ERIC WORTHAM IS A PIANO VIRTUOSO of the highest order, skilled in both classical and jazz playing. Yet he feels no musical limitations performing pure pop on tour with Adele.
“Playing piano for this gig keeps me interested, excited, and challenged,” Eric says. “Although I’m not necessarily creating in an improvisational manner, it’s a very piano-based gig. There’s a lot of complexity in the song composition. Under the bright lights and the pressure of the show, it takes a lot of concentration to execute each song with the sweetness it deserves. It’s not easy. I’ll challenge anyone to do that!”

For all Wortham’s virtuosity, he’s equally concerned with the nuances of a performance—the subtle variations in feel and dynamics that bring the music to life. “The details can go unappreciated,” he says, “but those little things determine the feel of the song. Adele is such an artist, and she knows exactly how she wants to feel when she performs. When I play a song’s intro, for example, details like whether I’m ahead or behind the beat, or whether I’m playing pianoforte or pianissimo, can help transport her to the emotional place she was in when she wrote the song.”

EricWortham portraitAccording to Wortham, focusing on feel is a trademark of musicians from his native Philadelphia. “I think players from Philadelphia have a high regard and respect for the deep groove. We make sure that’s always center-focus, and wedon’t get too caught up in showing off. We make sure the music feels good.”

The son of a preacher, Wortham grew up in a household where only gospel music was permitted. But again, he doesn’t view this as a limitation. “All day long I was surrounded by music that evoked a lot of emotion,” he says. “My sensitivity to what triggers emotion melodically and harmonically was founded in the gospel church. The beautiful thing about gospel music is that it’s an expansive idea, not a locked-in genre. It incorporates jazz harmonies, classical harmonies, a little bit of everything.”

But by his teen years, Eric was spending countless hours in the public library, listening to secular music on headphones and developing a passion for the great jazz pianists. “On some days,” he recalls, “I wouldn’t go to school because I had a burning desire to learn about what Bud Powell and Oscar Peterson were doing.”

Meanwhile, Eric diligently pursued his own musical course. He singles out lessons with Kevin Rodgers as particularly influential. “He taught me valuable lessons that no one else was able to instill in me. He taught me how to match notes with what I heard in my head. He taught me how to practice and study. He taught me the importance of being humble and selfless. He definitely taught me discipline, not just in terms of the number of hours I’d practice, but how they were spent. I will keep those things with me forever, and pass them down to my own students.”

Eric’s library listening sessions inspired a particular fascination with Chick Corea’s playing. “I loved that he had a great deal of technique,” says Wortham. “I also loved what he was playing, and how he made it look so effortless. It was like a ballet dancer playing piano. I wanted to follow in his steps, down to the brand of instruments he chose—namely, Yamaha pianos. On most pianos, the low end can get muddy, a little too heavy and clunky. But Yamaha pianos have a crisp sound and even tonality from the low end to the high.” Wortham accompanies Adele on a C3X grand piano, and has a GP1 baby grand at home.

As stimulating as Wortham finds his pop gig with Adele, jazz remains close to his heart. Before joining Adele’s band, he was the pianist for brilliant jazz singer-songwriter Jill Scott, and he recently co-wrote and co-produced several songs for jazz diva Laurin Talese’s Gorgeous Chaos album. “I don’t like letting grass grow under my feet artistically,” Eric says. “After committing so much time and energy to pop, I definitely want to reawaken my jazz career.”

But for now, Wortham—an eternal student—is focused on learning as much as he can under Adele’s bright stage lights. “I’m gaining a lot of knowledge from playing pop,” he says. “The chords aren’t as dense as in jazz. There aren’t as many notes involved. There aren’t a lot of melodic acrobatics. But when you put it all together, everything plays a specific role. There’s mastery there—timeless music that you can remember and sing, and which tugs at your heartstrings with precision. I’m really appreciating that!”