There’s something about the irresistibly rhythmic sound of boogie woogie and stride piano that makes people sit up and take notice – particularly when the hands on the ivories belong to a master.
South Surrey resident Dominik Heins may be Hamburg born and raised, but the gentlemanly musician seems to have the music of North America from the early 1900s to the middle 1950s – the exciting era of ragtime, jazz, blues and boogie – in his fingertips.
So unwilling is he to compromise that sound that he shuns electronic keyboards. Wherever possible, he travels with his own portable upright, which, while small enough to fit in a van, has a full 88 keys.
Like the old-time piano ‘professors,’ whose elegance he admires, Heins, 36, exudes class, from stylish suits and two-tone shoes to a courtly, old-world manner.
But it’s when he sits down to play – and sometimes croon, a la Sinatra and Connick – that he really commands attention.
Whether it’s in appearances busking by the Whaling Wall, playing for diners at Slainte by the Pier or leading his own trio around the Lower Mainland, Heins never fails to impress (full disclosure: he’ll also be adding his piano expertise to this writer’s vocals on some classic tunes from the 1920s and 30s, Wednesday. Oct. 10, 7 p.m. at Beecher Street Cafe in Crescent Beach).
For little children who stop to gaze, captivated or twirl in impromptu dance steps, to seniors – some of whom even remember the music from the first or second time around – Heins is manifestly “the real thing.”
It’s not just technique and speed – hard won through decades of practice – it’s also the feel for the material he provides.
Pop hits like Hoagy Carmichael’s Georgia On My Mind, Louis Prima’s Buona Sera, Signorina and the Andrews Sisters’ hit Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen (taken at breakneck tempo) may be guaranteed crowd pleasers, but he can also reproduce the Maple Leaf Rag and St. Louis Blues as Scott Joplin and W.C. Handy wrote them, and, most likely, wanted them interpreted.
And if a train is approaching the venue, Heins’ dry sense of humour may come to the fore, with an impromptu version of Meade Lux Lewis’ Honky Tonk Train Blues.
Heins’ mastery of such earlier music, he acknowledges, began with rock ‘n’ roll.
He started gigging in the early ’90s while still in high school – playing in the Star Club of Beatles fame, as keyboardist with the same semi-professional band that used to open for the Liverpudlians during their appearances there some 30 years earlier.
At that time, his ‘party pieces’ were more likely to be homages to Jerry Lee Lewis.
“The first musical influences I can think of were classical music, from my father,” Heins says. “But after that it was Jerry Lee, Chuck Berry, Eddie Cochran, Bill Haley and, a little later, Elvis Presley. Rock n’ roll and boogie are very close. They really relate to one another.”
And cosmopolitan Hamburg is a great incubator for eight-to-the-bar musicians, he notes.
“There’s a huge boogie-woogie scene there. It started in the early `70s through guys who rediscovered the music from old shellac records. Axel Zwingenberger is the top guy. He actually recorded with some of the old boogie woogie guys who were still around in the `70s.”
Heins’ mother died when he was very young, but he’s always had strong support in his musical ambitions from his father, who is also a keen pianist, albeit more oriented to Handel, Bach and religious music.
“He always said ‘if it makes you happy, go for it,'” Heins says. “He’s like a hippy, still.”
Heins also had a great business partner in his wife, Nina (“We were high school sweethearts,” he notes, proudly), who is always there to provide moral support and sell copies of the four CDs he recorded in Europe before they came to Canada.
Unlike the average piano student, Heins didn’t have to be threatened to put in time practising – instead he had to be told it was time to quit.
“After school, when I went home, I was usually on the piano six or seven hours,” he admitted.
It was a natural progression for him to do post-secondary jazz studies at the Amsterdam Conservatory’s Hilversum campus, but, ironically, he found the program focused on ‘modern jazz’ concepts rather than the earlier artists that appealed to him.
“I was interested in Teddy Wilson and Fats Waller – these were the guys I took as role models. It was really hard to say (to the teachers) ‘I want to play like Fats Waller.’ They could appreciate it, but they said ‘that is not the music you’re here for.'”
Luckily for everyone, Heins has not been held back since – following his musical ambitions in every context from solo (featured in his CD 350 Degrees) to big band (featured in his CD My Personal Soul), and ultimately making the big step to North America in 2008.
After a three-year stint in Ottawa, he and Nina moved to the Semiahmoo Peninsula a little over a year ago – “Something about being near the sea drew us here.”
But it’s not lost on him that it’s strategically placed for conquest of the Vancouver and Seattle markets – and his one-man mission to make the West Coast boogie and stride-piano conscious again.
“I need a big city for my music. It was either Montreal or Vancouver – and we preferred it here.”
For more information about Heins’ performances, visit www.dominikheins.com