Local Spotlight: Gill Aharon

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Owner of the Lilypad and pianist, composer, and frontman of the Gill Aharon Trio shares his philosophy on music, performance, and genre.

Under the spell of the Gill Aharon Trio, Wednesday evenings at the Lilypad feel timeless. This intimate listening venue in Inman Square is owned and operated by pianist, piano teacher, and bandleader Gill Aharon himself, who invites local artists to explore, disassemble, and merge genres. Every week, he welcomes his longstanding creative partners Jef Charland, Andrew Stern, Mike Connors, and Max Ridley on stage to deliver demiurgic, jazz-driven adventures that stir the underground current of the Boston music scene. 

As we strolled through the park on one of the first spring days of the season, petting dogs and watching children eagerly tear off their warm jackets, I could sense Aharon’s draw to the outdoors. But where there is a temporary quality to weather, music is, for him, a constant source of beauty. “It’s always a nice day at the piano.”

Through the band’s different iterations of members in the past 25 years or so, Aharon has naturally remained the leader. Though he meticulously composes and notates each song, he allows them to evolve during each performance, setting a new, explorative tone each time. His fingers and eyes, both snaking across the 88 keys of his Kawai RX-6 Grand Piano, are not so much an act of repetition as they are a manifestation of emotional experience. It is through his bewildered, genreless insertions that Aharon seems to weave a microscopic telepathy between each player and the elements of the room. 

Like a sunburn that slowly reveals its intensity, the band subtly builds definition in each transition. From abstract, velvety jazz jams into prog rock guitar solos, from dark, symphonic poems into hustling syncopation, from pleading chants into tear jerking lullabies, each player’s distinct charm beams outwardly and gracefully. Guitarist Andrew Stern sprawls his fingers between each placement on the fretboard, siphoning air into each touch and creating unusual overtones with subtle pinch harmonics. Mike Connors wanders through syncopated drum fills and cymbal sweeps, holding a soft-eyed glaze with a slight upward tilt in his head that rises and falls like a roller coaster moving over the lift hill. Though primarily jazz-inspired in timbre and presence, his beats remain unswung, and rather nod towards the heavy, lagging drum patterns of R&B.  

Meanwhile, upright bassist Jef Charland giggles at the rhythmic ingenuity of his counterparts without ever letting himself lose focus, tending towards straight-rhythm jazz interpretations of the music. He is like the stream of air coming out of an untied balloon, the steady engine of a corkscrewing, meandering jet. More and more frequently, second bass player and vocalist Max Ridley makes an appearance in the weekly “trio”, smoothing over edges with distant, resonant harmonies and a buoyant, playful attitude. Aharon cites Ridley as his “comrade in this quest for instability and weirdness”.

While many bands struggle to find flow and trust in unusual time signatures, Aharon’s band steamrolls the knee-jerk discomfort of asymmetry, fully trusting in each other’s ability to stay grounded while walking out of step. Like pulling out a lobster claw in one go and dunking it in butter, the band nonchalantly transcends resistance, garnishing their steadiness with decadent solos and improvisations. 

With influences ranging from the cartoon music of Bugs Bunny and Carl Stalling of Warner Bros to jazz legends like Thelonius Monk and Bill Evans, from Boston-based jazz-rock trio The Fringe to classical composition wizard Johann Sebastian Bach, Aharon writes music that breaks from preconceived notions of genre. Though he leans on the harmonic structures of jazz and rhythms of classical music, he finds subtle and unexpected ways to maintain distance with categorical assumptions. “I don’t like styles too much,” he admits, “though I do like when something is played that becomes a style.” 

While Aharon’s compositions capture his meticulousness and intentionality in articulating the turbulence of human emotion, his approach to improvisation speaks to his philosophy that “music is a pursuit of truth.” To Aharon, there is a stark difference between “rehearsed improvisation,” which he defines as “fitting notes like Legos over a form,” and the “true freedom” he seeks while playing instinctively. His bandmates undoubtedly share this whimsy; even under Aharon’s strong sense of leadership and direction, all members are free to indulge in intuition and suggest ideas. As a result, their improvisations manifest into complex illustrations shaped by patience, unabashed vulnerability, and the ambience of the Lilypad. 

Covering the walls of the venue are the elusive, psychedelic murals of artist Dan Masi. While bold, colorful, and exploding with symbolic imagery, the pieces somehow feel continuous and uncluttered. I found that my eyes could fixate on a single square foot for the duration of an entire song, and with each musical elaboration I would find something I hadn’t seen a second before. It seems as though the density of the paintings, the perceptivity of the band, and the reactions of the audience feed a synergetic loop where each component partakes in both the formation and consumption of the experience. 

Credit: Dan Masi

One poignant earmark of the Trio’s performance is their regard for audience members as agents of spontaneity. During my second show at the Lilypad, Aharon bent underneath his grand piano mid-song and began rolling bike brake rotors, liquid-filled mason jars, and other bizarre household objects toward the feet of the seated crowd without explanation. The arc of audience reaction became a crucial element to the jam; at first, people were confused, glancing over their shoulders to see what everyone else was doing. Then they behaved as expected, lightly tapping the objects on their kneecaps along to the beat. As the crowd was given more unjudged time to explore their tools, however, they became notably more creative within their constraints, unscrewing and screwing the mason jar lids or scratching their nails across the metal discs. The band circled around the eccentricity like scavengers above a highway.

As Aharon reaches his hand to the audience before him, he also extends it more widely to artists in the Boston area. “The Lilypad is not a jazz venue or a classical venue,” he clarifies, “it’s just a venue.” Since its opening in 2005, the space has welcomed local artists of all kinds from deaf poets to indie-pop bands to comedians to EDM artists. This is what Aharon calls “Music with a capital M,” and it’s the kind of art he has committed to supporting. When I asked about his goals for the Lilypad, he was adamant on inviting more diversity into the space and undercutting the idea that “music is reserved for the privileged few coming from big music schools.” 

It’s no surprise that Aharon’s avant-garde realism triggers skepticism of the music industry at large. He seems to embody a certain distrust for music that finds its way into the mainstream, drawing an important distinction between “Music” and entertainment. “Music can be entertainment,” he explains, “but they are different pursuits. The Lilypad is in pursuit of music through truth, but music at the big venues has gone past the pursuit of truth to take your money. As soon as you turn music into commerce, it becomes entertainment.” 

Aharon’s stylistic fluidity and eagerness to treat music as a quest for truth seeps into his piano teaching. He strives to create an immersive, self-directed atmosphere for his students where they can base their goals and progress on what they feel. “It doesn’t matter the style or the period, it just matters the intention”, he points out. Instead of forcing them into competitions or genres, he shows them tools, like reading music, that will allow them to unlock their own creative prowess. 

Aharon spoke from the bottom of his heart when he told me he wouldn’t mind “losing a little bit of money to play in beautiful places, just having great fun doing what we really love to do.” As much as he finds pleasure in teaching, his family, dogs, and cycling, he says that the pandemic has reinforced his deep-seated desire to practice piano day in and day out. His goals for the band and the Lilypad rest as much on intuition and circumstance as his improvisations do. For now, he is perfectly content “to practice for seven hours, just be in it, and see what happens.”

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