How Philly jazz pianist got his dream gig touring with Adele

Eric Wortham II, the Philly-born pianist who has toured with local luminaries Jill Scott and Kindred the Family Soul and is now on the road with Adele.

As a boy, Eric Wortham II - the Philadelphia pianist who has spent 2016 touring the world in Adele's backing band - went to a church convention in Baltimore.

Singing in the choir, he happened to be standing with a view of an organ player who was working the keys and pedals of a Hammond B-3.

"I was looking at his hands, and was just mesmerized watching him," recalled Wortham, 33, sitting by a Yamaha grand piano at Chris' Jazz Café ("My favorite jazz club in the city") before his two weekend gigs with the British pop superstar at the sold-out Wells Fargo Center. "Pressing buttons and changing sounds. And when he changed configurations of the rhythm, it changed everyone's attitude in the room.

"Even at 6 years old, I found that fascinating. I thought, 'Man, I could do that.' It had that beautiful, churchy sound. People would stand, or cry, or start dancing, depending on what he would do. It was beautiful to watch someone who understood people, and who would assist with their emotions. It was almost as if he were a magician."

Back home in West Philadelphia, where the family lived before moving to Mount Airy when Wortham was in second grade, social life revolved around the activities at a Pentecostal church in Olney where his namesake father preached. Wortham broke out the family's cheap Casio keyboard and found that, with practice, he could make those sounds, and affect how people felt.

And so began the musical journey that took him first to the High School for the Creative and Performing Arts in South Philadelphia, where he would regularly cut school and spend days educating himself via the vinyl jazz collection at the Free Library. Shows with his own ensemble, as well as jobs backing up Philly vocalists such as Laurin Talese, Bilal, and Jill Scott eventually led to his current enviable gig, which he auditioned for via Skype from Turtle Studios in South Philadelphia. Adele watched from London.

"If there's something I'm really interested in, I'm all-in. I have that kind of tunnel-vision focus." That applies to music - he doesn't keep a piano at his South Broad Street home on short tour breaks "because I would never leave" - and also to billiards, Wortham says. Look out if you see the keyboard player at your local pool hall.

Until he was 13, Wortham applied himself to studying gospel music masters like James Cleveland and Mahalia Jackson. Then a jazz drummer named Leo McNeil joined his father's church, and was impressed.

" 'You should check out this pianist named Chick Corea,' he told me," Wortham recalls. " 'You would like him. You have a really meticulous and percussive technique, but I don't think you know what to do with it.' "

Wortham went home and popped a Chick Corea Akoustic Band Alive tape into the family room VCR, and his life changed that night. "I'll never forget it," he says. "Aside from how brilliant and masterful it sounded, it was the way he moved around the keyboard. It looked like poetry."

Mind blown, and practicing six to seven hours day, he dug into Bud Powell, Herbie Hancock, Keith Jarrett, Oscar Peterson, Art Tatum, and McCoy Tyner. "And then when you dive deeper and find out about their classical backgrounds. . . . I realized I had a lot of work to do. It was so exciting to know that for the next 10 to 20 years, I'd have something to do every day."

Wortham considers himself not a jazz man but "a pianist who can improvise very well."

"I play from my heart. I've always wanted to develop a proficiency to where it doesn't matter what genre I'm playing." No matter how technically accomplished you are, he says, "It's not about the skill. It's about if you connect with the song. If I don't like the song and can't connect on an emotional level, it's not going to sound as good."

With Adele, that's not a problem. "With her music, it's not hard at all," he says. "Because it wasn't written to make hits. It's written for real. That's why it's as big as it is. That's why she's winning. She wrote from a very real place."

Wortham is featured, along with the rest of the touring band - including Philadelphia percussionist Aaron Draper, who helped hook him up with an audition as a 2015 tour with Scott was ending - in the "When We Were Young" video. It's been viewed on YouTube a mere 159 million times.

He calls the "Hello" and "Rolling in the Deep" power balladeer "a dope musician" and "the perfect combination."

Playing with Adele "is a true musician's gig," he says. "When you think of pop, you think it's going to be a really easy punch-the-clock type of thing. No, it's not at all like that. It's really emotional. That woman takes to a stage every night and performs it fresh."

Adele did not tour for her massively successful second album - 2011's 21 - so the pent-up demand for the tour for last year's 25 has been immense. "She loves her audience," Wortham says. "It's like watching people react to Michael Jackson."

Wortham and Draper are among a number of jazz-schooled players who back up the biggest touring acts in the world. Drummer George "Spanky" McCurdy plays with Lady Gaga. Bassist Wayne Moore backs Beck and Pharrell. Adam Blackstone, a fellow CAPA grad who introduced Wortham to Scott, is Justin Timberlake's musical director.

"I think it comes from the rich history of music here," he says. "There are so many players with great sensibilities, from Coltrane to Mickey Roker to Sid Simmons. Those guys are like our forefathers. It's a tough, competitive city. To get respect in Philadelphia, you have to be good at what you do."

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