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October 20, 2014

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Weekly Q&A: Penn & Teller pianist Mike ‘Jonesy’ Jones

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Leila Navidi

Next time you see Penn & Teller, make sure you get there on time. You don’t want to miss this guy.

If you’ve seen Penn & Teller’s show at the Rio—assuming you showed up on time—you’ve heard Mike Jones play. He’s the guy behind the keys, stage left, before the show begins. The guy playing super-complex (yet appreciable) arrangements of jazz classics. The guy who absolutely never, ever should slam his finger in the car door ...

Tell me about the finger.

Christmas weekend, I stopped by the 7-Eleven by my house. I got out of my car, and I was holding the door with my thumb and index finger. I’ve got one of those car doors that closes automatically once it gets close. And, yeah, it got close.

Did it hurt?

At first, I was too shocked to feel hurt. But then it felt like I’d hit my finger with a hammer. So I went home and put it on ice. But this was at 5:30, and I had to get ready for the show. Not playing wasn’t an option; this is live show business here. On Monday I got an X-ray, and it turned out to be broken—the bone underneath the fingernail.

But you kept on playing shows?

I had to. I had to invent alternate fingerings. It actually strengthened my other three fingers. And people said they couldn’t tell the difference. I’m not sure if I should be happy or sad about that ...

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Download Mike Jones' latest album for free at jonesjazz.com.

Playing jazz before a magic show—that’s an odd gig. Does it feel odd to you?

Now it feels normal to me. But when Penn first approached me, I was like, “What do you need music for?” But the first night I played, I instantly understood the value of having something interesting happening onstage before the show begins. It gets people excited. And then we added Penn playing the bass and Teller playing vibes, and it just became an organic part of the whole show.

Do you miss playing clubs?

I’ve got the greatest gig in the world. Most jazz musicians I know are on the road 300 days a year. And I’ll tell you, not doing that is relaxing—not having to worry about where your next gig is coming from. I’m spoiled, really.

Some musicians would say that great art comes from great struggle.

That’s a romantic notion, I think. I’m much better than I was 10 years ago. Not because I’ve struggled, but because I’ve studied. I’m still studying.

How does somebody at your skill level study?

I listen to other jazz pianists. I try to discover things I never even thought of, and I try to work them into what I play. Somebody like Art Tatum—I first heard him when I was 12. But I couldn’t even parse the notes he was playing until four or five years ago. He plays so fast. It’s like a sheet of sound. He plays so many notes so quickly and accurately, and he changes the keys every two measures. The guy was 50 years ahead of his time.

Would you say he’s your inspiration?

Without a doubt. He’s the greatest technical pianist who ever lived. The greatest classical virtuosos would come to hear him play.

And who might you recommend to somebody like me—somebody who’d probably find Tatum too complex? Somebody who usually listens to Vince Guaraldi?

If you wanted to take things to the next step, you might like Red Garland. And then you could try Oscar Peterson. Try to get an Oscar Peterson Trio recording from the ’60s. He plays a lot of notes, but it’s mainstream—diatonic.

Here’s a quick story I’ll leave you with: My older brother was a history major. And he got his masters in library science. He’s not a jazz guy, basically. But he bought a book called The 101 Best Jazz Albums, and then he started buying them—Duke Ellington, Count Basie, John Coltrane—and now he loves it all. The thing about jazz is, the more you invest in it, the more you get out of it.

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