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For John Abercrombie’s 71st Birthday, An Interview From 2012

In recognition of guitarist John Abercrombie’s 71st birthday, here’s an early edit of an interview that I conducted with him in 2012 for a Jazziz article in the Q&A format, framed around the release of his ECM CD Without A Song.  Also of interest might be this earlier post of an uncut Blindfold Test that I conducted with Abercrombie for DownBeat in 2001.

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For most of his half-century career as a professional improviser, John Abercrombie has been known, as he puts it, for “not playing jazz in its purest sense.” Indeed, the 68-year-old guitarist has presented predominantly original music during his 37 years as an ECM artist, most recently on four ambitious CDs in the ’00s by a working quartet on which he shares the front line with polymath violinist Mark Feldman. But on his 2012 ECM release, Within a Song, Abercrombie switches gears with a suite of covers and re-imagined standards that honor formative influences Sonny Rollins, Jim Hall, John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman and Art Farmer. Master partners Joe Lovano (playing only tenor saxophone), bassist Drew Gress and drummer Joey Baron keep the flow modern and sustain a relaxed but unrelenting attitude of swing.

“It’s a throwback to a pure form of jazz that stopped in the ’60s, when so many influences came in that changed the music forever,” Abercrombie says. He didn’t need to add that he himself has been a game-changer, an instantly recognizable voice among peers and cognoscenti, a key figure in developing a guitar language that could assimilate the various streams that flooded the jazz playing field during the ’70s. He continues to push the envelope in multiple contexts — among them an organ trio with Nussbaum and Gary Versace; ongoing duo connections with pianists Marc Copland and Andy Laverne; and forthcoming work with Gateway, a collective trio with Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette that has convened sporadically since 1975, always with spectacular results.

Midway through August, Abercrombie supported Within A Song with a week at Birdland, convening Lovano, Gress, and drummer Adam Nussbaum for the occasion. A few hours before taking the stage on night three, dressed in the blue workshirt and black jeans that were his evening’s attire, he spoke to Jazziz in the midtown club’s narrow dressing room.

TP: After a decade of writing original music for a working band, what makes this a propitious time to do what might be called an “audio-biography”?

JA: About five years ago, I presented to [ECM producer] Manfred Eicher the idea of a tribute to the Art Farmer Quartet of the ‘60s, which had Jim Hall, Steve Swallow when he still played upright bass, and a couple of drummers, including Pete LaRoca. Manfred thought the idea was fantastic, but things didn’t work out, and I put the whole thing on the shelf. A few years later, I Manfred emailed, asking if I’d ever thought about doing a tribute to someone, like Steve Kuhn had done on his Mostly Coltrane record for ECM with Lovano and Joey. This is very unlike Manfred, who has never been into tribute recordings. I thought about it, and presented the idea of doing something on a period of music, which he liked. If any person permeates the CD as an influence, it’s Jim Hall—he played with Sonny on “Without A Song” and “Where Are You,” with Art Farmer on “Some Time Ago,” and with Bill Evans on “Interplay.”

TP: In recent years, you’ve standards records with specially convened groups.

JA: I’ve done plenty of that kind of playing, but this was more specific. The Bridge just popped up at me. I play that record for my students in the composition class I teach. I tell them that it’s a composition—the solos are so formed, so thematic and developed. I say, “You couldn’t have written this; nobody could have written the way they improvised.” Improvising is composition, you know.

I first heard it in a record store when I was a kid, about 18 years old. Those were the days when the guy in the front of the store would play you a track, and he put on the first tune, which is “Without A Song.” I guess epiphany is only word for something that strikes you so strong. I didn’t know musically what was happening, but it sounded so perfect. I said, “I must know what this is and this is really important to me.” That was the strongest reaction I ever had to a piece of music—although Bill Evans always got to me, and I wore out Kind of Blue.

TP: Apart from your leader records for ECM, you’ve recorded as a sideman with so many artists—Enrico Rava, Dave Liebman, Colin Walcott, Ralph Towner, Kenny Wheeler, Barre Phillips, Charles Lloyd. Your sound—or different sounds at different stages—is very identified with ECM’s sonic image.

