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Interview with Joe Bongiorno, October 2007
Interview with Joe Bongiorno, image 1
Pianist/composer Joe Bongiorno recently released his third CD, "Somewhere Within," and I think it's his best album so far. I like it so much that I gave it a "Reviewer's Pick" on the Solo Piano Publications website! We were planning to do a live interview when I went to a Whisperings concert in Portland, Oregon three years ago, but a family emergency canceled Joe's appearance at the concert, which was disappointing for both of us. The release of a new album is always a good time to get some extra exposure, so here we are! Joe is currently based near Seattle, WA, so I'm hoping we can finally meet in the near-future.

Joe Bongiorno was born and raised in Chicago. He has two sisters, one older and one younger, and a younger brother. All four kids took piano lessons, but Joe says his younger sister, Catherine, was the most talented. Joe's mother, Madeleine, was a stay-at-home mom while the kids were growing up, but she and Joe's older sister now own a business designing and making polar fleece clothes and blankets. Joe's dad, Joe Sr., is a psychiatrist in Chicago.

KP: How old were you when you started playing the piano?

JB: I had four years of classical training starting when I was seven, but I never really took to it. I loved playing the piano, but was bored by the scales. I loved to noodle around and figure out my favorite melodies by ear, but classical music never really moved me. Sports became my driving interest when I was eleven, so I quit piano lessons. My father told me, "someday you'll thank me," referring to the lessons I so gladly abandoned! There was always a piano in the house so I continued to play regularly.

KP: Were you encouraged to improvise or compose by your piano teacher?

JB: Unfortunately no. I might have stuck with lessons had I been given the freedom to play the music I wanted to play. My daughter, Taylor, came to me a few months back (at age fifteen), wanting to learn piano. She was mesmerized and solely motivated by the idea of playing the "Titanic Theme." [KP groans!] We bought the easy version of the sheet music, took her to a teacher, and asked that she be taught beginning piano and this piece at the same time. Taylor plays all the time now! I wouldn't have it any other way. Music is meant to be enjoyed, not forced.

KP: I couldn't agree more, but I think I had more than twenty students working on "Titanic" when it was so popular, and can hardly stand it now! Don't tell Taylor that, though!

JB: I had to learn it, too. A few years back, everyone wanted it played at their weddings. I just got Taylor the sheet music to "Angel" by Sarah McLachlan, another one of her favorites. I am looking forward to hearing a new tune!

KP: Do you play other instruments?

JB: I tried taking up the guitar when I was nineteen, but it drove me crazy because it's not as "linear" as the keyboard. Playing the synth allowed me to play many other "virtual" instruments, so I reverted back to the keys full-time.

KP: How old were you when you wrote your first song?

JB: Sixteen. I was in the basement one night, playing the family Everett upright, and I came up with a melody that I kept playing over and over. Catherine came running downstairs saying, "That's cool! What song is that?" The rest is history!

KP: Did you play with any rock bands?

JB: When I was in high school, I met a couple of guys who were starting a rock band and needed a keyboard player. I had saved about $600 from lawn mowing jobs that summer, so I went out and bought a synthesizer. I started playing along with the radio and my LP's - Van Halen, Rush, U2, Flock of Seagulls, Duran Duran, etc. I tried out for the band and made it, and had a blast playing dances and parties in high school. At that time, I also started improvising dreamy music on my synth. My buddies used to laugh at the stuff I would come up with. They would yawn dramatically, pretending to fall asleep standing. Pretty funny stuff!

KP: When did you start playing professionally?

JB: Besides the high school gigs, I was about twenty-one when I was first hired to play new age synth music at a wedding (in 1991). Since then, I have played at more than two hundred weddings!

KP: Who or what are your biggest musical influences?

JB: Besides my father and grandfather (both very talented pianists),
Yanni was a big early influence for me. The melodies in his early music (the late 80's) were so memorable. I actually bumped into him in a grocery store parking lot when he was living in this area, probably fifteen years ago!

