A thoughtful and original musician, Rob Catterton has always forged his own musical path. “For me, it was always jazz on one hand and the Grateful Dead on the other. They were the two biggest influences on my music.” The pianist can be heard at his best on two recent recordings, “A Grand Piano Tribute To The Grateful Dead,” and his first collection of original compositions, “Calico Cat.”
Rob Catterton was born in New York City and raised in Connecticut. He started five years of classical piano lessons at the age of eight, studying everything from Bach to Scott Joplin. “When I was a kid, I grew up with my parents’ Broadway show tunes, the Beatles were happening, and then the whole rock scene started and completely swept me away. I would just sit by the radio and listen to the hits go by, and I can still remember most of them.”
At 15 he started playing in his school’s rock band, learning songs by the Rolling Stones and the Allman Brothers, and retraining himself from studying classical music to playing by ear. While playing the Grateful Dead’s “Morning Dew” just after starting high school, a breakthrough happened — he realized he was creating improvised melodies that hadn’t existed before. “Ever since then, playing music is really all I’ve wanted to do.”
Catterton discovered the other half of his musical heartbeat, jazz, at 17. “Living in the New York suburbs, it was easy to see the great ones: Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie, Gene Krupa, Dave Brubeck, and so many others. Getting turned on to jazz changed everything.” The pianist found that improvisation was the common link between the Grateful Dead, jazz, reggae, blues, and his other influences, and this synthesis helped create his unique style.
The result was a dynamite college rock band, the Damaged Banana Band, based on the style of the Grateful Dead and featuring a strong component of original compositions. After graduating, expecting to find a place in the musical world, Catterton was in for a rude shock. “When I graduated from college and hit the real world, it was 1979 and the wrong time. Reggae was happening, but it was the height of disco, punk rock was coming in, and there was not much demand for intricate melodic improvisations. So I took a day job and kept on playing exactly what I thought I should be playing at night.”
In 1987, Rob met veteran tenor saxophonist Sonny Lewis (who had worked with Bud Powell in Paris and recorded with the Whispers) and played regularly with him during the next nine years. He also studied jazz at the Blue Bear School of Music in San Francisco for seven years, then moved to Sonoma County with his wife and young son. During this period the pianist made his recording debut with “Like Nothing Else,” a set of five originals and several jazz standards, fronted a jazz trio, and performed with Bob Weir at the Sweetwater in Mill Valley.
In 2015, the pianist recorded “A Grand Piano Tribute to the Grateful Dead,” the first time the Dead’s music has been presented at album length by a solo pianist. “Playing their music is natural for me, because it’s the music I first learned to improvise to. While watching the Fare Thee Well shows from Chicago with my son Chris, it bothered me that there weren’t more keyboards in the mix. After the shows, I went to my own piano and played my heart out to show him how I felt the music should be played.” The album includes such songs as “Dark Star” (which is part of a half-hour medley), “The Other One,” “Jack Straw,” “Morning Dew” and “Rosemary.” “Bird Song” received national airplay and the CD was met with critical acclaim.
Rob recently released an album of original compositions entitled “Calico Cat,” which consists of highlights from his evening sessions. “Calico Cat contains some of my best playing. Each night when I play, I record, because you never know when the magic might happen. When everything works, it’s like a gift from the gods.” Among the highlights are the catchy “Calico Cat,” the picturesque “Gorgeous,” the Erik Satie-influenced “Another Dream,” the beautiful “Moonlight On Water,” and such freely-conceived improvisations as “Kahuna’s Song,” and “Quartet For Califia.”
Throughout Calico Cat and the Grateful Dead tribute, the pianist improvises in a style all his own. “I used to want the cookie cutter sound but, as I progressed, I found myself increasingly going down my own path and not worrying about trying to sound like someone else.” And in January, 2017, Rob had the opportunity to perform his Grateful Dead set at the Occidental Center for the Arts and was joined onstage by two interpretive dancers. Extensive footage can be seen on You Tube, and the recordings are slated for future release.
Rob launched Sonoma Coast Records in 2015, has copyrighted enough original material for several additional albums, and is currently working on a Beatles tribute. He is also planning the release of a Sonny Lewis CD featuring the studio debut of world-renowned trumpeter Tom Harrell, along with albums by other talented friends. As for his future plans, Rob says simply, “My goal is to create timeless beauty.”
- Biography written by Scott Yanow