In high school, Tyler Tillage, ’13, had his first brush with jazz — an experience he describes as “faking jazz.” But with the help of Michael Davison, director of the University of Richmond Jazz Ensemble, Tillage discovered an intersection between the precision of classical music, and the free-flowing, emotional qualities of jazz.

“After the technical experience of playing [classical] piano, I had a greater understanding of harmonies and melodies, and how to really pick apart a jazz piece,” Tillage says. “I just had to step back and relax. If you play a Beethoven sonata, you’re striving for perfection, but in jazz, perfection is different — it’s personal.”

Tillage soon joined the University’s smaller jazz groups, evolving to the Jazz Ensemble and ultimately the department’s official Jazz Combo.

As a sophomore, Tillage saw an opportunity to dig deeper into the genre in the Salsa Meets Jazz living-learning community. Under the direction of Davison, the group spent a year living together, and researching Cuban music. In January 2011, they also traveled to Puerto Rico, where they could see the influences of Latin jazz from the front row.

“We had the chance to perform and interact with musicians,” says Tillage. “But the trip was more about research and helped solidify the cultural aspect behind the music. I use that as background for my playing — it’s just another key influence.”

Just two months later, Tillage was setting sail yet again to experience jazz abroad — this time in Greece, with the Jazz Combo. During the 10-day international tour, the combo performed in both scheduled and impromptu gigs, beginning in Thessaloniki and traveling on to Athens.

“We always seem to find cool places to play,” he says. “Europeans love jazz because it’s an art form that they’re not familiar with. So many people were just fascinated by what we were doing. It’s nice to play for a varied audience and see how people appreciate the music.”

The trip also tested Tillage’s ability to roll with the punches when performing in an unfamiliar setting. “We had this gig at the smallest restaurant—it was like a bedroom,” he says. “They expected our band to play there, but there was no room. We traded off, two to three people playing at a time. We could pick out different people that don't usually play with each other, and you got different personalities.”

After researching the ethnomusicology of Latin jazz and dealing with the unexpected nature of performing abroad, Tillage is ready for his next big gig. Over spring break, the Jazz Combo is joining forces with Schola Cantorum for a 10-day tour of Spain and Portugal.

“You have to be prepared for anything,” he says. “Your piano may have keys falling off, your hands may be too cold to move, people make ridiculous requests abroad that you don’t get in the States. But it’s good — the only way to get better is to just do it.”