‘Stellar talent’: Tommy Coster Jr. has worked with hip hop luminaries like Dr. Dre, Eminem (VIDEO)
Will the real Tommy Coster Jr. please stand up?
As a child, piano prodigy Tommy Coster Jr. tickled the ivories for his grandfather at The National Exchange Hotel’s upright, playing the elder gentleman’s favorite boogie woogie stomps.
Years later, Coster now holds a residency at the hotel, playing solo piano every Saturday from 6 to 9 p.m. Coster, son of Tom Sr. — Santana keyboardist and JVC recording artist — was following the beat laid down by his father’s rising star.
In between, he worked with music stars like Dr. Dre and Eminem, and was a writer of one of the latter’s most famous songs: “The Real Slim Shady.”
The younger Tommy spent most of his summer vacations in the 1970s at grandfather Pete Pastorino’s Champion Mine Road ranch. Grandpa Pete’s jitterbug journeys to town usually meant a stop at the National, where Coster, then in junior high, regaled Grandpa Pete with some tunes of his bygone youth.
Pastorino, on a 62-acre ranch, provided a country retreat for the South Bay-bred Coster, who called Nevada City a second home.
“I learned to play golf, shoot pool, how to drive and especially fishing at my grandfather’s ranch in Nevada City,” Coster said. “I had a real special relationship with my grandfather, so I’m very family-oriented, old school Italian.”
For Coster, that meant family is everything.
“So, when I started to go to Italy in the early 90s, that country had been in a recession for several years,” he said. “Life is very hard there. But when they sit down to eat, it’s a celebration of life — lots of humor and that’s the best medicine, laughter and jokes. That was the atmosphere my grandfather had at the Champion Mine Road ranch. It was just a festival of life, being together and being grateful for the blessings we had.”
In 1986, Coster studied at the Berklee College of Music for two years, and then two more with private instructor Charlie Banacos.
“While studying in Boston, the flood gates opened up,” he said. “All this material I wrote was just up the alley for a contemporary jazz record my father was about to create. He listened to the demos I sent him and (Tom Sr.) said, ‘I want to use this for my next record.’”
The result of that father/son collaboration in which Coster Jr. composed most of the music — including the album’s title track, “Did Jah Miss Me?” — was released in 1989. The line up included Coster Sr. on accordion and acoustic piano; Coster Jr. on keyboards; Ernie Watts, reeds; Frank Gambale, guitars; Randy Jackson, electric bass; Dennis Chambers, drums; Steve Smith, sitting in on two tracks with drums; and Larry Grenadier on acoustic bass.
“And one of the most important factors of this situation was, I got to meet and work with Dennis Chambers,” said Coster. “He wasn’t that much older than me, but he was like a second father, well, maybe more like a big brother.”
This friendship with Chambers ultimately was the foundation for Coster being introduced to Dr. Dre, resulting in Coster working with Dr. Dre, Eminem, and Snoop Dogg. Coster then ended up penning one of the biggest songs in in the history of hip hop with Dr. Dre and Eminem called, “The Real Slim Shady.”
Coster began to carve out his own identity.
“I wasn’t as exposed to hip hop as much as I was exposed to main stream jazz,” he said. “Wow, this was great. First thing we do is “Saturday Night Live” with Dr. Dre, Eminem and Snoop Dogg. And the next year (2000) we we’re featured on SNL with Eminem and Dido.”
Coster praised Dr. Dre’s musical chops. “I have nothing but respect for the guy,” he said. “He was one of the all time greatest West Coast hip hop artists. Guy’s a genius.”
As news emerged of effects of the coronavirus, Coster scuttled his plans to go abroad and in early 2020 returned to where his parents had settled in Auburn.
“I spent a lot of time going to Italy to run my production company, TCMI,” he recalled.
Away for so long, Coster did not have a handle on the local music scene. He turned to Al Owens, an artist and piano tuner to inquire about music opportunities in Nevada County. Owens referred Coster to Ancient Wave Studios, where he now has a producer residence in place.
Soon, Coster heard about the remodel of The National Exchange Hotel. It is here he met the bartender and entertainment director, Ian Crispi.
“I was playing on an out of tune piano and he flipped around and said, ‘Could you please stop … the piano is horribly out of tune. It’s hurting my ears,’” Crispi said.
He obliged and admitted he knew how poorly out of tune it was. Coster and Crispi agreed to tune the instrument themselves.
Crispi, a musician himself, studied jazz and electronic music at the University of California Santa Cruz. He has his own music project, Crypticflow. He records electronic beats and to a sound cloud, an online audio distribution platform and music sharing website. He also plays live, performing in the Philadelphia area, Denver, Santa Cruz and San Diego.
“Friendship with Tommy has been incredible, he’s become a mentor,” he said. “Tommy’s an incredible piano player. He finds a way to fit into the background, and not overwhelm the guests. But he does some incredible (piano) runs. Saturday nights are going well, so far.”
One of Costers’ boosters is KVMR DJ Jenny Michael. A graduate of their 1992 Broadcaster Training Class, she has served two terms on the station’s program committee and also twice co-produced the live remote broadcast from the Nevada County Fair, and for nearly three decades been alternating host of the Wednesday Music Magazine. She calls Nevada County a preeminent West Coast cultural destination.
“We are fortunate to have another authentic and extremely talented artist in our community with deep roots in Nevada City,” she said. “Tommy Coster generously shares his impressive and expansive career in the music industry as a key contributor to music production at Ancient Wave Studios. His gig playing piano at The National Hotel gives the community an opportunity to hear this stellar talent on a regular basis.”
William Roller is a staff writer with The Union. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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