Jim Brickman’s piano paints elemental emotion-scapes

Text Stephen Fox
Thread music

Jim Brickman’s piano keying is as sweet as maple syrup; there’s sentimentality and there’s passion in his music. And that’s earned him both fame and fortune. He’s released 35 albums and he has two #1 songs in the Billboard Adult Contemporary chart with many others hitting the #2, 3 and 4 spots. He’s traversed the globe during the course of his career, and now he’s visiting Maui, Hawaiʻi and Oʻahu as part of his “Share the Love” tour.

Despite the fame, Brickman is humble: perhaps because, as he says, he was just a person who loved music, and the fame caught him by surprise.

“It wasn’t something I was desirous of,” Brickman says. “It wasn’t something I was trying to do, it happened to me fairly late, in my early 30s, so I was fully formed as an adult human being.”

Brickman grew up in Cleveland in a middle class family. His musical leanings and success were unexpected, and his first teacher was not enthusiastic about his talent.

“I did not come from a musical family at all, and they really didn’t care whether or not I played music,” Brickman explains. “But I was really enamored with the feeling music gave me and the way it changed my mood, even as a little kid.”

So Brickman went on to study music at the Cleveland Institute of Music and Case Western. In 1980 while still a teen, he established his own advertising music company called The Brickman Arrangement. Through the company Brickman began writing jingles for TV commercials, going on to write for Sesame Street and other television shows. Kermit the Frog would later sing a duet with Brickman. In 1994, he signed with Windham Hill and began his recording career under the lofty heading “New Romantic Piano,” coined to pull in audiences when he was unknown.

“We felt like we had to come with something that was like, ‘what do you mean you don’t know who I am?’” Brickman laughs. “I’d buy a big ad in the newspaper and say ‘America’s New Romantic Piano Sensation!’ as if to make somebody reading it think they were the only one who didn’t know what it was.”

Whether the ruse worked, or his own talent and tenacity paid off, Brickman’s following soon grew. Brickman is an introvert at heart, and yet—or perhaps because of this—he very intentionally writes to please his fans. He acknowledges that this may sound disingenuous but, he says, he just really likes to give people what they want.

“As a live performer, I’m very external,” Brickman explains. “It’s more of a shared experience. And I think I’ve been successful because to me, when you’re on a stage and people buy a ticket, your role is to entertain them. It’s incumbent upon me to be an entertainer. Otherwise, just listen to the CD at home. So I’ve always been about sharing, and about being conscious of what the audience expects from me.”

The music industry has changed radically since Brickman released his first album, No Words (1994), featuring the song "Rocket to the Moon" which became his first solo instrumental to be ranked on the Billboard charts. CDs have given way to digital downloading formats, and income from traditional platforms, like chain book and music stores, has dried up and disappeared. Brickman has weathered the change in style, renewing his initial interest in instrumental music.

“One of the things that has helped me lately—my music was never really hit song-driven in the way people use songs now to make their own playlists,” Brickman says. “Once I got back to the core of the instrumental music, my songs happened to become really popular on streaming platforms like Pandora because people listen to it as a soundtrack, not as a hit song. They’ll say, ‘Alexa, play soothing music’ or type ‘music to fall asleep’ or ‘music to calm’ into Spotify.”

A busy performance schedule supplements Brickman’s time spent recording music. In addition to traditional concerts, he does cruises, private festivals and other tailored events for his fans.

“I like the cruises because, when you know who your audience is, they tell you what they want from you,” he says. “After 35 albums, feedback helps, because otherwise, you’re going, ‘hmm, what should I play next?’ The cruises are a chance to really bond intimately, and there are lots of people who come year after year.”

And Brickman has also turned his attention to education, doing master classes and workshops as he tours.

“I’m really into advocating for young people,” he says. “I’m at that point in my career where I’m not out to prove anything. If I want to write a hit song that is popular on the radio, I could. But I have to ask myself ‘why?’” he chuckles. “Is there a reason? Is there a purpose? Does it have a point?”

Brickman likes teaching because of the impact it has on the community and on the lives of the young people he meets. But he also gives advice outside of the realm of musical technique and composition

“It happened to me recently where a mother and son came to a master class I did,” Brickman relates. “The boy said, ‘I love music, but I can’t decide whether to go to business school or to pursue music.’ So I said, ‘go to business school.’ The mother was horrified. ‘You’re a musician, you’re supposed to say follow your dream in music!’”

While surprising, the advice is consistent with his philosophy and life experience.

“If you’re not passionate about it; if you just think it would be cool to be famous or something, or sell a lot of records or be on TV, then it’s not the right path,” Brickman explains. “It’s not fulfilling if you’re not passionate about it. It’s only worth doing if it’s really who you are. I never questioned for a minute whether I’d be successful because I didn’t care. I didn’t think about how I was going to pay the bills. It never even occurred to me. Honestly, it’s a lot of work, but there’s a lot of return on that investment.”

Kahilu Theatre, 67-11 Lindsey Road, Kamuela, Hawaiʻi // January 17, 2018, 7 p.m. // kahilutheatre.org // (808) 885-6868

Maui Arts and Cultural Center, 1 Cameron Way, Kahului, Maui // January 18, 2018, 7:30 p.m. // mauiarts.org // (808) 242-7469

Hawaii Theater, 1130 Bethel Street, Honolulu, Oʻahu // January 19 & 20, 2018, 7:30 p.m. // hawaiitheatre.com/tickets // (808) 528-0506


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