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John Nyerges orchestrates a life in jazz

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If you've seen pianist John Nyerges in concert over the last three decades, chances are you were in Kodak Hall at the Eastman Theatre. Nyerges has occupied the jazz piano chair in the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra's Pops concerts for 27 years.

But when Nyerges takes the stage at Lovin' Cup on Saturday, he'll be playing with a far smaller group. His jazz quintet — with Clay Jenkins on trumpet; Doug Stone, saxophone; Eric Metzgar, drums; and Kyle Vock, bass — will celebrate the release of Nyerges's soulful new album, "Music From The Heart."

From the heart is an understatement; the album is highly personal, with almost every tune dedicated to someone special. "The Look In Your Eyes" was written for his wife, Kathy, who is also his musical coach. "Solid As Stone" was written for saxophonist Stone. And "Can You Feel That" is for another of the album's sax players, Alexa Tarantino. Even "WGMC Blues" is dedicated to the radio station Jazz 90.1.

The CD provided a chance to honor a favorite teacher, the late Fred Sturm, with "Tribute," and some of his top influences, Michael and Randy Brecker, with "Brecker's Blues." Nyerges is especially enamored of the late saxophonist Michael Brecker.

"I've just been so influenced by his sound, his fusion, and his straight-ahead music," Nyerges says. "I try to always write sitting on the fence between traditional jazz and modern changes."

Growing up near Winton Road and Humboldt Street, Nyerges was surrounded by music. All three of his brothers played instruments and his mother played classical records. At the age of 4, Nyerges went over to the family's piano and began to pick out a melody. He began lessons at 5, and it wasn't long before he got a glimpse of his future.

"I remember being in third grade and looking up from my elementary school fieldtrip to see the orchestra on stage," Nyerges says. "I couldn't believe my eyes. I was thinking, 'Are they playing this live?' It was pretty amazing." By 12, he was attending Eastman Community Music School on a scholarship.

Nyerges gravitated to jazz while a student at East High School, when he watched a classmate, Joe Locke, play vibraphone with the Spider Martin Band in the school auditorium. "I thought, wow, jazz is pretty cool!" Nyerges says. Nyerges played with Locke (now a world-famous jazz artist) for the first time last month when the RPO Pops brought him in as a guest artist.

When he was accepted to the Eastman School of Music, Nyerges fell head over heals for jazz in his first year, joining an improv group, taking every opportunity to jam with other students, and playing in a jazz ensemble.

"Going to Eastman really opened my ears," says Nyerges. "That was it for me. I just wanted to play in a jazz quartet for the rest of my life."

In the late-1970's, Nyerges was playing every weekend at clubs on Alexander Street and other locations around Rochester. He fondly remembers playing with greats like trumpeter Sal Sperazza and bassist Steve Davis, (John Coltrane's bassist).

He'd built a strong local reputation when he got a call out of the blue from the then-soon-to-be RPO Principal Pops Conductor Jeff Tyzik who was producing a session for Allen Vizzutti. It turned out the pianist who was slated to play the session had moved to Florida and neglected to tell Tyzik.

"I'm not sure how he got my name, but Jeff hired me," Nyerges says. "I played pretty well, and he hired me for other gigs. I played two years in Buffalo with Doc Severinsen because they were good friends, and when he got the RPO gig, he brought me on board."

But 27 years is a lengthy gig. How does he explain his longevity?

"If you don't mess up, you keep getting hired," says Nyerges. "You have to know how to sight-read and you have to be a good soloist. You have to be able to accompany vocalists well, so my years with Nancy Kelly paid off. You always have to come prepared with your A-game.

"When the New York Voices come or Eddie Daniels or Arturo Sandoval, I'll study their recordings so I'll know what they like to hear. It's tough because you're playing with some of the greatest players out there."

Nyerges says Tyzik's arrangements help; they're easy to read and they're set up logically.

"Bands come through town and hire you," Nyerges says. "I've seen the books for Tommy Dorsey, Jimmy Dorsey, Glenn Miller... I've played with all those ghost orchestras and some of those charts are pretty messed up and hard to read. They're hand-written; there are cigarette stains and coffee stains on them. That's tough. Jeff's charts are much easier."

As for those RPO Pops guest artists, Nyerges is constantly in awe.

"Gerry Niewood was amazing. Playing with Doc was amazing. Linda Hopkins and Arturo Sandoval were excellent," says Nyerges. "Eddie Daniels is one of the smoothest, most musical clarinetists in classical and jazz. These people are amazing performers."

He has equal respect for the local musicians on his album.

"Vince Ercolamento is one of my best friends for more than 30 years. Vinnie's got a beautiful saxophone sound. Clay Jenkins — he plays with the best. Doug Stone has his own sound. Alexa is a phenomenal young talent, and she is so much fun to work with. I've got the old pros and the young star."

Aside from his RPO Pops duties, Nyerges heads the Jazz Instrumental Program, directs ensembles and teaches recording techniques at Monroe Community College. And over the years he's freelanced with stars like Joe Henderson, Maria Schneider, Joe Lovano, Benny Carter, Bob Brookmeyer, and Steve Gadd.

But there's nothing like releasing a CD showcasing his own musical vision.

"It's about as satisfying as anything can be," Nyerges says. "They say there are three things you're supposed to do in life: Have a child, plant a tree, and write a book. I've had children and I've planted a lot. This is my book."

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