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Uli Lenz

German post-bop pianist Uli Lenz combines the sound and swing of classic jazz (forebears like Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson, and Earl Hines) with his early classical training in contrapuntal improvisation. Lenz was born in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1955, to parents who both played piano and organ; his father began teaching him classical music and improvisation at age four, but it was his grandmother who introduced him to jazz via late-night radio programs. When Lenz attended the Frankfurt Conservatory during the '70s, he studied classical piano and cello, but on his off-hours he played jazz wherever he could -- anywhere from dance classes and piano bars to strip joints -- both solo and with his own group. All of Lenz's intense woodshedding paid off in terms of both technique and musical identity, and upon completion of his degree, he moved to Italy to take in a new scene and play with different groups. He returned to Germany in 1980, this time to Berlin, and made enough connections to begin touring Europe with other groups. He also made a name for himself as a solo performer, making his first unaccompanied appearance at a jazz festival in 1985, and touring Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean the following year. Also in 1986, Lenz recorded his first solo piano album, Midnight Candy, for Enja. In 1987, Lenz traveled across the Atlantic for the first time and made his New York City debut. Unfortunately, shortly afterwards, Lenz sustained a hand injury that required a tendon transplant and a full year of rehab. Despite having to rework some of his fingering techniques, Lenz emerged from the ordeal with his skills intact, and his musicality more focused than ever. He recorded the 1988 album Live at Sweet Basil, again for Enja, in New York with an all-star rhythm section of bassist Cecil McBee and drummer Joe Chambers. He played the Montreux Jazz Festival for the first time in 1989; a Montreux trio set was later released in 1991 as the double CD Live at the Montreux Music Festival. Lenz spent the '90s as a mainstay on the festival circuit, playing numerous gigs all over the world. He also recorded with a variety of collaborators: saxophonist Johannes Barthelmes (1992's Konzert de Verlorenen Söhne and 1993's Trane's Tree), vocalist Patricia Nomakosazana Dhlamini (1993's Trouble in Paradise), and bassist Ed Schuller and drummer Victor Jones (1997's Echoes of Mandela), as well as solo (1995's Love Channel). In 1997, Lenz formed a trio featuring bassist Pepe Berns and drummer Thomas Alkier, who would accompany him through his European appearances. Yet despite all his recording and performing experience, Lenz still didn't have any CDs in worldwide distribution, and -- with his U.S. performances confined to New York -- still hadn't made a dent in the American consciousness. In 1999, Lenz signed with New York's Arkadia Jazz label, and began recording an album with bassist Ira Coleman and drummer Horacio "El Negro" Hernandez. Featuring guest spots from saxophonist T.K. Blue, Rainmaker's Dream was released in 2001 to high praise from the U.S. jazz community. ~ Steve Huey
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