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VALLEY WEEKEND | SOUNDS

He Lets His Music Do the Talking

Shelly Berg tries to convey a universal emotion to his audience as he plays jazz piano with his trio at Bjlauzezs.

July 25, 1996|ZAN STEWART | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Jazz is a social art form, requiring both artist and audience, and nobody knows it better than pianist Shelly Berg.

"My reason for playing is to impart something to an audience, to feel how they respond to me," said Berg, 40, who plays Friday and Saturday with his trio at Bjlauzezs in Sherman Oaks.

And the best way to get over to a crowd, Berg said, is to tap into an emotion that's universal and let the audience pick up on it.

"For example, I was playing the lovely ballad, 'A Child Is Born,' while playing at Chadney's in Burbank," said Berg. "Everybody was talking when I started, and I just thought about the birth of each of my children--Lindsay, 19, Kyle, 17, and Ashlyn, 15--and didn't worry about the audience. I just started to play the feeling. Very soon, people had stopped talking, they were listening. Somehow, the emotion I was feeling traveled out into the crowd."

For the past eight years Berg has been heard mainly with trombonist Bill Watrous. But with the release of "The Joy" (DMP Records), his first solo album, he'll no doubt get more attention. The album features the pianist in both introspective and convivial moods. In the latter, he tends to swing rambunctiously in the manner of his idol, Oscar Peterson.

"I love the way it feels to swing," said Berg. "It's like watching Michael Jordan when he can't miss, like being in the zone and flowing."

Berg took up piano at age 4. "I picked out the pop hit 'Alley Cat' with two hands and my parents said, 'We'd better get this kid lessons,' " he said, smiling. "I studied classically with Maxine Priest in Cleveland and, when my family moved to Houston in 1970, with Abbey Simon, who recorded many albums for Vox records." Eventually Berg earned both bachelor's and master's degrees in music from the University of Houston, finishing in 1979.

The pianist's jazz education was a bit less formal: His first teacher was his father, Jay, "then an aluminum siding salesman and avocational be-bop trumpeter who sat in with Charlie Parker in the '50s.

"My earliest memory is of my dad practicing every day," said Berg. Jay Berg still plays, and will sit in with his son at Bjlauzezs.

Berg's next teacher was the great tenor saxophonist Arnett Cobb, with whom the pianist sat in at jam sessions in Houston when he was 15.

"Arnett used to chew me out," he said. "He'd take the horn out of his mouth in the middle of a chorus, and yell my name. Later, he'd explain what he was upset about."

For many years, Berg both taught music at San Jacinto College in Pasadena, Texas, and was active in the Houston jazz scene. A performance with Watrous in the late '80s led to his joining the trombonist's band. Inspired, Berg moved to Southern California in 1991, taking up residence in Glendale and accepting a post on the faculty at USC, where he now heads the Jazz Studies department. He was also recently elected president of the International Assn. of Jazz Educators. The pianist finds great reward in teaching.

"I feel I grow as much from teaching as my students do from learning," he said.

* Shelly Berg's trio plays Friday and Saturday, 9 p.m. to 2 a.m., at Bjlauzezs, 14502 Ventura Blvd., at Van Nuys Blvd., Sherman Oaks. $5 cover without dinner. Information: (818) 789-4583.

*

Organ-Ized: Usually, guitarist Doug MacDonald plays in trios or quartets, backed by bass and drums, with maybe a piano added. But these days, MacDonald has been using Art Hillery on Hammond organ, and he's happier for the change.

"An organ has a particular energy. It gives you a good lift," said MacDonald, who appears tonight at Chadney's in Burbank. "With it, you can lock into a rocking rhythmic groove, where you feel like rocking back and forth. It swings really well and it offers a nice blues feeling."

MacDonald's trio will be abetted by drum master Roy McCurdy, a man noted for his driving pulse.

* Guitarist Doug MacDonald performs from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m. at Chadney's, 3000 W. Olive St., Burbank. No cover, one drink minimum per show; (818) 843-5333.

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