JA: Different sounds at different stages for sure. I hear some older things, and I don’t even know how I did them—a speedier, more technical kind of playing, as opposed to now. It sounds hard, a bit like “Guitar Hero” stuff. About 15 years ago, I stopped playing with a plectrum, which slowed me down somewhat. You can’t articulate as quickly with the thumb as you can with a pick, which gives you the attack and lets you jump around a lot quicker. I’d always fooled around with playing with my thumb, and I did it on a gig once with Kenny Wheeler. I liked the way it sounded, so I started to get it in the act more, switching between the thumb and the pick. Then I realized I should make a decision because the two sounds are so different, and it sounds too schizophrenic when you switch in mid-solo. Overall, I like the thumb for the warmth of the sound, and the fact that my actual flesh is on the string without a piece of plastic in between.

TP: How did you connect with Manfred Eicher?

JA: In 1970, my girlfriend and I moved from Boston to a little apartment on East 4th Street between 1st and 2nd Avenues. I started to meet people, and got a lot of calls to do little record dates. Enrico Rava had moved here, and in 1973, during a brief tour of Italy, we did a record called Katchapari. Somewhere along the line, Manfred heard it. We finally met through Ralph Towner—Manfred would bring a reel-to-reel tape to his apartment on Perry Street and say, “This is the new Eberhard Weber record, called Colors of Chloe.” “Who’s Eberhard Weber?” “Listen.” Then he’d put the tape on, and I’d hear orchestral music by a guy who had overdubbed all these cellos. I flipped out, because everything was so beautiful. Manfred told me he’d heard Katchapari and liked what I did. He asked, “Would you like to record for ECM?” I said that I would, but I didn’t have any original music. Manfred said, “Well, keep it in mind.” He kept hounding me.

I decided to go back to the thing I was most comfortable with. After Berklee, I worked a few years with Johnny Hammond Smith, who I made my first record with. Jan Hammer and I had been roommates in Boston, and I knew he could play anything on organ, and had the synthesizer. He played in a strip joint in Boston, and I’d run down and sit in with him before the strippers came on. I’d recently met Jack DeJohnette and was starting to play in some of his bands. I had a little cassette player with two little speakers. One day I started noodling, and came up with a couple of tunes.

TP: Were you putting this repertoire together with the idea that it was suiting the ECM sound?

JA: No. It was totally where I was at. I thought the record might have more of an organ trio feel, but I should have realized that Jan and Jack weren’t going to sound like Jack McDuff and Joe Dukes on drums. So whole record had a very different feel for the time, but it had nothing to do with what I thought ECM wanted—because I didn’t even really know what they wanted. I was very influenced by some things John McLaughlin had done with Mahavishnu years before, and with Miles on things like In A Silent Way. I wasn’t even sure Manfred would like it, but I took my chance. He loved all of it, the raucous stuff and the ballads. It was a magical recording.

TP: By this point, you were about 30, with a decade as an apprentice under your belt—the organ trios, Dreams, Chico Hamilton, Gato Barbieri, Rava, Billy Cobham. Can you describe your path to the sensibility you articulated on Timeless?

JA: When I went to Berklee, there was no Jazz-Rock. The two hadn’t merged yet. If you played a Rock or rhythm-and-blues gig, you probably were doing it for the money. Not that it wasn’t fun, but it was more like, oh, it’s a gig with a singer and they’re going to play some tune by Marvin Gaye or “Stormy Monday.” In Boston, I joined a rhythm-and-blues band called the Danny Wright Orchestra, with a singer named Erroll McDonald who sang Ray Charles tunes, but we also played jazz, like an arrangement of a Tadd Dameron tune. Danny introduced me to Johnny. I auditioned for him at this really funky club in Boston, and he liked me enough to give gave me the gig. I really was a jazz player at that period. I wasn’t a GOOD jazz player, but that’s all I played. I was actually making my living with Johnny on the chitlin’ circuit, playing standards and blues and some little cover tunes with guitar, organ and drums, and sometimes Houston Person playing tenor.

Everything was in upheaval then. People were taking acid. There was the Vietnam war and civil rights. Everybody was listening to Jimi Hendrix and all this Rock. The organ trio stuff was still my meat and potatoes, but I also liked some of the sounds I was hearing. So I got myself a distortion pedal (we used to call them fuzz tones) and a wah-wah pedal, moved to New York, and said, “Ok, I’m here—plug me in.” I went along with the times. I joined Dreams, with Randy and Mike Brecker and Billy Cobham and Barry Rogers, and they weren’t playing Jazz-jazz. They were playing Jazz-Rock, we used to call it.

