Wally Minko is a talented keyboardist originally, from Akron Ohio who now resides in Los Angeles California. After receiving private piano lessons as child and formal lessons in band and choir at school, Wally had a solid foundation to succeed in music. Having eventually discovered talented musicians and groups such as: Keith Emerson, Rick Wakeman, Weather Report, Jean-Luc Ponty and others, Wally decided to pursue that challenging genre of progressive rock/jazz. During his professional career, Wally has worked with major artists such as Ton Jones, Arturo Sandoval, Greg Rolie, Barry Manilow, and currently records and tours with supergroup "The Jon Anderson - Jean-Luc Ponty band". In the fall of 2015 they will be touring the US.
R.V.B. - Congratulations on your career up to this point. What was some of the early music you were exposed to as a child? Did you come from a musical family?
Wally - Thank you! No one in my family was a professional musician, though my father did do quite a few gigs when I was young. He played guitar, mandolin, violin, a little keyboard, and sang, but he did it mainly for fun. I used to love asking him for the guitar pick, then throwing it into the acoustic guitar. My mom sang in the church choir, and my brother played quite a few different instruments: drums, trombone, bass, some piano. There was always music in our home. I remember my parents having records of Boots Randolph and The Tijuana Brass, so I think that’s probably where my love for horns began. I also have a very strong affinity for Latin music, and I have no doubt that the early exposure to those basic rhythms played a big part in that.
R.V.B. - At what age did you start playing music and who were some of the teachers that helped you? Were you classically trained?
Wally - I initially started taking piano lessons when I was very young – maybe 6 or 7 – too young, in my case anyway. I was much more interested in being outside playing football or riding bicycles that I was in practicing; I just wasn’t ready yet, and so I quit after a season or so. I would spend a good deal of time at the piano trying to pick out the songs I heard on the radio; fortunately my parents recognized that I had an aptitude for music and found me an amazing teacher named Laura LaGarda. She was the one who began my classical training, and, looking back, I am so grateful to both her and my parents for making me stick with it through the drudgery stage until I got to the point where I was actually able to see that there could be a future in it. This, of course, was the point at which I began to develop a serious interest in pop music, then later jazz, prog rock, and so on.
R.V.B. - Did you play with the school orchestras or band? Did you have any high school pick up bands and did you perform anywhere? Where was your first gig?
Wally - I did play in all the school bands – concert band, marching band, jazz band, and choir. C. Eugene Thrall was the next, and probably the biggest, major influence on who I would become as a musician.
He was my junior-high music teacher, and he did so much for me – let me try all the different woodwinds, the brass, the percussion. When he saw how curious I was, he gave me his college orchestration text – Kent Kennan’s Technique of Orchestration.
This was the thing that literally changed the direction of my life. I read that book over and over, fascinated by all the different instruments, how they were in different keys, different clefs, single reeds, double reeds, valves, ranges, transpositions, combinations – I had been given the key to a whole new, wonderful world. I soon started trying to write arrangements for the band – and he gave me another golden opportunity – he’d let me up on the podium to conduct these experiments. I’d listen, go home and try again, and again, and again. After a while it actually started to sound like something.
During these same years my mom was making sure I attended the local Methodist church. The pianist & organist there were a husband/wife duo that were quite good; he played the piano in a style that the adults called “jazzy”. All I knew was that it sounded good – not boring, and with a sense of freedom. One of them would need a sub occasionally, so they would ask me to fill in. When I had to play the organ, I was really freaked out by all the stops and having to play the pedals; when I got to play the piano I always attempted to be “jazzy”. I still wonder how it must have sounded. What I didn’t realize at the time was that I was getting an informal education in 4-part harmony and choral writing, another thing that has served me so very well in the years since.
In high school, I was once again very fortunate to have had David Weyrick as my band director. He was fantastic – he had a coffee machine in his office, and a record player, and he had all these amazing records – tons of stuff I never even knew existed. He’s bring stuff in, I’d skip one of my boring classes and go down there – we’d lock the door, drink coffee, and listen to this stuff – one I remember in particular changed my life yet again. I had been listening to Boots Randolph at home, and was playing alto sax in the band at that point – he played some Phil Woods – just completely blew my mind. I was on a quest, and every door I opened led to five more doors. It continues to be that way today, thankfully.
Some of my first paid gigs were in a little party band that Weyrick had put together with his college friends, drummer Pete Stevenson and bassist Staffan Erickson. I played piano in that band, learned a lot of tunes, and got my first glimpses of how crazy the real world is.
R.V.B. - When you were comfortable with the keyboards, did you try different genres? How did you evolve into the progressive jazz field?
