If you aren’t already familiar with pianist Arthur Hanlon, run, don’t walk, to your nearest screen and check out his special Piano Y Mujer, currently streaming on HBO Max. A collaboration with some of the biggest female vocalists in Latin music—Kany Garcia, Natalia Jimenez, Goyo, Nella and Evaluna Montaner—Piano Y Mujer will make you see and hear the piano in ways you never have before. It’s an instant classic from, one of the world’s greatest and most versatile instrumentalists.
Born and raised in Detroit to Irish American parents, Hanlon earned his Master’s degree from Manhattan School of Music, where he lived in Spanish Harlem and fell in love with Latin music. After playing gigs around the city, his distinct blend of Detroit street music, classical virtuosity, and Latin beats made an impression. In 2005, he became the first pianist to hit #1 on the Billboard Latin charts, leading to multiple Billboard and Emmy nominations, #1’s and hit records, and collaborations with superstars like Luis Fonsi, Laura Pausini, and Marc Anthony.
We spoke with Hanlon about his new special on HBO Max, partnering with Yamaha this year, and his plans for 2022.
Arthur, you have such a unique story that’s brought you to the center of the Latin music world and around the world. How did your upbringing in Detroit set you off on the path you’re currently on?
My Irish parents love music, though they don’t play instruments themselves. When I was 6 years old, the family Christmas present for the 7 Hanlon children was a piano. For me, it was the arrival of something enchanted, alive, and otherworldly in the house, and I couldn’t keep away even for a day. Also, my dad’s best friend was an incredible pianist who played professionally all over Detroit. He was my musical mentor. He was doing a stint at the Machus Red Fox club/restaurant when Jimmy Hoffa “disappeared.” He didn’t read a note of music but played amazingly well. He taught me at a very young age that while notes are important, having the ability to use your ears, improvise and play what you’re feeling are equally crucial skills. I guess I was a hybrid from an early age, mixing a classical musical education with a street sensibility.
What were your musical influences growing up in Detroit? When was the first time you were exposed to Latin music?
Like lots of kids, my ear was attached to the radio. Detroit radio when I was growing up was a magical musical mix: from the Motown legacy, to Bob Seger, to a huge classical music scene. I absorbed all of it, but definitely Motown had a huge influence on me as a kid. I started playing gigs as a teenager with much older Motown studio guys that stayed in Detroit after Barry Gordy moved to LA. They really taught me how to think on my feet, improvise, write songs, and come up with grooves.
When I think about it and not realizing it at the time, my first exposure to a “Latin vibe” was Stevie Wonder’s “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing.” The Latin piano tumbao intro blew me away as a kid, I sat down one day for hours to learn it off the album note for note. Then by chance really, I moved into a completely Latin “barrio” close to where I was studying at the Manhattan School of Music in New York. Latin music was everywhere and so playing Latin gigs just seemed to me to be a logical progression from playing blues and Motown in Detroit. My time in New York completely changed the direction of my entire career.
We understand that New York City was where you really fell in love with Latin music. Tell us about your experience during your first few years in Manhattan?
To me the energy of the city, and especially the musical energy was (is!) intoxicating! I was living at 122nd and Broadway while doing a Master’s degree in Classical Piano at Manhattan School of Music; a neighborhood full of Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, some Colombians, and Cubans. As a young pianist/composer, it was impossible NOT to hear those Latin rhythms emanating from the streets.
I’d be literally all day practicing Bach, Mozart and Beethoven, then going out at night to jazz clubs and Latin clubs to check out Latin jazz, salsa, merengue, bachata. Eventually started playing Latin gigs. Willie Colon, Gran Combo De Puerto Rico, Grupo Niche de Colombia were my musical heroes. According to my mother, I became Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde-playing classical music in the day and Latin music at night!
Tell us about Piano Y Mujer. How did the idea for the project come together?
While the official title Piano Y Mujer was born last June in the middle of the pandemic, I fell in love with the concept when I was 17 years old, when I began to play professionally in Detroit. Bars, hotels, parties, anything where I could make a few bucks playing music. Always if the clients couldn’t afford to hire our whole band, the agency would say “okay, we’ll send Arthur and his piano with the female vocalist.” Literally hundreds of times! So it’s a format that I truly love. When the pandemic hit, I thought to myself “now’s the perfect time to turn the concept I’ve always dreamed of into a reality.”
What is it about piano and the female voice that goes so well together?
To me, there’s nothing more honest and pure than piano and the female voice. Like wine and cheese, separately both are wonderful but being paired together creates a magical musical synthesis.
How does it feel to be endorsed by such a world-renowned company like Yamaha?
It’s an AMAZING honor! Yamaha Artist Services is a company full of pianists, so it’s always awesome to hang out with them and talk shop. I did a virtual press conference from their New York City Artist showroom 2 months ago for over 100 media outlets and Yamaha set up 3 concert grands for the occasion. Definitely an incredible moment.
Do you have a special connection to the Yamaha brand?
Talk about an organic collaboration! The piano my dad bought as a Christmas present for the kids when I was 6 years old was a Yamaha! As for the endorsement deal, in production of Piano Y Mujer, some songs are super rhythmic with Latin tumbaos, and others are very intimate. I really wanted that signature Yamaha acoustic sound for both the album and the HBO special: bright and bold with lots of depth, resonance, and a big bass, but at the same time very warm and poetic sounding. We contacted Yamaha to start a conversation and after they saw the special, we continued talking. In December, I played a beautiful red Yamaha grand for a Christmas special that I did. In March/April, a blue Yamaha for TV appearances for the release of Piano Y Mujer. Now we’re in a formal partnership and I’m super happy.
What else do you have in store for us over the next year?
We are doing a Piano Y Mujer tour in the US first quarter on 2022. I’m in pre-production right now for a new album with Sony and also will be streaming a live Christmas concert with Facebook in December 2021. Very thankfully I’m super busy.