After I met Rava, and started to go to Europe, and met Manfred, I started to get thrown in with people who played what they called Free Jazz, or very open kind of music. I didn’t have a lot of role models to play what was being asked of me. McLaughlin had been doing it early on, Coryell and other people had been experimenting, and and there were some wilder people like Sonny Sharrock and Pete Cosey, but there wasn’t a real language set up. So I had to figure things for myself. I grabbed onto every device I had in my arsenal—my knowledge of harmony and the guitar, the few little fuzztones or pieces of gear that I used at the time—and tried to fit in. When I’d play with Jack and Dave Holland, or some other players, I responded to what I was hearing around me, and let the sound of it all teach me what I was supposed to do. Luckily, my instincts were good, and all those years as an apprentice probably helped. My main objective was always to fit into situations, not so concerned about what my music was going to be like or if I had a specific voice. It was “How can I make this work?

TP: You’ve recorded with a number of bands for ECM—the quartet with Richie Beirach, George Mraz and Peter Donald; the trio with Marc Johnson and Peter Erskine; the organ trio with Dan Wall and Adam Nussbaum; more recently your quartet with Mark Feldman and Joey Baron, and a couple of bass players; also Gateway, with Dave Holland and Jack DeJohnette. To what degree is a band a book of music, and to what degree is it a collection of personalities?

JA: That’s a good question. It’s more than just a book of music, for sure, but it’s also about what whatever repertoire you’re playing, whether someone else’s as with new band or all original music. A band needs to have an identity. Of course, the personalities who are playing it will give it what it needs. Sometimes cooperative bands where everyone writes a song don’t work as well because people’s ideas are so vastly different.

My first band was with Richie, George, and Peter Donald. George was one of my roommates in Boston. Peter lived in Cambridge, and we did jam sessions and gigs. I met Beirach in New York. We did Dave Liebman’s record, Sweet Hand, and there was a tune, “Dr. Faustus,” that had an open section for me to just go nuts. Every time I’d play a phrase and end up on a note, Beirach would always play the perfect chord underneath me. I said, “How do you this?” He said, “Man, I have perfect pitch.” The quartet was a harmonic band, very architecturally sound, almost like a Frank Lloyd Wright building. It was a wonderful band to play in, but I was looking for something more open, which I got with Marc and Peter. With them, I got immersed in the guitar synthesizer, which some people hated, but it inspired me to write a lot of different kinds of tunes. The end came at Catalina’s in Los Angeles. Back in the dressing room, Erskine said to me, “Are we not men? Do we really need all this other stuff to play music with?” I said, “I agree. Screw this synthesizer stuff. I’m going to whittle down my gear.” I kept one little box that did some sounds, and the rest of it was just guitar. No I’m synth-free. But if I speak to you in five years, I may want to get back into something like that. It keeps you interested. Sometimes just playing the guitar when there’s no one to play off of isn’t that interesting. With the synthesizer you could imagine you were a flutist or violinist or trumpet player, and you might phrase differently, although the sounds were synthetic, never like real instruments.

TP: Has Manfred Eicher ever discouraged you from going in a particular direction?

JA: I had a band when I was living in San Francisco that was mostly L.A.-based. You couldn’t ask for better musicians. I spent a lot of time writing music for them—the only way I can describe it is that it had a kind of optimistic, brighter sound, a slightly more poppish feel. I sent a tape to Manfred and anxiously awaited his response. When he finally called, he said, “John, do you really want to go in this younger direction?” Meaning the music sounded kind of young. More Pat Metheny-influenced. Maybe I was being influenced by hearing Pat.

TP: Might all these projects have existed had you not had a consistent label over all these years?

JA: Probably not, no.

TP: I don’t know whether you’ll accept the idea, but let’s go by the supposition that each of these different bands fits in one way or another into the prevailing currents or zeitgeist, whatever you want to call it, of the time in which they were made.

JA: Ok.

TP: How does this band, this approach fit into what’s going on now?

JA: If you look at everything else that’s going on around, you probably don’t see a lot of it. Of course, lots of people are still playing standard tunes. But the direction of the younger musicians has very little to do with this. They’re doing original compositions, which are harmonically much different than these kind of tunes, and they seem to be experimenting with a lot of very different meters. I hate to use the word “nostalgia,” because I don’t look at it that way, but this kind of straight-up jazz album doesn’t really fit with what’s going on in a lot of ways. You could look at the last few things I did with Mark Feldman and that group, which I consider to be modern jazz, but people might say think it sounds more like chamber music or classical music because of the violin. and the sound of it.

