At 10:00pm, the Tuesday night jam session at the Owl and Thistle launches into “Solar.” Eric Verlinde sits Buddha-like on stage behind a battered electric piano tagged with the letters “des,” all that remains of the Fender Rhodes logo. His mouth hangs open and he nods along with the brisk tempo. Under the dim stained glass ceiling lights, a small audience listens intently. Several have instrument cases next to their chairs, awaiting an invitation. Across the room at the bar, conversations are buried by the saxophone solo bouncing off the brick walls.
Verlinde’s piano solos explore melodic and rhythmic motives through repetition and variation. His playing doesn’t dazzle with technical fireworks, instead it smolders with joyful energy and balanced clarity. “I don’t always have preconceptions when sitting down to play,” Verlinde says. “But something always happens.”
The tables and chairs in front of the band have filled up by the break. While the band rests, musicians catch up with each other face-to-face. If jam sessions are musical networking events, Verlinde is very connected. In addition to the Owl and Thistle on Tuesdays, he performs at the Scarlet Tree “EntreMundos” session on Monday nights and at Tula’s for Reggie Goings “Jazz Offering” on the first Sunday afternoon of each month. For several years he performed with saxophonist Ronnie Pierce at the Whisky Bar. He used to host the Sunday evening jazz sessions at Tula’s and accompany DJ Kat on the Monday vocal showcases.
Verlinde is comfortable in a supporting role. “I like working with vocalists,” he says. “They are the picture. I am the frame.” He played in choirs growing up. “A lyric reaches people, instrumentals don’t.”
That doesn’t deter Verlinde from trying to connect through wordless music. He has written over 150 original songs, published 5 of his own recordings (Peace, What Child Is This?, I Remember You, Daily Grind, and Firewalker), and performed on more than 20 other recordings.
One of Verlinde’s appreciative band mates is bassist Chuck Kistler. “He draws authentically from many bags – blues, gospel, funk, salsa, swing and bebop,” Kistler says. “He's got big ears and knows tons of tunes. He listens to and connects with his band mates, which is why he's so in demand and a joy to play with. I would also add that has great time and swings like mad.”
Verlinde was born in Everett, Washington on May 24, 1976 and grew up in Snohomish. As a 6 year old he began a decade of piano instruction with Pat Reeves. When he turned 12 he studied percussion. He joined the Valley View Junior High School Jazz Band led by Mike Mines and enjoyed the freedom to improvise. His first real gig came when he was 14, playing music for a wedding. The next year he produced a concert to raise tuition money needed to attend Frank DeMiero’s Jazz Camp in Edmonds. Piano teacher Kirk Marcey helped expand Verlinde’s skills during high school. A scholarship to the Berklee College of Music took him to Boston for a year.
Verlinde realized that music mastery required hours of practice that need not take place in Boston. Verlinde returned to the Northwest to study at Mt. Hood Comunity College and work with Chris Bruya and Dave Barduhn, the director of Genesis Vocal Jazz Ensemble. At Bellevue Community College, he toured and won awards for performances with the school’s jazz ensembles and worked with Hal Sherman.
Verlinde appreciates the piano mastery of Oscar Peterson, especially the mid 1960’s recordings titled Exclusively for My Friends with bassist Ray Brown and drummer Ed Thigpen. “Oscar is at the top of his form – energetic, fun. Oscar is a beast. I love [Art] Tatum sometimes too but he’s like a desert that’s too rich.”
Classical pianist Glenn Gould’s 1981 recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations carved a deep impression. For five years Verlinde played the recording on a loop while sleeping to instill the virtuous polyphony into his subconscious. In a small band, “bass and horn are jazz versions of Bach Two Part Inventions.
“Two parts can create a lot of music.” Verlinde respects the “core values of music – melodic invention, symmetry and aesthetically pleasing devices.” In improvisation, Verlinde “takes material from a composer and plays a game of reinvention. Everything I do relates to that song.”
To maintain technique, Verlinde practices finger calisthenics with two-handed scales and arpeggios from the 1873 book The Virtuoso Pianist in Sixty Exercises by Charles-Louis Hanon. The book’s prefaces states: “This entire volume can be played through in an hour; and if, after it has been thoroughly mastered, it be repeated daily for a time, difficulties will disappear as if by enchantment, and that beautiful, clear, clean, pearling execution will have been acquired which is the secret of distinguished artists.”
One secret that Verlinde shares freely is “find a good private teacher and put in the hours.” He tells his students that it takes a long time to hear the music. “The road to mastery is doing something every day and it will add up. It’s like climbing a mountain. If you try to get to the summit in one day you will quickly encounter obstacles. If you carve a stone block every day to extend steps up the mountain, after a lifetime you will have a path to the top.” For Verlinde, like so many other jazz musicians, the daily stone blocks are basics – listening, transcribing, sight reading, time and learning musical vocabulary.
Eric Verlinde leads a quartet for The Art of Jazz Series on Thursday, June 13, 5:30-7:30 at Seattle Art Museum with trumpeter Thomas Marriott, bassist Dean Schmidt and drummer Jeff Busch.