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It's Never Too Late : Sixty-year-old Dave Mackay, one of the Southland's finest pianists, is still honing his skills.

August 28, 1992|ZAN STEWART | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES: Zan Stewart writes regularly about music for The Times

If you think you're too old to learn, talk to Dave Mackay.

A week ago, the singer-pianist took one of his now-and-then lessons from his teacher, Phil Cohen. This might not sound out of the ordinary until you learn that Mackay is a youthful-looking 60-year-old, that he's been professional since he was in his 20s, and that he's regarded as one of the finest players in the Southland.

Mackay, who plays every Friday, with bassist Jim Garafalo, at Skoby's in Chatsworth, simply says that Cohen--a professor at Concordia University in Montreal who travels to various cities, coaching working pros and amateurs alike--gives him something he can't get anywhere else.

"I have been studying with Phil, for whom the word 'genius' is not even close, for about 10 years, taking about three lessons a year, and he has a way of getting rid of what interferes with making the music happen, whether it's technique or psychological," said Mackay, a native of Syracuse, N.Y., who lives in Van Nuys with his wife of 21 years, singer Melissa Mackay.

Mackay said that through his work with Cohen, who combines musical technique with psychological explorations, he has honed his art to the point that he's truly expressing what he feels. "I'm playing without censoring," he said. "I trust the music will go someplace."

Cohen's current approach with Mackay, who is blind, is to have him respond musically to a visual scene, say of a clown performing to a happy crowd, and that same clown, coming home and being sad. "It's very freeing for me to play this way, touching feelings," said Mackay. "It gets me into stuff I've never played.

"Visual images mean a lot, because I still remember a lot," continued Mackay, who lost his sight at age 15 when he contracted retinitis pigmentosa, and who can only see "a little, like bright sunlight."

Asked how he's playing these days, Mackay--an amazingly sensitive artist who can also offer a driving swing that Art Blakey would have admired--enthusiastically responded, "Great. I've never played better." He gives credit to Cohen; Jesus, with whom he says he's had a personal relationship for seven years, and himself.

"My head is clear, and my esteem is good," he said. "I get down but I don't get to despair. There's a big difference between the two."

What upsets him the most is not his sightlessness, a situation to which Mackay says he's reasonably accustomed, but an intermittent work schedule. These days, his only regular employment is at Skoby's, a restaurant/bar that he likes "because of the cheerfulness of the place and the fact that I can play as I choose."

Still, he says, there's a lot for which to be grateful.

He's involved in several groups--among them Interplay, a trio with guitarist Ron Satterfield and flutist Lori Bell, which worked recently at the Jazz Bakery in Culver City, and a duo with singer Stephanie Haynes. He and Haynes worked last Thursday at Chadney's, and they're in the process of making a record.

They're a solid team, says Haynes, arguably the Los Angeles area's premiere female jazz singer.

"Dave's incredibly fluent on his instrument," she said. "Any song, any key, he's got it. He approaches the piano the way a person sings--anything he hears, he can play."

Mackay has also been appearing with bassist Andy Simpkins on occasional Tuesdays at the Vine Street Bar & Grill. Simpkins and drummer Ralph Penland back the pianist on "Windows," Mackay's new release on the Mama Foundation label.

The album consists of a bouquet of standards, including Chick Corea's title track and Duke Ellington's "I Didn't Know About You."

Recording the collection was akin to a maternal experience, Mackay said. "I feel like I was pregnant with these songs, because I have been playing them for so many years, and I gave birth to them by documenting them on this album."

Where and When

Location: Skoby's, 20419 Devonshire St., Chatsworth.

Hours: 8 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. Fridays.

Price: No cover, Two-drink minimum.

Call: (818) 718-0433.

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