Lawrence Sieberth continuously remains involved with multiple projects. “Yeah, from the very beginning,” agrees the pianist, composer and arranger, who began playing piano at age five and throughout his school years was writing both classical and jazz music. “I was always drawn to the entire musical spectrum,” he said in an interview some 20 years ago. “It’s important to remain current and to embrace any era and any style because there is so much validity in all kinds of music from all periods of time and all cultures.”
Sieberth often works behind the scenes as an arranger or to accompany some of New Orleans’ most prominent jazz vocalists. This fall he released a new album full of his original material, Silhouettes, leading the Lawrence Sieberth Quartet.
“It’s only been recently that I’ve felt comfortable playing my own music and having the resource of such high-caliber musicians to execute my music,” the veteran artist confesses. “I’ve often been accused of writing rather difficult music both notationally and conceptually,” he says, adding that yes, the accusation is true. “It’s even a challenge for me to play.”
Fortunately, his tunes on Silhouettes are listener-friendly, as is evident on the first, lively cut, “Yokomo.” It initially gets its drive from drummer Doug Belote with Sieberth displaying his ability to simultaneously provide both rhythmic and melodic support. Rex Gregory, the only permanent member of the pianist’s fluid quartet—which changes musicians to match an album’s or gig’s theme—jumps in, adding to the fun spirit of the song. Gregory beautifully opens another Sieberth-penned selection, “If Only I Had Wings.”
Sieberth turned to a composition by an old friend and music partner, bassist Ramsey McLean, for one of the disc’s two non-originals, “Payday.” When the pianist first moved to New Orleans from Baton Rouge in 1976 he lived in a house with McLean and saxophonist Charles Neville. Sieberth was in two of McLean’s groups, the Lifers and the Survivors. “Payday” stands as the most New Orleans–influenced tune, boasting a danceable rhythm and a strong bottom well held down by bassist Peter Harris. “There’s very little swing on the album but it does contain a lot of the New Orleans grooves that have been superimposed with much more contemporary harmonic and melodic material,” Sieberth explains.
The other non-original, “Jay’s Dream,” comes from composer and saxophonist Jerome Theriot, who passed away a year ago. It’s a beauty of a straight-up jazz tune that begins softly and gets going with the explosion of Gregory’s horn. Its inclusion is important; Sieberth first assembled his quartet because Theriot wanted to have his songs recorded. The collaboration resulted in three albums: Jay’s Dream—The Music of Jerome Theriot Vol. 1, Old Times—The Music of Jerome Theriot Vol. 2 and Songs of Praise.
“I put together a quartet and I enjoyed that and we all enjoyed that so much, I thought, “Well rather than play just Jerome’s music, let’s play my music,” Sieberth remembers.
Another of Sieberth’s projects is the soon-to-be-released CD Estrella Banda. Estrella Banda (Star Band), which includes rhythm masters drummer Ricky Sebastian and percussionist Alexi Marti, was booked at Snug Harbor two weeks before the Jazz Fest and the performance is captured on the album. Again, Sieberth, on electric keyboard this time out, penned and arranged all of the material though by adding percussion, guitar and two horns to join Gregory, his quartet format grew into an octet.
The five albums mentioned above were all completed in the last three or so years. Meanwhile, Sieberth also arranged all of the music that was performed by Queen Latifah for her role as Bessie Smith in HBO’s bio-pic Bessie, as well as those sung by the portrayer of Ma Rainey. “That kind of fell out of the sky,” says Sieberth, who initially got a call inquiring about the names of traditional jazz musicians in New Orleans. “Why don’t you put my name in the hat?” he remembers asking. He ended up, as is his way, transcribing—note for note—all of the music to be used in the film from Smith’s and Rainey’s original recordings. Sieberth became the musical director and pianist for the recording sessions and also composed the incidental music that he played throughout the movie.
“I’m 62 going on 19,” exclaims Sieberth, whose long list of collaborations and endeavors includes working with Allen Toussaint to prominent national artists such as trumpeter Randy Brecker. A studious archivist, he maintains folders with his arrangements and/or compositions enclosed for each of the musicians with whom he has worked.
“One of the joys for me is to have been able to maintain my enthusiasm for the art form,” Sieberth says. “My life has been being able to incorporate all of the different aspects of the human condition.”