Clubland: Stephen Merriman finds his piano groove in life’s ‘later innings’
It’s a sunny summer Sunday afternoon and Stephen Merriman is seated at the weathered but in-tune piano at Sam’s Pizzeria and Cafe. There, in the heart of Northampton’s main drag, the floor-to-ceiling window-doors are pushed open to let in the breeze and let out the sounds. A small shaggy dog on a leash shuffles inside to flop down in the shade.
Merriman is surrounded by tables — a talking family right behind him, a busy silent woman at a laptop in the back, quiet listeners up front. Outside, a motorcycle explodes to life, drowning out the piano until the driver vrooms away.
The pianist has CDs for sale, on display in a case on top of the instrument as he plays. “Original Compositions” says the sign, and Merriman’s jazz pieces strike this first-time listener as having an impressionistic side, with rich chordal color. (I find out later that one of his many influences is classical pianist/composer Erik Satie.) One gently swinging ballad had melodic twists a la Thelonious Monk before landing on some full, solid chords, and then, at the end, dropping down a surprise half-step for a rich, romantic finish.
As the small audience clapped, the 66-year-old Merriman turned sideways in his chair to happily say, “That’s a song I wrote for my wife, who’s right there!” He pointed with both hands in a loving, larger-than-life gesture at the Emily of “Emily’s Song,” who’d arrived earlier in the set with their 20-month-old child in a stroller. She’d been seated nearby, hanging out for moral support, with pizza and fresh-squeezed lemonade, tapping her toe while enjoying a slice.
Merriman left little space between pieces, so I nervously butted in to ask if he’d mind answering some questions. He asked if we could talk at the top of the hour, after his performance. “I’m in the stream of a set,” he said kindly.
I soon discover he’s been playing Sam’s since April, every Sunday from noon to 2. He’s also been performing regularly at Flayvors of Cook Farm in Hadley for nearly three years, every Thursday from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m., as well as having a regular monthly gig at Pittsfield’s Gallery 25, during the town’s popular art-filled “Third Thursday.”
“It’s a great discipline,” Merriman said about performing in a public situation, surrounded by unpredictable activity. “It’s OK if I’m wallpaper. You never know who’s going to walk by and hear you. Someone is listening.”
I was a little shocked to learn he doesn’t take any breaks during his two-hour Sam’s set. “I always come to play,” he said with a smile. “Fire in the belly.”
He doesn’t take requests, preferring to concentrate on his own music (though he’ll weave in a standard or two during his performances). He called his original songs “lifetime friends of mine; I bring them out for a walk.” The title track of the 2006 CD he had for sale, “Modal Soul,” was first written in the late-‘60s.
Merriman started piano at age 7 and his first career was as a pianist and studio musician. Originally from Cambridge, he later lived in San Francisco for a time but moved back to the Bay State three years ago. He jovially called himself an “ill-tempered Yankee to the core.”
While he lived in Boston in the ’70s, Merriman had his own trio and quartet and released a pair of solo albums. Though he never stopped playing privately, he did put aside the professional side of things to go back to school. He worked as a psychotherapist for 30 years but is semi-retired.
Now, in the “later innings of life,” he’s back performing regularly at the piano.
“It took me a while to get the soot out of the furnace,” he said, “but I’m playing better than I’ve ever played in my life.”