INTERVIEW: Virtuoso Pianist Arthur Hanlon

1.)   Vents is proud to welcome renowned virtuoso pianist Arthur Hanlon to our pages – Welcome to Vents, Arthur! Before we get the proverbial ball rolling, how has 2021 been treating you so far? 

Great to be here!! 2021 finds me completely focused on my new release as well as planning a fall tour to support it. So between lockdown and reopening and everything going on musically, it’s been very crazy, but also a crazily creative time.

2.)   Major congratulations on your recent album release Piano y Mujer! For those not in the know, what can they expect from this lovely, transcendent album?  

Thanks so much! “Piano y Mujer” is a celebration of women in Latin music featuring 5 of the best Latin female vocalists in the world along side my piano. For me there is nothing more pure, honest and magical than piano and the voice of a woman. All the arrangements and recordings were brought to life by simply sitting down at the piano together with Kany Garcia, Natalia Jimenez, Nella, Goyo and Evaluna Montaner and improvising, experimenting and looking for the magic in the music. While the recordings all have lots of stuff going on-modern loops, horns, full band etc., the very soul and essence of the project is simple and honest: piano and the voice of a woman.

3.)   Prior to sitting down and assembling Piano y Mujer, what did the gestation process on this new work look like? Would it be fair to say that this particular album has been ruminating within you for some time? 

Yes! For decades actually! While the official title “Piano Y Mujer” was born last June in the middle of the pandemic, I actually fell in love with the concept when I was 17 years old when I began to play professionally in Detroit. Bars, hotels, parties anything where I could make a few bucks playing music and, always if the clients couldn’t afford to hire our whole band, the agency would say “ok we’ll send Arthur and his piano with the female vocalist.” Literally 100’s of times!! So it’s a format that I truly love and when the pandemic hit, I thought to myself now is the perfect time to turn the concept that I have always have dreamed of into a reality.

4.)   Who produced Piano y Mujer, and what did that collaboration look like?   

My great friend and insanely talented Motiff produced Piano Y Mujer. and the collaboration was a great ride. For me colabs are all about chemistry. Just like when you are introduced to someone at a party, sometimes there’s chemistry and sometimes there’s not. The day we met several years ago there was an instant musical click. In preproduction for “Piano Y Mujer”, as Motiff also plays piano, we would hang for hours and hours at my studio or his studio, each of us sitting  at a different piano and just brainstorm musical ideas- it was an incredible experience.

5.)   How is Piano y Mujer similar to your past works? How is it different? 

P&M is similar to past projects in that it obviously features my piano and lots of “expect the unexpected” moments which I love to put on my albums. It is different in that it came to life in the middle of a once in a century pandemic. With there being no planes to catch or concerts to rehearse for, we had time-literally months- to dive really deep and explore, experiment, create and look for musical magic. Also, the process of working two songs each for five very different incredibly talented vocalists was fascinating-and difficult as we had to bring together six different musical worlds to create one new unifying synthesis. We did everything live and together despite the pandemic, and the moment in time just made everything that much more meaningful. 

6.)   Piano y Mujer presents listeners with some familiar songs – Was it a challenge to bring something new to the table in regards to these tunes? 

The BIGGEST challenge of the project was precisely your point! How can we find the “new and different” and yet still remain faithful to the very essence of a smash hit song? My biggest fear in preproduction was the thought of critics from all over Latin America writing “what is this Gringo trying to do by re-recording “Evidencias” by the legendary Ana Gabriel? (for example). What helped tons was, due to the pandemic, we had no time constraints which allowed us to musically go to places I truly believe we never would have gone to had we not had unlimited time in the studio.

7.)   Who hit upon the idea of promoting the new album with the HBO Max special? 

Definitely a joint effort between Afo Verde and Alex Gallardo (CEO and President of Sony Latin) along with Nelson Albareda and Edgar Martinez (Loud and Live) who produced the concert video. We all felt it was a unique concept unlike anything that had been done before, and as HBO is known for breaking ground, we took the concept together as team to the amazing Leslie Cohen at HBO Max and she and her team decided to run with it.