Manfred actually sent me an email not long ago about how much he liked the record, something like, “I think this recording is really needed at this time.” I’m trying to find the right word for it. It’s a tribute to part of the history of jazz. It’s an interpretation. It’s paying homage. It’s coming full circle for sure, starting this way and then going off in all these different places, and then coming back and saying, “well, this really is home, in a way.” Who says you can never go home again? Thomas Wolfe? But in a way, you do go home, though home looks different. You don’t want to go back to the same little room you were in with the pennants on the wall and your mother yelling at you to get up, it’s time for breakfast, you’ve got to get to school, and stop that noise, and get out of the bathroom; let someone else in there once in awhile—we only had one bathroom in the house. But this is a way of going to the musical home.

TP: Do you have any sense of your impact or position in the timeline of guitar playing in this idiom? You’re older than Metheny or Mike Stern or Bill Frisell or John Scofield, who are people you tend to get lumped with, and younger than Grant Green or Jim Hall or Wes Montgomery. So if we’re to look at you in a third-person way, are you a transitional figure?

JA: I’ve thought about it, but I don’t really give it much thought. I’m like a guitar early baby boomer. I was born in ‘44, which means that instead of growing up listening to the Beatles, I grew up listening to Bill Haley and Chuck Berry and Fats Domino. The timeframe when you grow up makes an impact on you. I had first-hand exposure to Monk and Coltrane and Sonny and Miles, a little more direct connection to that than the guys you mentioned. Then, too, I was around in the late ‘60s, when everything exploded—everybody wearing Indian shirts and smoking hash and trying to play different kinds of music. I’m part of the generation that was like, “We don’t want to play bebop; let’s get psychedelic; let’s tune in, drop out.” These other guys grew up after that. So maybe I am some sort of transitional object!

I do know that I opened doors when I started playing this more open-ended stuff in the ‘70s. No other guitar player had really been doing it as visibly as I did, when I was traveling around the world. Sonny Sharrock and Pete Cosey were a little more out than I was. I was playing free with a lot of structural knowledge. I’d come up playing standard tunes and blues, so I knew all these forms. I wasn’t coming out of a vacuum. I had all this jazz background, and then I was thrown into all of this. Can you make music out of this? Can you survive in this oddball environment where there’s no guidelines? I like to think that guitar players might have thought, “wow, that’s pretty free, but it doesn’t sound out there completely; it sounds like it’s coming from someplace.” That’s always been what I like to do. When I play, I kind of listen to myself as if I’m trying to develop something. In a band like this, my playing is a little more inside, for the most part, because of the structures of the pieces. But sometimes when I play with other bands, like Feldman, we get into complete zones of abstraction that can go on for quite a while. I’m very comfortable in that, and I like to experience that.

So I’m a little more multi-kulti in a sense. But as I get older, this full circle thing becomes kind of very important to me. I’ve been through all these weird stages of playing jazz-rock, playing free, trying to incorporate Indian and ethnic influences in the music, using synthesizers. But at the same time I’m still playing “Stella By Starlight.” It’s odd. And I still like to do all this stuff—except for the synthesizers.

[END OF CONVERSATION]

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For George Benson’s 71st Birthday, an Interview from 2000

In acknowledgment of guitar icon George Benson’s 71st birthday, here’s the proceedings of a phone encounter from 2000 for the bn.com website on the occasion of his release Absolute Benson. He offered quite a bit of information about his formative years.

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George Benson (My Favorite Things) – (5-19-00):

TP:    On ABSOLUTE BENSON, there are a number of Latin tunes, a number of pieces that refer to the sound I remember from the late ’60s and early ’70s when your career was getting underway.  I wonder if you could tell me some of the people you were listening to seriously at that time, what records fed your attitude towards music.

BENSON:  When I entered into the ’60s, I was just starting to get serious about the guitar.  I was always a singer.  I’d done a lot of singing over the years, and was very popular locally, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  But now I was venturing out… In 1963, I left my home, and I was now a national touring…or international, I should say…I was with a touring band.  I had just been listening to out of the ’60s Sam Cooke as a vocalist; Nat King Cole, who was a musician-vocalist — a pianist… I knew all the pop singers of the time, Sinatra and even Mario Lanza way back…

TP:    Can you name one or two tracks by any of those singers that stand out for you?

BENSON:  In the case of Sam Cooke, his recording of “You Send Me” was gigantic.  But he had lots of incredible things.  He did one called “the Chain Gang,” which was quite a unique song.  But it was style and the tonality of his voice that really came through.  He could sing “Mary Had A Little Lamb” and it would sell.  In the case of Mario Lanza, who was really the first Classical singer to cross over into Pop so easily, “Be My Love,” which is still a very powerful song — his performances will last, I think, a long as there is music.

