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In New York City jazz circles, the bop-oriented Joan Stiles is not only known for her lyrical and melodic piano playing — she is also known for her skills and talents as a bandleader, arranger, and producer. Stiles (who occasionally does some singing but is primarily an instrumentalist) isn't the sort of jazz artist who is only interested in going to jam sessions and showing listeners how fast she can soar through the chord changes of John Coltrane's "Giant Steps" or Sonny Rollins' "Oleo"; she has no problem improvising and stretching out, but it's clear that the bandleader/arranger role is a major part of her musical identity. And when one lists Stiles' influences, it is important to note her bandleading and arranging influences, as well as the pianists who have affected her work. As a pianist and soloist, Stiles is a thoughtful player whose direct or indirect influences range from Wynton Kelly, Tommy Flanagan, Thelonious Monk (who she acknowledges on her composition "Spherical") and Hank Jones, to Nat King Cole and Erroll Garner — and as a bandleader/arranger, she is obviously well-aware of Duke Ellington, Thad Jones, Oliver Nelson, and Charles Mingus. Unlike Ellington, however, Stiles is not swing-oriented; rather, she is a bop-oriented performer who has some swing influences. She is someone who would have been described as a "modernist" in the late '40s or '50s, despite her appreciation of Ellington and Billy Strayhorn.
Stiles was born and raised in Brooklyn, where she began listening to jazz as a teen-ager. The New Yorker went on to study classical piano in college and sang in various pop bands as a young adult, but eventually, straight-ahead jazz became her primary focus. In the '80s, Stiles' piano playing suffered a major setback when she fell and her left wrist suffered multiple fractures. But after surgery and rehabilitation, Stiles was able to resume her piano playing — and by the early '90s, she was performing regularly in Big Apple jazz venues. Stiles now lives in Manhattan, where she has been a part of the faculty at the Manhattan School of Music and teaches at the New School University. Manhattan is also where Stiles has put together a series of concerts titled "Mostly Mary Lou," which has given her a chance to play and arrange the music of the late swing pianist Mary Lou Williams. In 1998, Stiles produced Love Call, her first album as a leader; Love Call boasted an impressive lineup that included, among others, Clark Terry on trumpet and flugelhorn, Warren Vaché on trumpet, Benny Powell on trombone, Count Basie alumni Frank Wess on tenor sax, and Joe Temperley on baritone sax and bass clarinet. Many jazz artists would love to be able to say that they featured heavyweights like Clark Terry and Frank Wess on their debut albums, but despite having some famous improvisers on-board, Love Call went unreleased for six years. The album finally came out in 2004, when it was released by the independent, Millwood, NY-based Zoho Music.
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