When Syracuse native, jazz pianist and organist Jon LeRoy moved to the Capital Region in 1994 and began playing gigs here, he found himself swimming against the musical current.
“When I first moved to this area, everybody wanted me to sound like Bill Evans,” LeRoy said recently from a coffee shop in Schenectady.
“Everybody just wanted a piano player to sound like Bill Evans, and really my direction was a more Gene Harris, Oscar Peterson, Wynton Kelly, Red Garland-type playing. But people really wanted that more sensitive [thing] — I’m really not that kind of player.”
LeRoy has been playing piano most of his life, and first picked up left-handed bass technique on the organ while in college. By the time he had relocated to the Albany area, he had “come to grips” with using synthesizers and keyboards.
Jon LeRoy Trio
When: 9 p.m. Saturday
Where: 9 Maple Avenue, Saratoga Springs
How Much: $2
More Info: 583-2582, www.9mapleavenue.com
Forming a group
But he soon found his focus switching back to organ — not a common instrument in this area’s jazz scene, especially in a lead role. He formed his trio with drummer Ted MacKenzie and guitarist Mike Novakowski in 1999, and the unique setup helped to establish him as a mainstay on the local scene — as well as solve some other problems he had been having with band members.
“The other thing that happened was I started getting into arguments with bass players,” he said. “So it just kind of came together. And really the fact that there weren’t a lot of jazz groups that were jazz organ-led was another reason to do it. I just thought, jeez, nobody does it, nobody really even knows a lot of the literature — it would be a really good thing for the area.”
LeRoy, MacKenzie and Novakowski have managed to stick together, as the Jon LeRoy Trio, longer than most jazz bands, where the norm is often pickup musicians and shifting lineups. Although LeRoy is once again living in Syracuse, he still visits the Capital Region almost weekly for his day job with a music retailer, and has been playing out in the area again.
“I’ve been really lucky,” he said. “Ted is a phenomenal drummer, Mike is a top-notch guitar player.”
The trio’s next gig is at longtime haunt 9 Maple Avenue on Saturday night. The venue was one of the first that the band played after forming, after an invitation from co-owner Judy Sirianni.
“When I put the jazz organ trio together, the interesting thing was I think at first, her response was, ‘A trio?’ ” LeRoy said. “That’s kind of small; is that going to work — you know? And I said, ‘No, I think it’s going to work.’ And right after, the first weekend we were there went over really well.”
The band’s repertoire covers standards from jazz organists such as Jack McDuff, Jimmy Smith and LeRoy’s biggest influence, Joey DeFrancesco, as well as less obvious songs from Art Blakey and John Coltrane. The band has been known to pull off bass-less renditions of Jaco Pastorius, and they recently added a Michael Jackson song to their set.
“Jaco was a really good keyboard player; he really could play. So a lot of his stuff is actually very pianistic and very keyboard-sounding, so it really lays under the fingers very easily.” LeRoy said.
Ready to record
Right now, the group is in the process of recording its first album with Saratoga Springs producer John Nazarenko, which will feature songs the band has been developing throughout its career, as well as new material.
“[We’re] trying to pick different styles and different genres as well, so as not to keep it too — not to keep it to all one sound,” LeRoy said. “So really what we’re trying to do is mix up the repertoire a little bit.”