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Chicagoan of the Year in Jazz: Pianist Jahari Stampley

Jahari Stampley keeps coming back to one word to describe the last few months: “crazy.”

It’s crazy that the 24-year-old, born and raised in Austin, even entered the prestigious Herbie Hancock Jazz Institute International Competition, much less won: He was on tour and almost forgot to apply. Then it’s so crazy made if he submitted it, he technically missed the deadline; She had to remotely coach her mother on uploading the correct files to the app portal, as she couldn’t do so over the terrible on-board Wi-Fi.

Later, in the same barrage of messages congratulating him on advancing to the finals, Stampley learned that his dear friend and mentor, Spokane, Washington-based drummer Quindrey “Drey” Davis, had died of cancer. Stampley dedicated his winning set to Davis: an original “Prelude En’Trance” and John Hicks’ “After the Morning.” Stampley’s emotional performance was so blurry that when Hancock declared him the winner, the young pianist misunderstood it and thought he had placed third rather than first.

“I was revealing so much: all my frustrations, everything. It was a whirlwind of ideas and events, but my mind was blank,” Stampley says.

Tom Carter, president of the Herbie Hancock Institute, says it’s “audacious” to use one’s own composition on the competition set, as Stampley did. The risk paid off handsomely. Hancock now counts himself among Stampley’s slack-jawed admirers.

“Over the years I have had the opportunity to listen to some of the best pianists in the world. It really challenges them in a sense,” Hancock said in a recent interview. “I had never heard anyone play that way… I was thinking, ‘Maybe I should work with him.’ he.’”

If Hancock and the competition judges think Stampley sounds like no other, they’re on to something. Stampley’s path to the piano is pretty wild. Music was always there, but it was never mandatory. Her mother, D-Erania Stampley, is an instrumental scholar who runs a music school in Maywood; Her younger sister, Jayla, and her father, Steve, are hobby musicians. Stampley started playing drums, but became curious about the keyboard when he came across a Coldplay cover at age 14. P. Miller, a pianist on YouTube. He had never seen a pianist who reminded him so much of himself: Young, bespectacled, Black. Miller’s videos are shot over his shoulder, with a clear shot of his hands.

I’m just pressing the buttons, Stampley thought. I can do that.

Stampley obsessively studied Miller’s hands, and then those of other pianists. Later, Rickover shocked his music teacher at the Naval Academy by copying a complex passage that he had demonstrated by sight rather than by ear the day before. Before he knew it, Stampley had become an expert musical impersonator, despite knowing nothing about theory. Improvisation and ear training came later and just as easily: Stampley was accepted into the prestigious Manhattan School of Music, and after graduating in 2021, he hit the road with bassist Stanley Clarke.

“This is a strange trait of mine: When I wonder about something, I don’t stop until I understand it. Even if it took a year, I would just keep doing the same moves, the same thing, over and over again,” Stampley says.

Coming to the piano so late and unconventionally gave Stampley a unique perspective on pedagogy. A few months ago he released Piano Chronicles, a phone game he conceived and designed with the help of a programmer in Pakistan. An even more sophisticated sequel, the interactive online piano course, with transcriptions offered as gameplay rewards, will also be released in the new year.

Stampley’s ability to be a one-man production company is dazzling. His debut album, 2023’s “Still Listening,” even features his own jacket art; past and present, gazing serenely at a sunset-coloured landscape.

As for Stampley’s future? Frankly, concerts continue to increase; Stampley’s next hometown show City Winery on January 25It features the “family trio” of D-Erania, who plays bass, an instrument he had recently picked up, and his Manhattan School of Music classmate Miguel Russell, who has become Stampley’s “favorite drummer in the world.”

He took his first test drive “Prelude En’Trance” with this trio at the “Still Listening” broadcast show at Evanston SPACE. Initially playing alone, Stampley began moving up and down the piano; economical finger movement formed tighter and tighter knots of sound. At one point, his shaking tremors on the right side appeared to be contemplating slowing down.

No. Egged on by D-Erania and Russell, Stampley charged forward again with masterful joy and childlike strength. We will follow him for years.

Hannah Edgar is a freelance critic.

The Rubin Institute of Music Criticism helps fund our classical music coverage. The Chicago Tribune retains editorial control over assignments and content.

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