All in the Wrists
with a full deck: Jason Ladanye.
photo: Joe Putrock
working magic with cards or grooves with high-profile blues
Jason Ladanye displays a savvy beyond his years By Erik
adapt a saying, it some-times seems like you could throw
a stick in the Capital Region and hit an aspiring, 20-something
musician. But Jason Ladanye is a musician of a different
stripe: Not too many 25-year-olds have 10 years of hardcore
blues gigging behind them, including touring the world,
playing on TV shows like Conan O’Brien and Austin
City Limits and working in the studio with the likes
of Dr. John. Another interesting character trait: Ladanye
is a top-notch card magician and blackjack expert. (His
interest and intensive study in that arena nearly rivals
his infatuation with music.)
Ladanye—who is set to release his first solo album, Lil
Jay and the Card Sharks, in February—even speaks in
the vernacular of the seasoned, world-weary bluesman, his
conversation littered with references to “grooves” and “feels”
and the reviled, mind-numbing “straight gigs” that one must
occasionally take to make ends meet (in his case, a short-lived
bank job, “reversing old ladies’ three-dollar service charges”).
salty attitude is well-earned, however, as Ladanye has chalked
up a daunting resume since he first started playing keyboards
with local blues favorite Ernie Williams at age 15. Locally,
besides Williams’ Wildcats, he has also played with the
Tom Healey Band and currently plays in Family Tree, an improvisational
groove collaboration, at the Lark Tavern every Tuesday night.
Ladanye has also made a name for himself beyond our borders.
Before he even reached drinking age, he spent some time
in New Orleans playing with well-traveled blues guitarist
Vince Converse. (During that period he also added keys to
an album by Mountain guitarist Leslie West.)
But his most definitive gig began four years ago, recording
and touring the globe with renowned blues belter Shemekia
Copeland, who has a Grammy nomination and a pile of prestigious
W.C. Handy Blues awards to her credit. (Ladanye just came
off of a tour with Copeland in October.)
Through that job, and while a lot of his peers were hitting
the college textbooks, Ladanye was absorbing valuable musical
lessons from people such as New Orleans R&B master Dr.
John, who produced Copeland’s 2003 album, Talking to
Strangers. Ladanye had met the Doctor a few times before
at Copeland gigs when John had approached the relative youngster
to give him pointers. “He showed me these little things
over the course of a couple of years or so,” Ladanye remembers.
But working with him in the studio was more intensive, with
Dr. John prodding Ladanye along.
During one session for the album in New York City, Ladanye
was working out an organ part in the studio when John said
flatly, “That ain’t it, man. That ain’t it,” Ladanye recalls.
“Then he left the control room for a while and I came up
with something.” Apparently the legend was pleased with
the results. “[Dr. John] came back and got on the talk-back,
and he was like, ‘That’s some funky shit,’” remembers
Ladanye (reenacting the scene with a dead-on impression
of Dr. John’s gravelly, hipster tones). On that album, Dr.
John played piano and produced, while Ladanye laid down
all of the organ and electric piano parts, placing him in
elite keyboard company.
While in Copeland’s band, Ladanye also had the opportunity
to tour places like Europe (on numerous occasions) and Australia,
to open for B.B. King several times and, as mentioned before,
to appear on Late Night With Conan O’Brien.
Ladanye brought along a high school buddy (from his days
at Ravena-Coeymans-Selkirk) for the latter appearance and,
in a concession to his youth, remembers running amok throughout
the NBC building with his friend between the rehearsal and
taping. “We just got in the elevator and pushed buttons,”
Ladanye laughs. “We found the Saturday Night Live
studio [and] we sat at Conan’s desk and took pictures.”
Recently, however, Ladanye has been content to settle in
his downtown Albany apartment, focusing on his music-
teaching vocation and on putting the polish on Lil Jay
and the Card Sharks, his forthcoming debut solo outing.
Surprisingly, Ladanye’s primary focus on the disc is guitar,
an instrument that he’s only really gotten serious about
“in the last three or four years.”
His initial intention was to do an album on the cheap and
in a couple of sessions, but the project, recorded at Arabellum
Studio in Colonie, ballooned to the point where he was putting
in eight- to 10-hour days trying to locate a sound reminiscent
of “those old blues albums from the ‘50s with brushes, high-hat
feels . . . grooves that people just don’t know about.”
Early B.B. King recordings were a particular reference point.
Ladanye also wanted to avoid the standard shuffles that
crop up again and again in blues and to explore “improv,
funk-blues” regions, like those on Albert King’s ‘70s Stax
For the project, Ladanye enlisted the help of local drummer
Andy Hearn (Tom Healey Band, Arc), as well as bass players
Steve Aldi and Arthur Nielsen (Shemekia Copeland’s guitarist,
as well as a onetime member of Cyndi Lauper’s band). The
album, officially out in February, establishes Ladanye as
a songwriter, singer and bandleader.
A parallel current has been running through Ladanye’s life
during all of this musical activity. He first became interested
in card magic at seven, around the same time he began playing
piano. “My father died when I was 14—actually he was out
of my life when I was 7. He fell off the face of the planet.
[So these things were] my Mom’s secret little way of keeping
me interested in other stuff, I guess.”
This fall, Ladanye even competed at the International Magic
Convention in London. He has also studied under Darwin Ortiz,
considered by many to be the world’s best card manipulator.
This interest rivals Ladanye’s musical passion; in fact,
his Web site is split between his musical stuff and his
card-magic exploits. Ladanye hires himself out for private
card shows, and in early February he will conduct a workshop
at the Knowledge Network on blackjack and recognizing crooked
Asked if his interest in cards ever crosses over into his
musical life, Ladanye notes that sometimes his music students
will try to hit him up for card gambling tips during a lesson.
And in considering their questions, Ladanye talks in almost
the same manner in which he discusses musical grooves and
improvisation: “You have to know if the game’s tight or
loose. . . . Do you have players that are difficult? Do
you have control of the game? Did you just sit down? Have
you been playing for a while?”
And once again, he sounds like a seasoned man beyond his
years when he sagely adds, “There’s no yes or no. There
are a thousand variables for what that answer’s going to