If you have never seen Jonny Peiffer play - stop everything you're doing and go - go now. One of PMAC's piano instructors and PMAC's ONLY Latin Percussion and West African drumming instructor, Jonny plays amazing music from all over the world. Basically, when you're around Jonny and his music - you can't stop moving your body to the beat. From leading his 20+ Afro-Beat Orchestra, SHANGO, to playing his own tunes in Sojoy, a jazz septet, to teaching here at PMAC - Jonny doesn't just make music, he lives it.
PMAC: What is your teaching philosophy?
PMAC: What is your teaching philosophy?
Jonny: I often feel a bit like a guide on a magical journey, one during which at every vista there is always music. I am there to point out all the things there are to notice about each scene. But it’s a choose-your-own-mystery tour - each student is on their own path, I just try to help them find it and show them how to knock away all the obstacles on that path. There are so many paths and they are all wonderful. There is the journey of discovering a particular tradition, like Afro-Cuban music or Detroit Funk and Soul, among many many others. There is the journey of discovering composition, creating original music. There is the journey inward discovering the artist and voice within ourselves, and outward being better able to communicate that voice with the world. There is the journey of becoming better connected with our instrument. And there are even more journeys than these! I travel these paths all the time and I’m happy to bring others with me and show them what there is to see and hear and feel, and hopefully instill a lifelong sense of curiosity and wonder along the way. All of these adventures start with discovering the instrument we have that allows us to communicate this magical language of music.
PMAC: What inspired you to become a musician?
Jonny: I don’t think it ever occurred to me that being a musician was something I had to become that I wasn’t already. I was probably banging out rhythms on my carseat on the way home from the hospital. My father always had his drum-set in the basement and I could play it as soon as I could grasp sticks. My grandparents always had a piano or organ of some sort and as soon as I could reach the keys I could make it speak. And in my teens when I was introduced to performing with rhythm jazz tap dancers and other performing artists by my aunt Drika, it was just further evidence for me that there is nothing I would rather be doing. So when it came time to leave the steady and comfy life of clocking in and clocking out for the much more ambiguous lifestyle of the artist it just felt like a home-coming.
PMAC: Along with piano, you specialize in Latin Percussion and West African Drumming - what led you to that?
Jonny: Dance. By luck of birth I am closely related to jazz tap master Drika Overton - she is my wonderfully talented Auntie D. I first heard her arrangement of Dizzy’s A Night in Tunisia when I was still in the single digits and I was completely mesmerized. She later got me in tap shoes and many of her pieces of choreography were in a Latin vein - she was the first person to teach me about the ‘clave’. And when I would start attending her Portsmouth Percussive Dance Festivals, I would take the West African drum and dance classes. And then she started to have Afro-Cuban artists at the festival, and Brazillian Samba dancers and musicians, and a Peruvian cajon percussionist, and on and on. And I could not get enough. So it is through Drika and dance that lead me to these absolutely joyous art-forms.
PMAC: What is your favorite album of all time? Why?
Jonny: There isn’t just one. Paul Simon’s Graceland was one of the first cds my grandparents owned and I would listen to it all the time when I would visit them as a child. That album is perfect. I used to have Getz/Gilberto on vinyl when I was in high school and I loved the way that recording sounded, and I could sing along with all of Getz’s solos. That album was the first to get me fascinated with solos that were so memorable that you couldn’t help but sing them, and also got me really interested in studio sound and how a recording really effects me. I feel the same way about Wayne Shorter’s Speak No Evil and Oliver Nelson’s Blues and the Abstract Truth - they are like old friends and I can sing along with all of their solos. And the latter two also got me interested in, and ultimately hooked on, composition and arranging, because the music on those records was so different than anything I had heard before. And I have a special place for Joni Mitchell’s Blue. It was the first album I learned pretty much note for note. And it still sounds fresh and raw - somehow that album feels like a really accurate, barely contained documentation of a wild animal, like getting to see a Great Blue Heron up close. It’s still exciting to listen to. And I haven’t even mentioned Nick Drake’s Five Leaves Left <—-except right there. So many!
PMAC: If you were a visual artist, what would your medium be?
Jonny: Sculptor, maybe, or installation artist - I like building things and bringing disparate ideas or disciplines together and seeing how they work together. But it’s funny to think of ourselves in terms of labels or being confined to one or two mediums. I barely identify with being called a musician, because I am also a dancer, and I write poetry, I’ve been a cook and an artisan French-style baker, among other things. My favorite artists are people like Ai Weiwei and Phillipe Petit. Ai is a sculptor, but he also creates massive installations and is involved in architecture, film and photography, and activism in a major way, among other things. (For anyone who has not seen his film Never Sorry, I highly recommend it.) Petit is famous for traversing the Twin Towers back in 1974, but he is also a clown, a playwright/screenwriter, a fine visual artist, a (retired, I think) pick-pocket, and an author, among other things. They are important to us because they do the things we thought could never be done, and they do so in such a light-hearted way. Those are among the lodestars that guide my course as I lower the keel and hoist high the mainsail.