“Versatile is the key to the whole thing,” says pianist Philip Aaberg of his newest CD by that name.
“You’re going to hear a whole world of music -- jazz, blues, bluegrass and rock,” he said of his 7:30 p.m. concert Saturday, Nov. 11, at the Helena Civic Center that’s produced by the Helena Symphony.
And, of course, you’ll be hearing a lot of Aaberg’s original compositions, as well as a few classical pieces he’ll play as a special nod to symphony lovers.
Six musicians will join Aaberg onstage for several songs --most of them familiar faces from the Helena Symphony Orchestra.
They are principal bass player Trebor Riddle, principal cellist Linda Kuhn, concertmaster Stephen Cepeda on violin and Duane Zehr on trumpet. Also in the mix are guest musicians Michael Gillan on drums and John Lowell, guitar and vocals.
Music was an early passion for Aaberg.
Born in Havre and raised in Chester, Aaberg showed talent at the keyboard as a child, which his mother encouraged.
He credits his love of music and the piano to his musical family and having an outstanding school band director, Arden Vie.
As a teen, Aaberg would take the train to Spokane, Washington, every two weeks for piano lessons with Juilliard-trained pianist Margaret Ott.
This led to a Leonard Bernstein Scholarship at Harvard University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in music.
Aaberg’s eclectic tastes in music and his keyboard talents opened doors to performing with an impressive array of acclaimed artists, among them the Boston Pops, Peter Gabriel, Elvin Bishop, Maria Muldaur, Alison Brown and Darol Anger as well as performing at the Marlboro Chamber Music Festival and touring solo in Europe and Japan.
The new CD is Aaberg’s 11th solo album. He is joined on one track by the NewGrange band, while Huey Lewis and several musicians are on another.
“The record is unusual for me in a number of ways,” Aaberg said. “Years ago I decided the kind of animal I am lives in the water and on the land. I’m amphibious musically. There was no point in channeling myself into one style or one genre.”
So he follows where the music takes him.
The CD and concert, he said, “are a celebration of the diversity of the human spirit and the versatility of people in general.”
He likes to quote the rapper, Logic, who says in one of his songs “make music like there’s no Grammys.”
It’s a philosophy Aaberg embraces. “This album and concert is about inspiring people to do what you love and the rest will follow.”
Some of the songs are new compositions and recordings by Aaberg.
Some are ones he’d done in the past but they needed to find the right home.
“This is the first time I’ve ever done covers,” he added.
Two that are particularly meaningful to him are --”Fooled Around and Fell in Love” a hit written by Elvin Bishop that Aaberg played on, and “Solsbury Hill,” which Aaberg played when he toured as keyboardist with Peter Gabriel.
Most of the recordings are done in Aaberg's studio, either in Chester or at his new home outside of Helena.
The audience will also get to see a video celebrating the history of Montana farms done for the Farmer’s Union centennial that Aaberg wrote the music for.
And, as another nod to farming -- it was a Canadian Versatile farm tractor that inspired the title and cover design for the new CD.
The album tells a story, said Aaberg, as do many albums.
“It’s my world view that everything’s connected,” he said. “All music is connected.”
And his ease in moving through the music world has been noted by a number of music lovers and music critics.
Rolling Stone magazine hailed Aaberg as “a deft, ebullient rocker,” while Keyboard Magazine wrote “Phil is the genuine article... an innovator in a stylistic neighborhood bordered by great American composers Aaron Copland and Charles Ives, and performers Bruce Hornsby and Keith Jarrett. It’s a uniquely American sound...”
“He’s such his own genre,” said Allan R. Scott, the Helena Symphony music director.
“He’s hard to put in a category because while he’s classically trained and went to Harvard ...he also has found his way between bluegrass and jazz and rock ‘n’ roll. He’s adapted and changed and evolved so many different times. The title ‘Versatile’ is really appropriate.”
Aaberg’s skills as a composer and a pianist can’t really be separated, said Scott, since he composes music he loves to play.
“Versatile is the word. He seamlessly goes back and forth. I saw him play Ravel, I saw him play Bach and in the same breath move into jazz and bluegrass or rock ‘n’ roll. He really does have a true sense of free form. It’s all rooted in classical training.”
Tickets to this special concert are all $25 (plus a $5 transaction fee) with all seats reserved. (Note: this concert is not part of the symphony’s subscription concert series.)
The CD will be available for $15. The concert is followed by a party, serving beer, wine and soft drinks.
Tickets can be purchased online at www.helenasymphony.org, by calling the Symphony Box Office 442-1860, or visiting the Symphony Box Office located on the Walking Mall in the Livestock Building (2 N. Last Chance Gulch, Suite 1) between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.