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Tuning Up

The two musical sides of pianist John Allair

By Bruce Robinson

On stage, John Allair is a keyboard-pounding, blues-yelping, boogie-woogie practitioner of the first order. But inside his modest Petaluma home, his musical preferences are from another world and time altogether. A baroque concerto wafts from a tape player in the kitchen into the front of the house, where a sectional sofa faces hundreds of vintage record albums dominated by Bach, Scarlatti, Mahler, French organ recitals, and obscure 17th-century keyboard music.

Buried near the top of one stack is a well-worn T-Bone Walker blues disc, too.

It's an apt metaphor for his time these days, as Allair spends the majority of his hours at the keyboard working through classical scores, while his public playing is upbeat, extroverted entertainment.

He has even modified a venerable, well-traveled Hammond B-3 to simulate a church organ in its own special room, where he delights in the challenges of Bach organ trios and like works. Allair can also slip into a Jimmy Smith-styled jazz groove at the snap of a finger and says he doesn't need to practice that. "I spent a lot of time practicing boogie in my earlier years," he explains. "I play a lot now, so I don't need to [practice]."

Growing up in Oakland, Allair heard boogie-woogie in his home neighborhood, and around age 12 he felt the urge to join the rhythmic rumble himself.

Choosing his favorite records--Allair cites Fats Domino as an early influence, along with Jimmy Smith, Miles Davis, and, later, the inspired eccentric Bach interpreter, Glenn Gould--he would sit at the piano, playing along with them over and over until his mother's patience wore thin. Thus was a self-taught pop pianist born.

"I never got into classical until I was about 20" and studying composition at San Francisco State, Allair elaborates. "Part of the deal was that you had to study classical piano." And in addition to discovering a new arena for his love of music, Allair says his collegiate experience also yielded a crucial lesson he still applies: "They showed me how to practice."

Gravitating northward later, he began gigging in Marin and Sonoma clubs, including a 1973 date in San Anselmo, where he opened for Van Morrison. They struck up a musical friendship. "We played a few gigs, and then I didn't hear from him until 1980," Allair recalls. "We had an informal jam session at the Inn of the Beginning, and that was it.

"I was in [his] band, and we started making records and going out on tour."

The tours took him back and forth across Europe, around the States, and to other parts of the world, accruing memories that range from the stage at Montreux, Switzerland, to streets filled with tanks in Belfast and "Checkpoint Charlie at the hotel. That was scary."

His association with Morrison lasted for almost seven years, Allair says. "He gets people he likes and keeps them around." Of the bandleader's prickly personality, "I got along with him great, but I can see where he could be considered difficult," Allair says diplomatically. "I still hear from him."

One such call two year ago drew Allair to a Sausalito studio, where Van was recutting his teen anthem "Gloria" with legendary bluesman John Lee Hooker. Allair's on the track, too.

Nowadays, however, it is his own music that is foremost in Allair's professional efforts. Earlier this year, he released his first self-produced solo recording, John Allair Cleans House--a collection of stomping New Orleans-flavored blues interspersed with jazz interludes. Meanwhile, he has been a highly visible presence on the local performing scene, including a piano summit with Stu Blank and teen phenom Sasha Smith at the Sonoma County Blues Festival last summer.

"I just wanted to get something out," he says of the disc. "I had all these songs lying around . . . "--a notion that gives rise to one possible interpretation of the album title.

Recorded in Cotati, the sessions were "very democratic," Allair recalls. "We just winged it, made it up as we went along, pretty much." The liner notes credit production to "John and anyone else who had an idea at the time."

Even with his recently raised profile, Allair still relies on piano tuning for his "day job," while performing and recording. Spending time with his two daughters occupies the rest of his day's time. "I don't plan to retire," he jokes. "All the piano tuners and players I know, they die at the keyboard, and that's what I plan to do, too."

John Allair performs at Magnolia's, 107 Fourth St., Santa Rosa, on Dec. 29, opening for Joe Louis Walker and the Boss Talkers. Tickets are $6 in advance or $8 at the door for the 9 p.m. show. 526-1007.

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From the Dec. 21-27, 1995 issue of the Sonoma Independent

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