A rare solo album by one of Indianapolis' best-loved jazz pianists has finally seen the light of day, more than two decades after it was recorded and nearly three years after the artist's death.
Every Time We Say Goodbye by Claude Sifferlen is the first public release of a recording that has circulated privately among musicians and friends for years. The chief reason for the delay, people behind the project say, is that Sifferlen was so uninterested in promoting himself.
"I couldn't understand why he wasn't as famous as Herbie Hancock or Chick Corea," says guitarist Royce Campbell, who arranged the original session and just released the album on his Moon Cycle Records label, in cooperation with Sifferlen's wife, Renee. "To me, he actually is on the same level. But he didn't really pursue fame. He had no desire for that."
Running over an hour, the 12-song collection features two original compositions, three Cole Porter tunes including the title track and such standards as Bill Evans' "Waltz for Debbie," Wayne Shorter's "Nefertiti" and John Coltrane's "Countdown." Recorded in April 1990 at the old Northside location of Meridian Music, the tracks were engineered by local studio guru Mark Hood and co-produced by Hood and Campbell.
The solo format allowed Sifferlen to explore the music freely, taking melodic detours and shifting easily in meter and tempo as he went.
"His harmonic knowledge was just so great that when he played with other musicians, they wouldn't know what to do sometimes, because he was so advanced," Campbell says. "Art Tatum was the same way, where his solo piano was really better than his stuff with groups."
In a professional career that dated to the 1960s, Sifferlen performed with the Duke Ellington and Woody Herman bands, played locally with the Baron Von Ohlen Quartet and briefly subbed for Stan Kenton in the Kenton Orchestra, backing such vocalists as Steve Lawrence and Edie Gorme. By the '80s, however, he had settled into a primarily local career, most visibly launching a 25-year collaboration with saxophonist-clarinetist Frank Glover that included a weekly stand at The Chatterbox. The father-son friendship between the older pianist and the younger winds player was explored poignantly in the 2010 WFYI television documentary Take 2.
Sifferlen's March 2010 death at age 69, after a long bout with cancer, was a huge blow to the Indiana music community.
"When Claude passed, it just seemed tragic that he didn't have more recorded, more documented," Campbell says. "Claude was not only a great pianist, but he was really a beautiful person, too."
The guitarist, who rose from Indianapolis to national exposure with the Henry Mancini Orchestra, was just 19 when he met Sifferlen.
"Even though we didn't play the same instrument, he was still like a mentor," says Campbell, who now lives in Virginia and has released 30 albums under his own name. "You can hear the influence of Claude in my harmonies."
Although he arranged the 1990 session in hopes of stoking Sifferlen's career, Campbell admits he grew frustrated with the pianist's apparent lack of ambition. At one point, he sent a copy of the tape to celebrated pianist Marian McPartland, longtime host of Piano Jazz on National Public Radio.
"She was totally impressed and said she'd love to have him on her show," Campbell recalls. Sifferlen, however, declined to make the trip to New York.
"He always used to say, 'I'm just a bar piano player,'" Campbell says. "He was too humble."
The easy availability of the recording now - - from sources including Amazon, iTunes and CD Baby - - is exciting news to longtime friends and fans like Mark Radway, local saxophonist and piano tuner for the city's top classical and jazz venues. Over the years, he says, dubbed copies of the recording session made a profound impact on him and other musicians as far away as New York City.
"I made a lot of cassette copies of it to give to friends," says Radway, who has since ordered several copies of the new album. "A lot of that stuff is like listening to Chopin.... You really can't put this kind of thing into words. It's magic."
Finally having the album in hand is especially gratifying to Renee Sifferlen, Claude's wife of 13 years. Her husband often played for her at home but repeatedly declined when she urged him to make a solo recording. She learned about the 1990 session only after her husband's death, when a friend gave her a disc of the songs.
"It helped me get through that really terrible time," she recalls. "Every time I hear it, it's like Claude is in the room with me."
She resolved over a year ago to make sure the music got a proper release, and she backed Campbell financially to have the album produced.
"Even though Claude wouldn't do it for himself, I could," she says. "I'm just so happy that it's out there."