say.’”
A decade ago, the Moultrie, Ga. native was still in school, getting his bachelors in piano from Armstrong, on his way to Georgia Southern for a masters in composition.
Now, he’s one of the area’s most visible jazz musicians. He gigs with the best players who visit and the best who live here. And he holds down regular shows, too.
These days, you can catch him Tuesdays at The Jazz Corner. He’s been giving private piano lessons for many years.
“All of us end up going into some form of education,” Jones says. “Even if we’re performers, someone’s watching us, someone’s learning from us.”
Maybe he didn’t expect to review lesson plans. But he loves teaching. And professional careers evolve. Jones’ musical evolution actually started with Prince.
“Yeah, to me that was a catalyst,” he says. “I had a cousin who would come to my grandmother’s house and he would play the piano and sing Purple Rain.”
A child of the 80’s, Jones also names Stevie Wonder and “Rockit” era Herbie Hancock as early influences. He didn’t realize Hancock was a jazz musician until he himself got the jazz bug when he started his formal piano education at age 16.
“I’m an improvisational player first and foremost,” he says. “When I do solo piano, because of the fact that I have a couple of hours to play, this is the time to explore.”
So, if you hear him at Ruth’s Chris or somewhere by himself, you might get Maurice Ravel with shades of Bill Evans, “Songs in the Key of Life” with notes of Chick Corea or one of his own disparately-influenced compositions.
He draws on everything from gospel and Michael Jackson to Arnold Shoenberg and American standards. I’d call that pretty versatile.
Then, in the spirit of jazz, he puts it all through the hands of his own experiences.
“I try not to run away from things that are dissonant,” Jones says. “I want music to represent the ups and downs of life.”
He played an original, pensive song for the podcast, “Por la Ciudad.” He also improvised on Frederic Chopin, Jerome Kern, Miles Davis and the unmistakable “Overjoyed.”
In other words, it was a wide playlist! That’s when he’s solo. When he joins others, of course, he’s still versatile. But it’s more of a team effort.
And he’s been on some great teams since he moved here in 2001. Esperanza Spaulding, Keith Miller and Peter Mazza stand out. I also love the album he made with Roger Moss in 2012, “Sentimental Strain.”
“I’ve been fortunate to work some amazing musicians,” he says. “With Roger, there’s a certain openness because he has a beautiful voice. But he also trusts the creative process because it’s improvisation. The music might take us in a different direction.”
I’d love to tell you Jones’ next direction. Perhaps an album soon.
But right now, he has class. He has a show. He has a lesson. He’s on the move.
“I love what I do,” he says. “This is the place I need to be.”