With nimbleness and precision, Josh Jessen prompts his fingers from each ivory key to the next. He senses the atmosphere, feels the beat, intuits what’s needed, and breaks down the fourth wall. All eyes focus on Jessen, 20, when the College Conservatory of Music jazz student takes a seat at the piano.
The Bowling Green, KY native and Bill Evans enthusiast started playing piano at age 6 and grew up surrounded by disparate musical tastes.
“My mom always listened to soul music, like Earth Wind and Fire or the Spinners, and my dad was always listening to Billy Joel and Elton John,” he says. “But then my classical teachers were showing me, like, [Frédéric] Chopin and [Claude] Debussy. And then I had the jazz guys showing me Oscar Peterson.”
It’s not surprising, then, that Jessen constantly pushes the limits in his musical choices. His background is in jazz and classical music, but he is also active in the hip-hop field.
In summer 2011, Jessen began recording with Hi-Tek, the multiplatinum hip-hop producer for artists such as Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Common and Snoop Dogg. Jessen considers Questlove, J Dilla, The Roots and Hi-Tek to be among his greatest influences.
“It’s ‘the groove’,” Jessen explains as he snaps his fingers and drops a beat in his lap. “It’s what excites me and that’s why I love it.”
“When he [Jessen] plays, it’s a feeling I don’t get with a lot of other musicians,” says Jon Massey, CCM student and frequent band mate of Jessen. “The emotional stakes are high — you have to meet him at that level.”
Massey has played with Jessen for more than three years now, exploring everything from jazz to classical, big band and hip-hop. “No matter what it is, there’s a real sense the purpose is higher than just playing notes,” Massey says. “It’s more about expression and feeling.”
Audiences around the world approve. In addition to playing in Spoleto, Italy, last summer, last spring Jessen performed in the Bucharest International Jazz Competition in Bucharest, Romania, as part of a Cincinnati jazz quartet.
After returning from playing in France, Jessen left to study in Brazil until January.
When in Cincinnati, Jessen regularly plays at the Blue Wisp Jazz Club, Dee Felice Café, Corner BLOC Coffee and Rohs Street Café. He has made music with some of the biggest names in the jazz scene, including Rich Perry, Jim Snidero, Sara Montiel and drummer John Von Ohlen.
Von Ohlen, also known as “the Baron,” has played with Jessen, primarily at Dee Felice in Covington. He says in terms of talent, Jessen has it.
”He’s got it all,” says Von Ohlen, who played in bands with Woody Herman and Stan Kenton. “He can write his own ticket if that’s what he wants to do.”
Jessen reminds the CEA Music Hall of Fame Inductee of himself as a teenager. “When I first met him, he was always saying, ‘Come over and dig this, man! Come over and dig this moment.’ And that’s how I was when I was a teenager.”
But Jessen does more than play others’ work; he writes his own. When composing music, Jessen often looks to people in his life for inspiration.
“I’ve written a song for my mom, I’ve written a song for this Russian girl I was really into for a while, I’ve written a song for my niece,” Jessen says. “They need to be a certain quality for the sake of that person so that person isn’t short-changed — you don’t want to write a bad song for someone you care a lot about.”
When he takes the stage, Jessen’s goals are more spiritual than superficial. “What happens is less about how perfect each note was and more about, ‘Was the general expression passionate and for the right reasons? Were the intentions in the right place?’ ” Jessen says.
“We have to be enjoying ourselves — not faking it. You want to make sure you’re loving what you do so people will be digging it too.”
Despite his easily excitable nature, Jessen is all about calming down when preparing for a show. “Sometimes, I need to just relax, and I’ll listen to the National or something,” Jessen says. “The best thing is to just make sure I’m calm and focused, so that I can be honest about the music that’s happening.”
Jessen strongly disagrees with those who would argue that classical music and jazz are on the decline not just in Cincinnati, but everywhere.
“I don’t think it’s dying — I think it’s all just part of a cycle,” Jessen says. “Classical music is starting to come up in the café scene — which is crucial — because the café scene is what our generation breathes. There are starting to be a lot of combinations where classical musicians, rock musicians, jazz musicians, are getting together to create music are becoming very popular in our generation.”
He says international connections will make it possible for more and more people to sample a wider range of musical options, including jazz.
“Unless it was happening in your city, unless you had a television, or your radio, maybe it wasn’t happening that often,” Jessen says. “Now, the world can listen to jazz.”
Listen to a sample of Jessen’s playing at the click of a button
Kyle Stone is a Journalism and English student at the University of Cincinnati. This is his first story for Soapbox.