These days, Kait Dunton is an in-demand jazz pianist who leads her own band, trioKAIT, and travels everywhere to perform her music.
But back in 2001, she was a University of Virginia undergraduate who’d played piano for 15 years already, but hadn’t given composing — let alone a music career — a second thought.
Then she met John D’earth.
D’earth, a trumpeter, composer and arranger who has performed with top artists in Charlottesville and around the world, is the director of the UVa Jazz Ensemble and a member of UVa’s Free Bridge Quintet faculty jazz group. He teaches a popular improvisation class in UVa’s McIntire Department of Music that enticed a curious Dunton to register.
For the Spanish major, everything changed.
“I signed up for his class. I’d never improvised, and I thought it was like magic,” the pianist said. “He was encouraging. I guess he saw I had a real passion for it.”
On Thursday evening, Los Angeles-based Dunton will perform at Miller’s — the longtime Thursday night home for the versatile D’earth and his musical colleagues — for the East Coast premiere of an album honoring D’earth as teacher, musician and inspiration.
“Planet D’earth” was a long time in the making. Dunton spent about a year planning the salute to her influential teacher and writing the music. D’earth traveled to Los Angeles in the summer of 2017 to catch up with her and record together, teaming up at Sphere Studios with Dane Anderson on bass and Jake Reed — Dunton’s husband — on drums.
The album was released in May with performances on the West Coast, and Dunton has been looking forward to performing with D’earth for Charlottesville listeners.
After the Miller’s gig, there also will be a Richmond show — at 8 p.m. Friday at Richmond Music Hall at Capital Ale House. That show is $15, and doors will open at 7 p.m.
The East Coast shows offer Dunton a sentimental opportunity to thank an inspiring musician who taught her to recognize and harness her own creativity.
“When I look back on what I’ve learned from him, he taught me life as a musician,” Dunton said. “Being open to the music. Working with people. Tapping into your emotions.
“John got into the deeper heart of it — the bigger picture. Now I teach my own students like John taught.”
For Dunton, Thursday is an opportunity not just to reflect and reminisce, but also to recognize how much her present — and future — in music draw on that intensely creative time of discovery at UVa.
“It has been great to reconnect with John both musically and personally through ‘Planet D’earth.’ Recording it and now performing this music live has allowed for so many great moments together,” Dunton said. “I wrote all of the music with John in mind — both his sound and personal language on the trumpet, but also his personality. It is a thrill to hear the music come to life and to hear him ‘speak’ on it.
“John has such a unique approach to playing and writing; it is a joy to share the bandstand with him. I am especially excited to now play this music on his ‘home turf’ in Charlottesville — and even more special, at Miller’s. I have so many dear memories of hearing John play there when I was an undergrad, so it is particularly meaningful to now be releasing our new album there together. Certainly as a UVa undergraduate, I would have never imagined it.”
Dunton is part of a growing club of UVa Jazz Ensemble alumni who’ve gone on to thriving jazz careers, including bassist Lisa Mezzacappa. She’s grateful for the chance to learn, work and play in such a creative environment.
“It was extremely lucky to have met John and to have experienced his unique teaching style during such musically formative years,” Dunton said. “Early on, he encouraged me to compose, and even though I had never done so before, he did not tell me specifically how to do it. It is precisely because of this open approach that I quickly learned how to tap into a more emotional place for creating, instead of learning through the confines of rigid structures.”
D’earth’s legendary modesty has kept the entire project low-key and comfortable.
“He’s such an amazing person,” Dunton said of D’earth. “I feel like John’s such a consummate artist that self-promotion is not part of that view.”
As she enjoys performing the “Planet D’earth” music with her mentor, Dunton looks forward to a future album — one she hopes won’t take quite as long to get off the ground.
“I hope we can get and album together where we can actually write together,” she said.
Dunton and D’earth will perform at 10 p.m. Thursday at Miller’s. There’s no cover. For details, dial (434) 971-8511.