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Michael Kaeshammer

Andrew MacNaughtan

Most artists wait until their middle years before having a career crisis, but Michael Kaeshammer had his big moment of doubt when he was in his late 20s.

At the moment, the 34-year old singer and pianist seems the picture of confidence. Chatting over lunch in a Queen Street restaurant near his Toronto home, he's happy, relaxed, and deservedly proud of his just-released sixth album, Kaeshammer. Unlike his previous albums, which left plenty of room for him to strut his stuff on the keyboard, Kaeshammer puts its emphasis on the songs, underscoring both the singer's melodic acumen and his emotional depth. It's personal in the best sense of the term.

"That's why I called it Kaeshammer," he says. "I was looking through lyrics trying to find a title for it, and I thought, 'Well, this is as me as it gets at this point.' The fact that it's jazzy is because that's what's in here," he adds, tapping his chest. "But this is who I am, and this is what I feel at this point in my life."

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Finding that comfort, and the confidence to follow his heart instead of what he saw as the audience's expectations, wasn't easy. In fact, he says, he was close to giving up on performing altogether just a few years ago.

It all started with a 60-date solo tour of Canada six or so years ago. Kaeshammer wanted a genuinely solo experience, and so headed out without a band, soundman or anything but his car and a road map.

From a performance perspective, the solo approach seemed easy enough. A boogie-woogie hotshot since his teens, the German-born pianist was a master at dazzling listeners with speed and dexterity, and knew he didn't need a band to knock people's socks off. As he puts it, "I always played with the approach of, hey, check out what I can do."

Usually, it worked. "He's a fantastic performer," says singer Sophie Milman, who has shared the bill with Kaeshammer on numerous occasions. "He's a great piano player, he's a good singer, and he really entertains the crowd."

But as this solo tour progressed, Kaeshammer found that showing off wasn't the fun it used to be. "I started to notice that I wouldn't really get what I needed out of performing," he says. "I was seriously considering stopping performing, because I did not get happiness or joy out of it."

Instead, he took a break and went to visit some friends in New Orleans. One, a pianist named Joshua Paxton, asked a favour: Would Kaeshammer mind filling in for him behind blues singer Marva Wright? "At the time, I didn't have anything else on the horizon, and I was trying to find myself," Kaeshammer says. "So I said, 'Yeah, man. I'll stay.' And I stayed for seven months."

It changed his life.

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At first Wright, who died last year at 62, wasn't much impressed with the young pianist. "She could tell that I wasn't playing from the right perspective," he says. "I was this kid who was just coming to show off or something."

Eventually, they grew close, and Wright introduced Kaeshammer to the lessons she'd gleaned from listening to and studying gospel music. "It's not about what they're doing - it's about why, and who you are, and the message," he says. "And it changed me, as a person. I started living my life from a different angle."

Lovelight, the title track from his last album, was "about that exact experience with her." Even so, he says, his artistic rebirth wasn't as instantaneous as his road-to-Damascus story suggests. Even with what he'd learned from Wright, he still found himself feeling obliged to be the boogie-woogie hotshot he imagined his fans expected. "I had to learn to let that go," he says.

Letting go of such expectations has not only made his burden lighter artistically, but brought him closer to the audience. "He's a hard worker, but he's very light about it," says Milman. "He's singing, he's playing, and he's managing to engage the crowd in a meaningful way. And there's a bad show or there's a crowd that's not ideal, I don't think he lets it get to him."

"You work on your career, but it doesn't affect who I am any more," says Kaeshammer. "I'm a happier person than I've ever been. I just wake up every morning, and I just can't wait for my day."

Michael Kaeshammer plays Massey Hall in Toronto on Saturday; the Port Theatre in Nanaimo, B.C., on May 17; and the Vogue Theatre in Vancouver on May 18.

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