At only 29 years old, Dave Meder is already an accomplished pianist, composer, and educator. Before he became Assistant Professor of Jazz Piano at the University of North Texas, he taught at New York University and the Juilliard School. Meder received the prestigious designation of Yamaha Artist in the summer of 2019. We held a conference call this year to discuss his debut jazz album, Passage.
What’s it like for you to play on stage at venues that are well-regarded here and internationally?
Each one of those is incredibly helpful and valuable in its own way for experiencing different kinds of audiences: getting to see what they like and what they don’t like as much. Ultimately, through all of it, I’m getting to the heart of what people are feeling. All those venues are similar in that way. Play something that means something to people and that’s what we’ve been getting at with the sets we bring.
The cover art really struck me as interesting. How did you arrive at the concept?
The idea of Passage was to document my own musical passage, as it were, over the past 10 years. I worked with an artist named Andy Neesley. We talked about it: the idea of time, motion and movement. The title track “Passage” is inspired by American minimalist composers like Philip Glass and John Adams and the pieces they wrote… They sound geometric with repeating patterns. We combined the idea of geometry and repeating patterns with an idea of passage, motion, and time. All the text is blurred on the back of the album to create the idea of motion.
Have you done any classes with the musicians you look up to, or seen them play live?
I’ve been very fortunate to have connections to a lot of musicians that I look up to. I did a residency at the Kennedy Center several years ago. They do it every year. It’s called the Betty Carter’s Jazz Ahead program. It brings together young artists to be in residency for two weeks with all kinds of jazz legends. When I did it back in 2011, I worked with George Cables, a legendary jazz piano player, as well as Curtis Fuller, Carmen Lundy, [and] the late Nathan Davis. It’s one thing to learn the music in school, but it’s another thing to actually connect with somebody who has been there.
You got to work Chris Potter and Miguel Zenón who are wonderful saxophonists. How did those collaborations take shape? What did you like about what those artists had to offer for your album?
I’ve looked up to both of them for many years. I’m not the only jazz artist who looks up to them. They’re generation-defining. Chris and I met while I was studying at NYU. He was teaching at the time as an adjunct there. We used to get together and play a few duo sessions at the school for fun. I brought “Elegy” to one of those sessions. He liked the tune so much that he asked to take the music home with him. I don’t know how long it was sitting at his place. Fast forward three or four years later when I’m about to record “Elegy” for Passage, I think “Chris really liked this tune. I wonder if he’d like to come in and play on it.”
Sure enough, he was into the idea. It was amazing and that’s one of my favorite tracks.
Miguel and I were neighbors of sorts. We both lived in Washington Heights and used to get together for sessions, too. I don’t live there anymore. I live in Texas now. I thought of him for the piece “This Road.”
Highlight one of the tracks for us. What was your creative process to get to a final cut of it that you felt proud of?
Some of the songs I’d been working on, rewriting and redoing for close to a decade. For instance, that’s the case with “This Road,” that Miguel is on. That was one of the first pieces I wrote in my life. I wrote it in 2008 or 2009. It was a completely different tune with a different rhythm and feel. It was not as fast as it is now. It was a slower, more brooding piece. I kept trying it out in all kinds of different configurations. As I got to know Miguel, I was rehearing that piece, based on the music that I know Miguel writes. It was a natural progression over ten years.
In contrast to that, there’s a piece called “For Wayne” as the second track. That came out of listening to a lot of Wayne Shorter. I gave myself an exercise in which I set a timer for ten minutes. I’m going to write and I’m not going to filter myself. Whatever comes out will be a piece. That was a stream of consciousness flow. Each track has its own little story, but I think they all work together in a nice whole.
How do you prepare in advance of a performance?
A lot of times, I don’t have that luxury these days…When I do have the time to practice, I have to make sure that I do it. Nowadays I never know how a performance will shake out. At the Kennedy Center, for instance, we had a soundcheck an hour before and that was it. We don’t operate the same way as a lot of classical artists who can get in the morning of and get on the piano for two hours. They have it retuned again and they can do another hour. Then they retune again and take a break or a nap before they return for the performance. It’s very rare that I get something like that. I make sure that I keep up the things when I have time.
What are some big lessons you learned as a performer and a composer that you hope to instill in your students?
Generally speaking, there are lot of things. What I try to get students to really think about is the idea of exploring the whole and the comprehensive history of the music. That’s what my mentors drilled into me when I was studying, particularly at Julliard. You can have your artistic vision, but you need to constantly be going outside of that. Study music and artists that are sometimes in indirect contrast to what you think your artistic vision is. I try to have my students study all kinds of disparate ideas, artists, and concepts because they are so malleable right now. That is what’s going to make them more complete artists down the road.