BY OWEN MCNALLY Special to The Courant
May 7, 2014
There have been challenging times earlier in his life when the gifted Connecticut pianist and composer Noah Baerman almost had to give up playing the piano because of the debilitating pain he has suffered from a rare, degenerative disease of the connective tissue called Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (EDS).
It's an incurable but not necessarily life-threatening genetic condition that drains his energy and weakens all the joints in his body, impairing even his fingers through which much beauty flows. Quitting was a potential option, which, in an early go-around, would have been a most heartbreaking one for such a promising musician at Rutgers University, who was then barely into his early 20s, totally absorbed in jazz and inspired by studies with his great mentor and friend, pianist Kenny Barron.
"I had a couple points in college where my wrist issues were severe enough that I could barely play," Baerman says by phone from his home in Middletown.
That physical distress back then was a foreshadowing of the comparably deep, second career-threatening crisis he'd face a few years later at only age 28 when the chronic pain escalated to the point of nearly crushing his resilient spirit and passionate determination to follow his calling as a practicing jazz musician.
"I felt like I was on borrowed time," he says.
"Ultimately, I wasn't going to quit until I had no other choice. Some of us get a calling, and then either you obey the calling or you figure out something else to do. I hold myself to a pretty high standard, and, basically, I want to create music that I would want to listen to. I'm pretty picky. So if I can't play the piano on a level where I would want to listen to what comes out, then I would see no point in going out there and doing it
"So now I feel very fortunate that at age 40 that I'm still playing as well as I did at 28. But at 28, I didn't think I was going to be playing at all by 40," he says.
Instead of bowing out, Baerman, a classic jazz profile in courage, has prevailed by working around, even out-maneuvering the pain through reasonable caution (a fall or other accident could be especially disastrous), and through prudent conservation of his energy, expending it wisely.
All the while he's been creating great art from out of the depth of his adversity. So much so that over the years, he's earned wide critical acclaim and deep respect from his peers for his composing and piano artistry, as well as for his roles as a respected teacher and articulate jazz scholar who has published nine instruction books on the art of jazz.
His own personal-best winning streak has culminated with his new triumphant album, his ninth and perhaps greatest release to date, a deeply expressive, emotionally charged gem called "Ripples." Its metaphoric title alludes to the far-reaching, ripple-like effect that even a single compassionate or courageous act by an individual can have on the wider world, maybe even making it, as Baerman believes, a better, more humane, just and compassionate place for all of us to live in.
Because of the curtailing impact of EDS, Baerman can't venture out on long, rigorously demanding national or international promotional tours. Nonetheless, he has been conducting a far more geographically limited but no less celebratory record tour, which concludes with his collaboration with The Jazz Samaritan Alliance in performances at 8:30 and 10 p.m. Friday, May 9, at New Haven's Firehouse 12.
More than just a fine ensemble, The Jazz Samaritan Alliance is a genuine artists' collective, a co-op of established composer/educator/performers and close friends who create socially conscious, original music whose themes are inspired by Baerman's reflections on substantive issues ranging from social justice to self-reliance. The Alliance, which plays the powerful emotional lead on three of the 10 tracks on "Ripples," also features the superb saxophonists Jimmy Greene and Kris Allen, who make brilliant contributions to the recording session, and the resourceful, young vibraphonist Chris Dingman, as well as drummer Johnathan Blake. Greene, Allen and Dingman will be present for the Firehouse date, along with bassist Henry Lugo (Baerman's longtime sidekick in his celebrated piano trio) and drummer Otis Brown III.
Swinging and lyrical, Baerman's bold, original works are what he calls "message music," with the underlying message inspired by some humanitarian cause or philosophical concept, which he expresses in a category-defying manner whose qualities can sequentially be cerebral, visceral or transcendental, sometimes even all three at once.
"Music," he explains of his approach as a composer/performer, "can provide a platform for discussing or drawing awareness to issues. And what I'm finding is that if the underlying theme is about something that the performer or the composer is passionate about, it actually enriches the music too. I'm not arbitrarily choosing causes, whether they be personal or sociological. I'm not choosing them just to have something to write about. These themes I write about take up lots of real estate in my heart and mind, so it's just natural that I would be drawing inspiration for my music from them."
His life-affirming music is rooted in modern jazz and social consciousness and an idealism that is both secular and spiritual. "I've been trying to focus my energies on communicating something beyond what is in basic pitches and rhythms," he says of his quest to bring a transcendent resonance to his music.
Humanistic themes in his works range from the celebration of the human spirit, even in the face of terminal illness and death, to his deep devotion to the cause of foster care children and adoption. (He and his wife, the visual artist Kate Ten Eyck are the adoptive parents of three grown daughters).
Although Baerman lives with EDS every minute of the day, you'd never guess that someone so outwardly cool, intellectually assured and unflappable appearing has any problem much different from anything that we all deal with routinely. Certainly, you'd never know from the eloquent way he speaks, or, for that matter, blogs on the Internet on everything under the sun. And most certainly not from the even more eloquent way he composes and plays the piano, painting sonic portraits and suites with a broad emotional palette executed with consummate grace and apparent ease.
Perhaps the only telltale sign of EDS are the ring-like splints that he wears on the fingers of both his left and right hands, placed there strategically to help keep everything in the right place and fully functional as he digs into his digital inventions on the keyboard.
Although he's had EDS since birth, it wasn't diagnosed until he was 9 years old, a year after he had begun piano lessons. So he's lived with chronic pain and fragility.
Optimistic but also pragmatic and heroically stoic (the sort of praise Baerman summarily rejects), he reflects on his endangered persona as a pianist:
"Essentially, even on a good day, it's physically taxing. And, if and when the end of my piano playing were to occur, there's still composing."
Baerman is philosophical about the random accident of genetics, over which we have absolutely no say, and quite positive about the life choices we can actually make:
"We all experience adversity and we all die. And if we live long enough we all experience the loss of loved ones. Physical disability is an interesting thing. I have a particular condition, but nobody who lives long enough is immune to physical disability. The only way you don't become physically disabled is if you die before you get there."
"It's a drag that I have this particular bit of adversity to contend with," he concedes.
"But it's not like if someone could somehow magically take it all away that I would be devoid of all adversity. No human being gets to experience that kind of a free pass in life. So I put my energy into trying to live a dignified life, and do what I still can so far as it is possible. That's what I choose to do."
NOAH BAERMAN and The Jazz Samaritan Alliance perform Friday, May 9, at 8:30 and 10 p.m. at Firehouse 12, 45 Crown St., New Haven. Tickets: $18, first set; $12, second set. Information: www.firehouse12.com and 203-785-0468.