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‘Lion King’ pays the bills, but pianist Chris Neville finds time for jazz too

Chris Neville has an impressive jazz resume but has been earning his living the past few years as part of the orchestra of the touring “Lion King.”
Chris Neville has an impressive jazz resume but has been earning his living the past few years as part of the orchestra of the touring “Lion King.” From the artist

“I feel like I’ve awakened from a slumber somehow.”

That’s jazz pianist Chris Neville, a player of elegant imagination and formidable chops who’s playing with a trio in Kansas City this week. But Neville, onetime accompanist to jazz immortal Benny Carter, admits he hasn’t played much jazz in recent years. Instead, he has been on the road contributing his keyboard skills to a major theatrical production.

But he’s enjoying the preparations for his jazz trio gig, with bassist Jeff Harshbarger and drummer Todd Strait, at 7:30 p.m. Monday, May 14, at the Black Dolphin, 1813 Grand Blvd.

“In committing to doing this concert I’m re-investigating myself, so to speak,” Neville says after several years of being in a show where he’s playing the same thing night after night. And, he says, he’s rediscovering a sense of fun in jazz.

Then again, Neville has been having fun with the music since he was small. He gave his first public performance on a pump organ at a New England country church when he was 6 and was studying at the New England Conservatory just before his seventh birthday. Of course, no improvisation was allowed then — he remembers a teacher complaining to his parents about his tendency to “fool around with the melodies.”

When he was a teen, he was introduced to jazz via records from guitarist Django Reinhardt and alto saxophonist Charlie Parker. “Parker turned me around,” he says. He went to college to study something else, but within a few months, music had lured him back. While going to college in Maine, he was also learning on gigs several nights a week.

There was a bigger New England jazz circuit in the ’70s and ’80s, and Neville worked widely in Boston and points north. Eventually he backed the octogenarian Carter on a gig at the Regattabar in Cambridge, Mass. And when Carter came back the next year, he asked for the same pianist. On this gig, the jazz giant said he’d stay in touch with Neville, and he actually did.

Months later, that led to Neville’s first major recording. “He called and said, ‘I’m making a record in New York. Are you familiar with Phil Woods? I was wondering if you might be available.’ ” He made himself available for their alto saxophone summit disc, “My Man Benny/My Man Phil.”

“I was scared to death,” Neville admits. But he got an enduring piece of musical advice from Carter: “Whenever I would come to him with doubts about something, he would say, ‘Chris, play like you played at the Regattabar. Do what you do.’ 

Neville’s jazz career has had some good artistic satisfactions, including several good trio recordings where he is the leader. But the jazz world has a tendency to leave even its best practitioners needing a steadier income. So in 2004, Neville signed on for an eight-month job in the orchestra in the traveling production of “The Lion King.” “That became six more months, than six more months …” He’s still there.

Your request for “Hakuna Matata” at the trio gig will not be honored or appreciated. But Neville’s Kansas City gig is linked to “Lion King” in more ways than one. The show brought him to Kansas City for several weeks a decade ago, and his lodging was within walking distance of the late, lamented Jardine’s jazz club, “which is basically where I met everybody, and I sat in a bunch of times.” And, of course, the show is the real reason he’s back in town this week.

Even if he hasn’t been playing jazz publicly, he finds that “When I go to do it, it’s there. Your brain is always percolating.”

He has been practicing “standards, things that are one my trio records, a couple of Benny’s songs 

“Just making sure I’ve got the notes in the melodies right, things like that. I’m surprised as I delve into these songs I haven’t been playing, I’m finding different routes to go down harmonically. I guess it’s part of the whole growth process, but not happening in a conscious fashion. Of course, you should have a better vocabulary and depth of knowledge as you age.”

Just doing what he does, as Benny Carter would say.

He’s looking at this return to jazz as “a nice adventure. It feels like coming back home.”

Noteworthy

▪ Alto saxophonist Logan Richardson has a new recording, “Blues People,” that’s much earthier than his previous three. And it features a band of fellow Kansas Citians: guitarist Justus West, bassist DeAndre Manning and drummer Ryan Lee.

▪ The Westport CoffeeHouse Theater, 4010 Pennsylvania Ave., presents the Boulevard Big Band at 7 p.m. Wednesday, May 16, and the Marcus Lewis Big Band at 7 p.m. Thursday, May 17.

▪ The Green Lady Lounge, 1809 Grand Blvd., has drummer Natalie Bates’ quartet at 10:30 p.m. Sunday, May 13; organist Chris Hazelton’s trio at 6 p.m. Monday, May 14, followed by the Villinger-Schlamb Trio at 10:30 p.m.; guitarist Matt Hopper at 6 and 8 p.m. Tuesday, May 15, followed by reed man Charles Perkins and bassist Tyrone Clark at 11:30 p.m.; OJT at 6 p.m. Wednesday, May 16, followed by Tyrone Clark’s quartet at 10:30 p.m.; organist Ken Lovern’s trio at 6 p.m. Thursday, May 17, followed by Guitar Elation at 8 p.m. and reed man Todd Wilkinson’s trio at 11:30 p.m.; pianist Tim Whitmer’s quartet at 5:30 p.m. Friday, May 18, followed by Embrey, Lovern & Strait downstairs at 8:30 p.m., Chris Hazelton’s Boogaloo 7 upstairs at 9 p.m. and Matt Villinger’s organ trio after midnight; and Lovern at 6 and 8 p.m. Saturday, May 19, followed by Hazelton’s trio downstairs at 9 p.m. and tenor saxophonist Stephen Martin’s quartet at 11:30 p.m. upstairs.

▪ Next door at the Black Dolphin, The Sextet performs at 9 p.m. Friday, May 18, and singer, trumpeter and dancer Lonnie McFadden’s quartet performs at 5:30 p.m. Saturday, May 19.

▪ The Blue Room, 1600 E. 18th St., has bassist Seth Lee leading the Monday jam at 7 p.m. on May 14. Pianist Roger Wilder’s trio performs at 7 p.m. Thursday, May 17; and bassist Tyrone Clark’s group appears at 8:30 p.m. Friday, May 18; and singer Ida McBeth takes charge at 8:30 p.m. Saturday, May 19.

Joe Klopus, 816-234-4751

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