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David Arnay began his career in Ithaca, New York, where he went to college during the late ‘70s. It was in that enlightened upstate environment that he got involved with a very vibrant local music scene, eventually joining the popular and somewhat notorious Zobo Funn Band, featuring guitar monster David Torn. “It was not really a jazz band,” Arnay recalls. “It was more of an eclectic art rock-fusion-prog whatever you wanna call it thing. And we weren’t even in the digital age, so Torn wasn’t yet involved with creating the loops and heavily effected textures that he would later do on the ECM label. He was still in his shredder post-blues phase and was just playing the hell out of the guitar.”
Upon moving to Pasadena in 1987, Arnay soon became involved on the Los Angeles scene, eventually collaborating with the likes of tenor saxophonist Bob Sheppard, bassist Dave Carpenter and drummer Erskine. A significant mentor during his early years in Los Angeles was tenor saxophonist and former Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock sideman Bennie Maupin. “I was introduced to Bennie on a project we were doing for a songwriter, and he took an interest in my playing and writing. In 1994, he brought me into his quintet, which included Alphonso Johnson on bass. That was a fantastic experience, of course. It really affected me as a musician a great deal. Bennie is a tremendous mentor and a great person to be with. He really helped me to listen more carefully, to leave more space and respect silence. He is one of the absolute monsters of all-time, and he’s still kicking.”
Arnay’s first recording as a leader, 1997’s Daddy’s Groove, featured guest appearances from Maupin and Sheppard on reeds, Carpenter and Johnson on basses and Erskine on drums. His follow-up, 2003’s Blues…and Then Some, was a trio project with drummer Dave Tull and bassist Larry Steen. And now comes his most ambitious project to date. With the release of 8, the talented veteran stands to break out in a big way. “I have been playing the piano since I was five years old,” says Arnay. “Initially, I locked onto Oscar Peterson as the sort of fountainhead. He was quickly followed by Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea and Bill Evans and the usual pantheon of great jazz piano players. I do very much see myself as coming straight out of the mainstream tradition of what it means to play jazz piano.”
Arnay continues to perform every Friday at Parkway Grill in Pasadena, a gig he’s held down since 1989. “Parkway’s an outstanding establishment, a wonderful ongoing place for me to keep my chops in shape and work in the duo format with a rotating squad of first-call bass players. So if people are in town, they can always check me out there.” If you can’t make it to Pasadena, check out 8, the pianist’s most impressive outing to date.