John Bickerton - Biography
"It’s like being submerged beneath the surface of the ocean or a large lake experiencing the otherworldliness, the sense of new, the out of the ordinary, that’s where I try to go with each song.”
This highly personal, searching aesthetic is what drives New York-based pianist and composer John Bickerton. His latest recorded effort, Submerged, is the first release on the musician-run, independent new music label, Simple Harmonic Motion. On Submerged, John invites listeners on an imaginative journey using elements of free jazz and contemporary piano technique.
The record is a set of six performances including highly transformed readings of Led Zeppelin’s Going to California, Neil Young’s Sugar Mountain and the Beatles’ Within You Without You. An original interpretation of Ornette Coleman's Mob Job points to John's inclination toward experimentation and spontaneity.
He describes, “Each performance begins with a simple, tonal melody which gradually morphs into an open and vast sound world. I was after musical performances where the mix of tonality and a free chromaticism seem organic, and the resulting language feels natural".
“John Bickerton fashions lively improvisations out of deceptively simple themes. The pianist is adept at luring his listener in through repetition before catching him unaware with striking variation”
Born in Windsor, Ontario, Canada, in 1959, John Bickerton began studying piano at age six, under the direction of Quebecois sisters at St. Mary's Academy. His many years of intense study of piano and composition, first at Carnegie-Mellon University (BFA), and later at Boston University (MFA), led him to explore not only classical forms but also The New York School movement, including the work of John Cage, Morton Feldman and Earle Brown. Recalling these formative years, Bickerton explains, "one of my most influential teachers was the Spanish composer Leonardo Balada. He encouraged us to compose "aleatory" music - music that introduces elements of chance with respect to pitch and duration." Bickerton also credits Joanne Brackeen, with whom he studied jazz piano. An excellent teacher, she had a way of building his confidence and challenging him at the same time. Prodding him to work on his piano technique, she would say - "your ears are ahead of your hands." Her admiration of Bickerton's compositions helped him remain faithful to his voice.
John's three-year stint leading a resident trio with bassist Hide Tanaka and drummer Frank Bambara (or Wade Barnes) at the club Caliban, on Manhattan's east side (26th & 3rd) in the late 1980s, provided him with invaluable experience. He has since performed with jazz artists Valery Ponomarev, Joe Magnarelli, Wilbur Morris, Calvin Hill, Chris Lightcap, Michael Sarin, Chris Dahlgren, Ben Allison, Tim Horner, Booker T Williams, Mat Maneri, Rashid Bakr (Charles Downs), Bruce Eisenbeil, Matt Heyner, and Steve Johns.
John's search for artistic expression has been a complex, many-layered journey, and his creative process is characterized alternately by experimentation and passionate release. He finds inspiration in visual artists like Joseph Cornell and Jean Michel Basquiat, whose ferocious search for what is unique in art he admires, and he is ever moved by a handful of inspired jazz improvisers. Bickerton explains: "My improvisational influences - Ornette Coleman, Geri Allen, Andrew Hill, Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, Keith Jarrett - have all established their own 'mentality' in jazz. How they phrase inside the time gives them their voice. How do these musicians play with the rhythm section? Do they phrase evenly through the measure? Do they play against the time? Behind it? Contrary to it? All these things define a personality in music. In a way, it's the ultimate goal of a musician to find this sound, this personal expression. The power of improvisation is in its immediacy - you can hear the very moment of creation, and that energy is what carries the music."
John Bickerton has written incidental and theme music for several Off-Broadway theater productions by the Primary Stages company. He composed the theme music to a four-part TV documentary which premiered on the FOX network. This initial commercial composing experience led him to create the UniqueTracks Production Music Library in 1998. Today, UniqueTracks has a library of over 3000 stock music recordings in all contemporary styles as well as the largest selection of stock classical music recordings available worldwide. UniqueTracks has licensed music to thousands of media production companies including Disney, the Cooking Channel, the Sundance Channel, FOX, ABC as well as corporate clients like Coca-Cola, E-Trade, IBM, Merrill Lynch, Hallmark Cards, and Johnson & Johnson.
Bickerton’s compositions are wonderful things, reminiscent of Mary Lou Williams’s, Monkish but in an updated way, bringing dissonance and that apparently awkward grace to the fore and letting swing transform into the pulse of free improvisation.
Richard Cochrane, International Improvised Music Archive