Gaffney, Accompany Man : Jazz: The pianist is best known for backing up top singers. But tonight and Saturday in Huntington Beach, he’ll spend some time center stage.
Most musicians yearn for the day they’ll finally bask in the spotlight. Pianist George Gaffney treasures his life just outside it. As one who makes his living primarily as an accompanist, Gaffney knows that whenever he’s on stage, people are looking at someone else.
Yet there he sits, spine-straight at the piano, occasionally leaning his head and torso forward, absorbed in the music, playing luscious chords and delicious melody lines that make whichever singer he’s working with sound that much better.
When it comes to accompanists, Gaffney represents the state of the art. Just look at his list of credits: Sarah Vaughan (from 1980-90), Peggy Lee, Ernie Andrews and countless others, including Engelbert Humperdink, for whom he’s currently musical director.
“Sitting behind a singer is not, in my mind, taking a back seat at all,” said Gaffney, who appears tonight and Saturday at Restaurant Kikuya in Huntington Beach, both with a trio and with singer Jack Wood. “When it’s right, there’s no boss and no employee. It’s just making music and off we go. There’s the melody and that’s theirs to sing, so I don’t have to worry about that. I can plant these other gardens, play all these other things. That’s what I like.
“The accompanist’s job is to help bring off what the artist is doing, make them as comfortable as possible while being true to their musical values at the same time,” he continued, speaking by phone from the home in Las Vegas he shares with his wife, singer Lisa Nobumoto, and their 8-month-old son, Ngaio.
“It’s satisfying for me to understand an artist psychologically so that I can convey what they want, not be a stumbling block,” he said. “An artist’s conception is a very personal thing, and to be able to plug into it takes a certain amount of savvy, intuition. It does include experience.”
An open-minded sort, Gaffney said he likes all types of singers and that he’s never worked in a non-musical situation. Some might think, for example, that accompanying Humperdink in Vegas and other showrooms for nightly versions of his big hit, “Release Me,” could be a slow drag.
“Engelbert’s an astute singer with a lot of natural talent,” he said. “And he knows every song. At sound checks, we’ve gone through hundreds of standards, both better and lesser.”
As one might expect, working with Vaughan was an exceptional experience. “It was like soaring with the eagles,” Gaffney said. “She allowed complete musical freedom, given the context. You can hear her on record, but to really hear her, you had to sit next to her on the piano bench, feel the floor vibrate as she sang, hear her fill the room.”
Lee is the “Queen of nuance,” Gaffney said, adding that he loves working with Andrews and he regards Woods as a “wonderful singer.” “Jack has a keen sense of pitch, solid control, a fine repertoire and great taste in musicians, and I’m not talking about his using me.”
Gaffney was born in New York, started piano studies at 10, then turned to trombone. After service in the Marine Corps from 1958-61, he returned to Manhattan and the piano, using the instrument first as a tool for arranging, then to back singers.
In the mid-'60s, he was musical director of a Playboy Club in Lake Geneva, Wis., where he first met Vaughan. In 1970, he worked with Buddy Greco and moved to Los Angeles, where he lived until relocating to Las Vegas last year.
Though he doesn’t work that much as a pianist, he also finds deep satisfaction in that aspect of his craft--which he’ll undertake at Kikuya, opening each set with a few numbers before being joined by Wood.
“I try to take tunes that have been done many, many times and make them my own,” said Gaffney who listed Bud Powell, Horace Silver, Bill Evans, Tommy Flanagan and Hank Jones as major influences. “And I believe that in each solo, you can play a line or a chord that has the effect of pulling the carpet out from under the listener, that will give some deeper emotional meaning to it all.”
His concept is bare bones. “ ‘I believe this is a good song, I hope you like it,’ ” he said as if talking to a small, intimate gathering. “That’s basically it.”
* George Gaffney plays with a trio and with singer Jack Wood tonight and Saturday at Restaurant Kikuya, 8052 Adams Ave., Huntington Beach. 8:30 p.m. to 1 a.m. No cover, no minimum. (714) 536-6665.