But I knew all of the popular singers of our time.  And remember, before that I was exposed to a lot of R&B from the old days.  I had heard Chuck Berry’s beginnings of Rock-and-Roll, and I had heard all of Elvis’ first records.  And Elvis was a powerful singer.  A lot of people underestimated him.  Of course, the kids liked him; he was a handsome guy and he was exciting.  But there was something about his voice that was very unique, and I recognized that, too, way back then, and I became a fan then.  I was pretty universal in my listening.

TP:    It sounds that way.

BENSON:  Just to mention on the jazz side, the things that really inspired me: Jimmy Smith had just made the organ a household word — brought it to the forefront.  Before it had been considered just a unique instrument; there were no masters of the instrument who stuck out, who were commercially received.

TP:    And it created a whole new market for guitar players.

BENSON:  And he put the guitar up front, so it was a great platform for guitar players.  So that’s where I was coming from when I was coming out in the ’60s.

TP:    Was Jimmy Smith coming through Pittsburgh?  He recorded quite a bit with Stanley Turrentine, who was from Pittsburgh.

BENSON:  Yeah, that’s right!  And some of his best recordings were made with Stanley Turrentine.  In fact, some of his early recordings in the late ’50s were made with Stanley Turrentine, and just before 1960, when he came out with “Walk On The Wild Side,” which was a huge success pop-wise, which really made him household.

TP:    Do you have any favorite Jimmy Smith record?

BENSON:  I recorded one called “Ready and Able,” when I started my band which was a fantastic recording, and showed his prowess on the instrument…

TP:    That was a recording you were on?

BENSON:  I wasn’t it.  I recorded it with my own band.  Of course, his recording is awesome.  Ours was exciting, but his was an awesome performance technically.  It was a classic performance!  Anyway, I heard that stuff, and it made me interested in guitar players in a much larger way than I had before.  Because I only knew Charlie Christian and maybe Barney Kessel and some others.  But after that, when I came off the road to travel in 1963, I was exposed to Wes Montgomery, and people like Grant Green and Kenny Burrell, who was also on those Jimmy Smith records.

TP:    I know you were hearing those people coming through town or criss-crossing paths, but I have to orient this towards records.  Can you tell me one or two favorite Grant Green or Wes Montgomery sides?

BENSON:  I can explain that.  When I was about 17 we started going to jam sessions.  Every Saturday we’d have a session at a local musician’s house.  He was probably the best guitar player locally.  He would pick up records for us to listen to.  We could steal licks from these records.  The records we were listening to were Jimmy Smith’s ALL DAY LONG, and also we were listening to Hank Garland’s recording called JAZZ WINDS FROM A NEW DIRECTION, and Grant Green’s first recording called GRANTSTAND — all these people.  And the new Wes Montgomery guy!  He was just becoming famous at the time.

TP:    After ten years of being famous in Indianapolis, he was becoming famous everywhere.

BENSON:  The record that woke me up by Wes Montgomery was from an album called SO MUCH GUITAR (Riverside) which was put out I think in 1959.  It featured the song “While We’re Young,” and when I heard him play that I knew that he was more than just a guitar player.  It convinced me that he was someone very special.

TP:    On ABSOLUTE BENSON you have some covers in your style of tunes by Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder and Donny Hathaway.  What are some of your favorite recordings by them?

BENSON:  When I was a young man, my manager said, “George, if you listen to this guy named Raymond Charles (which is the name he used in his early years), you will be successful.  Copy him, because he is the best, and he is going to be very big.”  But after hearing his early recordings, I knew that he was incredible, and “Come Back, Baby” was one of my favorites, a very special song that he recorded years ago.  Had that Gospel feel, but it was different.  It was an honest approach that had everything in it.  It had Gospel-Blues-Pop…everything was in that one song.  So I immediately was a fan of Ray Charles way back then.

In the case of Stevie Wonder, who was very much like Ray Charles in being a prolific writer, a good musician, and excellent singer, above average in all the approaches… They didn’t specialize.  They did everything well.  If they touched it, it was done well!  So Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder in a much more contemporary…of the later days, I should say.

TP:    You play Stevie Wonder’s “Lately” on ABSOLUTE BENSON.  Are there other recordings by him that will be eternally with you?

BENSON:  Oh, yeah, let me think now.  The one Barbra Streisand recorded of his…let me see, now.  My memory is loaded down.  It’s like a computer with so much stuff in it, it’s hard to sort things out.  Let me think about that a little.

