“I’m chasing the lofty goal of being able to play everything,” says the pianist, composer and educator Dave Meder, discussing the panoramic, genre-bending approach that has earned him slots in the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Piano Competition and the American Pianists Awards.
At only 29, Meder has already found a uniquely versatile artistic voice, evident in his latest release, Passage (Outside In Music), a dynamically interactive piano-trio outing with appearances by generation-defining saxophonists Chris Potter and Miguel Zenón. Traversing an affecting gospel standard, a bold deconstruction of Monk, a title track inspired by minimalists Philip Glass and John Adams, and pieces featuring the most progressive ideas in jazz harmony, rhythm and improvisation, Passage is the work of a young artist whose defining aesthetic is his remarkable sense of stylistic adventure. Indeed, his most appropriate touchstones are historically resourceful postmodernists like Jaki Byard—a hero to whom Meder paid tribute at Jazz at Lincoln Center—and two of Byard’s proteges, Jason Moran and Fred Hersch.
On top of the album’s next-level playing, Passage is an ideal showcase for Meder’s cultivated gifts as a composer-arranger, talents that earlier earned him an ASCAP Young Jazz Composer Award, the FirstMusic Commission of the New York Youth Symphony and a slot in the BMI Jazz Composers Workshop. In the way of live performance, his abilities have been no less lauded. Meder has performed in some of New York’s most hallowed jazz rooms, with dates at Smalls Jazz Club, a multi-night solo-piano engagement at Jazz at Kitano and several headlining stands at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola. His international bookings have included a Tokyo Jazz Festival appearance with a big band led by Makoto Ozone, as well as a guest appearance with the Tom Jobim Youth Orchestra at São Paulo’s iconic Ibirapuera Auditorium. In 2013, he won the esteemed Jacksonville Jazz Piano Competition, formerly known as the Great American Jazz Piano Competition.
As the Assistant Professor of Jazz Piano at the University of North Texas, Meder is the youngest instructor employed in one of the nation’s most renowned music programs. Before he relocated from New York to Texas for the UNT post, he taught at NYU and Juilliard; he also served as a guest instructor abroad in Italy, as part of the Juilliard Jazz Workshop, and Honduras, in a program facilitated by the U.S. State Department.
Remarkably, the beginnings of Meder’s jazz education were mostly self-guided. Born, raised and classically trained in Tampa, Florida, he was still a teenager when he began teaching at a local music shop, while also building his own private teaching practice. While ensconced in his classical studies, he was persuaded by friends to help them form a jazz band in their middle school, whose music department lacked a formal jazz program. With oversight from a generous band director, the jazz ensemble became a reality and Meder became enamored of the art form, working at it largely on his own until college.
During undergraduate studies at Florida State University—from which Meder graduated summa cum laude in 2013 with degrees in music, Spanish and political science—tutelage under Marcus Roberts bolstered the pianist’s strikingly authentic handle on historical jazz styles. He was able to immerse himself in the music’s legacy firsthand in 2011, when he took part in two of jazz education’s most crucial incubators, the Kennedy Center’s Betty Carter Jazz Ahead program and the Steans Music Institute at the Ravinia Festival. Through these opportunities, Meder interfaced with and learned from such jazz legends as George Cables, Nathan Davis, Curtis Fuller and David Baker.
A move to New York in 2013 afforded Meder a chance to study with jazz’s leading edge. In the city, his mentors included Kenny Barron, Dave Douglas, Ari Hoenig, Mark Turner, Jean-Michel Pilc and Fred Hersch, as well as, from the classical world, Julian Martin and Philip Lasser. After earning his master’s from NYU, he continued on to Juilliard, where he received an Artist Diploma and toured as part of the premier ensemble of the school.
Concurrent to his graduate studies, Meder worked for three years as the music director of Fordham Lutheran Church in the Bronx, furthering another creative through-line in his life. “I was raised in the church, and I’ve always played there,” Meder says. “In the context of all the other ‘brainy’ stuff I’ve studied in school, [the church] forced me to make a soulful connection to it—to try and make what I was absorbing more personal and musical.” Indeed, his music conveys a tremendous depth, yet remains eminently soulful, a common aspiration not often attained in modern jazz.