A-Sharp Player

Pianist Nicole Pesce strikes a chord with artsy downtown audiences

It's First Friday. I'm at my third gallery opening in as many hours, drinking cheap wine from a plastic glass and eavesdropping on yet another conversation about Nicole Pesce. "But have you heard her ABBA medley?" one wanna-be fashionista is saying to another. "Oh, please," her gal pal is saying. "Six times! But I'm all about Nicole's Bacharach interpretations! She makes old-guy music sound cool!"

Nicole Pesce makes a lot of stuff sound cool -- which is one of the reasons she's attracted an ever-growing fan following, why diners at downtown's My Florist Cafe linger over the soup du jour, and why they return so often to hear her take on everything from Tchaikovsky to Billy Joel. Minutes before taking the bench for her standard six-hour set at My Florist, the twentysomething Pesce spoke with me about playing Led Zep songs for septuagenarians, backing Jerry Lewis, and the difference between Bach and Beethoven.

New Times: You do realize you have a cult following, don't you?

Classical gas: Nicole Pesce makes everything new old again.
Emily Piraino
Classical gas: Nicole Pesce makes everything new old again.

Nicole Pesce: I started to say, "No, you're crazy." But I do sort of know that the same people are coming back to hear me quite a lot. It's really amazing. I find it hard to believe, but it's so cool, too. It's kind of just starting to sink in that this is happening.

NT: People come from all over town to hear you play.

Pesce: The weird thing is that it's all different ages. I'll have a more mature crowd, and I'll be playing show tunes and stuff, then suddenly a bunch of younger people will come in, and I'll be playing my Queen medley or "Stairway to Heaven," stuff like that. And I'm playing Led Zeppelin for these 70-year-olds and thinking, "How did this happen?"

NT: How did this happen?

Pesce: I did the piano bar thing for a while in Connecticut, and it started to happen for me there. But the real reason it all clicked is that this is such an awesome place to play. [My Florist owner David Lacey] really gives me total artistic freedom, so no one's telling me, "You can't play ABBA and Chopin!" No one's saying, "Tone it down, play classical, play background music, stop showing off!" Here, I can do just about anything.

NT: Anything? Could you wear a headdress and have chorus girls performing a kickline behind you?

Pesce: Well, David would probably go for it. Seriously, though, he just lets me make my own musical decisions, which is really heaven for any musician. So I can play Rachmaninoff and Van Morrison and then on into Jelly Roll Morton.

NT: You have a pretty wide musical knowledge for someone your age.

Pesce: I have a huge record collection at home -- probably a thousand record albums, and as many CDs -- jazz, classical, and everything in between. I studied with my father, and he had an enormous knowledge of music that he passed on. He encouraged me to study and appreciate all kinds of music. That's pretty rare. He listened to everything from Fats Waller and Elton John, and he encouraged many different styles, which a lot of teachers don't do. They'll say, "Play classical or jazz, but not both."

NT: Did he force you to study music?

Pesce: No! I had to ask. He wasn't going to teach me until I asked. And he never said, "You just have to play this or that kind of music." He said, "Here it all is. Play it." And I do.

NT: I know. And a lot of it is contemporary music for which you write new, classically inspired arrangements.

Pesce: Right. Like with the Led Zeppelin song, there isn't a whole lot of piano in the original recording, and so I redid it for solo piano. I've always done that. My first job was playing a Christmas party at age 8, and I didn't know you were supposed to play the song the same way each time.

NT: And by the time you were 14, you were playing for Debbie Reynolds at her hotel in Vegas. I hear she's a megabitch.

Pesce: Not to me she wasn't. She was awesome. She was very Debbie. Rip Taylor was on the mike making jokes the entire time, which was kind of a challenge.

NT: After Debbie, you toured with Jerry Lewis.

Pesce: Yes, we toured all over the country with a 16-piece orchestra. I was 14 then.

NT: After which, apparently, you hit a fallow period in your career, where you were just playing piano bars in Connecticut. I guess playing with the Jerry Lewis Orchestra is a tough act to follow.

Pesce: (Laughing.) Hey, it wasn't all piano bars -- I played some hotels, too. And I also played with Buddy Greco and Pat Boone, don't forget.

NT: Wow. Pat Boone!

Pesce: Yes, but it was amazing to play with a legend like Buddy Greco. Then I came back to Phoenix when I was about 18 and got a job playing at the Ritz-Carlton.

NT: Where I hear you played for Verne Troyer, the little person who played Mini-Me in the Austin Powers films. Did he have, like, a cabaret act or something?

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