By Mary-Justine Lanyon
They say the third time’s a charm.
That proved true for musician George Whitty, who calls the mountain home. He was scheduled to go out on a European tour in March 2020. That obviously did not happen, given the beginning of the pandemic. It was rescheduled for March 2021. Again, the tour was stopped in its tracks.
But in March 2022 the four musicians – Frank Gambale on guitar, Hadrien Feraud on bass, Gergo Borlai on drums and Whitty on keys – hit the road running.
The tour began in France and continued through Luxemburg, Germany, Holland, Switzerland, Austria, Denmark, Sweden and Norway.
At that point, Whitty was replaced on keys by Jerry Leonide for the remaining dates in Finland, Austria, Italy, Switzerland and Germany. Because his son Christopher is still in high school, Whitty set a policy for himself to not be on the road more than three weeks at a time.
The tour was tagged “Sweeping Across Europe.” Whitty describes Gambale as the “eighth wonder of the world on guitar” and adds he is also “an incredibly gifted composer.” The music the four played was all composed by Gambale, who is originally from Australia, lived in Los Angeles for many years and now calls Barcelona home.
Borlai is from Hungary and now lives in Spain. “He is the ‘it’ drummer,” Whitty said. “He’s the guy everyone tries to get on their gig.”
And Feraud, who Whitty describes as a “very talented bass player,” is from France.
“That’s the cool thing about this music,” Whitty said. “It’s almost better the more places you get people from.” It was Gambale who put the band together.
They had a pool of 15 tunes from which they chose at every venue. Some of those venues were like rock and roll performance halls, some were clubs, some were not very big.
“In Europe there are little civic music groups that put up a venue and staff it with volunteers so they can have music there,” Whitty said. “The gig in Holland was like that – everyone was a volunteer.
“People were very eager to come out. If you’re a jazz person, the names in the band had a lot of appeal.”
Whitty added he loves playing in Europe. “In a lot of these places, the whole town comes out – from 8-year-olds to 80-year-old ladies. You’re the thing in town that weekend so they come out and listen.”
Part of the fun of playing in a band like this, Whitty said, “is we can play anything – from a fast jazz straight ahead song to some stuff that’s rock with jazzier solos, some with almost a flamenco feel to them.”
Whitty said he likes to work a Gambale song “the way he wrote it. I’ll get a chord like a D7 – it’s up to you and the band what you’re going to do with it. That’s the fun of playing with musicians of this level.
Our playing has to fit the language of the song. The longer you do this, the bigger your vocabulary of places to go without violating the spirit of the tune.”
And, he added, “As we get older and more experienced, we play less and less. It becomes about framing the space in the right way. Instead of churning away with a bunch of chords, you hear what everyone else is doing and get better at figuring out playing your dimension without playing a lot of notes, creating a big, spacious, open sound.”
When he was a boy, Whitty said, his mother forced him to take piano lessons. “For the first few years, I would set the egg timer ahead when she went shopping. I could tell I was pretty good at it but I wasn’t much of a classical music aficionado.” He was fortunate to have a succession of teachers who “did a good job of giving me technique.”
Then, at 14, Whitty got into jazz. He bought a copy of Keyboard magazine with Chick Corea on the cover and thought perhaps he should listen to his music. After buying the album “Return to Forever,” Whitty said he decided he wouldn’t be a scuba diver after all.
His parents, Whitty said, had the faith to send him from Coos Bay, Ore., to Berklee College of Music in Boston, where he majored in jazz piano. His brother, Jeff, is an award-winning playwright.
“He also pursued this most unlikely thing. My parents were determined we would get to do what we really wanted to do. I was very fortunate.”
When he got to Berklee, Whitty discovered these other incredibly good musicians his age. “It shocked me into an awareness of how far I had to go – and I did.”
After studying at Berklee for two years, Whitty moved to New York, where he lived with other musicians and sought work. He then worked on cruise ships sailing out of Florida and finally had the opportunity to play with Matt “Guitar” Murphy, an American blues guitarist.
“I drove overnight to Houston and then played with him the next day. We went through 47 of the 50 states. That was a top-notch band musically.”
Whitty settled back down in New York and started playing corporate events, weddings and bar mitzvahs. A bass player he met had worked with Chaka Khan’s band. She was making a record and Whitty did a track for her. That record won a Grammy.
Whitty went on to win an Emmy for work he composed for All My Children.
He has played and recorded with Dave Matthews, Santana, Celine Dion, Michael and Randy Becker and other well-known musicians. His discography includes more than 100 CDs as a producer or musician.
Recently he worked with Eric Marienthal, the jazz saxophonist who headlined at the Blue Jay Jazz Festival. The CD they produced was nominated for a Grammy.
Whitty found his way to the mountain when he did a house swap in Crestline to be close to Los Angeles as he wanted to get into the film and TV business. “I liked it and decided to stay,” he said. In 2008 he bought a house in Lake Arrowhead.
Whitty is pleased to see 12-year-old kids posting videos of themselves “tearing it up” on the bass, on the piano. “There are these young bands that sound amazing,” he said.
His advice to young musicians: “Put yourself somewhere where you can see where you’re at. Go to a summer camp where you can see who the leaders are. If I hadn’t done that, I probably wouldn’t have had all the adventures I’ve had.
“Don’t let how well you play determine your self worth. In the lessons I teach (he teaches at artistworks.com), I’ve found that everyone is very nervous about playing jazz. There are no notes in front of you to fall back on. I spend a lot of time on getting people to where they can be relaxed.”
Then, Whitty said, you can open the pathways to improvised music. “Once you relax, they’re almost all great gigs.
“There’s no chance of getting bored with jazz,” he added. “If you do, it’s your own fault. There’s a level of inspiration that happens when someone is creating on the spot. The audience comes to hear a fresh inspiration happening right in front of their eyes.
“In the hands of a really great musician, every night should be quite different.”