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Hill-Murray senior has jazz hands
17-year-old kid is already a pro pianist
John Blanda, in a sense, has the world at his fingertips.
Blanda, a 17-year-old kid from Maplewood, is quiet, laid back and comes off a bit spacey, but still sharp.
And sharp quickly comes to the fore when he sits at the piano.
He punches out fine-crafted, improvised jazz like he was born to do it. And maybe he was. After all, he started playing at the age of 5 and hasn’t stopped since.
He strolls around the halls of Hill-Murray High School wearing his senior shirt, which dubs him “Suave John,” seeming very comfortable in his own skin and in the Catholic school, which is known for its performing arts programs. At certain times of day, he can sneak off and sit at a baby grand piano at the school and have a whole room to himself to practice.
Though only 17, he’s on his way to being an accomplished musician, playing jazz and classical music with ease, and performing in an indie band that’s seeing some serious success.
The band, Bomba De Luz, is comprised of young adults who started playing at Central High School three years ago. Blanda joined about a year ago.
Now, the band, not one of them over 20, is making waves locally, opening for national acts at mid-sized venues in Minneapolis.
They’ve played at the Varsity, the Triple Rock Social Club, the Ritz, the Cedar Cultural Center, the 7th St. Entry, and more, and they’ve got big eyes -- they’re hoping to do some touring and play at First Avenue’s main room.
Blanda’s parents, Dave and Sheila, say it was apparent pretty early on that their son had a knack for the piano keys.
By age 7 he was taking classical lessons, and from there developed a decent sight-reading ability. But other musicians suggested he move to a new style. “It was recommended to us that we have him start taking jazz lessons,” Dave Blanda recalls.
So he began jazz music his freshman year, and it was apparent that it jived with his personality. “That really got him going,” Dave says.
“Although (John) likes classical, it’s structured and you kind of stay in boundaries,” he says. “I think with jazz... you can be a little more creative.”
Solomon Parham, an instructor at Walker West, has been working with Blanda for four years.
He remembers when Blanda first came in. “He was much shorter; he was a little fella... he was really gentle, kept to himself.”
Now, he sees that Blanda’s gained a lot of confidence (as well as some stature).
“I started to realize him come into his teenage swag.”
Parham says Blanda has blossomed into what Parham calls a “tasteful player,” someone who approaches the piano with care and a good ear.
“He’s drawing from years of training,” he says. “His naturally gentle nature allows him to be emotional at times when the music is asking for that. That’s a very important strength to have as an artist, a sense of emotion.”
Modest kid, with promise
Marty Windholz, vocal music director at Hill-Murray, has high praises for Blanda, who plays piano for the school choir.
“He’s just got tremendous talent,” Windholz says. “He jumped right in and started accompanying.”
And perhaps just as remarkably, Blanda is modest about his musical gifts. “That’s rare to find with kids that are really, really talented,” he says.
“He could be very egotistical if he wanted to be -- he’s light years ahead of most kids - but he’s not; he’s just a great kid.”
Windholz figures Blanda is already at a professional level, but will keep pushing and really flourish as a musician.
Blanda is not so much concerned with fame, but rather “wants to be really good at his craft, and he wants to work at it,” he says.
It’s Windholz’s 14th year at Hill-Murray and he’s seen only a few kids near the level of Blanda come through the school.
Nonetheless, Parham notes Blanda still has many improvements to make.
“I wish he was a little more vocal and a little more tenacious,” he says. “I would like to see John win people over more.”
“He’s going to walk into a world that’s not nice to him,” he says. “It would be nice to see him develop some social tenacity.”
But, when it comes down to it, he’s got a sheer talent that’s impossible to ignore, Parham adds. “He’s the most outstanding musican that I can think of since I’ve come here.”
“He’s going to bear the baton ... he’s going to inherit the jersey, so to speak. ... I see him achieving his hero’s status.”
