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Richard Paske's piano is audible from his Laurel Avenue doorstep. More audible, apparently, than my repeated knocks are to anyone inside the house. So I take in a quiet St. Paul Sunday morning while listening to what I can of the intricate syncopation of his keyboard runs. I later learn that I'm hearing Paske's piano interpretation of Duke Ellington's "African Flower," to debut at his next solo show at the Loring.
Paske eventually emerges, apologetic, and ushers me into the front room of his home. It's attractively furnished in knickknacks, with a strand of Christmas lights unobtrusively stretching across the door frame, a piano nestled among the CD racks. Paske is a benign, calming presence. His hair and goatee are equally gray, with a vestigial countercultural bushiness trimmed to middle-aged propriety. After another run through the Ellington piece, a bluesy vamp that lends itself to improvisation, he gently relates the song's history, recounting its origins in the Money Jungle sessions with Charles Mingus and Max Roach. Then Paske strays into his own personal history with the Duke.
"I'd always thought of Ellington as lukewarm, noncommittal--you know, boring," he admits. "Of course, nothing could be farther from the truth. But it took me years to be able to hear that."
This conversational tone is familiar to anyone who has tuned into Paske's radio program on KFAI (90.3 FM/106.7 FM), Fresh Ears, which since 1979 has done more to popularize free jazz and new music in the Twin Cities than any other outlet. That voice is informative and curious, never pedantic, and, above all, highly interested. That may seem a weak word, but it's more fitting to Paske's slow-burning intensity than the nervous excitement of, say, enthusiasm. Paske has a sharp focus on whatever subject he discusses, and he softly but firmly relates what he knows, just like the teacher he has intermittently been paid to behave as through the years. In 1986 at Inver Hills Community College, he taught one of the first college-level classes in the nation on MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface); he also pioneered the electronic-music program at the Perpich Center for Arts Education.
Yet despite Paske's impressive experimental and electronic background--not to mention a long career as a jazz bassist--he has committed himself to the piano for nearly five years now. "I came to the piano late in life," admits the 52-year-old. It wasn't until a McKnight Fellowship in 1996 freed him to compose for a year that he had the opportunity to truly hunker down on the ivories.
"As an electronic musician, I had all these synthesizers around me, and a lot of the parts were prerecorded," he says. "It was a lot of fun, but it still wasn't the same as sitting down with my ten fingers in front of an audience. It wasn't physical enough. There's a certain feedback between the instrument and me that I like.
"Besides," he adds with a smile, "I don't have to carry any equipment to a gig. That's a fantastic feeling, to walk in with just a book under your arm."
These early performances, however, pushed Paske's love of improvisation to some nearly embarrassing extremes. "Some of those first Loring gigs I would get so lost," he recalls. "But that was a huge part of the experience for me, learning to play through my mistakes, and to find my way back."
The path from an early infatuation with John Cage and Steve Reich back to Ellington and Monk was just as winding. The little boy who'd bang on pots and pans to Stan Kenton and jump up on a chair to conduct Brahms survived an abortive series of de rigueur piano lessons in Edina to settle on the tuba, which he still exhumes for the odd gig. In his senior year of high school, Paske took up the electric bass and rock 'n' roll. He left that behind when he entered the army, where he learned the standards--"Misty," "Satin Doll," "Girl From Ipanema"--that stayed in his repertoire when he returned to play the local country-club circuit. At the same time, he continued experimenting with tape loops and other early electronic music on the side.
In 1979 Paske made his first foray into computer programming. "I'd heard that the Grateful Dead had built a digital synthesizer and that sounded cool. I wanted to do that too," he recalls. "I learned quickly that I didn't have the engineering chops. But I did learn to program a computer."
While acquainting himself with the technology, Paske composed a 1980 piece for the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, Singing Space. "I built a little digital synthesizer out of a microcomputer and two wire-wrapped video-game chips," he says. Tweaking his contraption to mimic a tamboura (a fretless lute), he conducted the orchestra and coaxed improvisational help from the audience as well.
Around this time, Paske slid into a spot on KFAI. He had been affiliated with KFAI since its first efforts to get a license in 1973, and a live gig with his trio was the community station's first broadcast, in 1979. Soon he was an on-air personality, conducting interviews with new-music pioneers Reich, Steve Lacy, and John Carter. (Cage composed a piece, at Paske's invitation, for one KFAI fund drive.) In recent years he has set aside Black History Month to program extended blocks from specific jazz figures--so far, Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington, and Ornette Coleman. "Next year is a no-brainer because it's 2001," Paske says, "and you've got to do Sun Ra in 2001."
Paske sees Sun Ra as the last big-band traditionalist rather than a trickster, someone willing to further a style others left to wither. Listening to Paske's music with the trio--a swinging pulse unsettled by modernist rhythmic tics and spiked with unkempt tonalities--it's easy to see Paske as a less flashy participant in a similar tradition.