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Behind the Seen : Pianist Terry Trotter Has Plenty of Experience Playing a Supporting Role Next to Famous Faces


When Terry Trotter comes to Kikuya tonight to play behind singer Jack Wood, he'll be bringing extensive experience as an accompanist. The 54-year-old pianist has recorded with Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett (on the albums "Ol' Blue Eyes Is Back" and "Once in a Garden," respectively), toured with Lena Horn and worked with Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme. For the last two years, he has held a plum of a job, playing for Natalie Cole.

On the phone from his home in the San Fernando Valley this week, Trotter said he was recommended for the Cole gig by fellow pianist Clare Fischer, whose son is Cole's husband, Andre Fischer.

"The thing with Natalie is, if you're a real professional, then she's nice to work with and she'll treat you with respect," Trotter said. "But if you're not, watch out. She's not a yeller or a screamer, but she's very strong about what she wants, and she knows when things are right.

"It's very enjoyable to work with her from a musical standpoint. She has never told me what to play. She wants us to stretch out when we perform, wants it to be different every night. I've never stretched out like this with other singers.

"It's not a full-time job," he added. "We travel about 14 weeks out of the year." Meanwhile, Trotter has been doing some recording of his own. In 1993, the MAMA foundation released his first disc, the aptly named "It's About Time," which features him in a variety of ensemble settings.

Lately, he has been concentrating on programs of Broadway tunes for the Varese Sarabande label, which released his "Passion . . . in Jazz: Music From the Stephen Sondheim Musical" in November. A second project, tunes from Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd," is due later this summer.

Trotter is not unfamiliar with Broadway: He played for the Los Angeles editions of "A Chorus Line" and Sondheim's "Side by Side."

"What I tried to do with ['Passion'] was bring the music into the jazz idiom but still stay connected with what Sondheim is all about. It wasn't easy to do. There aren't a lot of songs per se. I had this sprawling impressionistic score in front of me, and I pulled six or seven elegant frameworks from it to use as a context for improvising.

"The melody is the important thing here. So, while I didn't necessarily play linear solos as such, I tried to take the melody and stay close to it while playing in an improvisatory way in the sense that what I'm playing wasn't planned."

The emphasis on show tunes, he speculates, may turn some off.

"I know I'm going to lose some die-hard mainstream jazz people because of the nature of the program. But it's musically valid and an expression of my personality. And it is a jazz album because there is improvising."

Trotter has solid experience as a jazz player, having recorded with such names as Phil Woods and Conte Candoli. He made frequent appearances with the late guitarist Joe Pass at the legendary L.A. watering hole Donte's and had gigs with Art Pepper and the late Chet Baker ("who still owes me $150," Trotter said with a laugh). As a teen-ager, Trotter paid dues working with saxophonists Charles Lloyd and Teddy Edwards, trumpeter Don Cherry, vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson and bassist Scott La Faro.

Trotter credits that dues paying and a solid musical education for his ability to move easily between jobs as an accompanist and as a jazz player. "I started studying piano at 4, and my mother was a fabulous classical player. I've always characterized myself as a be-bop player who can read. It's gotten me a lot of studio work."

* Terry Trotter plays tonight with Jack Wood at Kikuya, 8052 Adams Ave., Huntington Beach, 8:30 p.m. $10 minimum . (714) 536-6665.

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