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It’s All in the Wrists

Playing with a full deck: Jason Ladanye.

photo: Joe Putrock

Whether working magic with cards or grooves with high-profile blues musicians, keyboardist
Jason Ladanye displays a savvy beyond his years
By Erik Hage


To 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”).

That 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 albums.

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 gambling strategies.

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 be.”

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