Eric Van James

 

An accomplished pianist with a long history in music, Van James takes time out to illustrate the value of that tuition and his cover of 'Deep Purple' is intricately executed.
 

'When the deep purple falls over sleepy garden walls, and the stars begin to twinkle in the sky, in the mist of a memory you wander back to me, breathing my name with a sigh…' These are verses from the original piano composition Deep Purple by Peter DeRose (which was so popular it inspired the name of the British rock band), and its beauty is such that it's easy to understand why an accomplished artist like Eric Van James might want to cover it almost a century later. His version is informed by the concept of the song itself, though much as the lyrics portend, he is 'wandering back to this twilit classic, breathing its name with a sigh'. The distance accumulated over the years shows in the soulful sentimentality of his rendition, which exhibits a reflective deliberation to gild every note with a singular dignity. Independent reporter Alexis Adams recently caught up with the Eric Van James to talk about his history as a pianist, the success of his current single and plans for the coming years.

ALEXIS: Let's just get this out in the open - what's the craziest thing that's happened to you in your music career?
ERIC: Conducting my adult students (the Redwood Community Chorus) during a Christmas concert at Rafters Grille & Brewery in San Rafael, California. It was a challenging fiasco! This was an evening performance: The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire), Jingle Bell Rock, and several carols were on the program. We also had a beautiful Renaissance piece in the repertoire, ‘Non Nobis Domine’ by William Byrd. And I had the audacity to perform it. The atmosphere was super festive. People were drinking, and it was really loud. And there was a short in our PA system which produced a loud buzz! These things made it very difficult to hear and establish pitch, which - needless to say - is crucial for a vocal ensemble. Since that didn’t happen, the chorus was off key from beginning to end. But who really cared, right? It was sacred music, sung in Latin. No one could understand it anyway. Nevertheless, the students and I were all glad when it was over.

ALEXIS: Your song ‘Deep Purple’ is receiving a positive listener response on radio. What was your initial reaction when you first heard your song playing on radio?
ERIC: I was very flattered and extremely excited to learn ‘Deep Purple’ was on the playlist of five radio stations! Two of them are overseas, in England and Australia. Actually, I have yet to hear my song on the radio. I’ll be thrilled of course when I finally get to hear it.

ALEXIS: What was the inspiration behind your debut radio single?
ERIC: Well, the objective was to make some decent recordings for a music portfolio; a ‘sample CD’ that would be good enough for me to get gigs! I’ve always loved playing ‘Deep Purple', so I recorded it. I had no idea it would take off the way it has, becoming a hit on ReverbNation.com and winning The Akademia Music Award for Best Song / Instrumental - Jazz Piano. Wow!

ALEXIS: It is often said that great art arises from difficult experience. Is there something in your life experience thus far that you would describe as the ‘catalyst’ or ‘fuel’ for your desire to create music?
ERIC: Yes. I was in a life transition when ‘Deep Purple’ came about. I needed a place to live, and my younger sister was kind enough to let me move into her house. My sister was having a tough time, though. She was grieving over her husband, who recently died of liver cancer. Anyway, I helped out around the house and walked her dogs. Whatever I did to help, my sister certainly was a greater help to me. Interestingly, her husband was a guitarist. He had a nice music room where he studied and practiced. Well, I was able to put my piano in there. That’s where I played and recorded ‘Deep Purple!’ Funny how life works, huh? If I never moved to my sister’s place, I probably wouldn’t have been motivated to record or perform the song the way I did. Perhaps the spirit of my sister’s husband gave me a nudge...

ALEXIS: How would you characterize yourself as an artist/musician? (Ex. Down-to-earth, serious, fun-loving, complicated…)
ERIC: I think it’s a bit of a mixture. I’m a down-to-earth musician who takes music very seriously. I’m in awe of music; I’ve got great respect for the discipline. Yet I also have a fun-loving side, and that happy-go-lucky nature is evident in many of my performances. I love to entertain - it’s part of my personality - but as an artist I can be as serious as the music or environment calls for.

 

ALEXIS: What has your experience been like working with the other people on your team?
ERIC: ‘Deep Purple’ was a solo effort. However, I do lead two bands - a trio and a quartet. My band members are good people and terrific musicians. Most of the guys are more experienced than myself, and I’ve learned from them. There have been a few challenging episodes, but it’s been a pleasurable experience overall.

