Pianist/composer Luke Celenza bridges gap between jazz and pop with “Back & Forth”

celenzaPianist and composer Luke Celenza speaks about the music on his independently released debut album, Back & Forth, with a clarity and equanimity that defies his young age. He recently turned 21 years old, and it has already been almost 10 years since he was accepted into the Manhattan School of Music (MSM) Pre-College Jazz Division. Additionally, Grammy and two-time Latin Grammy winner Dominican pianist and composer, Michel Camilo was a friend of the family and a key influence in his development.

Such credentials might spark a young musician to intently compose complex music. However on Back & Forth, the 12 original compositions, including two three-song suite-like pieces, often sound deceptively simple — and for a good reason.

“When I write a song,” Celenza said in a news release, “I’m thinking about a groove, what sounds good and feels good — and I’m thinking about the form. I’m thinking about pop songs. I’m trying to be lyrical and melodic. And most of it is in 4/4 [time] whether that’s ‘River Rhodes’ which has more of a backbeat thing or ‘For Charles’ (Charles Flores, bassist), which is straight ahead.” Regardless of the conceptual notions or musical structures binding the music, Celenza’s interest is to connect his band with his audience. In turn, much of the music was written with the idea of having Joshua Crumbly on bass, Jimmy Macbride on drums and Lucas Pino on saxophones.

Meanwhile, family friend Michel Camilo remained close throughout, offering advice and passing on to Celenza his own experiences as an artist and professional musician. “Michel was my dad’s patient for 20 years. They knew each other even before me, since the early 80s,” he recalls. “My dad has been a fan of Michel forever, Michel and Sandra (Camilo’s wife) are great family friends, we would have dinner parties and he would play and I’d sit right next to him on the piano bench. That was my introduction to jazz.”

“It has been so inspiring and refreshing to see how a promising young talent like Luke thrives and succeeds by seriously committing to develop his improvisational and composing skills while studying and researching the jazz tradition,” Camilo says. So while he was never formally Celenza’s teacher, “over the years we had sessions where we discussed subjects like texture, nuance, touch, groove, timing, piano technique, correct posture, telling your story and structural compositional writing,” Camilo recalls. “Luke brings to the table a fresh sound and an uncommon restrained maturity in his music.”

For Celenza, the secret is hidden in plain sight. “Jazz was once the pop music of the day,” he says. “If the pop music of today is in no way improvisatory, then that’s the missing element and something I want to bring back. Good music is good music, I have no qualms about doing something simple and repeating it. If it sounds good and feels good, then it is good.”

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