Ira Stein likes to call his music "chamber jazz." The Oakland-based pianist, who brings his trio to Cal State Northridge on Thursday, is often represented--not quite accurately, he thinks--as a New Age artist.
"I can't say I invented the term," said the 30-year-old former resident of Brentwood, "but I think chamber jazz fits what I do really well. Chamber because of the instrumentation and the intimacy of the music, and jazz because of the improvisation and the spontaneity.
"I wanted to stay away from just using the phrase chamber music , which can imply something stiff to people. Of course, I know that some people think of my music as New Age, even if I don't, and that's OK, too. If the label helps sell records, I won't complain, as long as the music's the way I want it to be."
The Ira Stein Trio includes saxophonist Daniel Zinn, cellist Sarah Fiene and Stein playing acoustic piano and synthesized keyboards. The group performs pieces that, regardless of label, reflect Stein's pleasant and easygoing manner.
Violinist Charlie Bisharat, a well-known New Age music sideman, speaks highly of him. "The intimate quality of Ira's music is such that a first listening is fresh and yet somehow familiar. Upon closer examination, we realize that the soul of his music resides in us all."
Stein's musical education began with piano lessons at age 10. While his friends were "constantly breaking arms and legs," he recalled, "I was inside most of the day, playing Bach." His later influences include an eclectic mixture of Debussy, Return to Forever, Keith Jarrett, Oregon, and Emerson, Lake and Palmer.
While still a teen-ager and attending summer classes at Naropa Institute, a liberal arts college in Boulder, Colo., Stein wrote four songs and recorded them with oboist and fellow student Russel Walder as "something we could use to play at things like weddings."
The demo tape turned out to be far more successful than either young musician imagined. Windham Hill Records' creative department heard it and immediately signed the duo. By 1982, their first album was in music stores, featuring the four tunes that Stein had composed.
"Here I was, ready to go to college and attend music school, and already I was a recording artist," Stein said.
Last year, he moved to Narada Records; his initial solo outing, "Carousel," was released in November.
Many of the works he will perform at CSUN will be drawn from that album, which has done consistently well on the New Adult Contemporary charts, and is played frequently on NAC-oriented radio stations.
Although he uses the word jazz in the definition of his music, Stein does not identify himself with the traditional idiom based on blues chord progressions and complicated harmonic improvising.
"I'm more into simplicity," he said. "I'm more into the kind of triadic harmony (three-note chords) that is used in folk music or medieval music. I like complex chords too, but triads seem to resonate better; they seem easier to access for me, and I think for the listener too.
"Most of all, I'm into melody. And since the triadic harmonies are very simple, they seem to let the melodies speak for themselves, without the chords intruding with a different personality. Melodies are extremely important to me, and it's what I think I'm good at. I like the idea that when people leave my concert or listen to one of my albums, they may go away humming one of the songs."
Like other performers in his arena, Stein must be a jack of all trades to sustain it.
"I don't teach or do any other kind of work," he said, "so I pretty much make a living from my royalties and my concerts. The truth is, I don't think I'd have the time to do anything else, being a father to my 3-year-old son, Jonathan, being a booking agent, rehearsing my group and writing music--which I mostly do between 10 at night and 2 in the morning, when everybody's asleep."
The sacrifices, he thinks, are worth the effort. Especially during the emotional high he receives from performances.
"It's very intense, being in front of an audience," he said. "But I love it. After a 90-minute performance, I'm completely exhausted--and I'm hungry again, even if I just ate dinner before the show.
"But I love live performing. I don't even get nervous anymore. I just get off on the intensity of doing my thing, and feeling all that energy going back and forth between me and my audiences. It's the best."
Where and When Who: Ira Stein Trio. Location: Cal State Northridge Student Union Center. Hours: 8 p.m. Thursday. Price: $2 for students, $3 for non-students. Call: (818) 885-3635.