Resounds: Jeni Fleming, Phillip Aaberg

Mar 12, 2019

Jeni Fleming (left) and Phil Aaberg at the YPR studios
Credit Anna Paige

Jeni Fleming and Philip Aaberg are accomplished Montana musicians from diverse backgrounds who have recently collaborated on a new project—presenting reimagined popular music.

After seven albums and many cross-country tours, Jeni Fleming is fast becoming one of the west’s most sought-after musicians, bringing breathtaking originality to some of the best music of the American songbook

Grammy and Emmy nominated composer Philip Aaberg of Chester, Montana, is known worldwide for his compositions that evoke the spaciousness and beauty of the Western landscape. 

From classic jazz standards from composers such as Gershwin and Cole Porter, to re-arranged pop hits by Cyndi Lauper, The Grateful Dead, or The Beatles, Jeni Fleming defies easy classification simply saying in defense “a good song is a good song.”

The second of four daughters to a Lutheran Pastor and an English teacher, Jeni’s love of music was nurtured at a very young age. “The first songs I knew were hymns,” she says, and since their mother was the director of the church children’s choir, she and her three sisters all sang in that choir. As she puts it, “whether or not we wanted to. Our family was centered around music.” Private piano lessons began at age six; by thirteen she had won The Young Artist Award and made her classical piano debut with The Billing Symphony, the first of a string of successes in the competitive classical piano world.

“Having studied classical piano for most of my life, it is the thing I know something about, but singing is the thing that I feel something about.” In 1997 Jeni and then musical partner Jake Fleming recorded their first album, It Is Well, which was featured on a nationally televised program. With the success of their first three recordings, The Jeni Fleming Trio was the pilot episode of 11th & Grant with Eric Funk, a multi-Emmy Award-winning Montana PBS program.

Jeni has performed as a vocalist at many major music festivals including UNC Greeley Jazz Festival, (winner of two Outstanding Soloist Awards), Yellowstone Jazz Festival, Powell Jazz Festival, Juan de Fuca Festival, Jazz Montana, and Victoria International JazzFest opening for famed pianist Dave Brubeck.

Jeni maintains a private studio of 25 piano and voice students, and is Co-Founder of Hand Me Down Some Silver, Inc., a MT-registered 501(c)3 offering need-based scholarships to young musicians for music lessons, instruments, and creating recording and performance opportunities. Jeni sings with several other bands including The Dave Walker Band (blues), Pinky and the Floyd (Pink Floyd Tribute), Lester Rocks (Original Rock/Pop), The Tiny Band (Motown/R&B).

Jeni’s 2006 release We’ll Be Together Again features 14 tracks of lushly-arranged standards and original pieces, and the work of The String Orchestra of the Rockies. Her most recent release Come To Life (2010) is, in her words “…the most accurate representation of myself as a musician, almost as if the first six [albums] were just practice.”

It was Philip Aaberg's mother who first noticed her son's musical talent early on. He began playing music at age four. By the time he was fifteen, he traveled on the train twelve hours one-way every two weeks from Chester to Spokane, Washington, to study with Margaret Saunders Ott, a Julliard-trained pianist and teacher who was chair of the piano department at Whitmorth College. Early on, Aaberg displayed an eclectic taste in music and, along with the piano; he played drums and organ in a garage rock band that he and his brother started while in high school. He also played in symphonies across Montana before heading off to college.

Aaberg's abilities later earned him a Leonard Bernstein Scholarship and Harvard National Scholarship at Harvard College, where he received a Bachelor in Arts degree in music.

His musical career is diverse and expansive.  After graduating from Harvard, Aaberg later moved to San Francisco, California, to make pop and rock records. He played solo and in small combos in San Francisco blues clubs until joining the Elvin Bishop Group in 1973. Aaberg later toured with Peter Gabriel and recorded with the Doobie Brothers, Kenny Rogers and Vince Gill. He began composing his own music seriously in 1985. Shortly after, he signed with Windham Hill Records and released the influential and critically-applauded solo album "High Plains," which garnered him international acclaim. It was a solo piano suite that brought elements of blues, bluegrass, rock, and new music to his meditative compositions. It showcased his eclectic musical background and was an immediate hit.

His second album, “Live from Montana,” earned Aaberg a Grammy nomination for Best New Age Album in 2002. It was recorded in the Chester High School gymnasium, where Aaberg played basketball years before. Shortly afterward, he moved back to Chester to form his own label, Sweetgrass Music, named for the hills north of his hometown.

Aaberg has played with the Boston Pops, participated in the Marlboro Chamber Music Festival, premiered contemporary compositions with the Paul Dresher Ensemble, and performed on more than 200 albums and on PBS' "All-American Jazz," which also earned him an Emmy nomination. Another Emmy nomination followed in 2008 for his soundtrack for "Class C: The Only Game in Town," produced by Montana PBS.

Since returning to Chester, the Aabergs founded Arts Without Borders, a statewide nonprofit that provides music and arts lessons and deepens experiences in the arts for children in Montana communities. Through this label he has endeavored to produce music that “connects a global audience to the sweeping landscape of the West.” Throughout his career, he has "forged a unique keyboard style that paints an audible portrait of his home state."

Aaberg has been the recipient of numerous awards and honors throughout his career, including the Montana Governor's Award for the Arts, an honorary doctorate in music from Montana State University in 2013, the Montana Governor's Humanities Award, and he was named Montana's Treasured Artist in 2016.