Interview with Park Stickney
A nice and lengthy interview, thanks to Park's wit a great read! As Bill Grimes, Jazz Harp Academy 2011 faculty member and Louisiana State University professor of music put it: 'That guy needs to try decaf!'
- August 2011
What are your current activities as a jazz harpist?
As far as my performing life goes, right now I'm very excited about my harp/upright bass/percussion trio "The Lion, the Wolf, and the Donkey", with Gigi Biolcati on percussion and Dino Contenti on bass. We have a CD that's (oh so) nearly finished, plus are thinking about releasing a live recording from a concert we gave a few weeks ago. We also just finished some concert videos from a project in Paris last year (you can see them on YouTube, linked from my site, www.jazzharp.com).
I also play in duo with electro-celtic harpist Rüdiger Oppermann (in November and December, I'll play as part of his "Klangwelten" Festival with concerts throughout Germany), and a bluegrass-leaning classical trio (the Leo Trio), in New York -- neither are exactly jazz, but both involve improvisation. And finally, of course, I do solo concerts. This is my oldest ongoing project.
I also spend a lot of time teaching, mostly at the Royal Academy of Music in London, and the Conservatoire National Supérieur Musique et Danse in Lyon, although I also do a yearly class at the Haute École de Musique in Lausanne. In London and Lausanne, I do only jazz. In Lyon it's a mix between jazz and classical (but I find that I use the same basic tools for both). I also teach semi-regularly at the Musik Hochschule in Lucerne, the conservatory of Zaragoza, Spain, and do many "one-off" workshops/masterclasses in other schools as well as for harp festivals.
In 2010 I started a week-long "Jazz Harp Camp" at our farm in Switzerland--the 2nd edition was this past August. This is an opportunity for a small group of harpists (around 12) to spend a week going deeply into jazz, working together, in small groups, and 1-1, plus with Dino and Gigi. We also have an amazing chef. This might be the most important detail.
When did you start playing the harp, and do you remember why?
I started playing harp in Arizona (where I’m from) when I was 7, thanks to a great harp program started by Karen Miller. She organized summer ensemble courses which then continued during the school year. I vaguely remember a harp demo workshop she gave, and it seemed like fun, so I started.
Who was your teacher / were your teachers?
In addition to studying with Karen, I attended Interlochen for four Summers with Arlene Wangler, then studied with Carrol McLaughlin at the University of Arizona and Nancy Allen at Juilliard.
Which music did you grow up with?
Classical, rock, folk music, musicals, not really jazz. I was a deeply committed listener to the “Doctor Demento” radio program, where I listened to all sorts of strange stuff, including Spike Jones, Frank Zappa, Weird Al Yankovik. We also used to go to a pizza restaurant every week called “Organ Stop Pizza” with live music on a restored Wurlitzer pipe organ which was definitely a big influence on my early listening...
When did you start to include jazz influences in harp your playing and why?
I started improvising from the start. I loved creating arrangements, playing the songs I heard on TV and the radio, making up crazy pieces. Basically I just played what I wanted to hear. And over time this went in a much more jazz-oriented direction. Still today, my main goal is to play what I want to hear, and to not be bored.
Did you have trouble to find your place and function in a jazz band with the harp?
Yes/No/Maybe/Sometimes. I think that how you fit in with a group or situation really just depends on the chemistry with the other musicians. Sometimes I’ve played with people who seemed to want to prove that it was impossible to play jazz on the harp (by playing faster, higher, louder, not really listening, etc.) So yes, in that kind of situation, it’s hard to find your place and function. I think musical relationships are the same as normal relationships -- if you like the people (musically), if you’re discussing interesting things (ditto), then there’s no problem.
Which (jazz) musicians inspire you most?
This always changes, Bill Evans, Brad Mehldau, Monk, Art Tatum, The Bad Plus, Chet Baker, Fred Hersch, Bela Fleck, Toots Thielmans, George Brassens, Boris Vian, Ray Angerson, Kurt Elling, Stimmhorn. My current favorite singer is Ethan Lipton.
What do you think about when you improvise?
I think about everything and nothing. I don't think so much about harmonies and form, although they're both somewhere in my head (and sometimes more than others, like when I accidentally zen myself off a cliff..). I just play.
How do you practice?
I constantly practice, but most often without the harp. There's always a tune in my head, and I'm usually listening to a possible improv over the changes. But as far as official (at the harp) practicing, this happens more when I have a specific problem to solve (a new piece, something in an upcoming concert, a technical/theoretical challenge, etc). My best practicing happens during concerts (and sound checks!)
What are you trying to improve these days?
In life, keeping on top of things, being relaxed yet organized. In music (which is probably the question), I basically keep looking for challenges, things that catch my interest, things I want to play. I also have ongoing projects (transposing Bach chorales in 4 clefs, playing with polyrhythms, fiddling with the alphorn and my banjo, looking for new tunes, etc), but these are just ways to fill the time in between inspiration.
Are you working on a new CD?
Yes! Several! In addition to the Lion/Wolf/Donkey CDs mentioned above, I'm also working on a solo CD, which I plan/hope will be finished in early 2012.
What are your plans for the years to come?
Keep playing, keep exploring, someday become a passable banjo player.
Do you have any advice for beginning jazz harpists?
Don't put your pedals in the notch when you do pedal slides. Apart from that, try to play what you want, not what you think you should play. Learn theory, but don't let it get in the way.