Adam Lipsky writes, plays distinctive original music

— Photo by Susan Safford

As some of his role models, local musician Adam Lipsky counts names that are not exactly household words. Among them are James P. Johnson, a jazz piano innovator; the Rev. James Cleveland, originator of the modern gospel sound; and Harry Partch, maverick composer and musical instrument inventor who experimented with speak-singing. Although these three musicians broke ground in very different genres, the common denominator was a willingness to stretch the musical boundaries. Mr. Lipsky will perform this Sunday, April 15, at 4 pm at the Hebrew Center in Vineyard Haven.

Mr. Lipsky’s interests as a composer lie in similarly forging his own way. Although his style would be broadly defined as jazz, there are elements of a number of other musical styles, and he hasn’t restricted himself even within the jazz genre.

“I’m trying to achieve that middle ground,” Mr. Lipsky said. The middle ground that he’s referring to is somewhere between structure and improvisation. “It’s not total free improvisation,” he said. “And not total set classical. It’s a combination.”

Mr. Lipsky will soon release his second CD of original compositions titled Hee Hawk (also the name of his band). The songs are all-instrumental arrangements that feature Mr. Lipsky on piano, Nina Violet on viola, Steve Tully playing various saxophones, Niko Ewing on electric guitar, Max Judelson on bass, and Mike Marcinowski on drums. The songs were recorded by Anthony Esposito at The Pit Stop in Oak Bluffs.

Although the seven songs all feature frequent departures from the melody, and solo sequences, there is a consistency. The often haunting melodies tie the compositions together. Mr. Lipsky is an exceptional pianist and he has gathered a group of very talented musicians – both locals and imports, for his latest CD. His previous release was a solo effort recorded at the Old Whaling Church by Paul Thurlow.

The first track, “Cover that Man” and the song “Dress Hips” are fairly straight-forward jazz. The second song, a mournful tune called “Wake,” has a bit of New Orleans flavor. “Singing Partner,” perhaps the catchiest tune, has almost no jazz influence and is more of a folk tune. It’s upbeat, yet with a melancholic feel, and it features some bouncy sax solos. The beautiful “Emerald” is the most reminiscent of a classical composition with some gypsy music elements. Overall, Mr. Lipsky’s music is highly original and very accessible with cross-genre appeal.

While all of the compositions offer the stimulation of improvisational jazz, there is also a hypnotic and intimate quality. “I would like to think that it’s not cerebral, that it’s visceral,” Mr. Lipsky said. “That it would make people move and feel and have soul in the same way jazz music does.”

Mr. Lipsky moved to the Vineyard from Arlington when he was nine years old. Although his father, the playwright Jon Lipsky who died last year, played a little banjo, Adam really found his early musical inspiration in family friends. Pianist and piano innovator David Stanwood and jazz saxophonist Stan Strickland were both friends of the late playwright, and composer Steve Cummings was a collaborator on some his projects.

Mr. Lipsky started taking piano lessons with Lisa Rohn shortly after moving to the Vineyard and focused on classical music at first. Will Luckey was another of his teachers. In high school he got interested in jazz and started doing some improvising. Some of his early influences were rhythm and blues greats James Booker, Dr. John, and the aforementioned Rev. Cleveland. He also found inspiration in the music of jazz innovators Andrew Hill, Randy Weston, and Muhal Richard Abrams.

Although Mr. Lipsky played keyboards briefly for a rock band in high school, he leaned towards jazz, soul, and rhythm and blues — all of which he has incorporated in his original music. His classical training is still in evidence, especially in his ability to compose full arrangements.

Towards the end of his high school days, Mr. Lipsky started taking composition lessons from Brian Hughes with the intention of applying to a conservatory. “It’s the first time I tried to compose with a capital C,” he said. “There had been nothing with that level of intent before.”

Instead of moving on to a conservatory, Mr. Lipsky studied piano and composition at Hampshire College. After graduation, Mr. Lipsky returned to Martha’s Vineyard. He has played with a number of local musicians — Phil DaRosa, Eric Luening, Mike Martin, Eric Johnson, Jim Parr and, most recently Jill Zadeh. He frequently shares the stage with singer and multi-instrumentalist Nina Violet. However, his primary focus since moving back has been his writing.

His compositions often come about in an organic way. “I spend a lot of time playing over songs that I know and elaborating on them,” he explained. “Spending enough time at the piano so that things come up. I’m always playing for fun or to work on something.”

The songs on his upcoming CD were all written within the last few months with the exception of a couple of tunes from his first CD, recorded in 2008. So far Mr. Lipsky has performed his own compositions only a handful of times at The Pit Stop and the Chilmark Community Center. His only full ensemble engagement was in Amherst earlier this year.

He is currently toying with the idea of incorporating shadow puppetry into his performances. It would seem a natural fit since many of his songs have almost a narrative feel to them.

Speaking on one of his influences, Mr. Lipsky commented, “In Appalachian music there’s so much drama. It’s very emotional. Someone singing a cappella is very moving. I try to get that same sort of drama in my songs.”

Music: Adam Lipsky, 4 pm, Sunday, April 15, M.V. Hebrew Center, Center Street, Vineyard Haven.