Adler is very clearly in the lead, even in his small two-person ensemble. His direction is subtle, and he maintains a wordless connection with his drummer, Alexander "Sasha" Muchnik, through eye contact and subtle nods.
"As a piano voice, you become the leader," Adler says later.
A Menlo Park jazz pianist, Adler calls music his avocation — something he feels compelled to do.
"It's a strong passion, almost a drive," he says. "When you're a musician, and you have the skill or the talent to do it, you feel like that's what you're supposed to do, and if you don't do it, you get itchy."
A Detroit native, Adler moved to California following his acceptance to Stanford University to study physical therapy. Since then, he has played piano locally for 40 years alongside his career as a physical-therapy researcher and assistant. Adler has been a member of several local bands around the Bay Area and describes himself as a musical freelancer. He has played in Santa Cruz with Wally's Swing World, in the Stanford CoHo as part of a jazz festival, and in other jazz and salsa bands.
The Menlo Hub in Menlo Park, formerly known as the Oak City Bar and Grill, is his latest venue. He's been scheduled to play Wednesdays at the restaurant, emulating the supper clubs of the war era.
Mark Adams, the musical director for the Menlo Hub, says he plans to take the live music scene up a step by auditioning local acts in front of the restaurant audience on Thursday nights throughout the summer. He adds that he welcomes all types of music including jazz, salsa, R&B, flamenco and Asian styles.
"We're going around the world this coming year," he says.
Adams knew Adler through a mutual friend, and decided to schedule him regularly about three months ago.
"The variety of music he plays is exceptional," Adams says. "He's one of my favorites."
Adler's signature style is minimalist. Playing with only his keyboard and a drum accompaniment, Adler creates a full sound through experienced improvisation. He also focuses on maintaining the energy in his performance, often favoring ethnic styles over American jazz.
"In many ways I'm not a traditional jazz musician," Adler says. "I place more emphasis on rhythm and favor ethnic music like calypso, sun (Cuban), samba and American soul and R&B. They come with very strong rhythm that makes it easy for the drummer to follow along, and it gives a lot of momentum to the music."
Adler's rhythmic drive was nurtured early by the booming Motown sound. "It was everywhere in Detroit," he says. "It made a really strong impression. That's part of the rhythmic impulse that I feel."
Growing up, Adler met Stevie Wonder and Berry Gordy, the builders of Detroit Motown. "(Stevie Wonder) was great. He wasn't a big star yet; he was the same age as me and he was a much different person than he is today. We didn't know he was going to be a superstar; they used to call him 'Li'l Stevie Wonder.'"
Studying the likes of Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock and Erroll Garner, Adler was surrounded by jazz growing up. He cites his other musical influence: his family.
"My mother was a good singer and my father a pianist," he says. "My father's LP collection I still have today, and (it) reflects the music that still defines some of the best of jazz by George Shearing, Sarah Vaughn, Duke Ellington, etc."
Adler was able to explore other types of music while on a cultural exchange in the National School of Music and Dance in Cuba.
"I began to study their various forms of music and play in salsa and Cuban-oriented orchestras," he says. "The energy and passion of the Cuban people is unmatched in my travels."
Along with his professional gigs, Adler takes time to teach private lessons and give lectures at Stanford, high schools and elementary schools.
"I like to work towards making professionals out of talented amateurs," Adler says. "Over the years, I have had many fine students and held a number of recitals in my music studio."
Adler especially enjoys his experience as a temporary organist at the Mount Olive Missionary Baptist church in East Palo Alto. "It's really good to play gospel music because it's the essence of rhythmic drive, generating a passion in people. I like it; I like the energy, the spirituality, the music."
As the organist, Adler often has to improvise the accompaniment to the church songs.
His musical intuition has served him well, and he often plays unplanned sets. "I just try to feel the moment," Adler says. "And play."
What: Neil Adler performs live jazz music in a small ensemble.
Where: The Menlo Hub, 1029 El Camino Real, Menlo Park
When: Wednesday nights, 7:30-10:30 p.m.
Info: Go to http://menlohub.com or call 650-321-6882.
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