SOUND CHECK


KYLE ROUSSEL

At the age of 35, Kyle Roussel has already been performing on the keys for two decades. He plays everywhere and every time he gets the chance: in hospitals, nursing homes, U.S. embassies, Bourbon Street clubs, 20,000 capacity festivals. When he was a NOCCA freshman, he watched Jon Batiste, a senior at the time, and got inspired. Roussel pivoted from classical to gospel to jazz and has since performed with Batiste, as well as Chief Xian aTunde Adjuah (formerly Christian Scott), Irma Thomas, Tank and the Bangas, The Headhunters, Terence Blanchard, Lauren Daigle, Delfeayo Marsalis, Kermit Ruffins—musicians just seem to enjoy working with him and keep calling him back. They also answer his calls, which became apparent as he put out feelers for his upcoming solo album, Church of New Orleans. Thirty legendary locals, including George Porter Jr., John Boutté, Ivan Neville, Donald Harrison, Jamison Ross, Quiana Lynell, Herlin Riley, and Alexey Marti showed up at his home studio to record on his original tracks. It’s clear that the hometown—and industry—he loves admires him in return.


How did you get your start at Preservation Hall, since no one really “auditions” there?
Shannon Powell brought me in. I started playing with him at Donna’s Bar & Grill when I was about 19, a little bit after Hurricane Katrina, on Sunday nights. I was the fourth string piano player, then I moved up to third string, and when I was around second string, he brought me into his weekly gig at the hall. I was around 24. Through playing with him, I got popular there, and I became the first call piano player when another band needed someone. After about two years, I was a regular, playing there three or four nights a week.

If you were already playing with Powell by 19, you must have been incredibly young when you picked up the instrument.
My sister had a little toy keyboard, a white Yamaha with baby keys, and I would just kind of bang around on that and everyone would say, “You sound like you can really play!” or “Those sound like songs.” When my uncle’s father remarried a piano teacher, she gave me classical lessons. I was nine. They made me play in church when I was about 12. One of my church members suggested I audition for NOCCA. I did. So I started playing jazz there at 16. Since I was a little child prodigy, I got the big fancy Casio keyboard from RadioShack. Then I met a guy who ended up buying me a piano… Derrick Edwards: He’s a state attorney. He’s got a very inspiring story. He was paralyzed from the neck down from an injury in high school and still graduated on time, went to Loyola and Tulane, became an attorney, ran for state treasurer a few years ago… He only lost because he was a Democrat. I met him because my grandmother had her doctors’ appointments at Ochsner hospital in Metairie, where there’s a large grand piano in the lobby. I was a young kid, and I would start playing the piano, and people would start giving me money. By the end of 30 minutes, I would have, like, $200 and that’s rich for a 12-year-old. The staff and the cafeteria workers and the people working at the desk would ask me to play every few months when I was there for her checkups so, one time, Derrick meets me and is talking to my grandpa and asks, “What kind of piano does he have?” and my grandpa told him, “Oh, he has a little keyboard—he doesn’t have a piano.” So he bought me a piano, that piano, that’s right there, in my living room. It was a $2,000 [Young Chang upright] piano and I’ve had it since I was 16. He also loved chess and taught me how to play, and I still do.

Did it change the game once you had a piano? I’ve found that the difference in the way a keyboard and a piano plays can be night and day.
It did and it didn’t. As a piano player, especially if you’re on tour, every night is different. You get used to the characteristics of each instrument and you learn how to make each instrument yours, so you can still get your sound. My favorite piano brand is Steinway and every Steinway is handmade, so none of them are the same. They speak differently, they’re louder, they’re softer, you get used to manipulating each instrument. Even if it’s not a good piano, you still have to navigate around the notes that are out of tune or the differences in the sound, if it’s a mellow piano, a bright piano, and still make it sound like you. I feel like, with the best musicians, the instrument doesn’t matter.

Do you get there early for sound check, so you can spend as much time with each new instrument as possible?
I don’t. It’s gonna do what it’s gonna do and there’s not a whole lot you can do to make a difference. It’s like you’re getting to know someone—they’re kind of like people to me. Having a conversation with someone, it’s different the first time you meet them or when you already know their life story. I roll with the spontaneity. I’m not a big fan of the sound check. I’d rather just go up there and find out. But that’s what jazz is anyway, playing with a bunch of people, not knowing what they’re going to do, reacting in the moment. I’d rather just get there and we go on the journey together.