8.)   Was the HBO Max special in some ways an answer to the quandary many musicians are experiencing right now in dealing with COVID-19 and how to safely tour and promote their respective music? 

It actually was planned that way but definitely didn’t turn out that way. We all decided; myself, Motiff, Kany, Natalia, Goyo, Nella, Evaluna that we really wanted to take advantage of the extra time we all had to try to find that extra gear, to create, arrange and record together in the studio and of course all together to film the special itself. Ironically, I think it was the Covid induced isolation that we were all feeling that empowered us to musically unite as one and create a beautiful collective synergy. The actually taping was in October at the Faena Theater in Miami Beach with all kinds of Covid protocols, but when we started making music, all tensions and apprehensions immediately disappeared- it was an incredible musical and emotional release and one which I will never forget.

9.)  You have such a gift in the HBO Max concert in the fact that you were able to collaborate with some of the greatest women in Latin music. Can you talk with us a little about what that collaboration looked like? 

Thank you, the colabs were all deeply personal. Goyo for example is a good friend whom I’ve worked with before in a colab with her group Chocquibtown. We have a deep connection because one of my musical heros is the late Jairo Varela, founder of Grupo Niche who had been a mentor to me when I first started playing Latin music. He also was Goyo’s older cousin! Natalia is a great friend who was a guest on my PBS special “Encanto Del Caribe” and Evaluna’s father is another friend with whom I’ve done colabs with, Ricardo Montaner. It was like a big family reunion and I will never forget all the hours in the studio overcoming together our Covid anxieties, sharing stories of family, friends, of music and creating. I am BEYOND honored that those 5 AMAZING women took the time to converge upon Miami and we were able to do what we did.

10.)  The critical and fan reception to both the new album and the HBO Max special has been pretty overwhelming. Have you been at all surprised by how you’ve resounded with your latest efforts? 

Honestly yes, we all knew we had created something different but nobody-myself included- thought the reception would be anywhere near as special as it has been. I truly believe the pandemic created a very weird energy that all of us together, the vocalists, myself, Sony and Loud and Live somehow tapped into and managed to turn into very positive energy .

11.) You grew up in Detroit, Michigan. How has Detroit formed your path as a musician? 

My parents brought home a little piano as a Christmas present for the kids (there are 7 of us) when I was 6 years old and I just could not stay away for even a day. Detroit radio was of course full of the Motown sound and playing gigs as a teenager with much older Motown studio guys that stayed in Detroit after Barry Gordy moved to LA really taught me how to think on my feet, improvise, write songs and come up with grooves. Then while living in Spanish Harlem while studying piano at Manhattan School of Music, Latin music was everywhere and so playing Latin gigs just seemed to me to be a logical progression from playing blues and Motown in Detroit. My time in New York completely changed the direction of my entire career.

12.)  When planning what your next album will be, is it at all intimidating to realize that you have the unenviable task of following up a smash like Piano y Mujer?

To be completely honest, YES!!! It is an intimidating thought and one that sometimes wakes me up at 3am with my brain racing through potential new album concepts and song ideas. But at the same time, as an artist I truly need to constantly take myself out of my comfort zone to try and find the “new, fresh and different”. Ironically, it makes me even more uncomfortable when I find myself stuck inside my comfort zone than when I’m outside searching for the magic.

13.) Tell us about your new piano endorsement deal with Yamaha. How does it feel to be collaborating with such a prestigious and world renowned company?

Talk about an organic collaboration! For Piano Y Mujer, some songs are super rhythmic with Latin tumbaos, and others are very intimate. So, I really wanted that signature Yamaha acoustic sound for both the album and the HBO special—bright and bold with lots of depth, resonance, and a big bass, but at the same time very warm and poetic sounding. We contacted Yamaha to start a conversation and after they saw the special, we just continued talking. In December I played a beautiful red Yamaha grand for a Christmas special that I did. Then in March/April, a blue Yamaha for TV appearances for the release of Piano Y Mujer. And now we’re in a formal partnership and I’m super happy!

14.)  Final – SILLY! – Question: Favorite film – The Piano or Great Balls of Fire? 

Great Balls of Fire!!!!! Hands down!! (pun intended…)

About Ryan Vandergriff

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