ALEXIS: Did you come from a musical background? Are there other musicians in your family?
ERIC: I don’t come from a musical background per se. My mother took piano lessons when she was a girl. And I was told my father played saxophone when he was young. My little sister is an accomplished dancer/choreographer and dance teacher. She played flute and clarinet in junior high and sang soprano in the choir in high school. But I’m the only professional musician in my family.  I’ve had a strong artistic inclination ever since I was about 10-years-old; read poetry and wrote my own poems.  I definitely owe my sense of music appreciation to my father.  Daddy had a nice record collection.  Great music was played daily in our house: Handel, Mozart, Beethoven, Verdi, Chopin, and Tchaikovsky; Duke Ellington (he was my father’s favorite!), Count Basie, Jimmie Lunceford, Stan Getz & Charlie Byrd (performing songs by Jobim), The Lettermen . . . and some terrific, contemporary organ music.  Playing a musical instrument, on the other hand, I owe strictly to my mother.  When I was eighteen, Mom co-signed for me to buy my first piano—a Kimball studio-upright.  We bought it at Sherman-Clay in Oakland.  And that’s where I took piano lessons.   

ALEXIS: What do you find most rewarding about being an artist? What do you find most challenging?
ERIC: The most rewarding thing; creating music and sharing it with others. The most challenging thing; delivering a fabulous performance every time! That’s a very high standard to meet, and it probably can’t be realized. I think it is a worthwhile ideal, though. It helps to push you, and enables you to maintain a kind of 'edge' with your playing.

ALEXIS: Who are your role models in music?
ERIC: The primary source of my inspiration as a musical performer are The Four Tops (Levi Stubbs, Abdul 'Duke' Fakir, Renaldo 'Obie' Benson, and Lawrence Payton). I love The Four Tops! Their music changed my life. Duke, the last original member, is one of my mentors. But I’ve had many role models: fabulous music theory/history/ear training professors, choral conductors and artistic directors, and my one-and-only private piano teacher, Steve Cosgrove. As relates to music education, Professor Wendell Hanna of San Francisco State University is my most important mentor. I’m very fond of Dr. Hanna. She respects me and has faith in my music ability... to the point where I was designated her teaching assistant for a music education class held during the summer. This, along with Dr. Hanna’s wonderful letter of recommendation made a lasting impression.

ALEXIS: Describe your best or most memorable performance.
ERIC: On March eighteenth, 2014 I performed during an open mic at Bobby G’s Pizzeria in Berkeley, California. I played two tunes: ‘Summertime,’ and an original called ‘Boogie Blues.’ Performed ‘em back-to-back (‘Summertime’ had a syncopated-groove).  I felt very good, and just let things roll.  It was a wonderful performance.  Hey, I can be pretty critical of my playing.  But everything clicked . . . almost without effort.  I was “in the pocket,” so to speak.  The musical energy was felt by the band, the crowd—everyone that night!  (The video was posted to YouTube and Facebook: Eric Van James & Friends, ‘Summertime, Boogie Blues.’)  It is my best, “live” recorded performance.

ALEXIS: What advice would you give to young, aspiring artists out there who are unsure and need guidance?
ERIC: I would say this; always come from a good place with your art. Be true to yourself and your audience. Know that you have something special to offer and never worry about competition. Be open to ideas. Learn from other artists, especially those who are better or more experienced than yourself. Think about your music! Continue to develop your craft, even during the tough times in your life. Music - as with all art - is meant to be shared. Sharing is a reflection of our humanity; it connects us to the higher spirit of the universe. As long as you come from a good place with your music, you can’t go wrong.

ALEXIS: What's next for you as an artist? Is there a new single in the works? If so, what can you tell us about it?
ERIC: I plan to make an album. It will contain original pieces and cover songs; vocal and instrumental with my own arrangements. ‘Three’s-A-Crowd Blues’ will be on the album. I wrote it about six months ago and I really like it. I think it has the potential to be a hit single. We’ll see what happens...

ALEXIS: Thank you so much for talking with us, Eric. We look forward to hearing great news of your career in the coming days and wish you the best of luck as things accelerate!

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