The astounding ingenuity and amazing repertoire of pianist Nicole Pesce dazzled yet another audience at the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix when she performed in solo, duo and quartet settings as part of the museum's "I Am AZ Music" series.
Phoenix-born Pesce has been performing professionally for nearly 30 years, since the age of seven after classical training by her father, Nicholas Pesce Jr. She soon supplemented that repertoire with jazz, blues, country, Latin, pop and Broadway show-tunes, quickly learning 100 songs. At 10, she had memorized 500 tunes and won the Discovery National Television Competition. She began composing at the age of 11 and has 300 compositions in her repertoire. At 14, she appeared on the Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon and did an extensive U.S. tour with Lewis. She performed for a year in Las Vegas before returning to Phoenix for ongoing hotel, resort and club work, including a seven-year booking at My Florist Restaurant that earned her a cult following.
Pesce played three keyboards this night, a Yamaha disclavier with a small electric keyboard atop it, plus a full-size synthesizer behind her bench. The concert was live-streamed by Yamaha in support of its disclavier, an acoustic piano with electronic sensors for recording and solenoids for playback.
Performing solo during the first quarter-hour, the ever-smiling pianist infused witty swing and stride styles into the perennial jazz chart, "I Got Rhythm." She then delivered a clever version of Cole Porter's "Night and Day" by weaving in a series of familiar classical licks. Next she played in boogie-woogie mode with agile right-hand excursions onMeade Lux Lewis' "Honky Tonk Train Blues."
The groove deepened when the format expanded to a jazz quartet with Phoenix-based tenor saxophonist Jerry Donato, electric bassist Bob Lashier and drummer Dom Moio.Hoagy Carmichael's lovely "One Morning in May" brought lyrical balladeer warmth from Donato, as did "The Intimacy of the Blues" by Duke Ellington.
The first set closed with a fan favorite, "Dizzy Fingers," played with precision at super-speed. Before leaving the stage for intermission, Pesce invited audience members to text song titles to her cell-phone, announcing the number, promising she would perform those in the second half. When she returned, she announced that she had received 56 texted titles and proceeded to create a medley of excerpts form "Nola," "Great Balls of Fire," "Oye Como Va," "The Girl from Ipanema," "My Cherie Amour," Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah," "At Last" and "Rhapsody in Blue." Whew!
But Pesce wasn't done; she then asked for more titles to be called out, performing a second ear-boggling medley that included "Begin the Beguine," "Stardust," "Maple Leaf Rag," "I'll Remember April," "Phantom of the Opera," "The Way We Were," "Flight of the Bumblebee" and "Flat Foot Floogie." Amid the virtuosity of her ability, one could sense her pure joy in playing piano.
A duet with tenor saxophonist Donato, whose elegant sensuality on "The Nearness of You" was complemented by rhapsodic piano stylings for the perfect pairing. Pesce's jazz chops proved just as solid as she traded fours and twos with Lashier on his fretless electric bass during "If I Were a Bell," and then with drummer Moio on the calypso rhythms of "St. Thomas." Pesce continually shifted fluently among musical genres, always exuding the friendly charm and sense of humor that created her formidable following, the 300 seats sold out two weeks before the concert date.
Pesce performs Saturday evenings at the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Phoenix with her colleague of the past 15 years, vocalist Jeffrey Hattrick, who sang the Lady Gaga hit "Edge of Glory" before a quartet treatment of "Smile," followed by an encore of a Pesce original to close the concert.
Nicole Pesce: Press
My Florist CafÃ©â€™s
It's pushing midnight and the couple at the table by the door is nuzzling. He's downing his second Bombay martini; she's sipping a Cosmopolitan. They're in the mood to request songs, but she wants to hear Warren Zevon, while he's asking for Satin Doll. Your average cover band might be able to go one way or the other with those requests, but at My Florist CafÃ©, the "band" â€“one-woman piano phenom Nicole Pesce â€“doesnâ€™t bat an eyelid at playing standards alongside contemporary pop alongside rock alongside classical alongsideâ€¦ well, you get the idea.
Itâ€™s just part of the gig, especially when you have more than 10,000 songs at your fingertips. Literally.
Not that Pesce can play everything.
â€œSomebody once asked me to play M.C. Hammerâ€™s Canâ€™t Touch This,â€ she recalls.
