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Montage | Performance

Big Sky Blues

November-December 2006

In high school, Philip Aaberg 71 took train voyages lasting 12 hours each way between his hometown of Chester, Montana, and Spokane to study piano with master teacher Margaret Saunders Ott. Four decades later, Ott is 86 and Aaberg still makes the same rail jaunt on occasion, and sometimes even takes a piano lesson. You can hear railroad rhythms in both Aabergs music and his backyard: each day, 47 trains rumble through Chester, where, four years ago, Aaberg returned after 27 years in the Bay Area.

A Great Northern steam engine appears on the cover of Aabergs newest CD, Blue West, a collection of bluesy compositions, and Aaberg notes that the familiar boogie-woogie rhythm may even have originated in rail travelmany of the early blues artists toured on trains. Someday I want to do a train tour myself, he says. Nothing but train rides.

Some might call Montana blues an oxymoron: its a long way from Chesterwhich is 40 miles from Canada on the high plains east of the Rocky Mountainsto New Orleans or Chicagos South Side. Yet Aaberg is steeped in blues music, having played for years with guitarist Elvin Bishop, formerly of the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. Years ago, he and Bishops band toured as many as 300 days a year, and Aaberg has played keyboard with countless others in nearly every kind of music, from classical to R&B to New Age; hes been a session man on more than 300 albums. Blue West is his ninth record as solo pianist; he recorded the first five between 1984 and 1991 for Windham Hill, and has released the last four on his own Sweetgrass Music label, launched in 2000.

Aaberg at the keyboard.
Photograph courtesy of Philip Aaberg

The Sweetgrass Hills, where Aaberg lives, would be mountains to many, but a hundred miles east of the Rockies, We call them hills, he says. Aaberg is an intensely regional musician, and in his liner notes for Blue West, he says, I hope you smell sagebrush, see Big Sky, hear the train, and feel the river.

Coming east to Harvard was a big switch for the rural Montana boy, who attended Harvard on a scholarship endowed in 1961 by Leonard Bernstein 39, D.Mus. 67. Leon Kirchner (then Rosen professor of music) and Luise Vosgerchian (the late Naumburg professor of music) kept me in school, Aaberg says. In the Harvard libraries, he heard original blues artists like Big Bill Broonzy, Blind Lemon Jefferson, and Son House for the first time on Folkways LPs, and, he says, It was an awakening. He played in jazz and rock bands during college, and accompanied the Freshman Glee Club; he also studied classical piano at the New England Conservatory, where, one day, he played a Haydn sonata especially well. His teacher remarked, Maybe youll specialize in Haydn sonatas. That idea was so foreign to me, Aaberg recalls. I couldnt imagine ever being so restricted.

Since then, although he says the classical repertoire remains the well, Aaberg has ranged nearly everywhere in music. He spent a year in Iowa working on the Beethoven piano sonatas, had a stint at the Marlboro Chamber Music Festival, and has recorded film scores, jingles, and cartoon music. He also has three sons from his first marriage and a five-year-old boy with his second wife, Patty, who runs Sweetgrass Music. Two of his older sons are musicians. Even though Aaberg feels that musical ability is inheritedhis own family has long been a musical onewhen it comes to advising his sons on making it a professional career, he has only one bit of counsel: Get paid first.