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Piano played feral

Profile image for By Lucinda Breeding
By Lucinda Breeding

Classically trained Nilles pelts keys with punk attitude

There’s something a little Edith Piaf about Stephanie Nilles’ voice, and something a little unpredictable.

Set against the artist’s piano playing, Nilles’ voice is trembling thing. The classically trained New Orleans musician treats her keyboard the way Steve Albini treats a guitar. Which is to say that Nilles (pronounced “nil-less”) conjures something more than music from her instrument.

She scrambles a microcosm of the human condition out of it — harsh tones and sweet resolutions. On songs such as “Transistor,” she beats the keys into a frenzy, but it’s not nonsense — there’s form and rhythm, just delivered with punk rock attitude.

Denton has a chance to see Nilles on Friday night at the Spellcaster, one of many house show venues in town.

“I actually get a thrill having the venues be surprises,” said Nilles, 30. “That’s one of the things I love about my job. One night I’ll be in a jazz place where Charles Mingus used to play, and after the show’s over, the people will sit down and drink wine and talk about Charles Mingus.”

The next night, Nilles might find herself in a smoky bar or a private living room.

Nilles doesn’t call herself a straight-up jazz pianist. Rather, she borrows jazz improvisation during shows, dabbling in the harmonics and syncopation in a way that honors the form.

The pomp and drama never leave Nilles’ music completely. She grew up studying piano and cello.

“Singing came much later,” said Nilles, who is doing a one-week tour with Robert Sarazin Blake, the headliner for Friday’s show at the Spellcaster. “I really didn’t try to sing at all until I was about 17 years old.”

Nilles was studying classical music in college. At the same time, she started writing narratives.

“I started doing some slam poetry,” she said. “And that got me started with trying things in the moment in front of an audience. I think any time you take a classical musician, and you sit down and say, ‘now play something in C4,’ they freeze. They are so accustomed to playing the repertoire that all classical musicians play.

“I just started checking out the open mic scene in New York, and that was a good move for me, because in that scene, everyone is really supportive, and they are kind of like, ‘Let's focus on something positive.’”

The mix of classical depth and live improvisation clicked for Nilles.

“I think it ended up being something in my personality,” she said. “I am not the kind of person who can sit in a room for eight hours and then have a few engagements.”

Barrelhouse is a tag Nilles embraces because it hitches wild tavern piano music with the singers who established early jazz from the 1880s through 1930 or so. Think Jelly Roll Morton, Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith.

“It’s the music that came from places that weren’t respectable, and the musicians who made the music were making it around the prostitutes and the whorehouses,” she said. “It wasn’t pretty, but they made a living.”

Barrelhouse jazz represents the need to make music, consequences be damned, something Nilles said she’s explored in New Orleans.

“You can hang out with punk guys and indie guys, but you’ll never get in as much trouble as you can with jazz musicians,” Nilles said.

Before she landed in New Orleans, Nilles spent some time in the anti-folk movement in New York City. Anti-folk musicians challenged what they saw as the neutering of folk. Nilles and her peers felt folk music was being watered down to a simple formula of three-minute acoustic songs with a singer who doesn’t cuss and certainly doesn’t get political.

Nilles doesn’t shy away from politics. In fact, her song “Occupy” is a condemnation of middle-class criticism of the Occupy Wall Street movement, and eventually, a protest all its own against hollow demonstration. If you want the world to be different, Nilles says, you have to live differently.

She can just as easily play a mazurka, a Polish folk dance that sounds a bit like a waltz — or perhaps a rondeau that’s been reframed with earthier materials. And whether she’s punking it up or playing it classical, Nilles gives herself over to it.

Now, she’s exploring forms without creating crossover.

“There are a lot of people do a lot of classical crossover, I think,” Nilles said. “Some of that’s definitely scraping for different ways to pull people in. When the message doesn’t match the content, I have a problem with that. I’ll do an original piece and maybe turn around and play a short classical piece.”