Steve Schmidt plays piano. Even in the absence of a piano. His muscular, almost ruddy, fingers are splayed, drumming, no — tickling — the tabletop of a bar-side booth at Kaldi's on Main Street. His massive head is bowed and slightly turned to the side, as though he's playing them changes and listening to a rhythm section. His trademark shock of gray hair is particularly unwieldy.
It's one of those overcast Cincinnati winter afternoons, and the city's premier journeyman Jazz pianist slips into this posture nearly every time he's asked a question about his far-reaching musical history in Cincinnati or about Red and Orange, his newly released "first" album as a leader.
Recorded in New York City with bassist Drew Gress and drummer Jeff Ballard, Red and Orange is a sophisticated, bright and shimmering collection comprising half originals and half standards. It's an album requiring a Sunday morning listening, a la Bill Evans' Sunday at the Village Vanguard.
Schmidt hooked up with Gress and Ballard on the recommendation of pianists Alex Smith and Fred Hersch, a native Cincinnatian-cum-New Yorker whom Schmidt met in high school. The trio rehearsed for two hours and recorded the album in five.
"It's the spartan, old-school Jazz approach," Schmidt says. "Those guys played so well I kept my cool, internally, not getting nervous."
Schmidt, 49, has decades of practice at bandstand, rehearsal and recording decorum. When pressed, he surmises he knows somewhere around 2,000 songs and has played on 45 recordings, from The Blue Wisp Big Band to the Count Basie Orchestra.
Schmidt exists among a rare breed of musicians, regardless of geography or genre, because he has name recognition, a dependable mastery of his instrument, soul and, most importantly, he doesn't have to work another job to do what he was born to do. Schmidt hasn't worked a non-musical job since 1976 when he was employed at the Cincinnati Zoo.
"I never told myself I wanna be a professional musician," he says of his formative years playing first Blues guitar. "I just wanted to play music. I didn't know how I was going to make a living."
Once he switched to piano before college and drew nearer to Jazz, Schmidt started playing with area black musicians like Jim Anderson and Bobby Scott, which got him playing before black crowds around town. Later, he became Bill Caffie's sidekick, lengthening his tenure with black audiences and breaking, in reverse, Cincinnati's sometimes segregated Jazz community.
"I played with a lot of black groups in a lot of black places," like the original Parktown and Club Aquarius, Schmidt says.
He was in his early twenties, still trying to be a college student while getting schooled at night. Finally, when he was 32 he received his bachelor's degree from the University of Cincinnati after 13 years.
"Still," he says, "there was no plan. Really, my music career happened naturally. I just wanted to be a good musician."
For 13 years Schmidt was the house pianist at the Blue Wisp, until he got his big break playing and touring with the Count Basie Orchestra. Presently, he splits his time between Three Speed (playing Soul with guitarist Brian Lovely and drummer Teddy Wilburn) and The Blue Birds, a seven-piece R&B, Pop, Rock and Jazz band.
Ultimately, it's the undated way Schmidt has of being hipster-cool that endears him to audiences and musicians and that imbues his playing with crispness at its edges when he's playing Jazz, stickiness when he's playing Funk or Soul on the B-3 and perfect rhythmic shading when he's propelling a big band.
Closer still, it's that Schmidt wears the soul of a white man who's spent years learning and playing intimately with black musicians. And he doesn't try to act or to play "black." It's just where Jazz lives in Steve Schmidt. A place he can't name — unless he closes his eyes and he plays.
See STEVE SCHMIDT's Web site (steveschmidt.net) for performance dates and CD info.