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Artist Feature

Aaron Diehl

In fashion circles, the adjective “bespoke” denotes custom-made suits and shirts and signifies the person who designs and constructs them. On The Bespoke Man’s Narrative, his brilliant Mack Avenue Records debut, pianist Aaron Diehl extrapolates this notion to matters of musical invention.

“The idea for the metaphor was that the composition and concept were specifically for these musicians,” Diehl says, referring to his working quartet of 30-ish all-stars—vibraphonist (and Mack Avenue artist) Warren Wolf, bassist David Wong and drummer Rodney Green—that interprets the five originals and five arrangements comprising the program. “There’s a sequence, an arc, a beginning, middle and end. Each piece has something to do with my musical development.”

The project gestated in April of 2011 in Indianapolis after Diehl, 26, earned first place in the rigorous Cole Porter Fellow in Jazz competition presented by the American Pianists Association. The award garnered him $50,000 in career support and an opportunity to record with Mack Avenue Records.

“I thought it would be wise to use the opportunity to document this ensemble,” Diehl states. “I decided to compose and arrange music in line with our own sound and conception, while using the strategies of bandleaders like John Lewis and Duke Ellington, who developed their music in line with the abilities of their personnel.”

Diehl is singularly positioned within his generation to apply these lessons to a contemporary context. An alumnus of Todd Stoll’s Columbus (Ohio) Youth Jazz Orchestra, which specializes in performing a broad timeline of Ellington’s music, he spent the last six months of his sophomore year at Juilliard—he was 19 at the time—helping pianist John Lewis’ widow, Mirjana, to organize her late husband’s archive of manuscripts, scores, reel-to-reel tapes and recordings. Already intimate with the stride piano canon from his teens, Diehl applied the quality time with Lewis’ Bach-to-blues oeuvre towards finding a conceptual space in which to coalesce his varied interests.