Thursday, July 31, 2014

High School All-Star Alumni Interview: Sam Reider

August's All-Star Alumni interviewee is Sam Reider, Jazz pianist turned Folk accordionist and member of the SFJAZZ High School All-Stars from 2004 to 2007. Since attending Columbia University, Sam has had some of the most diverse musical experiences of any of our All-Star alumni! A founding member of the highly acclaimed group, The Amigos (, Sam has recently been traveling internationally as an artistic ambassador. Be sure not to miss The Amigos’ upcoming Bay Area performance at the Freight & Salvage on Sunday, August 3rd, at 8pm (

Tell us about your most significant memory of being in the High School All-Stars program.

"I have fond memories of many of the amazing performances I was able to see, like Sonny Rollins and Etta James, and also of getting to interact directly with many of the artists in the SFJAZZ Collective. Once, during my senior year of high school, I was called to play with Miguel Zenón at a private party. It wasn’t until I arrived at the party that I realized we were going to be playing duo, without any of my other friends from the High School All-Stars joining us. This was pretty intimidating for me, but Miguel was so nice about it. We rehearsed the tunes and gave our performance, and then he let me follow him around, giving me little tips like, "When you’re at a party, always hold something in one of your hands," or "Make sure you know about stocks and baseball so you have something to talk about with people." I can’t say I really took that second one to heart, as it's been seven years since that party and I still don’t know anything about stocks or baseball. But I do remember that moment frequently after shows when I’m speaking to people, and Miguel is still one of my favorite saxophonists!"

What made you choose piano as your instrument? Is there anything that reinforces that choice nowadays?

"My grandfather and my father both played piano, and I began studying when I was five years old. So, I suppose there wasn’t a great deal of choice in the matter, at least at first. I studied classical music until I was ten or eleven, and then switched to Jazz. In high school I joined the SFJAZZ High School All-Stars program, and when I graduated I moved New York City to pursue Jazz. At Columbia University, I became more and more interested in American folk music, blues, bluegrass, and Rock and Roll. I wanted to find a way to take part in that sound—and piano didn’t always fit so easily with acoustic guitars, banjo, fiddle, etc. My junior year, I brought back an old accordion from my basement in San Francisco that my high school drama teacher had given me. I began bringing it with me to gigs, pulling it out at parties, practicing it in my spare time. I started transcribing Bluegrass fiddle and mandolin parts, learning the Folk repertoire, and singing three-part harmony with two of my friends, Justin and Eddie. At a time when I was feeling sort of lost with piano, and not sure if I wanted to continue playing Jazz, accordion re-inspired me and allowed me to grow in new directions. Now I feel confident in saying that my efforts to play Bluegrass, Cajun/Zydeco, Gypsy Jazz, and Western Swing on the accordion have not only kept me invested in music, but have definitely enhanced and deepened my relationship with the piano."

In what ways did your high school and college training inform your recent projects' eclectic sound?

"In college, I majored in American Studies, focusing on art and music of the Great Depression. I was interested in the way in which, at a time when society was being reorganized and restructured, different regional and ethnic folk music traditions were emerging and colliding with one another. I was passionate about finding instances of Jazz and popular music being directly influenced by Folk music and vice-versa. By exploring the Folk repertoire, I was both challenging myself to find new ways to improvise and navigate simple harmonic structures, and also liberating myself from the feeling that there was a predetermined right and wrong way of doing things. Above all, the Folk music I was listening to moved me emotionally, and this has always been the thing that has guided my ear and my hands. I found some like-minded individuals, and as a group we challenged each other to get deeper and deeper into what seemed at the time like the underbelly of American recorded music. The Amigos were born out of this musical exploration and also out of our enjoyment of singing."

Accolades for the Amigos:

"This accordion-based group (yes, accordion!) is updated Americana at its best. Taking mostly Folk-Rock then adding Jazz and Zydeco-Cajun influences, you get music that's impossible not to stomp your feet to (or dance around in happy circles). Plus, their instrument solos pretty much shred it.”
- Huffington Post

"With a seal of approval from the likes of David Amram and Pete Seeger, it’s easy to see why The Amigos are one of our new favorite bands right now. Their blend of nearly every genre of American music, from Blues to Folk-Rock to Zydeco and beyond, makes the band an absolute thrill to hear on record and in person.”
- Elmore Magazine

Can you tell us about your recent work overseas?

"In 2013, The Amigos applied for the American Music Abroad program, which sends American bands overseas as cultural ambassadors on behalf of the State Department. It’s a program that was started during the Cold War as a type of soft-diplomacy. Duke Ellington’s band travelled overseas on one such grant, and he famously wrote the Far East Suite about his travels. Suffice it to say we were very excited and honored to be chosen for the program. In March and April of this year we traveled for six-weeks in Cambodia, China, Myanmar, Laos, and Vietnam. We gave over forty performances at concert halls, festivals, schools, markets, and circus tents, and also collaborated with local artists everywhere we went.

When you collaborate with a group from another culture, it can be challenging to find repertoire in common. In preparation for China, we had put together an arrangement of the Chinese popular song "Jasmine Flower.” We also knew ahead of time that the American song “Country Roads,” made famous by John Denver, was a particular favorite with Chinese audiences. In Liuzhuo, China, we were scheduled to perform with a school group of ethnic minority students. They arrived wearing traditional outfits—brightly colored shirts and pants that were a surprisingly nice match for our cowboy clothing. In a truly bizarre coincidence, without any prior communication with us, these students had also prepared both Jasmine Flower and Country Roads to perform that night. This seemed so fortuitous, that rather than have the kids perform separately before we went on stage, we joined forces and gave the most rousing cross-cultural performance of “Country Roads” that the world has ever known!"

If you like what you’ve seen and heard, be sure to catch the Amigos at the Freight & Salvage this Sunday! Can’t get enough of that Zydeco sound? Lucky for you, Zydeco heavyweights CJ Chenier & the Red Hot Louisiana Band are kicking off SFJAZZ Summer Sessions’ dance party weekend on August 7th at 7:30pm (

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