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Sal Mosca, 80, jazz pianist excelled in improvisations

LOS ANGELES -- Sal Mosca -- a jazz pianist known for his improvisational skills and a deep dedication to his craft, one that led him to build a musical life centered on practicing and teaching, rather than performing -- died July 28 at a hospital in White Plains, N.Y., from complications of emphysema. He was 80.

At the start of his career, Mr. Mosca headlined with saxophonists Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh, playing at every major club along the Eastern seaboard, according to a biography posted on Mr. Mosca's Website. With Konitz, he recorded "Subconscious-Lee" in 1949 and played on the recording of "Ezz-Thetic" in 1951, alongside Miles Davis, Stan Getz, and Bill Bauer. In 1957 he recorded "Very Cool" and in 1959 made "Sal Mosca & Peter Ind at the Den."

Mr. Mosca was trained in bop piano and classical music; he was a student of legendary pianist Lennie Tristano and an admirer of Art Tatum. To his students and fans Mr. Mosca epitomized a commitment to excellence and purity in art. But purity came with a price. The widespread popularity that might have accompanied someone with Mr. Mosca's skills and credentials was elusive; the pianist said he "never wanted to be caught in the web of commercial success."

So he turned down gigs and opportunities and focused on teaching and practicing at his home studio in Mt. Vernon, N.Y. When he did record and give concerts, he did so on his own terms, said his daughter Kathryn Mosca of Scarsdale, N.Y. Those performances left critics marveling at his powers to improvise: He played jazz standards with extraordinary freedom while observing strict musical parameters, critics said.

Writing in The New York Times in 2004, Corey Kilgannon observed that Mr. Mosca's "flights of fancy to far-flung musical orbits are all the while precisely linked to the song form they are improvised on."

"His playing exhibits the well-constructed inventions of Bach, the giddy galloping gaiety of Fats Waller, and the elliptical runs and stunning technique of Art Tatum. It is also stamped with the introspective intensity and harmonic rhythmic complexity of his mentor, Mr. Tristano," Kilgannon wrote.

In his playing Mr. Mosca combined a respect for the composer, , a nod to renditions offered by other artists, and his own feeling, he said. "I play a song differently every time, with a variation on them -- melody or different chords, different tempos -- so it always puts a new, little something into it," he told Zan Stewart in the Newark Star-Ledger in 2005.

As a private instructor Mr. Mosca emphasized basics, often taking students, even those who had been playing for years, to the beginning, Kathryn Mosca said.

Born Salvatore Joseph Mosca in Mt. Vernon on April 27, 1927, the pianist grew up listening to the family's player piano. He began taking lessons and by age 15 was teaching others to play.

He often insisted that he had no innate talent or special gift, that his ability was the fruit of long hours of practice and devotion. "He would basically say anybody could do this if they studied and practiced the way I did," his daughter said. "But nobody else really believed that."

In 1953 Mr. Mosca married Stella DiGregorio and before divorcing the couple had three children. In addition to his daughter Kathryn, Mr. Mosca leaves two sons, Michael of Eastchester, N.Y., and Stephen of Jacksonville, Fla., and seven grandchildren.