Inspired by the iconic Dave Brubeck, pianist/composer Eric Mintel is on a mission to spread the word about the power and the glory of jazz and its ability to bring people together in a kind of musical communion.
Mintel leads his quartet Saturday, Dec. 3, at 8 p.m. at The Buttonwood Tree in Middletown in a celebratory concert that combines a tribute to Brubeck with holiday music from TV's famous Charlie Brown Christmas specials
"Jazz provides the opportunity to really change peoples' lives for the better. I've seen that happen over and over again where we bring people together through the music," Mintel says from his home in Morrisville, Pa.
Since forming the Eric Mintel Quartet in 1993, the pianist has kept his group at the top of its game in a financially strapped, fiercely competitive jazz world where few bands survive that long.
Mintel's quartet has played in top spots from the White House (for Bill Clinton in 1998) and the Kennedy Center to Marian McPartland's prestigious "Jazz Piano" show on NPR and the JVC Jazz Festival.
Mintel will perform Brubeck classics and some originals at a White House dinner reception for the Obamas on Dec. 14.
"When we played there for President Clinton in '98, it was surreal. As I sat at the piano, I could not believe that we were actually there playing my music for the President," he recalls.
As stunned as Mintel and his sidekicks were back then, they hoped that the saxophone-playing president just might possibly sit-in with them, officially affixing the Commander-in-Chief's seal of approval on the EMQ.
"We even brought a tenor saxophone with us into the White House and had it all set up and ready to go. But President Clinton couldn't do it because he was on the receiving line all night," Mintel says.
Later that evening, the EMQ and other entertainers were ushered into the White House's Diplomatic Room where they met with the President for a photo op.
All that experience is indelibly fixed in Mintel's most treasured musical memories that stretch back to a major turning point in his life, his Brubeck "epiphany." That life-shaping experience occurred when, as a piano-addicted 14-year-old, Mintel was exploring his parents' extensive classical, rock and jazz record collection.
"I stumbled on a 45 with the Dave Brubeck Quartet's 'Take Five' on one side and 'Blue Rondo a la Turk' on the other. I put 'Take Five' on the turntable and had this instant connection and awareness that this was the music I wanted to play even though I didn't even know that it was, quote-unquote, jazz."
As Mintel, who's now 44, went on to form his own quartet and forge his own independent voice, the Brubeck connection has lived on. Not only has the pair become good friends, but the EMQ has opened for the DBQ at Philadelphia's Kimmel Center, and, in turn, Dave has written liner notes for Eric's recordings.
Brubeck is one of the greatest popularizers of modern jazz, which he believes in as a spiritual force for the good of humanity. Now in his footsteps, Mintel is advocating the same faith in jazz as a life-force offering an ecumenical message to all.