Tour Tales | Pianist Larry Lambert on how working with Summer Walker and Ella Mai pushed him artistically
For this week’s installment of “Tour Tales,” pianist Larry Lambert talks bonding with Ella Mai and Summer Walker, helping Lil Durk with his onstage image, and more.
If Larry Lambert is behind the keys, you’re probably watching a generational R&B talent. From Ella Mai to India Shawn, Lambert has helped some of the best R&B artists bring their vision to the stage by any means necessary.
“For Ella, I’m technically just a keyboard player, but because of the friendship I have with the band, Ella, and her whole camp, everybody’s input and ideas are always welcome. With Summer [Walker], I’m the head, musically. For Summer, everyone’s ideas come to me to make them work,” Lambert told REVOLT.
In this installment of “Tour Tales,” the busy keyboardist explains how a Morehouse College connection helped him tour with Summer Walker and India Shawn. He also discusses the challenge of performing with Baby Rose and how he helped Lil Durk’s onstage image.
What was the first tour you hit?
The first tour I did was in 2018 with this artist named Alexi Paraschos for his “East Coast Diner Tour.” This tour required real groundwork. It was my first experience with having to get my hands dirty, pack my own stuff and be real all-hands-on-deck. I was already doing that with my own band, but this was an extension of that. I was able to do it outside of Philly and the Tri-State. It was a fun and humbling experience that I really appreciated. We always had to make sure we were at 100 no matter who or what was lacking. If we had to fill in to do something else, that’s what it was. If we had to set up the keys, drums, or anything, that’s just what I did.
Your first major gig was as Summer Walker’s keyboardist on 6lack’s “East Atlanta Love Letter Tour” in late 2018. How did that opportunity come about?
I went to Morehouse College with Chris Patterson for a little bit. We did a lot of music back in the day. We were on our Motown vibes. Chris was kind of like the Berry Gordy of it all. He was always putting things in place, so we built a relationship over the years to where if we needed each other for anything, we’d call. When Summer Walker came around, he called me and said, ‘We need a keyboard player for this new girl coming up. She has this one song, but it’d be cool if you did it.’ I flew out there and made it work. I met Summer, she vibed with me, and it worked out for her and me. It’s been nearly four years since I’ve been playing with her, and now I’m her musical director. Summer and I fit perfectly for each other musically. When we put our ideas together she was like, ‘What Larry plays is what I want.’ That’s just what it became over time.
How did you directly affect Summer’s opening set on 6lack’s tour?
For that tour, because there technically wasn’t a musical director, they gave me leeway to do what I wanted. So, I actually put that whole show together. That was my first time putting a show together on that level. Everything from that show was something I arranged. She might’ve had a 30-minute set, so they gave me a few songs and told me, ‘These are her favorite songs and her best songs, and we want to push these. Can you make all these songs fit in 30 minutes to run smoothly for her to perform from transitions, intros, outros, breaks, stops, solos, and all of that?’ I also had to teach it to the other band members and her, and I had to perform it. That’s what we did for rehearsals. It was new for all of us. It’s always about the artist first. No matter the ideas I had, I’d always let Summer lead. Whatever she wanted, I made sure we did that, and then I’d add on to that.
Is there a part of that first tour that sticks out to you?
There was a moment in each show where I had a solo on a song she has called ‘Prayed Up.’ I’d have Summer come over and play with me while I did my solo. She would play one of my keyboards while I played the other one and we’d end the song together like that. That was a special moment.
After meeting, how did you and Summer build your bond?
We lived together on the [tour] bus day in and day out, outside of us being in our hotel rooms. So, we were literally staring at each other until we had to get comfortable and get to know each other (laughs). I think that made it so when we got off that bus, we were the only people we really trusted. Even though we didn’t know each other that well in the beginning, it was just us together when we got off that bus.
A month after your gig with Summer ended you were playing keys for Ella Mai on “The Debut Tour.” How’d you get on that?
I was home chillin’ and one of my friend asked me what I had going on after the 6lack tour with Summer. I didn’t have too much going on, but I was expecting a baby. I found out I was going on tour and had a baby on the way all around the same time. I also moved to Atlanta around the same time. So, once I got the call about [possibly] touring with Ella Mai, he connected me with the tour manager. I think the tour manager hit me up on Friday and told me, ‘We start rehearsals on Monday and the tour starts a week later.’ I learned all the music on Friday and flew to L.A. for rehearsals on Monday.
What was the biggest difference between touring with Ella Mai and touring with Summer Walker?
It’s crazy because they’re both R&B artists, but the music and the gig are two totally different approaches for me. For Ella, I’m technically just a keyboard player, but because of the friendship I have with the band, Ella, and her whole camp, everybody’s input and ideas are always welcome. With Summer, I’m the head, musically. For Summer, everyone’s ideas come to me to make them work. It’s not like that for Ella, which I like. I like the challenge of being a team player and playing my part.
Did Ella Mai give you any musical direction?
