The Essential Pianist: John Bayless

I like to introduce you to the music of John Bayless. Bayless, an American, is a crossover artist who blends classical piano techniques with popular and film music in sensitive and imaginative improvisations. The New York Times describes him as “an evocative pianist with a lovely piano sound and considerable personal pizzazz.” High Fidelity Magazine says Bayless is a pianist with “extraordinary imagination, … tremendous musicality and an imposing technique.”

Bayless started playing the piano when he was four, receiving lessons from his mother who taught him the methods and music of the classical traditions, including Bach, Mozart, Chopin, Rachmaninov, and Gershwin. But it was the music of the movies that shaped his performing and recording career most.

He grew up in the town on the West Texas Plains, which had a drive-in movie where the family went every Friday regardless of weather. Along with the chili-cheese hamburgers, doughnuts, and popcorn, the young Bayless ingested the music of film scores and was soon rushing over the piano to recreate the music of Mancini, Rota, Steiner, Rozsa, Herrmann, and Williams.

At 15, Bayless won a scholarship to the Aspen School of Music, then moved to New York two years later to study at the Juilliard School of Music. It was there that he met his mentor, the legendary Leonard Bernstein, to whom they became close friends.

Bayless with composer/conductor, Leonard Bernstein

In 2007, he suffered a stroke that that left him without use of his right hand. Shortly after he completed his stroke rehabilitation program, he met local philanthropist Peggy Cravens, who, among her other charitable work, was Chairman of the Board of the Virginia Waring International Piano Competition. Bayless is now the artistic director for the Virginia Waring International Piano Competition.

As a performer, both solo piano and with orchestra, Bayless has appeared at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall, the Boston Pops and New York Pops among others. His recording debut was the 1985 album entitled, Happy Birthday Bach, which was created in honor of Bach’s 300-year birthday celebration. Two subsequent releases, Bach meets the Beatles and Bach on Abby Road, contained his improvisations on Beatles melodies. The former was selected as one of the Top Ten Classical Crossover Recordings of the 1980’s by Billboard Magazine. His 1993 Puccini Album Arias for Piano occupied No. 1 on Billboard Magazine’s Classical Crossover Chart where it remained for 18 weeks, selling over 175,000 albums. The Movie Album – Classical Pictures followed and contains some of the most beautiful movie music ever written, interwoven with famous classical themes. This album debuted in 1997 and has remains a favorite the world over. To see why, have a listen to this sensitive rendition of the soundtrack from the film, Il Postino (The Postman) by the Argentinian composer, Luis Bacalov.

Soundtrack from the film Il Postino (“The Postman”), composer: Luis Bacalov, from John Bayless, The Movie Album: Classical Pictures (1997).

The fourth album Romantica (1999) is my personal favorite. This album contains Bayless’ interpretations of great Italian love songs, arias mixed arrangements of popular music.  This is how the liner notes describe the album:

Much of the music on Romantica is difficult to label as classical in the traditional sense. Surely the opera arias … would be called classical, but what of venerable and immensely popular songs such as “Mattinata” and “Carusa”? Or a film theme like Morricone’s Cinema Paradiso, not to mention “Con te partito” (“Time to Say Goodbye”) which Sarah Brightman and Andrei Bocelli made into an international pop hit. Will time and enduring popular affection elevate them to “classical status”? Where does the popular element end and the classical begin?

What John Bayless understands is that there is no meaningful answer to that question. There is only the incomparable pleasure and romance of a great Italian melody. Call it what you will, it is simple and yet essential, like the air we breathe. Perhaps that is why Bayless makes the piano sing.

Two Pieces from Romantica (1999):

Santa Lucia /Oboe Concerto, 2nd movement. Alessandro Marcello (composer), Teodoro Cottrau (translator). John Bayless on the piano, with the San Francisco Boy’s Choir. Choral Arrangement: John Bayless and Earl Brown. Tenor: Norman Shankle.

Con Te Partiro (Time to Say Goodbye). L. Quarantotta & F. Sartori. Sax: Richard Elliot.

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