by Sonia Barkat
Music fills the Neuberger museum as a jazz trio plays for its audience, who tap their feet to the music. The trio’s leader, Pete Malinverni, moving with the rhythm of the notes, smiles from his seat at the piano.
The concert featured arrangements of songs by Leonard Bernstein, in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of his birth, and included student performers. “I want to thank my dear colleagues up here,” said Malinverni, “and I want to call them colleagues, because once we get to putting that sandbox together, everything else goes away.” Malinverni will be joined by a number of other student musicians this Wednesday at 7 p.m., when he will lead a performance by the Soul Voices choir in the music building’s Recital Hall.
Malinverni, 61, with curly gray hair and brown eyes behind a pair of brown glasses, is a jazz pianist, teacher, and composer who also plays at a local Jewish temple in Scarsdale. He began learning piano at the age of six, in Niagara Falls, New York. His family attended a local church, where the music director, who knew his mother, mentioned a small grand piano that was selling for little money. “They put it in our house and found a teacher for us—my sister and I—and that’s when I started,” said Malinverni. “And, you know, some lady is coming to your house giving you piano lessons, you’re not thinking, ‘okay, this is the first day of the rest of my life.’”
Although he started out in classical music, Malinverni wanted something different. He had a rock band with his cousins, but it lacked a fineness he was used to. “It didn’t really matter if you used good dynamics, it didn’t matter if you got a good sound from your instrument, ‘cause everything was so loud,” said Malinverni. In school, he developed a love for jazz. He found that it required definite skills like classical music, but provided a large opportunity for self-expression, because of its use of improv.
“Of course, I didn’t realize at the time how much more responsibility that gave you, ‘cause now you’re performer and composer. Generally speaking, improvising musicians are very hard on themselves. Even though we may not look it when we’re performing, we’re always kind of comparing what we actually do with what we wish we had done. It’s a live art form; once you play it, there’s no taking it back.”
In his early 20s, Malinverni moved to New York City, not knowing anyone there at the time, to pursue jazz. After a while of freelancing, he decided that having a steady job in addition would be a nice change. He mentioned it to a bassist from William Paterson University in New Jersey, who reached out to him one year later with a teaching offer.
After that, Malinverni taught once a week at William Paterson, and later at NYU as well, before starting at SUNY Purchase. “When I first started teaching, I thought as a teacher you have to have all the answers, but what I started to find was, as long as the student sees that I love what I’m doing, as long as the student sees that I’m happy not to know—and therefore need to learn something—then everything’s cool.” If a student in one of his classes asks a question and he does not know the answer, Malinverni will experiment with the class to try and figure it out. “You have to have faith that the music has the answer.”
In 2016, Malinverni co-taught a Freshman Theory class with Jennifer Undercofler, now the Director of the Conservatory of Music at Purchase, during her first semester teaching at the school. “It was more interactive and more enjoyable than some of the other times I’ve co-taught,” said Undercofler. “We both have the same attitude towards our students, which is one of taking them really seriously, but also enjoying being in the room with them. Pete’s a very creative person, and very warm. He’s one of the people in the music faculty who’s most engaged with the campus as a whole.”
Part of his being engaged, said Undercofler, is through knowing faculty all in many areas of study. “If we’re out on the plaza together, walking with him is a very slow experience because he’s always running into other people that he knows. He’s respected by other members of the faculty and staff, because he’s very caring about people and supportive of their work. It’s really fantastic to have somebody on the music faculty who is regarded that way across the campus.”
Malinverni has multiple albums released, most of which are comprised of songs performed in a trio. His most recent album, “Heaven,” was initially spurred by fear. A few years earlier, Malinverni lost his wife, jazz singer Jody Sandhaus, so when he experienced a sudden health scare, he became very worried. Although it turned out to be nothing serious, there was a week when Malinverni felt certain he would die. “I said, ‘okay. If this really is it, if I have time to make one more record, what’s it gonna be?’ What is gonna be the final statement that I’m gonna make—the last recorded statement—that my son will always be able to say, ‘here’s my dad’s last record.’” In the end, Malinverni decided on songs that reflected his spiritual experiences, “Music that was of the soul,” he said. After picking the songs, he organized them the same way he might a concert before beginning to record with other instrumentalists, which he recalls as being really fun.
During Malinverni’s employment at Purchase, there came a year when the theme—something that was set yearly for courses—was “The African American Diaspora.” At the time, Malinverni worked as minister of music at a black Baptist church in Brooklyn, and got the idea of starting a school choir.
“Because Purchase is state institution, you’ll see that even though many of the songs we do are spiritual, there’s not a lot of actual religiosity, because those things start to be exclusionary. I wanted to concentrate on the soul part of it. That’s why I called it The Soul Voices.” Although themed classes usually last for a year, the school asked Malinverni if he would like to keep continue Soul Voices. The choir has been running ever since, for approximately 12 years. Part of Soul Voices success came from the fact that it brings students together from all areas of study. “It gives people an opportunity to sing,” said Malinverni.
Breanna Garske, a junior in theater and performance, has been a member of Soul Voices for about two years. “My first impression of Pete was that he was absolutely wild and crazy, but in the best ways,” she said. “He’s very into and intelligent about what he’s teaching, which can sometimes get a little bit monotonous. Especially when he starts getting frustrated, which only happens out of his passion for what we’re doing, and because he knows what the choir is capable of.”
Garske says she recommends the class frequently, because of how therapeutic it is for her. “Pete’s just got the biggest heart. He’s always trying to make sure that everyone’s comfortable with what we’re talking about. He’s very helpful, and really there when you need him. As a musician, he makes me love music more.”
Malinverni says he feels more energized after choir rehearsals than he does before. “When I play music, I just feel like I’m there at the birth of the universe,” he said. “And when we’re here in the choir rehearsing, those guys open their mouths and sing and it’s like creation itself. I feel like I’m always experiencing the new.”