With Ella, she won’t say anything until she doesn’t like something. She’ll definitely tell you if she does or doesn’t like something. We don’t really play too much outside what we’re supposed to. With Summer, it’s freer because Summer is more vibey. She likes to sit at the piano with me and just play and sing in between rehearsals, and we come up with stuff like that. Those moments come with Ella when we’re not playing, and we’re just talking, cooling, and chillin’. I’d be like, ‘Oh, I love that song, I like playing this one a lot.’ She might be like, ‘Alright, you can solo on that one.’ So, the [musical director] Jamal also plays the bass and will figure out how to incorporate me playing a solo on that song into the show. There’s a song she has called ‘Close,’ which I told her is my favorite song to play. I solo at the end, and she gives me a shoutout.
There were a lot of dates on “The Debut Tour.” Which of those shows were either special or involved you doing an audible?
A special show was me doing Coachella for my birthday (on April 19, 2019), and she shouted me out. She said, ‘Happy birthday, Larry.’ That was my first time doing Coachella. As far as an audible moment, with these keyboards and technical stuff, there’s always something happening where a keyboard goes out, and I have to switch a sound and play a part on a whole different keyboard in the spur of the moment without stopping so Ella wouldn’t notice. That happened to me plenty of times. The song ‘Trip’ starts on piano, and I remember the keyboard I played the piano sound on went out a second before I was supposed to play it. In the band, we have a click and stuff in our ear to keep us on; Ella doesn’t. She needs the music to cue her, so it’ll throw everything off if I don’t play. I had to switch to a whole different keyboard and switch that keyboard sound to a piano in half a second and start playing. That’s my job.
What are Ella’s rehearsals like?
Ella goes hard. She’s probably one of the hardest-going artists I’ve ever met. We usually do band rehearsals a few days before she comes in. Ella will come in at the start of rehearsal, and she’ll leave when it’s over. And we do 8 to 10 hour days. She’s there, alert, hype, happy and on 10 from start to finish. We’ll take our breaks, and she’s ready to go again. I love working with her because it pushes all of us. We really make sure we keep the bar high for her so she enjoys it. We always have to match her energy.
After Ella, you linked up with my favorite singer of the last three years, Baby Rose.
That was the hardest music I had to play.
Why is that?
For one, Rose is probably the most musically in-tune of all the artists I’ve worked with. She’s really hands-on with her music. She’s very detailed on what she wants and what sounds she wants to hear. So even if it doesn’t make sense to you, it makes sense to her. I have to dig in a lot with detail when playing her music as far as the sounds I use, how I program the sounds, how I edit the sounds, the different chord changes, the different time signatures and different harmonies. All of that is almost like I’m playing on some jazz stuff where I have to lock-in. But, she’s still free. I love playing with her. I could play something she doesn’t like, she’ll tell me, and we’ll have to sit there and figure it out.
Can you give us an example of how detailed you have to be to perform with Rose?
For example, when I’m playing the piano, it doesn’t sound like a regular piano. I have to detune the piano, put an effect on it and make it sound totally different than any piano you’d hear. So, the piano I play on ‘Boo’d Up’ with Ella is not the piano I’ll play with Rose. The piano I play on ‘Pressure’ for Rose is a different piano from what I’d play on ‘Borderline’ for Rose. But, for Ella, the piano I’m playing on ‘Boo’d Up’ and ‘Trip’ are the sorta the same.
What was it like being on the road with Lil Durk on the “Back Outside Tour”?
It was fun. It was my first time with a rapper of that caliber. He was opening up for Lil Baby, so it was the biggest rap tour in the world at the time. Everything from the production to the hospitality was top-tier. Musically, rappers don’t usually have bands. We had keyboards, drums and guitars with him. He liked that, that made him different. We really dialed in with giving him that image of Durk being with the band. Even with the music, we had to make sure we weren’t doing too much because he wanted to hear the music; we were just enhancing it.
What was your favorite song to perform with Durk?
My favorite song would have to be ‘The Voice.’ That’s the song where I could really play. It starts with piano, so it’s just him and me. It ends with just piano and him, so there’s a lot of piano play. I love the chords, the song and what he’s rapping about. I really dial in, and it’s the finale song of the set. I love playing that one. He also loved hearing the piano on that song live.
For that India Shawn tour you were just on, you were back with “Tour Tales” alum Chris Patterson and Paul Anthony Ashby. What was that experience like?
It was fun. I actually played with India ten years ago in Atlanta. I knew back then she was really good. It was a full-circle moment. When Chris called me for it, I was like, ‘Alright.’ I knew Paul was doing it too, so it was a family thing. It was probably the funniest tour I’ve been on. It was a bunch of people coming together to have a good time. My favorite show was the L.A. show. She’s from L.A., so her family, friends and fans were there. Her energy was really high, and it was our last show. She had 6lack and Anderson .Paak come out and do songs with her. It was a really good way to go out for a special show.
What do you have coming up this year?
I am juggling between Summer and Ella. I know Summer put her album out last year, and we have a bunch of shows we’re doing throughout the year. I know Ella just released her single. I’m assuming she’s going to be releasing an album soon. So, when she’s ready to hit the road, I’ll probably do that too. Truthfully, I’m not picking up too much, but I will be enjoying this touring life after we were down for a minute with the pandemic. I do want to sit at home, produce, score films and play with my kid, but I’ve been sitting home for a while, and this is an opportunity most people aren’t able to take part in. I’m beyond grateful for it.
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