KP: His first several albums were mind-boggling because they were so different, and his early concerts with a small band were just amazing. Seeing violinists Charlie Bisharat and Karen Briggs dueling onstage was some of the most incredible musicianship I've ever seen, and it always looked like all of the musicians were having an absolute blast. It's just not the same with a full symphony, so I'm really glad I saw several of his early concerts.

Interview with Joe Bongiorno, image 2
JB: Yanni's "In My Time" CD was a big part of my move toward the acoustic piano. Since then, the most influential pianists for me have been Michael Gettel, Wayne Gratz, and Kevin Kern. Their music definitely fueled my passion for the piano!

KP: Wayne and Kevin both get my newsletter, so they'll be happy to read that! What inspired you to start composing your own music?

JB: I heard melodies in my head, and whenever I sat down to play music, my emotions would just pour out. It really was a relief to play! What pushed me toward solo piano was a visit to my second cousin, Joann Bongiorno, in Chicago about ten years ago.

She's a classical virtuoso - an amazing player! I sat at her piano and started noodling around, and she really took to what I was doing. She gave me some pointers and somehow a spark was lit! When I went home, I spent most of my time on the piano, and fell in love with the instrument.

KP: About how many pieces have you composed so far? Have you recorded
most of them?

JB: I think I've composed more than fifty pieces, and most are recorded. I have a handful of tunes that were recorded, but didn't quite make the cut. I prefer to release shorter CD's with my best material rather than longer ones with songs that don't quite do it for me. I've gone back and reworked a few of the scratched tunes and released them later. The most notable example would be "Distant Memory" from my first CD, "At Peace." It's currently my #2 best-selling download at iTunes! This piece is based on one of the earliest melodies that I wrote, and was inspired by one of my earliest memories of the piano. When I was a child, my father used to play the piano right after dinner most nights. He would be down in the basement playing, and I could hear the music echoing through the vents in our large suburban Chicago home, all the way up to the second floor where I was usually doing my homework. To this day, my favorite time to play is right after dinner!

KP: Have you done any composing for films and TV?

JB: When I was doing electronic music, I did a couple jingles and an independent movie soundtrack called "The Martini Shot." I don't think I made a penny from any of it, but it sure was fun!

KP: What has been your most exciting musical moment or experience so far?

JB: That was quite recent. This past August, I released "Somewhere Within," and did an "in-home" performance for my best fans and closest friends. It was so wonderful to be able to perform on the piano that I used to record the CD - my own! There were about thirty people, so it was very intimate. I was so relaxed and felt connected with everyone. The music flowed effortlessly like never before, and the night ended with the most magnificent sunset viewed right above the piano!

KP: I was really sorry I had to miss that! Are there any specific pieces that you feel say the most about who you are as a person?

JB: "Forever More" from my first CD. I originally wrote it on synth in 1990, just after learning that I was about to become a father. The song represents my commitment to fatherhood, which I take great pride in. "Destined" from my second CD is another one. After composing that tune, I realized where my true inner passion and dreams lie - with my music. "Somewhere Within" from my newest CD paralleled a time when I rose out of darkness simply by choosing to do so. My favorites to actually play are "Precious Peace," which I wrote during the 9/11 tragedy; "Your Time," which I wrote as a love song for my wife at the time; and "Touched," the first piece I wrote after buying my dream piano, my Kawai RX-7.

KP: Is there a particular philosophy that you try to convey in your music?

JB: Emotion - whatever it may be. I'm not really good at putting emotions to words, but it comes so naturally to me via my music. I have no expectations when I compose and do not try to shape my music to be what I think a listener might want or expect. Embracing this concept really opened the doors to my creativity. If I like it, I play it, and if I remember it the next time I come back to the piano, then it's worth working on some more. It's that simple. If someone is looking for more complexity or something I'm not doing, that's totally cool. They'll find what they're looking for out there somewhere! My music is me, pure and simple.

KP: That's why "Somewhere Within" is so good. It is very candid and honest, and also obviously extremely personal. It takes courage to put all that out there.

