Pianist Jack Reidling has a joke he likes to tell that he thinks sums up life for most jazz performers.
"A jazz musician inherits a million dollars and somebody asks him what he plans to do with the money," Reidling said Wednesday, sitting at the kitchen table in his Costa Mesa home. "He says, 'I'll just keep playing till it runs out.' "
For Reidling, who has just released his first album, "A Message From Goat Hill," the joke underscores two important facts of jazz: the financial struggle that comes with being a jazz musician and the importance of maintaining a sense of humor.
Reidling's own sense of humor is evident in the album's title, which refers to the region of Costa Mesa where Reidling lives and at one time was known as Goat Hill. "I'm sort of a meaty old goat sitting up here, watching the country grow up around me, still playing solo acoustic piano," he chuckled.
The album (on his own Mesa Records label and available by mail order for $10 from Mesa Music, P.O. Box 10035, Costa Mesa 92627) is subtitled "Suite for Solo Piano," aptly reflecting the LP's blend of classical and jazz styles. One song, for instance, is the classically tinged "Improvisations on a Theme of Villa-Lobos," while "Take Seven" is based on Paul Desmond's famous jazz instrumental "Take Five."
"I wouldn't know how to label it," Reidling, 47, said. "It's a hodgepodge sort of thing, which I guess is likely because that's what I've been doing all my life."
Style notwithstanding, the record's emphasis is on Reidling's improvisations. "Improvisational playing is kind of my forte. It's what I really enjoy. So when I recorded it, I didn't have to think about extra takes because in a way, when you're improvising, there's no such thing as a wrong note."
As a result, Reidling said the studio time required to record the LP totaled "about an hour and a half. But it took more than a year to get the cover and all the package together." In the few weeks since the record was released, it has been picking up air play on a number of local stations, including KKGO (105.1 FM), Southern California's leading jazz station.
But the early positive response hasn't given him delusions of grandeur about the record. "This was not a financial endeavor. It was an artistic endeavor. I've had a lot of music floating around and now that I'm reaching middle age, I decided it was time to make a record. Of course, I'd be happy to sell them all," he said, referring to the initial pressing of 1,000 copies.
A 20-year resident of Orange County, the Ohio-born musician has been a regular in local clubs, restaurants and bars, playing virtually every type of job, from solo piano and jazz combos to big bands and symphony orchestras. He has also written a piano instruction book, entitled "Jazz Designs From the Blues," with Cal State Fullerton piano department chairwoman Martha Baker and is working toward publishing his arrangements of pop standards for string quartets.
But unlike some jazz players, Reidling doesn't completely dismiss pop and rock music, possibly because his 15-year-old son, Jamie, the youngest of four children, is the drummer in a local punk-new wave band.
"He seems to enjoy it so much, I'm glad he's got an outlet like that. When he first joined the band, I tried to get him to take drum lessons. He said, 'Dad, I don't need drum lessons for what I'm doing.' But now he's decided to start," said Reidling, who is on the board of directors of the Orange County musicians' union. (His wife, Beverly, is assistant to union president Doug Sawtelle.)
For jazz performers, though, Reidling said, financial struggles are as much a part of the job as practicing and fielding requests.
"True jazzers, I think, have roles designated that they have to live a certain way, like getting up in the morning and eating cold spaghetti and beer," he said with a laugh. "You've gotta go through that."
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