By Pete Zamplas- Piano to popcorn popper — Aaron Price plays it all, as an integral part of Asheville’s jazz legacy for three decades who bridges into music scene’s creative, eclectic sounds and has produced many of the finest locally-based musicians.
The versatile bearded musician, producer and teacher played keyboard solo and with punk rock cellist Polly Panic in the recent Fringe Festival’s off-beat Poetry Cabaret. He likes how Fringe introduces people to ongoing underground comedy and poetry.
He accompanies both each month. Improv comedy includes on first Fridays in Crow and Quill. He plays piano and guitar with exotic cabaret singer Vendetta Creme, and often Kelly Barrow on vox. Price plays on second Fridays for Reasonably Priced Babies’ improv comedy, in Altamont Theatre. He has also played at LEAF.
His upcoming Asheville special shows include on Sunday, March 5, 5:30 in Isis Upstairs Lounge. He writes and plays “modern jazz with traditional sensibilities” mixing swing and other styles.
Sensibility departs amidst his “experimental, avant garde music,” beyond his many “unpredictable harmonies and melodic hooks.” Price once popped a popcorn air popper while Ira Bernstein tap danced to the beat. “He tapped slowly as the popper warmed up. Four minutes later, there was furious popping and tapping.” He also did percussive “guitar pickups on a typewriter. Risk-taking is exciting.”
A sizzling treat for contra dancers is on Thursday, Feb. 23 at 8 p.m. in Warren Wilson College. Price reunites with frenetic fiddler Cailen Campbell and peppy banjo player Andy Pond to play up-tempo old-time mountain music. Price said he might play guitar, bass and keyboard for the weekly dance that night.
The trio is among early members of whacky, colorfully-clad, multi-styled/media Snake Oil Medicine Band that played as artists painted on stage. Price calls them “brilliant,” and his first taste of showmanship and “high art and music” trumping his usual precision. He is shier live — “I keep my eyes shut most of the time. It allows me to listen harder.” The esteemed contra Gypsy Hicks were fiddler Campbell, Price on guitar, accordion and piano; and fellow Snake Oil alum Jason Krekel on mandolin, banjo and bouzouki.
Price, who turned 43 on Feb. 8, still plays traditional jazz such as in Grove Park Inn’s ballroom on Christmas Day. His benefit performances include annually producing-hosting one in December he said raised $2,750 for Habitat for Humanity.
Polly Panic gets intense, as a punk cellist who played with Aaron Price at Fringe. Photo by Pete Zamplas.
“A.P.” is well known for playing in jazz combos. he branches out to other styles. He sings originals in the duo Bedfellows, with guitarist Valorie Miller. He writes original alt-rock songs for Kill The Clique, a quartet he and Miller are in. The songs have a “modern vibe,with a bit of glam and classic rock sensibilities. I don’t put boundaries on harmonies.” Ultimately, “my love of jazz always comes out” in his “potpourri” of styles.
Kavalactones is his most avant garde band, playing mostly original instrumentals with much humming a la “David Byrne nonsense,” Price said. Price sings the few songs with words.
Synthesizers befitting Asheville’s more surreal turntable “DJ” sounds release swirling, soothing melodies both as “ambient background sounds, and cool lead sounds,” Price said. “You can connect the different components in any order.” The “experimental ‘drip’ noise uses analog instruments, found objects, and expressionist vocals” to reach “sonic realms.”
Price plays synthesizers, vox, and bass. Keyboardist Max Meiner and guitarist Alfonso Graceffo also play “synths.” Alt-poet Caleb Beissert is on drums and percussion.
Kavalactones (named after a drink’s tranquilizing shrub compound) is using “found” instruments to “reinvent” its sound to fit the theme of (Re)Happening March 25 at the historic Black Mountain College. Already “once we establish a theme, anything is fair game harmonically.” Improvisation is a hallmark of jazz gigs. “It enables you to put part of your conscious brain to rest. Just channel art and music. He equates jamming to hang gliding. “You don’t know where the wind will blow you.”
He also plays mainly piano, guitar and bass in sessions for blues and other artists including ones he produces such as Kellin Watson and Abe Reid. “I’ve surprised a few clients by being able to play almost every instrument they need,” he said.
His client on Saturday was his son Phineas. He crafted for him a multi-instrumental karaoke track of a “Hamilton” tune in key of Phineas’ voice, for a talent show in local ArtsSpace charter school. Phineas is in second grade. He is “fascinated” by synthesizers, his father said. “I’ll point out a rhythm guitar track deep down in the mix, and how it contributes to how you feel. It makes you want to jump up and down.” Price’s daughter Lilah, 16, is into musical theater and “amazing” with musical ear, on guitar and singing. She already writes songs.
Above all, “I shine as a side man, and an arranger,” he said. “I’ve been a musician, first and foremost — who records people who ask me to record them.”
He developed “sight reading, and improvisation.” Both of his parents were piano teachers. “My ear training started right away” for music, he recalled. “I spent many hours as an infant near the piano, when my Mom was teaching lessons. By 3, I could pick out melodies on a piano. Music is a very innate part of my psyche.”
As a “romantic” pop songwriter, his lyrics are personal but mostly “allegorical. I disguise some personal sentiments, in an alternate character to express myself.” Songs are not “about one specific person. Each is a collection of experiences.”
Price likes to “process your emotions, and channel them in a song.” Patient, “I wait for inspiration to strike” such as when he thought of a full song while driving home. “I have more songs unfinished than finished. Some are 15 years old. They just need a bridge,” he said. “I’m the guy who builds a crazy sculpture in his yard. I’d rather people drive by and see it, rather than it be in a museum” for many to see. He has shelved songs for stylistically or thematically “companion songs.” He hopes to score a poignant piano solo of his “for an ensemble.”
Price has been a professional musician in Asheville for half of his life. He first recorded soon after graduating in 1996 from Appalachian State, in a bandmate’s bungalow. In 1998, Price launched a professional recording studio “out of necessity” to fill a void. He ran Collapseable Studios in West Asheville for 17 years, to 2015.
He admires “bold, sweeping” engineering. Digital editing is “so much simpler. Before you had to permanently erase a track, and start over. Now, you can edit and add ad nauseam until you get what you want.”
He said “pressure can make for a good performance” live and also in the studio, to gain “necessary authenticity.” Slipping on the recorder, “I really like to capture the very first incarnation of a performance — whether it’s perfect or not.” Many musicians rely on “the producer’s ear, to decide which take is best.” Some jazz artists release two divergent takes of a song.
He further notes that in part, the “producer’s role is as psychologist. It’s knowing when to take a break, when to push through, and when to change gears and work on another piece. Every artist is different. You feel how far they can be pushed — to arrive at the best take.” He reasons fatigue can spawn “mastery”by the “brain’s instinctual side.”
Price as dry-humored producer is “quick to make jokes, to cut any tension I perceive. But I never make jokes at someone’s expense. I prefer situational humor.”
He praises effort and risk in teaching kindergarteners, who try various instruments in Asheville Symphony’s MusicWorks! He said they develop listening to music and people, to be more “sympathetic”and gain “emotional intelligence, through music.”
For samples of Price’s music, check: http://produceraaronprice.tumblr.com.