â€œI told them, â€˜Canâ€™t do that.â€™ A song has to have some kind of harmonic structure to work on the piano.â€
On a recent night, Pesce banged out a medley of Beatles tunes on her Steinway, followed by a Rachmaninoff masterpiece. On another, Pesce wound up a 90-minutes set â€“ sheâ€™s known for not taking breaks â€“ with a bouquet of Stevie Wonder songs that turned into the theme from The Pink Panther, sidled into Rodgers and Hartâ€™s This Canâ€™t Be Love, took a sharp turn into Werewolves of London (Zevon again) and ended with a big number from Les Mis.
â€œThe piano,â€ Pesce proclaims after the set, â€œis like my own personal iPod.
Only better â€“ this is one iPod we can all plug into just by showing up at My Florist after 7 p.m. on Wednesdays through Sundays. In three years of playing there, Pesce has become an icon of sorts, and management rewards her for it. A year and a half ago, Pesce showed up, expecting to play the acceptable but less-than-stunning grand piano provided by the owners. In its place, she was surprised to find a 9-foot Steinway piano. It was love at first touch.
Phoenix-born Pesceâ€™s main teacher was her dad, Nick Pesce, a Valley pianist who raised his prodigious daughter to embrace all kinds of music and admire only the finest musicians. Nicoleâ€™s keyboard role models reflect her dadâ€™s high standards. In jazz, they are Oscar Peterson, Art Tatum and George Shearing. She also gives kudos to contemporary classical masters Olga Kern of Russia and Lang Lang of China. For crossover kicks, Pesce listens to classical star Christopher Oâ€™Rileyâ€™s solo piano takes on Radiohead tunes.
Radiohead is on Pesceâ€™s playlist, too. Ditto for Jack Johnson and Coldplay. On the other hand, donâ€™t ask her for Who Threw the Overalls Into Miss Oâ€™Learyâ€™s Clam Chowder?, a request she thought was a joke until she looked it up online and found it was a real song.
That one didnâ€™t get fed into Pesceâ€™s keyboard-iPod, but chances are good that most anything with a melody and a semi-sane title will. Pesce adds one caveat: â€œThereâ€™s still a lot of Nine Inch Nails I need to learn.â€
You want drama at the keyboard? Pianist extraordinaire Nicole Pesce holds court 7 p.m. to midnight Wednesdays through Sundays, taking music from ABBAto Burt Bacharach to Tchaikovsky and putting her own thundering stamp on them.
Her retooled version of Stairway to Heaven is legendary, as is her Queen medley. Still in her 20s, Pesce is a veteran of sessions or tours with Pat Boone, Buddy Greco and Debbie Reynolds. Now that sheds light on Pesce's delightfully eclectic performances.
BEST REASON TO LINGER AFTER DESSERT
Nicole Pesce at My Florist Cafe
You think you know "The Girl From Ipanema" until you've heard it played by Nicole Pesce, the resident pianist at My Florist Cafe. Ditto "Flight of the Bumblebee," which she's been known to pair with Elton John's "Rocket Man" or any of several Jelly Roll Morton numbers. Is it any wonder, then, that folks come from far and wide to listen to this amazingly talented lass play everything from Rachmaninoff to Billy Joel, in a signature style that's part Tchaikovsky, part Eurolounge, and always very groovy? During a standard six-hour set, Pesce (who's played with Buddy Greco and once toured the country with the Jerry Lewis Orchestra) is likely to shift from Franz Liszt to Frank Sinatra and on into her infamous ABBA medley, nodding and smiling all the while as if to say, "Hey, music is music, pal." Somehow, though, music is a little bit more musical when Pesce plays it. But don't take our word for it. Hang back after supping on one of My Florist's signature salads, and listen while Pesce arpeggios her way through Van Morrison, Queen, and an arrangement of Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven" that must be heard to be believed.
So Much More Than A Pianist
She is magnificent â€¦I have never heard music like this before â€¦does she ever take a breakâ€¦is she a music major?â€ All of these comments have been uttered time and time again about Nicole Pesce who sits poised at the Steinway entertaining endless guests with her beautiful music. With over 10,000 songs in her memorized repertoire, it is ironic that such a genius was born on April Foolâ€™s Day. Nicole has been creating music on the piano for 17 years-since she was 7 years old. She has played in many venues, with many famous performers like Jerry Lewis and Debbie Reynolds, and now her melodies have been ringing through The Ritz-Carlton, Phoenix for the past five years.
