Not everyone likes listening to sophisticated, highbrow music that forces you to pause and ponder. That's a fact that jazz musician Chad Lawson has come to appreciate and embrace in pursuing his solo career.
A classically trained pianist, Lawson left Berklee College of Music after two years to join Django Reinhardt's son Babik in a touring jazz troupe two decades ago and never looked back. He later started his own eponymous jazz trio but grew disillusioned with the insularity of the scene and longed for something more satisfying than the genre's talent-show-type performances.
"The thing with jazz is there's a lot of, 'Let me show you how much of an awesome musician I am. Let me show you what kind of chops I have. I'm going to wow you,'" Lawson says from his home in Charlotte. "I began to feel a real disconnect with that.
"We wound up playing festivals and so-and-so was either before us or after us," he continues. "We were like, 'We need to be sure we can blow them off the stage,' and I'm like, 'Is this really what music is all about?' This isn't the reason I started playing when I was five."
After doing the Chad Lawson Trio for a decade and releasing three albums — one of which was interpretations of music from The Wizard of Oz — Lawson felt the need for a change and went on the road with Julio Iglesias as his keyboardist. It was pretty much the exact opposite of what he had been doing, and somewhere in front of those 35,000 screaming European and South American fans he found his courage.
"A light bulb just went off," he says. "If Julio can do this, I can do this."
When the tour ended he recorded his solo debut, 2009's Set on a Hill. His approach, both then and now, was to make a very meditative kind of piano music, pregnant with open space and pauses. It's dramatic without being demanding, willing to whisper its sweet mournful melodies from the background.
"I was like, 'Alright, what if [the music] was just meant for complete chill and taking one's mind off of things?'" Lawson asks. "Every album, the very first song comes on and it's like you have to grab people. Well, we have enough things grabbing us every day. I kind of wanted to go the other way."
Set on a Hill didn't strike a nerve so much as a knotted muscle, offering comfort and relief with its near-lullaby-like manner. After its debut, emails started rolling in that reinforced Lawson's decision.
"One went, 'I'm going through a difficult time in my life. I go home and I lie on my floor and listen to your music and even if it's 45 minutes, in that time span the world stops for a little bit,'" Lawson says.
"Another guy said he was a cyclist and got run over by a car," he continues. "'I've been in the hospital for eight months, and your music is the only thing that lets me sleep at night.' I was like cripes! Then I could see this was really connecting to people. Whereas in the jazz world, I never got that."
He got the idea for his latest album, The Chopin Variations, more than a dozen years ago when his jazz trio was working on their Wizard of Oz album. He saw how much people connected to something with which they were familiar. Later, playing a tune on the Bob Edwards Show, he saw lots of tweets wrongly suggesting he was playing Chopin, and he realized the pianist's work would be a great, populist choice for a similar renovation.
For the first time he recruited help — violinist Judy Kang (Lady Gaga, Ryuichi Sakamoto) and cellist Rubin Kodheli (Kanye West, Norah Jones). Both echo Lawson's restrained manner with their understated contributions. They did this without any instruction, responding simply to the recordings he sent them.
"I didn't send any charts or anything at all and just let them put whatever they wanted and it was really fascinating just to see how they were able to understand what I was trying to do," he says. "These are top-shelf musicians who have played around the world but were willing to just play three to four notes in a piece and be completely fine with it. That showed me their musicianship."
Lawson used a heavy piece of felt to dampen the piano sound, adding to the dark, moody tone that, to him, evokes Chopin working on a little melody at two in the morning, a candle on his piano. "Before all the crazy garnishes and the flowery stuff," he says. "The bare-bones idea of the song."
The Chopin Variations is truly a case of less is more. It's that approach that's helped send the album to the top of the iTunes classical music charts — it debuted at No. 1 — and earned him an appearance on the nation's most-listened-to classical radio program, Performance Today, and on NPR's Echoes with John Diliberto (you can hear both those performances online).
"There is a gluttony of mediocrity out there — what can I do to elevate this and make the average person go, 'Wow this is a little different,'" says Lawson. But he does issue a disclaimer. "I tell people not to drive with it on because you should never operate machinery when you listen to this."