Wally - I did try different genres, but at that age I didn’t realize they were different genres; it was all just new music. I began to appreciate the classical training for the technique it gave, and as my chops improved, I found myself attracted to music that was technically more challenging. I discovered Keith Emerson, Rick Wakeman, Return To Forever, Weather Report, and of course Jean-Luc Ponty, and really spent a lot of time listening and trying to play these things.
R.V.B. - Did you study music in college? If you did how did you find that experience?
Wally - I did, but for a very short time – only a few months. I was already gigging, and just wasn’t ready to sit in school at that point – I was so glad to be out of high school and in the “real world”, and enjoying the freedom so much. I just wanted to play, and the opportunities were there, so that’s what I did.
R.V.B. - How did you break into music as a professional?
Wally - It just sort of happened. I had played a few solo gigs when I was young (I’m sure I was hired just due to the novelty of it at that age), then some gigs with the party band in high school, and then I was getting hired to play solo piano at the nicer restaurants & hotels in town, and I just found myself doing it. One thing led to another, and I’m still doing it!
R.V.B. - Did your work as a studio musician open doors to perform with major artists such as: Tom Jones, Barry Manilow, Gregg Rolie, Jon Anderson, Jean-Luc Ponty, and so many others?
Actually, I’d say that my work with major artists led to a lot of the studio work, at least early on. Playing with big names gives you a lot of credibility, so lots of people would call me to play on their projects. The more time I spent in the studios, the more I enjoyed it, and the more I learned. Again, one thing led to another and soon opportunities to arrange, compose, or produce started being offered, and it just sort of snowballed from there. This is when all the stuff I learned as a kid really started to pay off. Someone needs horn parts, and you’re there and know how to do it, you get the gig. Do it well and they call you again. Pretty soon you have another line of work.
Wally - Yes, quite a few, but I think the highlight for me was playing Carnegie Hall with Jean-Luc. My parents came up to the concert, and they were just so happy and so proud…it was really great, after all the years of them schlepping me to piano lessons and enduring blaring trumpets and banging drums and Maynard Ferguson on the stereo at full volume, to share that experience with them.
R.V.B. You've done quite a bit of arranging in your career... how do you approach a piece of music differently as an arranger as opposed to a performer?
That’s a very interesting question, and the answer is really quite complex, but I’ll try to give you the short version. The primary concern of an arranger is (or should be) to frame the piece of music in the best possible way to achieve the results that the person who hired you expects. It may be underscore for a TV show, for instance, so the goal would be to support the action or dialog without distracting from it. Or perhaps it is a recording project for a solo artist; then the goal would be to create background that inspires them to give their best performance and makes them shine. This might be very different for a singer than it would be for an instrumental soloist, so it’s important to take the time to understand the soloist’s “voice”, their strengths (to showcase), their weaknesses (to avoid), and so on. Arranging well for others, if done in the right spirit, is a sacrificial thing – it should be all about the artist and making them sound their best. Circling back now to your question – as a performer, your own “voice” will play various roles in every situation – if you are playing solo, for example, by definition it’s going to be all about you. In an ensemble setting, your role could be anything from soloing, where you are the focus, to sometimes laying out to make room for whatever else is happening. It’s very important to be able to listen to the “big picture” – to hear everything that’s going on around you and be able to react appropriately. And finally, I’d also say that having some arranging experience is extremely helpful in developing that “big picture” view, because when you’ve gotten inside the music, to the nuts and bolts of it, you develop a much deeper understanding of the roles of each instrument, and you learn what you ought to be doing to accommodate them.
Wally - It was wonderful. I’ll never forget the moment I found out: I had just finished a very long day of rehearsals for a Christmas concert I was producing, and I was exhausted and just wanted to get home and sleep. I’d had my phone off during the rehearsals, so I turned it on to check my voicemail before the drive home, and heard this message: “Mr. Minko, this is Arturo Sandoval, and I’m calling to say congratulations, man – your arrangement (of “A Night In Tunisia”) just got nominated for a Grammy!” I had no idea it had even been submitted, so to hear this really blew me away. The best part of the Awards day was watching my beautiful wife walk down the red carpet in her exquisite evening gown – it was stunning!
R.V.B. - What was involved as a production pianist in the 55th Academy Awards ceremony?
Wally - That year the show featured two big production numbers with a very large number of dancers. They were performing to medleys of the movie themes that had been nominated, and the routines were very intense. Out of probably 50 or so dancers, they were divided up into a number of smaller groups, each of which had their own moves. Learning all of it and coordinating all the groups into this massive thing that looked amazing took about a week. A drummer friend and I were the “orchestra” – we recreated the music for them to learn and perfect all of these routines. It was a fascinating few days, and it is incredible how fast professional dancers can learn these very complex (and long) pieces. I have the deepest admiration for them.
R.V.B. - I see that you work with the Blackhawk Chorus. It must be amazing listening to so many beautiful voices at the same time. What was your role with them? Are there similarities with this as with the local church that you work with?
