“It’s such an honor to have been selected in both competitions,” says Avey, 26, of Brooklyn. “And I’m humble to the task. The music is bigger than me. It’s like the definition of infinity – there’s more music to check out. I’ll always be someone who is just learning.”
This marks the second year consecutive year that a Purchase College Music Conservatory graduate has been recognized in the Thelonius Monk Institute of Jazz competition, considered the world’s most prestigious competition for emerging jazz artists. In 2010, singer Cyrille Aimee, ’09, placed third in the Monk vocalist competition.
Avey’s piece for Chamber Music America will explore the rhythms of Haitian drummers – those first-generation West Africans brought to the Caribbean island as slaves. Avey is drawn to the drumming that accompanies Voodoo ceremonies, which conjures up spirits that take its adherents into an altered world, closer to their God.
“It’s a great universal language, and while those brought over to Haiti didn’t know their neighbors, they all had drums, and they could find that common language with rhythm and music,” he says.
Avey discovered Haiti’s heroic, yet tragic, history in Tracy Kidder’s masterpiece, “Mountains Beyond Mountains,” the story of Paul Farmer and his Partners in Health organization. The grant will take him to Haiti later this year, to listen to the rhythms, and incorporate that into his hour-long piece. After all, the piano is a rhythm instrument, and Avey plays it with breathtaking virtuosity.
Avey says his studies at Purchase from 2003 to 2007 laid a strong foundation for his music career. While at the conservatory, he studied jazz piano with Hal Galper, and Charles Blenzig, while studying classical piano with Steven Lubin. Avey says he’d spend long hours in the Conservatory practice rooms, working on his assignments, then finding time to develop his own musical voice.
“First I’d take care of business, and do what the professors asked of me,” says Avey. “Then I’d be able to get down to my own stuff, which could have me in the practice room all day.”
Todd Coolman, director of Jazz Studies at Purchase, says Avey was already considered “an advanced player” when he enrolled in 2003. His skills at composition deepened at the Conservatory.
“Bobby has a very unusual drive to express himself through music,” says Coolman. “He was utterly self-motivated and never required a lot of input from any of us.”
Avey, who grew up in northeastern Pennsylvania, vaulted into prominence while still in high school, where he played in a big band called the COTA Cats. While playing at the Celebration of the Arts Jazz Festival in 2001 in the Delaware Water Gap, renowned saxophonist and jazz educator David Liebman heard about his playing, and called Avey to invite him to play at his vacation home in the Poconos.
“I was just shivering, with this jazz icon calling some 10th-grader,” recalls Avey. “But I went to his house. I played, and he told me what I’d have to do to come back to the house again. I came back, and he has been a musical and life-mentor to me ever since. I don’t know many men who are busier than Dave, but he always has the time to answer my calls, and has the time to show me the love.”
Liebman has played on Avey’s two CDs – Vienna Dialogues, which he recorded with Liebman in 2006, and A New Face, in 2010, featuring Liebman, Thomson Kneeland, and Jordan Perlson. Both are available athttp://www.bobbyavey.com.
Liebman says Avey has the attitude and talent to make a name in jazz.
“He’s very serious, and straight-ahead,” says Liebman. “He knows what it takes to get a position in the jazz world, and he’s pursuing his own path musically. He’s got his own thing, and has found a place for himself.”