Tuesday, April 7, 2009
The Sweteest Sounds
How tough is it to get into the Juilliard School of Music in New York? The world-famous conservatory accepted only one pianist for next fall's freshman class.
That person is Samora Pinderhughes, a senior at Berkeley High, who plays first piano with the award-winning Berkeley High Jazz Ensemble.
Samora has been wowing 'em since before he could walk. He began studying Venezuelan and Cuban percussion at age two and Latin piano at age seven. He fell in love with jazz at age 11 when he entered the Young Musicians Program at UC Berkeley.
A gifted composer and arranger as well as a virtuoso performer, he has won so many prizes, including the prestigious Downbeat Award for "best original composition/best song," it would take 10 columns to list them all. He has played everywhere from Yoshi's to Carnegie Hall.
Music critics and professional musicians agree: His potential is unlimited.
"Samora is one of the most naturally gifted musicians I've ever had the privilege of teaching," says pianist Susan Muscarella, director of The JazzSchool. "He has everything he needs: great voice leading and exciting melodic lines. But most importantly, he swings hard. It would be no surprise to me to see him among the next generation of jazz masters."
But according to Samora, he isn't even the best musician in the family.
That distinction belongs to his little sister, Elena, 14, who plays flute and sings.
"Her ear, the way she listens and reacts, she's such a natural player," he says. "She's just learning about chord changes and stuff, but if I play something she's never heard before she picks it up in seconds, way faster than everyone else."
She, too, has won a Downbeat Award and played at Yoshi's and Carnegie Hall. Two years ago she was the featured soloist with the Montclair Women's Big Band at the Gualala Whale and Jazz Festival, the first time the festival featured a child on the main stage.
"She just blew everybody away," says trumpeter Ellen Seeling, the Big Band's director. "She's a very mature bebop player, and she gets a sound on the flute that you almost never hear, even in professional musicians. She's frighteningly talented and a consummate pro, even though she's only in 8th grade. She's going to be a big deal some day."
Elena gives Samora a lot of the credit.
"He has always pushed me, but in an encouraging way. He doesn't let me not rise to my potential. And I know he's always going to have my back. If I mess up in a concert, I know he's going to cover for me or follow me in an unexpected direction."
Elena and Samora have been performing together since he was 11 and she was 7. Their first gigs were at the Saturday morning Berkeley Farmer's Market, where the tips paid for their music lessons.
Their current combo, a jazz quartet, will appear April 19 at La Pena.
The concert has two purposes: first, it's one of Samora's last chances to play with his friends before he goes off to Juilliard; and second, to raise money so Elena and Samora can go with the Berkeley High Jazz Ensemble on its European trip this summer.
Don't miss this chance to catch a pair of rising stars.