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Jazz pianist absorbs aural tradition, then passes it along

Monday, November 5, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CST; updated 12:42 p.m. CST, Thursday, November 8, 2012
Zane Omohundro, an improvisational jazz piano player, teacher from Minneapolis and a graduate of Webster University in St. Louis, plays with other Columbia musicians during Broadway Brewery's Jazz Jam on Oct. 23.

COLUMBIA — The living room goes quiet as Zane Omohundro stops playing the piano and looks up: "Do you like Harry Potter?"

An easy smile crosses his face as he moves into the movie's enchanting theme song. But it's not exactly the same.

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As Omohundro blends in improvised chords, the music suddenly has more body. He has lifted the melody with a jazz interpretation.

"Music is something that helps you express yourself," he said. "Music can be sad or happy or fun or boring, kind of depending on whatever I’m feeling."

Jazz is a way of life for Omohundro, 26. He keeps it around him all day, composing pieces on a 1922 Steinway grand piano, teaching jazz improvisation and jamming with other musicians. On the side, he looks for gigs in town, such as the jazz evenings at Murry's.

Broadway Brewery has opened a new stage, which gave Omohundro and fellow players a place to set up a jazz jam last month.

Teaching improvisation is his strength

Omohundro's chief occupation is teaching jazz to advanced students who want to learn improvisation and composition.

The key, he said, is showing students a different way to practice. He gives them a chord to work with and asks them to improvise around the chord as a starting point.

That way, patterns and rhythms they practice will naturally find a place in their own compositions.

"You put the structure back in improvisation," Omohundro said. "I'll say, 'I don't want you to go outside of this chord or scale; I want you to limit yourself to this certain rhythm of notes.'"

To make the leap to jazz, a musician needs some knowledge of the piano. All of his students had at least three to five years of experience before they came to him for lessons.

Some of Omohundro's students have taken classical piano lessons; others are self-taught. Because backgrounds are so different, he alters his teaching strategies to fit the student's ability.

"I help them add new things to their palatte, so when they are improvising they have more options to draw from – kind of like adding to their bag of tricks," he said. "Improvising is a freely expressive thing."

For students who have studied classical works, it's more about letting them experiment, he said. For those who learned on their own, the process involves filling knowledge gaps and explaining things theoretically.

Omohundro also learns from other piano instructors, in sort of a lesson trade. Robin Anderson, a choral director, is teaching him voice fundamentals, she said, and he is giving her jazz instruction.

"He’s very patient and clear in his instructions, and he is just constantly performing and being involved and honing his craft," Anderson said. "He’s got a very neat sound, and I don’t mean neat like, 'wow, surprising.' It’s just a very clean-cut, refined jazz sound."

Improvisation vs. classical training

Omohundro grew up around music, sitting on the stairs as a child and watching a technician tweak the family piano.

"We always had a piano in our house. It was something I played around on as a kid," he said.

In high school, he played percussion in the concert band, piano in the jazz ensemble and took private classical piano lessons at home. All of these music opportunities helped him learn the techniques behind jazz, he said.

"A lot of it was creating it on my own by doing a lot of listening and imitating," he said.

Instead of sheet music filled with notes, jazz musicians start with clusters of chords and use the extra room on the page for improvisation.

Anderson has a different approach when she teaches. In her lessons it is important to learn elements of both improvisation and classical styles, she said.

"I think a lot of people fail to recognize that improvisation, like all of the fundamental techniques that you use in classical music, come into play in jazz," Anderson said.

Jazzing up the community

One Tuesday last month, Omohundro sat in the warm glow of Broadway Brewery's stage lights. He was in the zone, his music meshing with the soft clink of ice in glasses.

One man casually smoked a cigar, legs crossed, fingers drumming on the green tabletop. Another man in a black fedora closed his eyes and rocked his head back and forth to the music.

To listeners, the jazz seemed a sweet tune to pair with a dry wine.

Exchanging subtle glances with the other musicians — a bassist, a saxophonist and a drummer — Omohundro sent signals to keep the music cohesive.

He listened to each sound and shifted his fingers to match it. At the end of a set of songs he stood up, flashed an easy smile and shook hands with the saxophonist.

"Improvisation's about using your knowledge and trying to get the music in your head out on the instrument," he said later.

Scaling mountains

Gabriel Watkins said he couldn't have asked for a better jazz teacher when he went to Omohundro.

"Zane is very laid-back and willing to help," Watkins said. "He does things the right way, and he’s really accurate. When he does things, it’s done cleanly and consistently."

He said the method gave him the confidence to seek advice from other musicians.

“The lesson to be learned is that it’s not about who’s good; it’s about what we can show each other,” he said.

For Omohundro, there is always a need to improve in his craft. A musician can never master everything, he said. Part of the process is composing and creating what hasn't been done before.

"Music is a lifelong pursuit," he said. "Once you get into it, you realize how much you don’t know. Every time you scale a mountain you can see the next mountain you have to overcome."


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