Wally - It is indeed amazing to hear all those beautiful voices, and this particular group is really fantastic. Their director, Diane Gilfether, does an incredible job with these singers. She’d give the tenors a pitch, then ask the altos to imagine the note a 4th above, the sopranos a 4th above that, and the basses a 3rd below the tenors – then on cue she’d give a downbeat and they’d sing this beautiful chord out of nowhere – it was superb.
My role with them was to take the piano/vocal arrangements she had and orchestrate them for all the other instruments. It was really fun, and also a bit challenging because I was so locked in – the piano and vocal parts were set in stone, so everything I wrote had to fit with those. That meant coming up with stuff that supported the vocals without getting in their way, and trying to bring something to each piece that elevated it and set the mood of the song. The end result was wonderful. Due to scheduling conflicts, I was only able to attend one rehearsal, but I wish I could have seen a show – I heard there were multiple standing ovations!
There are many similarities between this and my work at church - standard 4-part vocal harmony, arranging for the band, etc., and some substantial differences, too. Probably the biggest difference is that in the church, the music is not a performance, but rather a tool to help the congregation into an attitude of worship. One of the challenges is that we have a new set every week, so there’s a lot of music that gets chosen, arranged, and rehearsed. As the musical director, I have the freedom to decide how to present each piece of music, and we utilize a wide range of styles – everything from a standard a cappella hymn to contemporary gospel. Fortunately I have very talented singers and musicians to work with, so I can push the envelope quite a bit, especially with the harmony and the grooves. It’s always a blast!
R.V.B. - In your current project with Jean-Luc and Jon, what kind of preparation goes into working with world class prog music? Did you guys work out arrangements in the rehearsal studio for the reworked Yes and Ponty songs or were they basically completed ahead of time and you guys perfected your parts for performance?
Wally - For this project, we did it the most fun way – all in the room together, coming up with parts, trying things, keeping the stuff that worked, losing the stuff that didn’t. We were on a very tight schedule – only 3 weeks or so from the day we arrived till the first concert, which was going to be recorded and filmed. No pressure! We had some great advantages, though; first, Rayford Griffin, Baron Browne, and I had all played with Jean-Luc for many years in the late 80s/early 90s, so there was already a sympatico musically. Additionally, we are great friends, so we genuinely look forward to making music together, and everyone in the band is highly experienced, so we were able to find what worked very quickly. Both Jon & JLP are great at knowing what they want, which is a great help, and not as common as you might think. The thing that made this project really interesting is that we were creating a brand new sound – even on the classic Yes & JLP material, we found new approaches, new visions – the creativity was really flowing. It was no small thing that we were camped out in Aspen – great air, great food, no distractions – just a great way to get serious work done. We were creating brand new music too, which I think will be a treat for the audience – you can feel the joy oozing out of it. That experience is why we got into music in the first place, and being able to do it with this phenomenal band is indescribable.
R.V.B. - How were you approached to be a part of the "Better Late than Never" project, and how is it working with two progressive legends?
Wally - I had just finished some shows with Gregg Rolie, and my wife, my son, and I stopped to spend a few days in wine country on the way home. One morning in the hotel, I got an email from Jean-Luc saying I should expect a call from Jon – they had been talking about putting something together, and Jean-Luc had recommended me. Jon called, invited me over to the house, we met, he played me some demos which I thought were fantastic, and we just said “let’s do this”.
Working with them is wonderful. They’re all about the music, and everything is right. Same goes for the boys in the band. When everything is right, it’s actually very easy. We just relax, let the music come out, and smile. A lot.
R.V.B. - I see that starting at the end of October you will be doing a U.S. tour to support the album. Are you looking forward to it?
Yes, very much so. It’s been about a year since we recorded that first concert, so it’ll be fun to fire this music up again and see what it becomes this time. The great thing about prog, jazz, any improvisatory music, is that it keeps evolving. Our first show in October will be a very different show from the last one in November.
R.V.B. - How do you enjoy doing clinics and teaching your craft to the next generation?
Wally - I absolutely love it. There were a few people that really, really helped me a lot over the years, from those first teachers I mentioned to random guys on gigs that played a lick that spun my head around, or made a comment that caused me to see something I hadn’t seen before. Then there were all the experiences gained in years of touring. All of that stuff got mixed together and resulted in the musician that I am today. It took a lot of years and a lot of gigs to get to this point. If I can share something I’ve learned and save someone else a little time, then great. I also find that every single time I “teach”, I learn something new from the “student”. Everyone can learn something from everyone else. That’s the beauty of this thing called music!
Interview conducted by Robert von Bernewitz
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For more information on Wally Minko visit his website.http://wallyminko.com/
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