Larry Goldings ’86 is one of the great pianists and HammondB3 organists of our time. On April 5, he returned to the Performing Arts Center (P.A.C.) stage to perform in assembly and teach a master class for ensemble students. 

Widely regarded as one of the most versatile keyboardists in the world, the New York Times called Goldings’ organ trio with Peter Bernstein and Bill Stewart one of the best of the last decade; In 2007, he collaborated with other musicians on Beyond – Saudades, which was recognized with a Best Instrumental Jazz Album Grammy nomination; Goldings is also a prolific composer who has scored for television and film. He has played with other musical giants, including James Taylor, John Scofield, Rickie Lee Jones, Herbie Hancock, Pat Metheny, John Mayer, and so many others. His music can also frequently be heard on NPR’s This American Life, underscoring many dramatic stories.

At CA, Goldings mesmerized students, faculty, and staff with his easy wit, self-deprecating stories, and brilliant musicianship. “This stage is very meaningful to me,” he said, noting that his first big laughs—and his first big failures—were on that stage. “I had some real important firsts [here], while I figured out what the heck I was doing.” He said that he was miscast as Prospero in A Midsummer Night’s Dream when he froze and forgot an entire soliloquy, and he thanked his CA musical mentors including former faculty Deanna Douglas and Keith Daniel. The piano he played at assembly last week is the same—a Steinway & Sons with intricately carved legs—that he played as a student.

Goldings began his CA performance with a piece inspired by his years as a student. James Taylor needed a piece as a bridge between “Sweet Baby James” and “Country Road”. The piece is titled “School Song.”

Goldings said that it was his former CA teacher Keith Daniel who encouraged him to take in all genres. He was especially knowledgeable about French music and shared his love of Fauré with him. Goldings played for CA the first 16 bars of Fauré’s “Requiem,” which he arranged for his jazz trio. His CA mentor also encouraged him to seek additional instruction from Ran Blake, who founded the New England Conservatory of Music’s Contemporary Musical Arts program in the 70s. 

Goldings quipped that much has been made of the correlation between mathematical and musical talents, claiming that he is missing the math part of that equation. Even so, he pointed out the simplicity of a triad—1-3-5—and the importance of the typical 1-4-5 progression. Goldings invited a member of the audience to share the last seven digits of their phone number, which he translated then into a song.

He recounted another CA moment: “Once I sang a Bob Dylan song right from this stage,” he said. “I regret that.” Goldings is nearly as well known as a humorist: In the early days of MySpace—when that fledging social media site was audio-only—he introduced his mischievous alter ego, Hans Groiner (who has since migrated to YouTube). Sporting a blonde wig and Austrian accent, Hans first came on the scene as the guy suggesting that jazz great Thelonious Monk had no idea how to play anything. Goldings continues to collaborate with Hans in his rare spare time.

Goldings spoke of the importance of imitation when becoming a better, more versatile musician, particularly in jazz. “Here’s my take on what if Thelonius Monk played The Beatles,” he said.  He offered the CA audience a rendition of what it might sound like if Thelonious Monk reinterpreted “Yesterday.” 

“The thing about influences is that it’s important to try to transcend them.” The late jazz pianist Paul Bley saw Goldings play in New York at a club, now called Smoke, early in Goldings’ career. He said to me, “You should collect up all of your records and then throw them out the window.”

“It was a generous thing for him to have done,” he said. In part, Goldings’ development as a musician was bookended by mentors both encouraging him to branch out and take in everything and—when he was a more mature artist—to throw it all away and make his own sound. 

Goldings said that he knew that from when he was a CA student that he wanted to be a musician and he would go to New York. He attended the New School there and started playing gigs in the city and beyond while still in college. Piano was his first instrument, but he has found an even more distinctive voice on the B3 organ, he said.

Goldings’ list of musical accomplishments is broad and deep. His collaborations are too many to catalog or count. When asked about what makes him most proud, he does not talk about his award-winning jazz albums, the big names with whom he has played for decades, or his reputation as one of the greats. Instead, he talks about his desire to collaborate with other musicians. “I like making the group as a whole sound better,” he said. “I feel grateful that I can be in so many different musical environments, and people can still hear my musical voice.”

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