Justin Kauflin's sold-out Abu Dhabi Festival show may be a one-off affair, but the songs he will perform stem from the time he spent in the UAE. If his name sounds familiar, it's probably because the New Yorker spent about three months in Dubai in 2017, as part of a residency at the excellent Q's Bar and Lounge.
With nearly 300 hours of stage time to fill, pianist Kauflin recalls how his stay here presented him with the perfect opportunity to work on the tunes that would come to form his latest album Coming Home. "And this is why I will always be grateful for that experience in the UAE," he says.
"The kind of residency I did back when I was in the UAE for the first time is very rare in the jazz world nowadays. I think it was very important because you have the chance to play in front of people practically every night and you get to really get into the music. We workshopped a lot of things out there."
Working with Quincy Jones
Coming Home's UAE connection doesn't end there. The opportunity to perform at Q's Bar and Lounge was apt, as the list of performers at the venue is curated by none other than his mentor, acclaimed music producer Quincy Jones. If you get the time, dig deep into your Netflix catalogue and find the 2014 documentary Keep On Keepin' On. The film is a moving account of the then novice musician Kauflin's relationship with famed trumpeter Clark Terry.
Director Alan Hicks not only showcased their musical chemistry, but he also showed the parallel nature of their lives off stage: Terry's sight was deteriorating due to complications from diabetes, while Kauflin was still coming to terms with losing his sight at the age of 11, to a hereditary disease of the retina. With Terry dying five months before the film was released in cinemas in the United States, it was one of the musician's other students, Jones, who took Kauflin under his wing.
Although the film was deeply personal, Kauflin says it has helped introduce him to his audience before they attend his shows. "The film has been quite transformative for my career, in that not many jazz musicians get to be introduced to an audience on a personal level like that," he says. "A lot of people feel like they already knew me and they want to ask me about things from the film, such as if I am still suffering from stage fright.
What’s wonderful is that it allows people to kind of maybe have a better perspective on where I’m coming from with my music. I always find that context helps when it comes to understanding what somebody is trying to say in their music.”
A key aspect of the film was the role jazz music played in helping Kauflin deal emotionally with the loss of his eyesight. In a previous interview with The National, he discussed how the genre's improvisatory nature was suited to his condition. "I was worried about, how am I going to make this music thing work. And, really, classical music wasn't going to work out and I didn't see myself being that for the rest of my life," he said.
"Then jazz came along and that opened up all sorts of new possibilities. Because of jazz being an oral tradition, all of a sudden I was on equal playing ground with my peers. I was thinking, I can do this. The more I learnt, the more freedom I gained."
Working in colours
In Coming Home, that message of finding stability in a life that's constantly moving, took some time to refine. Its luscious and modern sounds, from the orchestrations to the swirling synthesizers, came as a result of a question posed to the jazz musician by Jones, who co-produced the album.
Recorded in Hollywood's famed Westlake Studios, where Jones added his magic touch to Michael Jackson's 1982 pop music masterpiece Thriller, Kauflin describes the producer's style as meditative. "He was like the guru of the album," Kauflin says. "What I love about Quincy is that he doesn't say a lot, but when he does it is quite poignant and very useful. He was in the studio with us and hearing the songs and he said: 'So, when are you going to start painting?' It really made me think."
Inspired by Jones's suggestion, Kauflin says he began thinking of his songs as canvases and, in turn, expanded his musical palette. And what he envisaged initially as a bare-boned album full of live music energy, honed in Dubai, became a rich and lovingly detailed collection of songs.
It was that same process of discovery that led to the album's key theme of movement. Tracks such as the sprightly Looking Forward and the languid charm of The Carousel may fall in line with that subject matter, but Kauflin says it was the songs themselves that solidified what he thought about the theme himself.
"It is a reverse way of working, in a way," he says. "I don't sit down in the piano and think: 'OK, I am going to write a song about Brooklyn or my time in the Middle East.' Once I start playing around a bit and a structure develops, then I can recognise the idea. I ask myself, 'what does this make me feel and what does it remind me of?' And that's kind of how it works."
So, what track on the album reminds him of extended UAE stay? "Oh, that has got to be Country Fried," Kauflin says, referring to the album's sixth track, which is characterised by a locomotive drum rhythm.
"That song is about having a good time and it is one of my most celebratory type of songs. It has nothing to do really with Dubai directly, but it reminds of me of my whole time in the country. Every night we were up on the stage, we were having a great time and I would meet these interesting people from around the world. I hope that vibe comes through in that piece. It will come when I see you in Abu Dhabi, too."
Justin Kauflin performs at the Arts Centre, New York University Abu Dhabi on March 11 at 8pm. Tickets are sold out. For further details, visit www.abudhabifestival.ae