Joshua White soars on debut solo album: ‘I try to challenge myself’

Jazz pianist Joshua White performs his version of Round Midnight at Sympnhony Hall. Video by David Brooks.


If the American Literacy Council, the Jazz Education Network and the National Association for Health and Fitness are seeking an eloquent and charismatic spokesman with unique qualifications, Joshua White is the man for the job.

Not only is this acclaimed San Diego piano wiz a wonderfully gifted composer, soloist and band leader — as his superb debut album, “13 Short Stories,” readily attests — he may also be the most fit and best-read jazz-and-beyond artist around.

“I work out twice a day, every day, for two hours in the morning and one hour in the afternoon,” said White, 32, a devoted vegetarian who does not listen to music or watch TV while at the gym.

Instead, he is armed with four books, which he alternates reading in half-hour increments during his intensive workouts. White’s current gym reading list includes a biography on theoretical physicist Max Planck, actor Sidney Poitier’s autobiography, a book on medical imaging in the 20th century and another chronicling the history of tuberculosis in America.

But those are just the books he reads for enjoyment. When not in the gym, he has a completely different reading list. And White, who has been singled out for praise by jazz piano icon Herbie Hancock, completes an average of a book a day.

“The reason I read so voraciously is because that’s where I get inspiration for musical ideas — meaning reading literature or wrestling with difficult texts,” he explained. “When I’m reading at the gym, it’s purely for fun. I can’t read poetry, philosophy or literary criticism while I’m at the gym.

“But, outside of the gym, I feel that reading the classics and fiction definitely provides fertile territory for me to cultivate ideas, musically, but not in direct translation. To really follow a narrative or a plot that interweaves complex ideas requires a lot of focus, as well as the ability to visualize. So I believe that studying literature helps me to visualize. And, for me, that’s the number one thing you need as an improviser to negotiate these different musical terrains.

“Because — whether it’s music or literature — the root of everything is an idea and using the language.”

Just how well the classically trained White transforms his literary inspirations into compelling music is made vividly clear on “13 Short Stories.”

Released by the Barcelona-based record label Fresh Sound, this stunning debut album is as bold as it is assured. What results demonstrates White’s formidable skills as a composer, arranger, soloist, ensemble player and frequently ingenious improviser who is exceptionally well-versed in jazz history, totally in the moment and averse to being stylistically limited or pigeonholed.

White has demonstrated his musical gifts performing alongside drum ace Alex Cline, bass greats Mark Dresser and Marshall Hawkins, and such esteemed jazz saxophonists as Lee Konitz, Rudresh Mahanthappa and Greg Osby.

But he shines even brighter on “13 Short Stories,” which he’ll celebrate with his quartet Friday at his album release concert at the all-ages Dizzy’s in Bay Park.

The album teams him with three talented and unusually empathetic musical partners — saxophonist Josh Johnson, bassist Dean Hulett and drummer Jonathan Pinson.

Together, they create carefully considered music that bristles with excitement. What results is richly rewarding music that reinforces the notion White is a pianist and composer who thinks as intently as he plays.

“Just like in my piano playing, I wanted to capture a high level of spontaneity on the album,” he said. “So I was really trying to keep that energy within the band and trying to capture that on record. I didn’t want the music to be overly composed, I like having a certain kind of edge and spontaneity within the pieces.

“I feel very good we were able to capture that vibe. Everything we did on the album, we did in one or two takes (in the recording studio). And if we did a second take, it was just o find a different approach. Sometimes, we picked the first take, because it had that raw energy. And that’s my main concern — capturing the musical decisions we make within the moment — as opposed to me dictating and having everybody play something that’s been dictated to them. That doesn’t interest me.”

Bassist Dresser, a music professor at UC San Diego, went from teaching White at the annual UCSD Jazz Camp, to prominently featuring the pianist in his own bands. White is prominently featured on “Sedimental You,” Dresser’s outstanding 2016 album.

“Joshua’s playing and music is both deeply personal and resonantly universal,” Dresser said by email from a concert tour stop in Latvia..

“His new album balances tunes that are angular, tunes that are directly placed in the modern jazz tradition,and a series of especially beautiful improvised piano solos that are interspersed on the album. His band is extremely tuned into his conception, and vice versa. He’s a great improviser, shining as soloist, but hearing him comp and interact with the band is one of the great pleasures. The whole album really adds up to a coherent artistic statement. Joshua and his band have really delivered!”

White returns to Dizzy’s for a Dec.15 concert with his trio, which also performs Dec. 8 at the Handlery Hotel’s 950 Lounge. He hopes to promote his album by embarking on his first European tour as a headliner next year

“With everything I do, I try to challenge or better myself, whether it’s intellectually or musically,” White said. “It all works into one big pot or reservoir. For me, the piano is the mode of expression, but what’s most fascinating are the ideas.”

Joshua White album release concert

When: 8 p.m. Friday

Where: Dizzy’s, Arias Hall (behind the Musician’s Association building), 1717 Morena Blvd., Bay Park.

Tickets: $20 (general public); $10 (seniors, students and military)

Phone: (858) 270-7467


Twitter @georgevarga