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Now, on a Happier Note: Billy Mitchell

December 26, 1996|ZAN STEWART | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Pianist Billy Mitchell has been earning a living behind the keyboard for 30 years now, but in some respects he considers the first 25 or so a warmup.

"I feel like I'm just beginning to play," said the rhythmic and bluesy 30-year veteran, who plays Saturday at Restaurant Kikuya in Huntington Beach. "Where I was once intimidated by music, by musicians and by the piano, I'm not afraid anymore."

Five years ago he sang a different song. Then, his attitude about his playing could be downright downbeat.

"People would come hear a guy who worked a lot and had made records, and then they'd walk away with that let-down look," said the native of Tarrytown, N.Y., who has lived in the Los Angeles area since 1970.

The problem was that--as the self-taught son of a classically trained, piano teacher-mother--Mitchell really didn't know his piano ABCs.

"I had been playing all these years, and yet I had no proper technique," he said. "I had gotten used to the idea that you had cramps in your arms from playing. I didn't know you were supposed to relax."

Mitchell sought out renowned pianist and instructor Terry Trotter, Natalie Cole's accompanist whose recent recordings on Varese Sarabande Records have spotlighted the music of Stephen Sondheim. Trotter gave Mitchell basic exercises in hand technique, scales and so on.

"He started me from book one and changed my whole technique," he said. "It took me a couple of years to get it, but now I have. He lit me up."

Mitchell's toughest critic--his mother, now 95--can hear the difference. "She can't believe how well I am playing," he said, speaking from his home in South Pasadena.

The not necessarily new but decidedly improved Mitchell arrives at Kikuya with a combo featuring saxophonist-flutist John Bolivar, bassist Hilliard Wilson and drummer Greg Brown.

Mitchell, 53, plans to offer the usual assortment of jazz tunes and funk numbers that have made him one of Southern California's consistently sought-after pianists.

Mitchell mused about what selections he might play. "There'll be some be-bop numbers like . . . what's the name of that tune?" and he started to hum Clifford Brown's classic "Joy Spring." "And standards, too, like maybe 'Stella by Starlight' or 'Green Dolphin Street.' I like the way those tunes make you think."

Then there are the numbers for which Mitchell can turn off his mind, such as "The World Is a Ghetto," the R&B tune made famous by the group War. "There, you just groove from the start and draw on your emotions," he said. "Those tunes feel good to me."

Mitchell and Wilson will also contribute the occasional vocal on tunes such as "Route 66" and "All Blues."

*

Bolivar will be an essential part of the proceedings. He and Mitchell began performing together at Morehouse College in Atlanta in the late '60s, when the pianist was a political science-history major while Bolivar majored in music. In Southern California, the pair teamed up for Mitchell's 1984 debut album, "Blue City Jam," and have been collaborating regularly since.

The pianist has a strong affection for the reed player. "He knows a lot of songs--a lot more than I do--and he plays lot of styles," Mitchell said. "Our energies are different, but when he pushes me, I end up pushing him back. We have good rapport."

Both have a desire to connect with an audience. "I want to be able to touch the hearts of people that hear me," Mitchell said. "I don't want to play just notes, chord changes. I want to play something so they feel better leaving than they did when they walked in."

Mitchell experienced reaching an audience the first time he played in public, at Morehouse in 1964: "I got right into it. I was bit right then."

The pianist came to L.A. from Atlanta because there was so much opportunity, he said, and took basic music courses at L.A. City College. At the same time, he was performing at Sherry's in what's now West Hollywood. He found that his most important and most lasting lessons were learned not in the classroom, but on the job, from supportive professionals.

"Singer Gloria Lynne was the first one to help," Mitchell said. "I had to fill in for her pianist, and she gave me time to get into her charts. Then later I worked a month with [saxophonist] Teddy Edwards. He could see I didn't know much, so he took me over to his house, showed me different chords and how to voice them. He gave me a chance to learn and play with a real musician, and it was a great example of how musicians should treat each other. I try to do the same thing with younger players today."

* Who: Billy Mitchell.

* When: 8 p.m. to 1 a.m. Saturday.

* Where: Restaurant Kikuya, 8052 Adams Ave., Huntington Beach.

* Whereabouts: Exit the San Diego (405) Freeway at Beach Boulevard, head south to Adams and turn left. The club is on the right.

* Wherewithal: Free.

* Where to call: (714) 536-6665.

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