Alamedan jazz pianist Adam Shulman accompanies some of the Bay Area’s best singers and easily crosses genres.
One of the Bay Area’s elite accompanists, he’s a talented bandleader and jazz pianist who’s as comfortable playing a second-line grove with Tiffany Austin’s as he is a molasses-drip tempo with crooner Ed Lee.
Adam Shulman didn’t set out to become one of the Bay Area’s elite accompanists, but over the last few years, the Alameda jazz pianist has carved out a niche as an essential foil for some of the region’s most strikingly creative singers. I’ve admired his persuasive sense of swing and vivid harmonic palette since the early-aughts, when he started working with bassist Marcus Shelby. And he’s done some excellent work as a bandleader, putting his own spin on the horn-driven hard-bop tradition. But this summer his ingenious versatility as an accompanist became too visible to overlook.
One night in August he was playing mean second-line grooves and rumbling gospel chords behind the rapidly rising jazz singer Tiffany Austin at SFJAZZ’s Joe Henderson Lab. The next day he performed a scintillating set at San Jose Jazz’s Summer Fest with the inimitable Paula West, providing cozy support for her singular repertoire of incisively recast standards and unlikely pop songs. A few days later, he could be found at Berkeley’s Back Room, navigating ballads at molasses-drip tempos with the extraordinary 89-year-old crooner Ed Reed.
Shulman didn’t have much experience working with vocalists before he connected with West and “it just slowly built through the years,” said Shulman, 39. “I enjoy the accompaniment role more and more as I get older. It’s a whole different mindset, creating orchestral textures, providing that nice comfy bed for the vocalist to lie in. I learned a lot from working with Paula about accompanying and arranging, skills that have translated well for other vocalists. But everyone’s different.”
Shulman returns to Berkeley with Reed on Oct. 6 for a gig at the California Jazz Conservatory. Though he’s been playing with the brilliant balladeer for about five years, the bandstand relationship is still evolving. Hailing Shulman as “a fantastic musician and a kind man,” Reed described the August Back Room performance as an epiphany. “For the first time in my life, I sang like I’ve always wanted to sing,” he said.
For Shulman, performing with Reed provides an invaluable connection to modern jazz’s glory years in the decades after World War II. “He was there, a contemporary of a lot of these masters,” Shulman said. “He’s like a native speaker of the language. The last gig I really felt we were on the same page, really trusting each other.”
A San Francisco native who graduated from UC Santa Cruz, Shulman relocated to Alameda five years ago when he and his girlfriend, vocalist Katy Stephan, decided to move in together. Aside from occasional gigs as part of the Friends of the Alameda Free Library concert series, he hasn’t had many opportunities to work in town, but he and ace bassist John Wiitala often get together at each other’s houses to jam. A longtime Alameda resident, Wiitala anchors all five of Shulman’s albums, including his latest, Full Tilt (Live Cellar Records), a consistently captivating sextet session featuring his sturdy original compositions. Shulman celebrates the album’s release with his sextet at the CJC on Oct. 9 and San Jose’s Cafe Stritch on Oct. 27.