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Circling the Secret 

Pianist Wells Hanley brings his jazz journey to VCU.

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The rising trajectory of Wells Hanley's career is a series of inspired deflections: from drums to piano, from classical to jazz, from songwriting to accompaniment to songwriting again. His cyclic musical pilgrimage has taken him from Richmond to Harrisonburg, New York, Charlottesville and back, from student to teacher. And his journey is nowhere near over.

Hanley is taking over the VCU Jazz Studies piano position which has been ably filled by Bob Hallahan since the founding of the program in the late '70s. Hallahan is leaving to become a tenure-track professor at James Madison University. Also leaving, for the same destination, is trumpeter and VCU Jazz Orchestra II leader Taylor Barnett — along with his wife, University of Richmond's Modlin Center marketing manager Tiffanie Chan — who is headed to Harrisonburg to pursue his doctorate. Hanley's return to Richmond partially compensates for the loss of so many longtime assets to the area.

Over a lunch of pad Thai and drunken noodles, Hanley recounts the series of tangents, teachers and passionately pursued discoveries that brought him back to Richmond. “I was a drummer in high school at St. Christopher's,” he says. “I'd had piano lessons as a kid and I hated it.” His mother pointed out that to major in percussion he'd have to play mallet instruments such as vibes, which meant learning the keyboard. Then his choir teacher, Hope Armstrong Erb, introduced his chorus to Brahms. “I went up to her after rehearsal and asked, ‘Did Brahms write any piano music,'” he recalls. The answer was yes.

Under Erb's guidance Hanley became obsessed with learning classical piano, practicing nights and weekends until, in his senior year, he was able to play a full recital. Dedicated to the music, but without the experience to qualify for a conservatory, he enrolled at JMU, majoring in classical piano performance. It was there that he fell in love with jazz.

“I was a backbeat guy, into Ringo and rock drummers,” the perpetually youthful keyboardist says, “but in a general music class and for the first time it really registered. I just freaked out about it, the way I did about classical music.” He soon discovered local jazz pianist Steve Kessler — whom Hanley calls one of his top five players — and made the long drive down to Richmond to catch him playing with Glenn Wilson's Jazzmaniacs at their regular Bogart's gig. He recorded every show, and tried to work out Kessler's brilliantly eclectic solos afterward. “I figured out the notes he played,” Hanley says, “but I could never figure out where he was coming from.”

At the same time Hanley started playing in Charlottesville trumpeter John D'earth's band.  He went from treading water to playing with confidence, learning so much on bandstand that he spent two senior years at Madison, cutting back on classes to play seven to 10 gigs a week.

For graduate school he chose the Manhattan School of Music, based on his love of the city and the excellence of its big band. (“And I am not really a big-band guy,” he acknowledges.) There he had two diametrically opposite teachers: Gary Dial, a masterful technician whose exercises Hanley still follows, and transcendent impressionist Fred Hersch.

“I would listen to Fred's playing. … and it would make me cry. Jazz records hadn't done that to me before. He was just unashamedly going for beauty,” Hanley says. “In jazz circles — you know, calling people ‘cats' and saying stuff is ‘killin'' — to be really comfortable going for beauty is so inspiring.”

But neither teacher could provide what Hanley sought, he says: “For years I had learned for myself, transcribing and working things out. … I expected a teacher to tell me the secret that I had been doing circles around. At the time it was really disappointing to me, but looking back it is really helpful because I realized that what I was doing on my own was the secret.”

After graduation Hanley spent five years in New York City. Following Hersch's dictum that the only way to play a standard was with a deep knowledge of the lyrics, he worked as an accompanist for singers. “If you can sight transpose [adjust sheet music to a vocalist's range] and come up with good intros and endings you can make a living,”  he says. Hanley made enough to cover big-city expenses, but making no personal artistic headway, he returned to Virginia.

Since returning his interest in lyrics led him to the singer-songwriter scene — he drums with Dean Fields, plays keyboards with Jesse Harper and in Lydia Ooghe's quirkily polished Lux Vacancy quartet. “Ever since I studied with Fred [Hersch] it has been about lyrics and songs,” he says. A 1-year old son has increased his focus on having a positive impact while he instructs others. “I am in a position to help those who are at a point in their development to get their skills together enough to go out on gigs and shape their identity as musician,” Hanley says. “And that is a great thing really.”

And if he never quite caught the secret he was circling, Hanley's come close enough to chase it wherever it may lead.  S

For information, go to myspace.com/wellshanley.

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