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Veteran Jazz Pianist Knows How to Play It Cool in a Singer's Shadow

January 08, 1988|ZAN STEWART | Stewart is a Van Nuys free-lance writer

Frank Collett, best known as an ebullient jazz pianist with his own trio, also knows a thing or two about the craft of accompanying singers. And well he should, because he's been at it for 37 years.

He was 6 when he started to accompany his father, Giuseppe Taglieri (Collett's given name is Frank Collett Taglieri). The elder Taglieri used to sing opera at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, local schools and family functions.

"Though he gave it up after a while to support the family, through playing for him, I learned how to follow singers," Collett said. "Wherever the singer goes, you go. If a singer jumps meter, you have to stay with them. You can't say, 'Hey, here's where we are.' It's more about being flexible and learning how to adapt."

Collett, 43, who has worked for such renowned artists as Sarah Vaughan and Carmen McRae and who backs up Lois Boileau tonight and Saturday at Le Cafe in Sherman Oaks, said that the key to accompanying is "being experienced."

"You have to find out what makes the singer feel comfortable," he said. "It takes a little bit of searching and experimenting to see what makes them feel good."

What you don't play, rather than what you do, is often crucial. "It's important not to be too busy, allowing some space, leaving out a lot of stuff that you would normally play, if you were playing solo," he said.

A Good Gig

Working with Vaughan from July, 1985, to September, 1986, was choice employment for Collett.

"Sarah was fun. Nothing ever went the same way twice," he said with a smile. "With her, I could take all kinds of liberties and she'd go right with us. She has incredible ears. We'd do a thing with 'My Funny Valentine' that was different every night. The ending would be in different keys and she'd be right there. One night, we went into a tango routine and knocked the audience out, because it was totally spontaneous. It was really a thrill to play for her."

Collett accompanied Carmen McRae from 1973 to 1975. "Like Sarah, she was so musical," he said. "Carmen has a great delivery and excellent diction. She had her own thing, like she did a lot of solo stuff, accompanying herself, and playing well. I did arrangements for both of them and that was a kick."

Though Collett has been backing Boileau for only a short time, he says it's been easy. "She has a good way with tunes, selects first-rate material, has some marvelous arrangements by (pianist) Dick Shreve and her room (Boileau owns Le Cafe) has a great piano and good sound system."

As much as Collett likes to accompany and as good as he is at it, he concedes that leading a trio, which he will do today at the Biltmore Hotel and Jan. 22-23 at Alfonse's in Toluca Lake, is his favorite musical identity. It gives him a chance to stretch, he said.

"I get great satisfaction playing for audience, communicating with the instrument," he said. "On stage, I like to keep the momentum going, sometimes barely stopping between numbers. A performance is a mixture of energy, control, skill, creativity, all those components."

Prefers a Trio

Although Collett likes the sound a group with horns can get, he prefers playing in a trio.

"A larger group should be organized, it needs a format," he said. "And, while it's rewarding, it takes more work. But, with a trio, you have more flexibility. Everybody gets a chance to play, and the tunes aren't quite as long."

Collett started playing piano at age 4. He studied classics for 10 years, originally under Paul Gallico, a well-known teacher and father of the author Paul Gallico Jr. He arrived in Los Angeles in 1972 after playing in New York and Las Vegas.

"The essence of playing the piano is getting a beautiful sound," said Collett, so, he reasons, it follows that "pure jazz music has to be played on acoustic instruments."

"Electronic instruments, in their place, are wonderful and they have a lot of flexibility and possibilities for sounds. But to try and play ' 'Round Midnight'--no way. I'm kind of a purist. You have to respect tradition, and one tradition I respect is the acoustic jazz trio. When it's right with the trio, when everything falls into place, it's tremendous."

Collett is pleased to note that his type of music seems to be on the upswing. "There a resurgence of people who want to hear acoustic jazz, an audience of people who don't want to be bombarded by loud volume, who just want to have a good time," he said.

Asked why he plays music, Collett joked, "I don't know how to do anything else." Then, turning serious, he said, "No, it's been in my blood, since the time I was a kid. I think music is one of the greatest modes of creativity and, for me, it's the ultimate form of expression."

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