As for his accomplishments thus far, Blanda lists Minnesota State Fair talent show wins, being in a successful band, being on the Cities 97 sampler CD and on big bills such as the Basilica Block Party, and more.
He’s also won an international performance award at a competition in Norma, Italy. He flew there with his dad in 2011 on the recommendation of his piano instructor, and ended up winning a cash prize.
Last summer, Blanda went to a jazz camp in Lafayette, Cali. where he’d been going for three years. At the end of the camp, he was awarded the most improved student, and got a scholarship to return to the school for free this coming summer.
His start with Bomba
Gavin Taylor, 18, plays bass in Bomba De Luz with Blanda.
“I’d say (John) is one of the most talented piano players I’ve ever met,” he says.
The two met when studying at Walker West, a music school in St. Paul’s Summit-University neighborhood. A few years ago, they were both playing in Walker West’s jazz ensemble, and had several gigs in that ensemble together.
From that experience, Taylor knew Blanda had a good ear and would mesh with the band. So about a year ago, Taylor and his bandmates asked Blanda to join them.
“(Blanda is) a great soloist, but his biggest strength ... a rare thing ... is his ear,” Taylor says. One of the first shows we played with him, we just played and he followed along.”
In a big way, Blanda’s jazz experiences helped him plug into the band. And for Blanda, the jazz element is a big part of what he’s into about the band.
“The songs are never really the exact same (in Bomba De Luz),” he says, attributing it to the fact that all the musicians in the band have jazz experience. “It’s all about what mood we’re in when we play a song, I guess.”
College or tour?
It’s hard to say where Bomba De Luz might go next ... all its members are college-age, but also very motivated by the band, and Blanda’s no exception.
He’s looking at schools -- in December he auditioned for the Berklee College of Music in Boston, and he’s also eyeing the University of Manitoba’s music program.
For the time being, he wants to see what the band can get going, he says, and see what he hears from the colleges.
Could be he’ll get a scholarship to go to the school of his dreams. Or it could be he’ll defer a year and see what happens with the young, hopeful band.
Parham is pulling for him to go to school right away, as are his parents.
“When people put school off ... there’s a sense of momentum you lose,” Parham says.
Blanda is now comfortably in a place where he’s playing music pretty much every day. On Mondays, he goes to Walker West Music Academy and plays with a jazz ensemble. Other weekdays he’s rehearsing with the school jazz band, or playing piano for choir practice, or practicing with Bomba de Luz.
Balancing school with all the musical engagements can be a challenge, Dave Blanda says.
There will be nights where John has got a Hill-Murray gig after school, and then he has to leave right away to go play a show with Bomba De Luz at the Varsity.
“Some nights it gets pretty tight,” Dave says. “I always tell him schoolwork’s first, but I’m not sure if he always listens to me.”
But then again, for the kind of school Blanda’s shooting for, “you don’t necessarily need a good A.C.T. score,” Dave noted. Rather, “you have to audition.”
And he’s been practicing hard for those auditions, he says.
Blanda is bit spacey, his mother Sheila notes, and not necessarily a top-notch student academically.
“We would always try to think of it this way: maybe there’s too many notes floating around in his brain,” she says.
But books smarts aren’t everything, she adds. “I think (as a parent) you just start to focus on the gifts they have, and embrace that.”
The bottom line: his parents are proud of their son, and recognize his intellect.
“I wish I could do what he does,” Dave says with a chuckle. “He amazes me all the time.”
“His passion for music ... I wish I could take that and bottle it and use it for myself,” Sheila says.
For Blanda, music’s just a way of being.
“I am not the most book-smart person, and I would be lying to you if I said I had all A’s,” he says, adding that he’s not by any means failing any classes. But music is a way for him to shine, and a way to relax.
“A lot of people say music is an escape for them, and it might sound corny, but that’s just totally what it is,” he says. “It just totally relaxes me.
“And it’s the most fun thing I could ever do.”
Contact Patrick Larkin at 651-748-7816 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow on Twitter at @ESRPatrickLark.