Young prodigies are nothing new to jazz. They’re sprinkled throughout the music’s history. Most of the innovators and giants were involved with music from a young age and were serious about it through their teenage years, but that’s not to say they were childhood virtuosi. Most often, they were on a course that they pursued, and grew steadily. Wunderkinder occasionally surfaced and were greeted with acclaim. But for every one that came along, few grew up to make lasting contributions to the music.
At 29, pianist Justin Kauflin is past the stage where his age is a factor in his virtuosity. For many years now he’s been contributing seriously to the vernacular of jazz, having been a working professional since age 15. Yes, his story is one of an exceptional talent and artistic maturity, but it’s also one of triumph and optimism. He’ll bring that background to his appearance at Pasadena’s Bacchus Kitchen restaurant Sunday night.
Kauflin’s strengths are a concern for touch and dynamics, a willingness to explore harmonic depth, swing, and a romantic’s experiential hunger toward repertory. Kauflin can take a simple motif like the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life” and make a swinging concerto out of it.
The subtext of Kauflin’s trajectory as an artist is that at 3 he was diagnosed with a serious eye problem. After 11 eye surgeries, Kauflin was fully blind at 11 years old. Still, he excelled at music and he excelled in school. After college he lived in New York City for two years and navigated the city and its subway system alone — a working definition of genius.
Born to a Silver Springs, Md., family of five siblings, Justin began fooling with the piano at age 3. His family was musical and it wasn’t long before he took lessons in earnest. “I had six or seven great teachers,” Kauflin recalls, from his home in Virginia. “And it was a great atmosphere for learning.” His early training was grounded in the classics; he came to jazz in high school.
Kauflin credits his teacher Liz Barnes with exposing him to the music of piano jazz icon Bill Evans. “I heard the record of ‘Here’s That Rainy Day,’ from the ‘Alone’ album,” he recounts, with a tinge of lingering amazement. “I didn’t understand everything that he was doing at the time but I knew it was great. And I loved that he was doing all these things with standard material.”
Accordingly, Kauflin then investigated the respective works of the contemporary jazz triumvirate indebted to Evans: Keith Jarrett, Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock. But he hasn’t stopped there, and the literature of jazz history is an ongoing concern to Kauflin. A brief discussion of the paterfamilias of jazz piano, Art Tatum points out the fact that for all of his virtuosity, Tatum’s pre-bop, arpeggio style sounds a little dated. “Yeah,” counters Kauflin, “but his harmony is still as fresh as it ever was. It’s dense and it’s rich!”
At Bacchus, bassist Katie Thiroux and drummer Matt Witek will join Kauflin. “Whenever I play on the West Coast,” he offers, “I ask for them because I know the music’s going to swing!”
Blessed by his musical associations, more than one great musician has extended to Kauflin over the years — including Clark Terry and Quincy Jones. “One of the most joyful events in my life,” Kauflin says, “was when Clark called to tell me that Quincy was taking me on the road.”
Another was the late Mulgrew Miller (1955-2013), known to occupy the top tier of New York pianists. “I met him when I was a student at William Patterson College,” Justin recalls. “He was quiet,” Kauflin reflects, “incredibly encouraging and kind to me and very humble. He knew he was the top dog but he let his music speak for him. Mulgrew continues to be a big inspiration to me.”
Humility and gratitude are bywords with Kauflin, who credits his Christian faith with helping him make his path in life. “Faith is at the center of my life,” he says. “It gives me perspective on life and music. You have to always be mindful of what you have and be grateful for it.”
What: Justin Kauflin Trio
Where: Bacchus’ Kitchen, 1384 E. Washington Blvd., Pasadena.
When: Sunday, Jan. 24, 9 p.m.
More info: (626) 594-6377
KIRK SILSBEE writes about jazz and culture for Marquee.