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MailTribune.com
  • Hand disorder silences Oregon musician

  • If Stephane Grappelli had been the one to lose use of two fingers after a fire, it is possible "hot jazz" would not have been invented, or at least not by him and famed guitarist Django Reinhardt.
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  • If Stephane Grappelli had been the one to lose use of two fingers after a fire, it is possible "hot jazz" would not have been invented, or at least not by him and famed guitarist Django Reinhardt.
    After a tragic fire damaged Reinhardt's hand, the young man used his injury to innovate. But the fretless violin Grappelli played would not have been so easy to adapt, requiring as it did fleet fingers for quick, precise changes.
    Those quick changes are no longer fun for local musician Brian Price, who played his last show with Hot Club Eugene on Sept. 15 in front of a packed house at the Jazz Station.
    The 63-year-old multi-instrumentalist is leaving professional music because of a hand disorder. He has been performing music since age 7, and this Saturday he plays his final concert — a farewell show with his other band: Spiritfarm.
    Although musically the two projects diverge quite a bit, both have been fun and satisfying for Price. Over the years, he has been in all sorts of groups, from blues to jazz to country, playing guitar, fiddle, mandolin and keyboards.
    But because of a hand condition called Dupuytren's contracture, playing has become too painful. He has had to slow down in recent years.
    "I've sort of adjusted to some things," he said seated at his piano in his Eugene living room. "The violin is not going to happen. Too many bad fingers."
    The pinky finger of his left hand is bent down permanently in a dramatic fashion — at almost a right angle from the knuckle, with the longest part of the finger parallel to the palm. On the same hand, his pointer finger is not as bent, but an unwanted ball of tissue is forming on the palm under the scars from previous surgeries.
    The condition first appeared when Price was 35 and living in the San Francisco Bay Area. It wasn't alarming to him. He figured doctors would be able to fix it.
    They did, but the surgical solution never lasted. When afflicted with Dupuytren's, fascia from the hand extends beyond where it is useful, attaching gradually contracting cords to the tendons.
    Three surgeries later, Price does not think trying again will be worth the expense, especially after how rapidly his symptoms returned after his most recent surgery in 2006.
    In his early days as a Northern California musician, Price made money as a session player and touring artist. He played with the Jerry Garcia Band, the Grateful Dead and David Grisman.
    Janis Ian invited him on the road after he sat in with her band, he said.
    "I was kind of on the fringe of a bunch of famous people," he said.
    Price remembers the time he saw Jerry Garcia at the airport headed to Eugene to play Autzen Stadium, and Price reminded him he'd never been paid for some session work.
    Garcia gave him some all-access passes to the show, and Price gave those to his teenage niece.
    Price learned he did not fit in well with musicians who liked to do drugs. He didn't like being on the road away from his then-wife, so he said he decided to continue professionally, but part time.
    Putting his college degree to work, he started working in math- and science-related jobs. Now, he is semiretired and does consulting work.
    In 1987, he visited his sister who lived in Eugene, and on a ski trip wound up sitting in with the fiddle-led Louisiana swamp rock band Etouffee. This area had everything he wanted, Price decided, after comparing school systems, housing and other practical matters.
    It took a while for him to find the right musicians to play with, he said, but about 20 years ago he found a musical brother in Percy Franklin, who then introduced him to Jim Daugherty.
    The three men started playing about 15 years ago under the name Spiritfarm, with various others in the band.
    Saying goodbye to the group has been a sad transition for all of them — as well as the band's other two members: Erik Baker and Michael Anderson. But they all have known the end has been coming for some time.
    "He's made his peace with it, I know," said Franklin, 65. "He plays better with fewer fingers than a lot of people play with all their fingers. He was learning how to substitute, (but) his hands hurt for a couple hours afterward.
    "It's a very, very sad thing, because he is so good. It is just a loss for all of us in one way or another."
    Daugherty said as singer-songwriters, both he and Franklin can be sensitive about their work. But Price had an uncanny way of suggesting an idea for a different way to arrange one of their songs and they never felt like he was meddling.
    Rather, his suggestions often took their songs to places they never would have thought of, and that better served the song.
    "Percy and I are basically folk singers," said Daugherty, who turned 61 on Sept. 21. "What Brian did is he took every song and just kind of tweaked it.
    "He's really somewhat of a musical genius. You can watch the gears turning when we are in the middle of the song."
    Price said he still plans to play for his grandchildren and for short stints socially, but Saturday marked the conclusion of his professional life as a musician after a lifetime of playing.
    By his own assessment, Price was a musician's musician. His favorite thing was sitting in and trying to create sounds on the fly that fit with what others were playing.
    "That's what I'm going to miss the most," he said. "You kind of disappear. That is a very cool experience — almost like you are channeling the music."
    Leaving behind music is not just quitting a hobby; for Price, it is a big part of his identity, and he admitted there is some pride and ego involved with letting go. But letting go is what he knows he must do.
    "I knew this was coming," he said. "It's been a lot of fun and I have a lot to be grateful for."
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