The performer who precedes Malcolm G. Campbell ’10 at “Pianofest”—a night showcasing the best area players on the instrument—is classically trained and ends her set with a darkly-beautiful, highly-technical piece. Like all the musicians here—Campbell included—she is astonishingly good at what she does.
But what’s different about Campbell is that he’s at least a decade younger than any of the other performers.
Campbell and his band take the stage and perform six pieces, two of which are Campbell’s own compositions. The trio closes with Chick Corea’s “Fingerprints”—a piece whose running melody line is punctuated with syncopated, tangy dissonant chords—and ends with a flourish and a bang. As the audience gives the group its due of applause, Lily Pad owner Gill Aharon comments, “You’re lucky you’re getting it while it’s still free.”
Campbell has been a player in the Harvard jazz scene since first arriving on campus. But this year marks Campbell’s emergence as a prominent Harvard jazz musician in his own right.
He coordinates and plays his own shows about four times a month. His Facebook group, “Malcolm Campbell Performs,” currently boasts a membership of over 300.
Saxophone virtuoso Marcus G. Miller ’08 once described Campbell as “the baddest man in America.”
“He’s attentive, creative, eclectic, brilliant, and inventive—the list can go on and on,” says Miller, who met Campbell after both played for a Kuumba show and performed with him many times last year. “We had a lot of great gigs for our Acoustic Tuesday series, and I really just like hanging out with him—he’s one of the most brilliant and versatile minds I know. In addition to being musician, he’s a brilliant physicist, and just a really good person.”
Though he focuses on jazz, Campbell also experiments with other genres on the side. He dabbles in rock and bluegrass with the group, “The Nunitunes.”
“Basically, Malcolm is a jazz monster,” says Joshua J. Nuni ’10, the band’s founder. “Playing with Malcolm is like a magic carpet ride. He takes you to faraway places and distant tonal landscapes.”
Nuni credits Campbell for bringing a high level of virtuosity to The Nunitunes. “He just brings a whole new element to the music, and that element is extremely creative, very fluent in every musical style. He pushes the boundaries of conventional tonality. He reharmonizes the entire group.”
Enthusiasm paired with a very real modesty sets Campbell apart as a musician, Nuni says.
“His face will light up if you play a certain musical idea that really intrigues him,” says Nuni. “He can raise the intensity and energy in the room with his solos to a very high level. It’s a lot of fun playing with him, he’s easy to work with, and he doesn’t let his ego get in the way of things. He’s just very good.”
That talent can still be a burden.
As part of the Harvard/New England Conservatory Five-Year Program, Campbell hikes across the river three days a week to take classes at the NEC. Even excluding time spent on rehearsal, lessons, jam sessions, and shows, Campbell practices an average of three hours each weekday, meaning that the he expects to start his homework around 9 p.m.
Campbell’s modesty hides a driven approach to his academics. Last year, Campbell took the most challenging introductory physics courses Harvard has to offer, and he continues this year with both a quantum mechanics class and an independent research seminar. (He says that he still considers himself “a semester behind” in the field.)
“I would like to go more into physics and get farther ahead,” he says. “But I consider that the price of [playing] music. Otherwise, I would be taking five courses.”
“I don’t know how he does it,” says Daniel P. Gurney ’09, who used to play with Campbell during freshman year. “He’s a joint student at the five -year program at NEC, [but] still finds time to play shows and go to
jam sessions in Boston.”
While Campbell says it can be stressful trying to fit practice and schoolwork into one schedule, the Quincy House junior says he manages to do it.
“I like to have both going on,” he says. “It keeps me from getting sick of either thing. There’s just a wealth of interesting material.”
Campbell has been playing jazz since middle school, according to Sayuri Miyamoto of Newton, Mass., his classical piano teacher from first to twelfth grade.
“He showed a lot of interest in the structure and theory of the music,” she says. “Sometimes he would write in jazz chords to help him remember classical pieces better.”
His view on the role of music in his life has changed over time.
“When I was applying to Harvard I put academics first,” he says. “Now I would consider myself a musician first.”
While his parents are supportive of his music, Campbell says, they do worry about his future because “it’s frightening [to think] about a career as a musician, financially.”
Regardless, he’s says he’s sure that music will remain a part of his life.
“No matter what I do I’ll still keep playing,” he says, adding, “If music doesn’t work out, the Harvard degree is always nice to fall back on.”