Get to know your local musicians: pianist Lee Parker

Pianist Lee Parker in the process of releasing his first album, which will be part of a three-album series documenting his journey through the recent loss of his wife. He keeps a photo of his wife, Amy, on the piano in his music studio.
John F. Russell

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Lee Parker is a pianist based in Steamboat Springs, who can often be heard playing his jazzy, split-keyboard style at the Periodic Table at Catamount Ranch on Thursday evenings, as well as Gallery 89 during First Friday Artwalks.

Parker is also finding his way around the recording studio. He’s in the process of releasing his first album, which will be part of a three-album series documenting his journey through the recent loss of his wife.

Explore Steamboat talked with Parker to hear more about his story, his inspirations and where he and his music are headed. 

Explore Steamboat: When did you first get interested in music?

Lee Parker: I started as a child, taking piano lessons like any kid. I don’t think (my parents) had a reason to believe I’d be particularly adept at it, but I was always making up little melodies. When I started high school, I moved to a private school in the Midwest and stopped doing much with the piano. It was the early ‘70s and me and my friends, we were so into the music scene — we weren’t playing much, but we were listening a lot.

I studied in the jazz program in the University of Utah, and eventually, left Salt Lake to come to Steamboat to ski and be with my two best friends. We’re 60 and 61 now, and we’ve been friends since we were 15 — it’s out of control! 

In Steamboat, I skied like a backcountry madman for a few years. Around 2006, I met these guys in a reggae band, and we played at Mambo a few times. They said, “Man, you should be pursuing this more,” and I did. I started cultivating it into what I’ve become: that split-keyboard sound. I could hear it in my head, and I made it happen on the piano — practiced until I could get it. 

I played out at Glen Eden and at Harwigs for a while; (Harwigs) is where I met my friend (painter) Greg (Block). When I started serving at Aurum, I kind of stopped playing, but Greg pulled me into playing at (Gallery 89), and that’s kind of blossomed into everything that’s happening now. Greg also paints my album covers. For “After the Storm,” he destroyed a piano and painted it like a portrait, with an inset of a storm. 

Steamboat Springs painter Greg Block created the artwork for Lee Parker’s “After the Storm” album.
Courtesy image

ES: “After the Storm” is the first of your three-album series. What are your plans for the next two albums?

LP: I’m working on the second of the trilogy right now. It’s a progression of me — it’s like plugging a piano into me and my moods. When there’s pain, you hear it, and when there’s joy, you can hear that.

The second album I’m planning is called “The Crossing.” I’m excited to apply what I’ve learned with the first album to the second effort. And when I’m done with that, I’m going to write a third, called “Dragonfly.” I have to wait until I’m a little farther along in my journey for that one. A dragonfly represents rebirth. It’s all an instrumental story of my journey of my loss and getting through it. I’m hoping all of this will be my way of coping with losing my wife. That’s where all the inspiration comes from. 

(The trilogy) is a journey from loss to grief to, hopefully, joy. You take grief and you flip it over and you get passion; I play with passion.

When (Amy, my wife) first died, I was exhausted and stunned. I’d fought the battle of my life and lost. I can’t even imagine this without (music). A year later, I have a long way to go. But I believe that Amy’s up there, cheering me on. This (music) is the answer; this is how I’m gonna get across the desert. 

ES: How does it feel to share music that’s this close to your heart?

LP: It’s therapeutic. I was in love with Amy for 30 years. When you experience that kind of loss, it’s isolating. But when I’m playing, I feel like I’m sharing. People have been really kind, hearing me play.

I don’t know what I’m really looking for, but when you lose all that love, then you reach out and people appreciate the music, you feel there’s a little bit of love out there. So I walk out of (a gig) feeling like things are heading in the right direction. Music is the doorway I’m building to get me out of that chamber of grief I’m living in — and it’s coming. When I write that third album, you’ll hear it: something really celebratory. That’s what’s so great about art. Where there was nothing, there’s something great. 

I’m kind of in uncharted terrain, but I’m just doing it. It will certainly be a great sense of accomplishment to get the music out, and it’s good knowing that I’ve got these projects to work on and make people proud — certainly my wife. Since I can’t have the life I thought I’d have, I have to find a new dream; this is it.

ES: For most of your music career, you’ve played live. How is it to be transitioning into also recording in a studio?

LP: On this first go, I’m so excited for the studio stuff. I want all the bells and whistles; I’m a little over-excited about it. I’m like a kid on Christmas, a 61-year-old child running around a candy store. Over time, I’ll probably calm down. The hardest part for me is to reel myself in.

About a year ago, I went to buy a guitar and started talking to Steve (Boynton) about recording an album. Working with Steve is a dream; I’ve always wanted to collaborate with him. His being able to help me do these project is key. I have a couple of hired, top-shelf studio guys on bass and drums. Steve will do the guitar work. Another guy will do the saxophone work. 

All the songs I’ve done are all done on the premise of playing them live. I’ve always played by myself, so I do this left-hand rhythm, which isn’t too common. 

When I play solo, it’s embellished and flourishing — I’m going full on. But in a studio, if I was to play like that with four other musicians, it’s too crowded. That’s what’s beautiful about Steve — he can hear that more than I can. 

All (Steve’s) experience is washing over me — I love learning what I’m learning. That’s exciting and fun for me — to be improving and evolving as a piano player. He gets the best out of me. I trust him, and he believes in me, so it’s a good combination. 

With these musicians, I don’t have to do left hand rhythm, because there’s a bass player for that. I don’t always have to do as much melody, because there’s a guitarist doing that. My left hand has to be more in a conventional style, so you get more piano than I usually provide. I’d need a third hand, to do that live. So now, I’m staying up high on the keyboard; the bottom is kind of a no-fly zone.

When a person listens, you have to give them a break; make it listen-able, so they can identify with it, so the music can stay with them. That’s that balance: approachable, but also really cool; arty, but not too crazy. 

ES: What’s your process in creating a song for these albums?

LP: I design the roadmap of the song. I’ll say, “It’s just me, here, with just the drummer shimmering a little bit, then the bassist comes in here, then everyone else comes in here.”

You’re always striving for freshness. Each time a person listens to it, you want them to catch something else they didn’t get the first time, like watching a good movie.

In terms of inspiration, I can run to the piano whenever an idea or passion kind of pops out. I can go in my musical laboratory like a mad scientist. It’s like a bunker, with concrete walls, and I can’t bother anyone. It can be 2 a.m. — no problem!

ES: What are you looking forward to, in terms of putting out these albums, and in terms of what’s coming next in your music career?

LP: I’m excited to finish these piano arrangements for the album. We’re shooting to release (the first) this summer. I’m hoping once I get this album out, when I’m serving one night before the end of my (restaurant) career, I’ll be at a table one night, my song will come on the radio, and I’ll say, “Hey, know who wrote this?” That’s a little dream of mine.

I’d also love to put a band together — that would be kind of the ultimate for me. For that to come to life on stage would be awesome. 

My priorities are the journey and the relationships. It’s all about fun and love and doing something cool that will be around for a long time after I’m gone.

Julia Ben-Asher is a contributing writer for Steamboat Pilot & Today.

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