John Tesh has played many roles over the years, from local television news reporter to cohost of “Entertainment Tonight” (from 1986 to ’96) to New Age pianist and composer with multiplatinum record sales.
Tesh, 61, has taken another detour with his latest project. Following his foray into big-band music in 2011, he’s now on a Christmas tour that puts a brassy, sassy spin on seasonal favorites.
Ahead of his show at the Wilbur Theatre on Friday, Tesh recently weighed in on holiday traditions, his eclectic career path, and the little-known fact that he was once in a rival band that pitted him against Billy Joel.
JOHN TESH BIG BAND CHRISTMAS
Q. Are you a nut for Christmas?
A. I hate to say it, but Christmas as a kid was always a moneymaking venture for me. I played trumpet and a friend of mine who played trombone and a guy who played tuba, every Christmas we’d go out for three or four days beforehand and play Christmas carols on our horns. The biggest moneymaking night for us – you know, we were 12-year-olds growing up on Long Island – was Christmas Eve. People were all partying and hammered and they’d pay us to go away. They’d pay us 20 bucks to go away. And then during the day some friends and I pulled all our money together and bought a snowblower, so we had a whole business.
Q. What were some of your family’s Christmas traditions?
A. My house was really like “It’s a Wonderful Life.” I sang in the choir and was very involved in the church. And now it’s really swung back to that. I’ve been married to Connie [Sellecca] for 22 years now, and she celebrates an Italian Christmas. I’m always joking that an Italian Christmas is 60 of your family members gathered around a table, you say what you’re thankful for, then you fire your guns in the air, and then you start eating.
Q. You released your first album with a big band a few years ago. How does that large dynamic challenge you?
A. When I was playing piano, it was like, “I’m going to write a song using all the white keys.” My music director, who knew my jazz background, suggested I try big-band music, so we spent a year experimenting with it in concert, and the audience reaction was really good. But the [big-band] charts are crazy. I think that’s why this kind of music is timeless.
Q. You didn’t sing on your early records, but now you do with the big band. Was that a natural fit for you?
A. I grew up in the choir and spent a little over 20 years in my church leading worship, so I knew how to do it, but I’m not James Ingram. These songs are really right in my wheelhouse, and I’m better now than I was on the records. Especially live, it makes more sense for me to do it. I’m not, like, [R&B singer] Ne-Yo, but [he starts singing in a jazzy manner], ‘The summer wind came blowin’ in.” I mean, pretty much anybody can do that.
Q. Did you like the sound of your voice when you started using it?
A. No. Being in music forever, I have good pitch, so I know when I’m singing in or out of tune. But the key to really good singing is just relaxing and thinking about what the song is.
Q. Was it an easy transition from TV journalism to music?
A. I’ve been involved in music ever since I was a little kid. I was in a rival band to Billy Joel on Long Island. He was in the Hassles, and I was in a band called the Best of Both Worlds, which was a Blood, Sweat & Tears cover band, so it wasn’t much of a rivalry. If Billy couldn’t do the gig, then we got it. So it was always something I was doing. When people say, “Oh, John, quit his job at ‘Entertainment Tonight’ and became a musician,” at the moment I quit, we were selling 50,000 records a week. The PR story was, “He quit his job to follow his dream,” but I’m not that much of an idiot. There was actually something going on.
Q. You’re usually described as a New Age artist. Was that a fair label for you?
A. It was a tidy label for me. Back in the day, it was a question of, where do we put [an album that features] piano and orchestra? On some of my older records, you can really hear the influence of [British progressive-rock bands] Yes, Emerson Lake & Palmer, and Jethro Tull. That’s all I listened to – I still listen to that stuff.
Q. As a parting thought for the holidays, please complete the following sentence: All I want for Christmas is _____?
A. All I want for Christmas is less lower back pain.