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Multiple Personalities

Wendel Patrick and Kevin Gift are the same person, with four separate albums out in early January

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Classical pianist Kevin Gift began to make digital music after a problem with his left index finger initially made it impossible for him to play.

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When a group of emcees and classical musicians got together at the Windup Space in December to celebrate 40 years of hip-hop, tracing the genre’s history by recreating pieces of music, it brought together several different worlds—black and white, live and sampled, male and female. Many of the live musicians didn’t know the rather deep cuts they were playing, and some of the emcees were unrehearsed. The whole thing could have been a shambles, except for the man in the corner directing everything in his Run DMC-style track suit, hat, and gold chain. That was Wendel Patrick. Like Duke Ellington, he was behind a keyboard, but the orchestra was his real instrument.

With a foot in both the classical and the hip-hop worlds, Wendel Patrick was in a unique position to create such an evening. And this month, he does something else probably no one but he could pull off: He released four separate albums, three, under the name Wendel Patrick, came out on Jan. 1; and one, under his real name Kevin Gift, is released this week.

Wendel Patrick is actually the name of Gift’s brother, who died when he was a baby, and he began to use the name when he stepped out of the world of classical music, in which he had spent much his life, and immersed himself in electronica and hip-hop.

The change in focus was not entirely voluntary—or welcome. Gift, who had been teaching piano and composition at Loyola University, noticed that there was something wrong with his left index finger. It wouldn’t bend but would curl involuntarily, and it was making it impossible for him to play piano. At first he thought it was a physical injury, but soon a specialist informed him that the problem was neurological. “Something just wasn’t connecting between my brain and my hand,” he says.

His life had been classical music since he was 3 years old, and since he could no longer play it, he was lost. He couldn’t even bear to listen to it. It caused problems with his wife at the time. But he couldn’t imagine a life without music in it, so he began seriously playing digital music, which he had been playing around with since 2000. He subsequently released two albums, Sound and Forthcoming, under the name Wendel Patrick.

In the meantime, he began to retrain himself to play the piano. “I started making progress when I decided to just eliminate the finger and see what would happen if I did that,” he says. “And essentially everything got moved one digit to the left.”

A couple weeks before the planned New Year’s Day release of his albums, Patrick sits in his home/studio overlooking the city. It is actually much more studio than home, a couch the only sign that anyone ever does anything other than make music in the space, which is filled with keyboards, computer monitors, microphones, and a baby grand piano. He laughs about the amount of work he still has to do, but he is also confident.

The first of the four albums, which was about half-finished in early December, is Passage. “The idea behind it is to make it sound like a live band, not even a live band, but like a drummer, a keyboard player, like a Rhodes player, a guitar, and a bass get together and play,” says Patrick. “I originally had the idea because I was listening to the Philadelphia Experiment album with ?uestlove and Uri Caine and Christian McBride, and I wanted to put together an album that would sound almost like this would sound if it were continued.”

The kicker: He wanted to do it all himself, electronically. And yet he wanted each of the instruments to sound rich and vibrant, as if it were a live recording. “A lot of it I turned off quantizing and the metronome, and it sounds completely free, like [Baltimore’s] Out of Your Head [collective] or something, but it’s not all done at the same time.”

The second album, Travel, contains a series of songs composed by Patrick as he toured the world, many of which feature guest vocalists, such as “Rotterdam,” on which Eze Jackson raps over a dense swirl of electric beats, and “Leipzig,” featuring Maria Dontas (a former CP intern) on an eerie and bouncy track that sounds something like a Stereolab score for a Jim Jarmusch movie. “We recorded it like three or four notes at a time,” Patrick says. “I’d say, ‘Now sing ‘dat dat da’ and then I’d move stuff around.”

Dontas is also featured on the third album, JDWP Tribute, a tribute to producer J Dilla in which “I’m reimagining his music.” So, for example, Patrick takes J Dilla’s song “Stop,” which sampled a Dionne Warwick song, and, much like he did at the 40 years of Hip-Hop show, he recreated that sample using Dontas’ vocals and his electronic instruments, so that it is “a live version of a sampled song that’s not live at all.”

Finally, 20.Ten., the fourth album, due out this week, is a solo piano album for which Patrick not only taught himself to play again but may have taught himself to play better than he ever did by eliminating the offending finger altogether. In a sheer act of bravado, Wendel Patrick’s website features a video of him playing the first half of “Summertime” entirely with his a left hand, so that you can see the index finger sticking straight out, unused. “Two years ago I wouldn’t even have been able to play it with both hands and I certainly wouldn’t have been able to play this part with one hand,” he says. “It has been a brain opener in a lot of ways. I never thought . . . I thought it was done. Which is where all the other stuff started coming from, because I was going crazy.”

With the return of his powers, Wendel Patrick also returned to his old name for 20.Ten., which was recorded and released under the name Kevin Gift, so that it somehow marks the reunion of ego and alter ego as this decidedly split personality is rejoined.

To hear tracks from Wendel Patrick’s new albums, please visit citypaper.com/wendelpatrick.

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