JB: “Somewhere Within” represents a very introspective period in my life. Some may call it a "mid-life crisis"- if that’s what it is, then it's a beautiful thing!

KP: Do you have any favorite performers?

Interview with Joe Bongiorno, image 3
JB: My favorite performer is pianist Mike Strickland. He plays with such joy, passion, and enthusiasm, and so naturally. He has wonderful stories to share and, quite frankly, he "sucks you in." It's a beautiful thing to watch (and hear), and I have learned so much having had the opportunity to get to know him personally as well as to perform with him.

KP: Do you have any hobbies?

JB: Nature - I love to hike and to trail-ride on a mountain bike. I also have a passion for Italian food and fine wine!

KP: How long have you worked in restaurants?

JB: Since I was seventeen. It's a form of entertainment in itself, and brings me a lot of joy and satisfaction. It's also a great way to meet people and to socialize.

KP: What kind of restaurant work do you do?

JB: I am currently the general manager for a fine dining restaurant in Seattle. I've been there almost seven years. I am blessed to work for a wonderful company that values a work/life balance, and I work with a truly great, talented team. I really love being able to put my signature on the restaurant, and am very proud of our success.

KP: When did you set up the recording studio in your house?

JB: I have had recording gear as far back as my music history goes. I ran a commercial recording studio in the early-90's on San Juan Island, WA. Since those days, I have built my studio around my own personal musical needs - now that I can justify it. There's nothing like being able to make world-class recordings in your own living room, whenever you please!

KP: Do you record anyone's music other than your own?

JB: I just completed recording David Nevue's upcoming solo piano release, "Adoration," which should be coming out this fall. David has done so much for the solo piano genre we all love so much - especially starting "Whisperings Solo Piano Radio." I learned a lot having such a seasoned veteran of piano music in my studio. He has become a great friend as well. I am also working with one of my favorite pianists and very close friend, Joe Yamada, on his long-awaited and highly-anticipated second solo piano release. I have a couple more solo piano projects slotted for this winter.

KP: I know that David Nevue is a real perfectionist with his own recordings. He told me that he recorded enough material for two CDs at your studio. That he is that happy with the recordings says a lot about the quality of your work! I'll bet the refreshments are really good, too!

JB: David spent more than a week here, and we ended each day with a glass of wine and some laughs watching late night “Seinfeld” reruns!

KP: What do you like to do in your free time, or do you have any?

JB: I love hanging out with my sixteen-year-old daughter, Taylor. She's my best friend! Anyone who says teen-agers are a drag or difficult needs to meet her. We communicate wonderfully and have a blast together! I also love to dine out, cook on my backyard grill, catch a ball game, and, of course, play piano! I perform at about 25-30 weddings a year, and have my own sound production company. We DJ weddings and parties on weekends. Is it any surprise I'm single?

KP: What are your favorite colors?

JB: Burgundy - might have something to do with my love for red wine.

KP: A man after my own heart! If you could have any three wishes, what would they be?

JB: Wow, there's a curve ball! One: I would get rid of the ringing in my ears (tinnitus); two: Taylor would love to be a couple inches taller - I would snap my fingers and make it happen! And three: I would fall in love again.

KP: Do you have any words of advice for young people who are studying music

JB: If you're not having fun, don't do it. Take just a minute - close your eyes, and play what you hear in your head. Also, take your mistakes and make music out of them. I can't tell you how many times that's happened with my music!

KP: What's up next for you?

JB: I'd love to release a Christmas CD. I've been working on it, but I'm not sure when I'll get it done. It will be a very ssslllooowww and dreamy CD. I also want to release a CD of my renditions of wedding favorites. I get requests for this from all over the world from people who bump into the wedding samples I have at my website. Most importantly, I'd like to get more experience performing! I have just planned another in-home concert for December 2nd, with David Nevue as my special guest. We'll be saving a seat for you, Kathy!

KP: I'll do my best to be there!
For more information about Joe Bongiorno and to hear samples of his music, visit his website: mellowsounds.com.
Kathy Parsons
October 2007