Artists instinctively eschew clichés, but Mt. Airy’s Lou Walinsky, 74, knows it’s really true that sometimes you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone.
In 1996, the classically trained pianist released his first solo piano album, “Music from Many Places,” an album true to its name. His second album, “Piano Arrangements,” was released last year. It’s another veritable musical smörgåsbord but, more importantly, a testament to the notion that E Pluribus Unum (from many, one) has an application beyond dollar bills.
On the latter, Walinsky’s bold, often clever, reworkings of jazz standards, pop tunes, gospels and spirituals reveal not just Walinsky’s expansive musical sensibility but fluency and improvisational aptitude that span the musical spectrum. See Walinsky live and you’re bound to hear everything from klezmer and Jewish folk to the immortal tunes of Tin Pan Alley to ragtime, bebop, bossa nova and soul.
This from a guy who once moved to New York City to become a classical pianist.
After earning a bachelor’s degree at Temple University, Walinsky moved to New York City to continue his classical piano studies at the Dalcroze School of Music, where he was taught to improvise in the classical mode. But New York’s jazz scene is a seductive force; its allure has changed the course of many would-be classical musicians’ careers.
“Getting the taste of the improv, classically, I got interested in jazz,” Walinsky said.
Walinsky would go on to study with legendary jazz pianists like Hank Jones and Roland Hanna, but he’s never forsaken his classical roots.
So, which is he: classical musician or jazzer?
“For me, it’s about expressing the emotional nature, the soulful essence of the song. That’s what I hear from Keith Jarrett, Hiromi and Nina Simone. And it’s also what I hear from Chopin,” he said. “I consider myself part of that tradition.”
Walinsky fits squarely in that tradition in this sense: like the great pianists, jazz and classical, he’s a serious musical anthropologist who knows that the above-mentioned musical modes share too much common DNA to keep separate.
He’s got great ears and his mind is a vast repository of repertoire.
But you need more than that to play piano; you need your hands. And in the mid-late ’90s, after the first album, Walinsky’s hands became a problem.
Based on the record’s positive reception, Walinsky started playing some concerts, including one relatively high profile one at The Kennedy Center, as part of its Millennium Stage series.
“I was really rolling along with that pretty nicely there,” Walinsky said, “but then I got carpal tunnel syndrome in both hands, and that really threw a wrench into things for a while.”
This explains why over two decades separate the release of his first album (1996) and his second (2018).
Carpal tunnel didn’t stop Walinsky from playing altogether — he taught privately and continued to teach in Philadelphia’s public schools, where he taught at three
district elementary schools more than 15 years. Like any jazzer, he still jammed, mostly at the now-defunct jazz jam at the 23rd St. Cafe, for 25 years a hidden gem of Philadelphia’s jazz scene.
Still, carpal tunnel took a serious toll on the aspect of his playing Walinsky valued most.
“I had to cut back totally on concert stuff,” Walinsky said. “I could still do parties, background stuff with duos and trios, because it was less demanding.”
But doing what he really loved — concertizing solo, showcasing his creative arrangements and distinct improvisational style — was, for a time, just not possible. It took too great a toll on his hands and his arms, and he wasn’t able to play in a manner to do his musical ideas justice.
That led Walinsky on what he calls a “healing journey.”
“I tried a whole variety of different modalities,” he said.
Walinsky went to chiropractors and alternative healers.
“I went to somebody who was a rolfer (comparable to a masseuse); you get worked over really good with that,” he said, laughing.
He also went to a surgeon who recommended surgery on both hands; he was not ready for that.
“What I eventually bought into was the idea that if I don’t change the way I was playing piano, then it wouldn’t matter if I got the operation because then (the carpal tunnel) would set up all over again.”
That led Walinsky to a piano wellness teacher in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, named Sheila Paige. Paige, a classical pianist herself, teaches the Taubman technique, which teaches musicians how to play in ways that don’t harm their body.
It took Walinsky about five years of study with Paige to feel sufficiently comfortable with the new technique to concertize again.
“It really takes quite a bit of time and practice to incorporate that into one’s playing,” Walinsky confirmed. “Especially when you’re playing up-tempo stuff — that stuff has to be right there, literally at your fingertips.”
Rehab this extensive, no matter one’s predisposition towards positivity, is an ordeal that can test patients and families, but Walinsky’s support system — his wife Nina and his daughters, Sonia Gordon-Walinsky and Naomi Walinsky-King — hasn’t wavered, in part because they know that Walinsky needs music, and needs to be able to play his way, to feel whole.
“My dad’s music for him is very much like prayer, and I feel that my artwork is like prayer also,” said Gordon-Walinsky, 37, an artist specializing in Torah-centered calligraphy, whom the Jewish Exponent profiled earlier this year. “I feel like (playing music) is pretty much as essential as drinking water, for him.”
But it’s not just for her father’s own personal fulfillment that Gordon-Walinsky encourages him to keep stoking the fires of his musical passion; it’s for hers, too.
“Listening to his music, for me, is life affirming. It connects you to something good; it puts life in perspective.” Gordon-Walinsky said. “Some pieces, like his rendition of (the traditional American folk song) ‘Shenandoah’ — whenever I hear it, it’s a very powerful piece for me.”
Gordon-Walinsky also joked that growing up with her father’s singular arrangements of well-known songs left her with the misimpression that her father’s versions were, if not the only versions, then at least the most correct ones.
“Growing up, I thought my dad’s rendition of (George Gershwin’s) ‘I Got Rhythm’ was the original,” she said, laughing at her youthful naiveté. “To this day, I think of his ‘Shenandoah’ as opposed to Pete Seeger’s or anyone else’s.”
Walinsky’s wife has also figured prominently, not just personally, in his musical development. “She’s been deeply integral to his musical journey,” Gordon-Walinsky said.
Though arrangements of others’ compositions are his bread and butter, Walinsky did compose about 25-30 originals in the ’70s and ’80s. None became hits, but one holds special meaning for him. The song’s called “Love and Fear.” It’s the one he played for his future wife when he first met her.
“That’s quite a memorable meeting of souls,” Gordon-Walinsky said.
Walinsky and his wife, Nina, will celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary next year, and they live within three blocks of both daughters.
As for whether Walinsky, 74 who has five grandchildren, is getting ready to slow, Gordon-Walinsky doubts it.
“He’s just gearing up. He just wants to do more concerts and get it out there, share his life’s work.”
In 2019-2020, Lou Walinsky was awarded a grant from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts to perform three local concerts. The first two, at Perelman Jewish Day School and Inglis House in Wynnefield, respectively, have passed, but the third will be at KleinLife on Jan. 21 at 10:30 a.m.