Music News & Reviews

UK pianist’s work sometimes makes him ask, ‘what have I done to myself?’

Raleigh Dailey will be playing a concert March 10 at Tee Dee’s Lounge as part of the Origins Jazz Series.
Raleigh Dailey will be playing a concert March 10 at Tee Dee’s Lounge as part of the Origins Jazz Series.

As he digs into the music that will form the basis of his Saturday concert for the Origins Jazz Series — an adventurous re-imagining of the Puccini opera “Turandot” for a seven member ensemble — Raleigh Dailey lets the degree of difficulty of his work sink in.

“After awhile, I thought, ‘Oh, man, what have I done to myself.’ Just adapting the music turned out to be a little bigger of a task than I thought. But it was a lot of fun.”

The curious part of that reaction is the pianist, composer and associate professor of jazz studies and piano at the University of Kentucky had the same words last month after he and the rest of the Osland/Dailey Jazztet — the band he co-leads with fellow UK jazz pro Miles Osland — completed a performance of dynamic but dizzying music with the acclaimed saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa at the Singletary Center for the Arts.

“Exactly,” Dailey said. “That was another case of where I thought, ‘This is crazy.’ But that’s really one of the great things about what I do. After a couple of weeks of playing Rudresh’s music, I started noticing things in my own playing that were changing — little, subtle things — right away.

“About the only way you get better is to push a bit and sometimes get yourself into situations where a little more is required than you would ordinarily volunteer to do. I think that’s great. You sort of have to do that to get better.”

In a lot of ways, I just try to keep the plates spinning all at one time.

Raleigh Dailey

Dailey has been doing just that ever since arriving at UK in 1998 to work on his Ph.D. following graduate studies at the University of North Texas. An instructor at UK since 2001, he has become one of Lexington’s most visible jazz artists, be it through gigs with the Osland/Dailey quartet, an accompanist role to local vocalist Jessie Laine Powell (who performed an Origins Jazz Series show in January) for Balagula Theatre’s 2012 production of “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill” or monthly Jazz Brunch shows at Willie’s Locally Known.

“In a lot of ways, I just try to keep the plates spinning all at one time,” Dailey said. “Sometimes musicians complain about being too busy, but, boy, that’s really how I like it. It seems like there is never quite enough time to get into some of the things you want to get into, but I enjoy the ability to do what I can. This is a good time in Lexington to be doing these kinds of things.”

Among those “kinds of things” have been numerous recordings: a piano trio session (“What Happened Next”), a free improvisational-based trio set (“Opening Lines”) and an audacious solo piano suite (“Essays for Solo Piano”). But the adaptation of “Turandot,” which is based on saxophonist Bob Belden’s jazz recording of the opera, ranks as one of Dailey’s most challenging undertakings.

“When I was at North Texas, Bob Belden came down. He had just recorded his jazz version of ‘Turandot,’ which I always thought was a cool record,” Dailey says. “It only came out in Japan on Blue Note and never in the States before kind of disappearing. I always wanted to play that music. I thought it was a really nice approach to reinventing this Puccini opera, which, of course, was not an obvious thing to work on with a jazz group. I liked Bob as an arranger, anyway, so I thought, ‘This is what I should do.’

“The original recording had everything from duos to big band arrangements. So what I did for this performance was figure out a way to play the music with a seven piece group. A big part of what I’ve been doing has been trying to figure out a way, especially for the pieces that were originally for big band, to adapt it to where a smaller group could play it and still be convincing.”

Raleigh Dailey in his office at the University of Kentucky, where he is associate professor of jazz studies and piano. Charles Bertram

Dailey’s day-to-day work, though, remains as an instructor. Aside from what he calls the “nuts and bolts” work involved with jazz education, he sees the primary purpose of teaching is to motivate.

“I try to get students excited or keep them excited, curious and willing to explore,” Dailey says. “If you can kind of nudge that motivation along and open some doors for students they didn’t know existed and try to get them excited, then they are off on their own. They’re exploring and they’re fine.

“It’s thrilling to help students with that. That’s probably why we’re in this in the first place. Music made me feel a certain way. I’ve always been crazy about it and can remember how working on a composition would almost possess me. It was like, ‘I’m not going to rest until I figure out everything I can figure out about it.’ That’s great to see in students. But, really, we’re all students of the music.”

If you go

Raleigh Dailey

When: 7:30 p.m. March 10

Where: Tee Dee’s Lounge, 266 E. Second St.

Admission: $15 advance, $20 at the door