Arts preview: Columbus native Aaron Diehl’s jazz chops came with work — and then more work

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From the September 19, 2013 edition

Jazzman Aaron Diehl is a bit of a perfectionist.

The Columbus native, who visits Southern Theatre for a concert on Thursday, Sept. 19, has long been celebrated for his legendary work ethic in regards to his music. In preparation for the final round of competition for the Cole Porter Fellowship, which he won in 2011, for example, it’s said the pianist practiced as many as 20 hours a day in the weeks leading up to his performance.

This all-in approach is not restricted to music. In a recent interview, Diehl, 27, touched on his affinity for flight — a hobby he’s pursued at least part-time since he was a teenager — saying he hopes to earn his multiengine commercial rating sometime in the near future.

“Not that I actually want to be a professional pilot,” he said. “But I want to have the skills of a professional. That’s how I approach everything I do. I want to have a high level of proficiency and competency.”

It’s a work ethic that has helped Diehl quickly climb the jazz ranks to emerge as one of the most celebrated pianists of his generation — a player lauded for his flawless technique (in an April review of his studio debut, The Bespoke Man’s Narrative, the New York Times complimented his “melodic precision, harmonic erudition and elegant restraint”) as well as his embrace of the genre’s storied past.

There were times chatting with Diehl felt a bit like consulting a particularly effusive jazz almanac, and he waxed poetic about records by everyone from Oscar Peterson (My Favorite Instrument) to Thelonious Monk (Monk Alone). While enrolled at New York’s Juilliard School, he even worked for John Lewis’ widow, Mirjana, helping organize the late jazz player’s manuscripts, reel-to-reel tape recordings and other archival materials.

“I feel like little by little and bit by bit I take on different musicians and composers and try to really get inside their language and what they’re doing,” Diehl said. “You’re never going to be able to digest everything that’s in existence, so you just try to chip away. That’s the beauty of all of this; it’s a lifelong journey.

“I’m still finding my own voice as an artist, and I don’t think that ever stops. You’re always searching. You’re always discovering.”

Diehl, who was born and raised in the King-Lincoln District to a funeral director father and an Olympian mother (she participated in the high jump at the 1964 and 1968 Games before transitioning into a position with the State Department), began this search in earnest when he started playing piano at 7 years old. It continued through his teenage years when he performed weekly at a pair of Sunday services at St. Dominic Roman Catholic Church. The first, a more traditional mass, helped him develop his sight-reading skills. The second, a comparatively freewheeling gospel affair, allowed him to develop a sense of spontaneity because things tended to happen, as he said, “more in the moment.” Both remain crucial elements of his playing today.

Perhaps more importantly, however, the services allowed him even more time to bond with the piano, which might explain why he describes his relationship to the instrument in terms normally reserved for those great Hollywood romances.

“I’ve always had a love affair with the piano,” Diehl said. “When you know you have this passion, this burning desire to play and develop, it just comes naturally. It’s not true for everyone, but it’s certainly true for me. Deep down, it’s something that’s always been there.”