There are many things about Nicoleâ€™s ability that make her unique among other entertainers. As already mentioned, she is known for her vast repertoire, but equally impressive is the variety of genres that she can embody. Whether it is jazz, classical, boogie-woogie, pop, swing or rock-and-roll, she performs each style with absolute brilliance and with uncompromising levels of passion. Furthermore, her musical control is unparalleled. If you have ever sat at the table immediately adjacent to the piano in the Tea Room, you are undoubtedly surprised by the gentle touch she can have on the ivories. It is her musical variety and finesse that has made her an integral part of the Afternoon Tea experience at The Ritz-Carlton.
In addition to being able to play such magical music, she also has an amazing ability to write and compose music. With more than 300 songs that carry her name, her symphony in D major remains a favorite, although it continues to be in a perpetual state of evolution. She is seldom satisfied by her work and always tries to push the level beyond what any normal human being could imagine. Nicole is an artist with a personal depth few can grasp and a story longer than any tale ever told. As a consummate performer, however, the story she best conveys is the one that comes from her heart, through her fingers on the keys and that ultimately rings off of the strings of the piano; and this is apparent if you have ever had the pleasure to simply take in her musical tale. Rarely do people have a chance to experience talent of this kind and so closely at that. Donâ€™t miss the opportunity to take in the immeasurable talent of Nicole Pesce.
"......People sup (at My Florist) regularly because they like the atmosphere and the way Nicole Pesce tickles the ivories. Pesce is incredibly talented, and listening to her knock out everything from Rimsky-Korsakov and Chopin to the Beatles and Led Zeppelin, I concede that all her plaudits are deserved."
"......We continued on to a late dinner at My Florist CafÃ©, a popular spot in a onetime flower shop that is stylishly mint green, cobalt and glass brick inside... It's known for Nicole Pesce, the ever-smiling pianist whose repertoire darts from Scott Joplin to Abba, George Gershwin to Led Zeppelin."
It's First Friday. I'm at my third gallery opening in as many hours, drinking cheap wine from a plastic glass and eavesdropping on yet another conversation about Nicole Pesce. "But have you heard her ABBA medley?" one wanna-be fashionista is saying to another. "Oh, please," her gal pal is saying. "Six times! But I'm all about Nicole's Bacharach interpretations! She makes old-guy music sound cool!"
Nicole Pesce makes a lot of stuff sound cool -- which is one of the reasons she's attracted an ever-growing fan following, why diners at downtown's My Florist Cafe linger over the soup du jour, and why they return so often to hear her take on everything from Tchaikovsky to Billy Joel. Minutes before taking the bench for her standard six-hour set at My Florist, the twentysomething Pesce spoke with me about playing Led Zep songs for septuagenarians, backing Jerry Lewis, and the difference between Bach and Beethoven.
New Times: You do realize you have a cult following, don't you?
Nicole Pesce: There do seem to be a lot of folks who come in on a regular basis to hear me play. It's really amazing. I find it hard to believe.
NT: People come from all over town to hear you play.
Pesce: Yes, and all different ages. I'll be playing everything from Chopin to my Queen medley or "Stairway to Heaven, It really helps that My Florist (owner David Lacey] gives me total artistic freedom, so I can play just about anything.
NT: Now, when you were 14, you were playing for Debbie Reynolds at her hotel in Vegas. After which, you toured with Jerry Lewis.
Pesce: Yes, it was a great opportunity. We toured all over the country with a 16-piece orchestra. I was around 14 then, and found it amazing to perform with such a legend.
A few years later I returned to Phoenix and began playing at the Ritz-Carlton.
NT: Where I hear you played for Verne Troyer, the little person who played Mini-Me in the Austin Powers films. Did he have, like, a cabaret act or something?
Pesce: (Laughing.) No. He was staying at the Ritz for a while, and he stopped by to hear me play.
NT: Oh, I get it. So, tell me the truth: You're playing music while people are eating and talking. Do you ever just want to stand up and shout, "Listen to me!!"?
Pesce: When I'm playing, I try to feel the room out, and try to figure out what the crowd is up for. Sometimes I'm just playing ambient music, and other times I'm doing a show. Later in the evening, it's more about my performing.
NT: I've seen that. You really get going, sometimes. Have you ever just fallen off the bench?
Pesce: I've come close a couple of times. My excuse is that I lose perspective when I'm playing. I admit it, though: I've almost taken a dive a time or two.