ianist/composer Carmen Staaf is a burgeoning voice in the NYC and global music scenes. As Jim Macnie recently wrote in JazzTimes, Carmen Staaf fans are “a growth demographic”. Her deep rhythmic grounding, creative flexibility, and training in classical and jazz piano alike have led her to perform in a wide range of settings with some of the most influential musicians of our era. She is the pianist and Musical Director for Grammy-winning vocalist and NEA Jazz Master Dee Dee Bridgewater. A graduate of the Thelonious Monk Institute, her past major performances have included the Playboy Jazz Festival in a two-piano setting with the legendary Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter, Jazz at Lincoln Center with Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, and solo piano the Kennedy Center alongside Kenny Barron, Fred Hersch and Joey Alexander. She has also been heard at the Village Vanguard, Blue Note, SFJazz and major jazz festivals around the world including the Newport, Monterey, Montreux, Panama, Dominican Republic, Litchfield, Saratoga, Ottawa and North Sea Jazz Festivals.
Staaf co-leads the group Science Fair with drummer Allison Miller; the band’s eponymous debut (featuring Ambrose Akinmusire, Dayna Stephens and Matt Penman) was released in 2018 on Sunnyside to wide acclaim. It made both the New York Times and Los Angeles Times lists of Best Jazz of 2018, as well as garnering a 4.5-star review in DownBeat and appearing on the DownBeat Critics Poll list for “Best Jazz Album”. According to DownBeat’s Giovanni Russonello, “Science Fair is a true collaboration between two impressive leaders, though what makes you sit up and pay attention the most is Staaf’s pianism. It’s brilliant, enriched stuff, as rugged as it is lush. Still a rather unrecognized figure, her playing comes from a lineage that favors Mary Lou Williams over Art Tatum, Herbie Nichols over Herbie Hancock—but every one of those figures is in there. Science Fair suggests we’re just starting to see how deep her talents go.”
In addition to her own piano trio, Carmen also co-leads a piano trio with drummer Jeff Williams, featuring bassist Michael Formanek. The Jeff Williams Trio album “Bloom” (Whirlwind, 2019) was released to critical acclaim, including a rave review on NPR’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross and others (“Staaf dazzles” according to JazzTimes’ Jim Macnie). The trio is set to release an upcoming LP under Carmen’s name on Newvelle records. Staaf also leads her own sextet, Day Dream, which put out an eponymous album in 2017, and is a member of violinist Jenny Scheinman and Allison Miller’s Parlour Game with Tony Scherr (Parlour Game’s debut album came out in 2019). She also plays in the bands of trumpeter Ingrid Jensen and vocalist/composers Thana Alexa (with whom she recorded on “Ode to Heroes” alongside Regina Carter and Antonio Sanchez) and Allegra Levy (Staaf wrote arrangements for and played on several Levy albums including “Lonely City”, “Cities Between Us” and “Looking at the Moon”), in addition to her musical direction for Dee Dee Bridgewater.
Also active in the world of dance, Carmen co-orchestrated the music of Duke Ellington (along with Allison Miller) for the American Ballet Theater’s October 2018 performances choreographed by tap star Michelle Dorrance. She is a member of SPEAK, a cross-cultural meeting of Kathak and tap with jazz and Hindustani classical musicians. SPEAK toured India in 2019 and previously performed at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica and Yerba Buena in San Francisco. Carmen is also the pianist in tap master Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards’ show And Still You Must Swing.
Carmen graduated with a double degree from Tufts University (Anthropology) and the New England Conservatory (Jazz Performance), and immediately thereafter became one of the youngest faculty members ever hired by Berklee College of Music, joining their piano department in 2005. After spending some years touring and recording while based in New York (including winning the Mary Lou Williams Jazz Pianist competition and touring Europe as the accordionist for Mexican singer-songwriter Lila Downs), she was accepted to the prestigious Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Performance, where she was mentored by the most important living jazz musicians.
An active educator, Carmen has held faculty positions at Berklee, the New School, Stanford Jazz Institute, Swarnabhoomi Academy of Music (Chennai, India), Jacob’s Pillow, Litchfield Jazz Camp, and the New York Jazz Academy, and has led masterclasses around the globe. She was also tapped, with Herbie’s approval, to provide transcriptions for Herbie Hancock’s MasterClass performances and online lessons.