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During his more than two decades of playing music, Jon Wirtz has performed with a slew of local acts, including the Sputter, LSW, Matt Morris, Angie Stevens and John Common, who encouraged the thirty-year-old pianist to finally pull the trigger on his solo piano album.
Wirtz narrowed the track list for his solo debut, Sea Level, from a hundred-plus tunes down to eight. Among his own compositions, he included an intriguing take on Soundgarden's "Black Hole Sun" and re-harmonized the usually bubbly "Someday My Prince Will Come" — which has been covered countless times by jazz artists — to make it a bit darker than other versions. We spoke with Wirtz recently about playing in both the jazz and rock realms and about Sea Level.
Westword: Since you've played in both jazz and rock groups, have you been applying jazz stuff to rock stuff and vice versa?
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Yeah, definitely. Playing with those bands has helped bring some of those elements into a jazz context, as far as not playing so heady, like intellectual — because it's really easy to do, especially when you're playing solo. It's really easy to get wrapped up in your head too much. Actually, one of the guys from those bands was listening to some of the rough takes, and he brought up that point.
That was really the turning point in the whole sessions of recording, that I went back in the studio really quick afterwards with a whole new mindset of like, "Yeah, get out of your head and remember that it's more important to get some soul in there than to play thirteenth chords or something." So the rock stuff has helped get more emotion and stuff into this, and this has helped to get me more ready for anything on the fly with those bands.
Is the album named after one your songs, "Running at Sea Level"?
No, it was kind of the opposite, I guess. I just liked the phrase "running at sea level." Aside from that, the whole reason I started playing solo, which was like four years ago, it was a period of time where I was having trouble booking and keeping bandmembers, and I just came to the realization that the only guarantee of steady work, really, ever, is if I learn to play solo.
So the whole idea was learn to sound good with just you and a piano, and you know you'll be able to play with other people. It's hard to do everything yourself, and it's easier to play in a band situation, I think. The metaphor, I guess, was a stretch, but I think of the Olympic athletes who come to Colorado Springs to train there, and then they go to sea level and it's just cake.