You’ve improvised with a stunning amount of musicians. Sounds like it’s always a new journey, but one that’s pretty firmly grounded in New Orleans.
I’ve been fortunate enough to play with a lot of the best musicians in this city and when you really get to work with these people, you learn a lot of what it’s about. I’ve worked a lot with Shannon Powell, I’ve worked a lot with Herlin Riley, I was just in the studio, last week, with Irma Thomas and George Porter and Ivan Neville and Cyril Neville. When you work with these people, you really learn what New Orleans is all about and you learn to play music at a high level, and you do that for a number of years, you start to know some things about the city and feel some type of way. There’s such a long history of New Orleans piano with Dr. John, James Booker, Jelly Roll Morton, Fats Domino, Professor Longhair, Allen Toussaint. It’s a long lineage to carry on and I want to do it some justice.

How do you feel about the spirit of playing the famed Preservation Hall piano?
What’s in the hall now is a Yamaha and there’s something special to it but then there’s the Sweet Emma piano, the one in the back. It’s an old Steinway upright. It’s very old. It’s retired. It needs to be retired. It’s difficult to play but you accept the challenge of dealing with the luxuries and limitations of each instrument. You think about all the great history of those who have played it before you and then you think, “I’m charged with the responsibility of bringing what I bring to it and making it sound like me.”

Weren’t you saying that you just bought a new piano too?
A few months ago, a Steinway upright. I’m in the process of becoming a Steinway artist. My piano’s from 1908 and from New York. (All of their pianos were either made in New York or Hamburg, Germany.) It was owned by the Pellerin family, which, I think, was a prominent family in dry cleaning and industrial washer and dryers. A lady who worked for the family, cleaning their house, her son played the piano, so the owner gave it to her when he died and she just recently sold it to me.

Show me the home studio!
I have a Universal Audio endorsement, so they send me all the new plugins. The [Universal Audio Teletronix] LA-2A [Classic Leveling Amplifier], I basically run everything through that. I’ve recorded full records in here. I can record anything in-house except drums. When I produced an album with Clint [Maedgen], we did the whole record here, in this room: guitar, bass, horns, background vocals. When I produced Quiana [Lynell]’s record and co-wrote some of the songs, we did all the pre-production here and then went into the Loyola studios and did the final recording and mixing in two days. I did a solo record here during the pandemic [Nola À La Mode]. I have two Neumann U 87s. I do have a full drum kit in the attic and a full set of drum mics, a stem audio, this SSL Stereo Bus Compressor clone, Antelope Audio interface, D-Box [Studio Monitor Controller] by Dangerous Music.



What’s in the tool box?
This is my portable studio. It’s a custom box that I take on the road and operate through my MacBook. I have an Apollo Twin interface for the road, emulator headphones, and I have all of these midi sounds through Kontakt so I can essentially have access to my entire studio, with a little slot for my monitor—drum sounds, keyboard sounds, and I can carry it on flights. I bought a Pelican case that fits in the overhead compartment and I fitted it out. On the road, there’s so much sitting around in the airport, on the plane, waiting to play a concert, so that’s what I like to do. Working on music, writing music, mixing, editing, mastering, it keeps my mind going. 

Talk to me about your walls of keyboards.
The Yamaha Motif [XS 8 Production Synthesizer] is probably the world’s most standard, regulation keyboard. I bought this model the month it came out, when I was 19. The keys are weighted. It can pretty much do anything, get any sound. I’m endorsed by Nord. They’re probably the most popular keyboard, ‘cause they’re the best emulation of a Rhodes, a Wurly [Wurlitzer]. This [Nord Stage EX] is the keyboard I bring outside for gigs ‘cause it’s light, portable, it does everything you need it to do. It has a backpack stand. I’ve had it for maybe 15 years. I bought this Moog [Subsequent 37 paraphonic analog synthesizer] a few months ago from Facebook Marketplace. A guy who was a guitar player wasn’t really using it, so I got a great deal on it. I have keyboards in the attic too: a KORG M3, a microKORG, a KORG mini[logue], and a bunch of midi boards. This keytar, I haven’t brought it out of the house in maybe 10 years at this point, but I used to use it a lot. This Dave Smith [Oberheim] OB-6 [6-voice polyphonic analog synthesizer] I love. I use it for its special sounds and it has a great arpeggiator. Then I have the Wurlitzer and the Rhodes and a [Hammond] B-3 [mk2 Organ].

I have never seen a full-sized Hammond Organ in a home before! Is it difficult to play?
No. It just can’t be moved. I got a great deal on it and I had it redone, replaced all the old parts. This one’s from 1967. It sounds amazing with that Leslie [speaker], right there, but it’s definitely not designed for a house—too much power. You put those two U 87s on it and maybe a[n AKG] D12 [VR dynamic mic] and I can record an organ in here. I haven’t gotten any complaints from the neighbors yet, though. They usually ask me to play more, like, “Open the windows!”



Kyle Roussel will be performing on Friday, May 17 at The Orpheum Theatre with The Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra. For more info, check out kyleroussel.com.


Photos by Sabrina Stone

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