In the case of Donny Hathaway, his recording of “For All We Know” is something I sing bits and pieces of almost every day.  I’ve been doing that since it was recorded, way back.  Because it was such an incredible impromptu performance.  I even know the story behind it.  I did hang out with him a little bit to get a chance to feel him out up close and personal, so I got a chance to understand where he was coming from with it.  At one point, I was in touch with him and we were writing songs together.  I went to his apartment and gave him a song that I was working on, and I found out later that he recorded the song, although it never came out.  Then he wrote two songs for me which I never got, because he passed on before I had a chance to get those songs.  But I did hear them.  He wrote them and played them for me, and I said, “When are you going to give those to me?”  He said, “I’m finishing them up; they’re not ready yet.”  But his vocal technique was quite unique, the timbre of his voice.  Those are the things as a singer I had to pay attention to.  But he had many recordings that were great, like the album he did with Roberta Flack called BLUE LIGHTS IN THE BASEMENT.

TP:    There’s a real Latin tinge to this record also.  Have you always been attracted to Latin music and the Latin style?

BENSON:  When I moved to New York from Pittsburgh in the ’60s to play with Jack McDuff, I had a cousin who lived in Spanish Harlem.  So whenever I was in New York, which was very little during my traveling years because we were usually out on the road… But when we came home, what we called home (New York City was my home base), I would stay with my cousin, who lived on 108th and Third Avenue, which was considered Spanish Harlem.  And by the way, I have a son who is Spanish and so does he.  My cousin married a Puerto Rican girl, and my son is half Puerto Rican.

But anyway, we had a lot of association and we heard a lot of the music.  We heard the Joe Cuba records, which were gigantic — “Bang, Bang” and the song “To Be With You,” which was on the jukebox for over ten years around New York.  We were in touch with Johnny Pacheco when I started recording; he was recording with us.  We saw the whole beginning of Salsa music, how it was unacceptable at first to… A lot of Latinos around the world didn’t particularly like Salsa because they considered it a bastard music, but we saw it grow out of that, and now it’s full-grown with Santana!  So things do move.  You know, it was the a lot of the music of that era when we were living in New York.

TP:    Did you listen to très players at all?

BENSON:  Strangely enough, my office was one floor down from Tito Puente.  So my manager and he were very good friends, and he introduced me to him, and him and I became good friends, and eventually we ended up working a lot of the same gigs later.  When my manager introduced me to him, at the time Latin music was not so acceptable to persons who were not in the Latin world.  My manager introduced me to him and said, “George, this is the greatest Latin musician in the world right here.”  I said, “Yeah?!”  From that point on, I began to pay attention to the name Tito Puente.  Sure enough, the whole world has accepted him as being one of the great icons of Latin music.

TP:    Any particular favorites by Tito Puente?

BENSON:  His version of “On Broadway,” which is based on my version, which won him his first Grammy award, is a great example of what he can do.

TP:    Has Joe Sample been part of your world for a long time, or is your collaboration on ABSOLUTE BENSON a first?

BENSON:  No.  Joe and I have been on the same gig, but we’ve never worked together.  It’s usually his band and my band working different sets.

TP:    Well, the Crusaders were a paradigm of the type of band that was covering all the bases and putting them into some sort of very digestible and very musical form in the ’60s, when you were starting out.

BENSON:  That’s very true.  And when jazz music started to wane a little bit, and we had a hard time getting it played on the air, they dropped the name “jazz” from the Jazz Crusaders and became the Crusaders.  But the group was the same.  They did what you mentioned earlier.  They really connected with the audience.  They could take any tune to do that with.

TP:    Were you a fan?

BENSON:  Yeah.  I like uniqueness, and they were unique.  “The Young Rabbits” was the thing that probably… It was more jazz-oriented than anything, but it had a real feel to it.  You didn’t have to be a jazz lover to appreciate it.

TP:    Would you say that when you went out on the road in the early ’60s, your guitar concept was fully formed?

BENSON:  No.  There was a young man in San Francisco… When I decided to go out on my own in 1965, I happened to be in San Francisco, and I spent several days out there.  I was walking around the city, taking in the scenes, and by quite by accident I walked into this club, and I heard a piano player playing who was very good.  I told him who I was, and he said, “Go get your guitar.”  So I went home and got my guitar and came back.  He gave me a lesson in harmony.  He stopped playing for the public… He was a guy who had a big jar on his piano (you know the scenario) for the dollars to be dropped in, and people making requests.  Well, he stopped doing that to show me what he was talking about.  Because I didn’t understand anything he was saying to me.  He was calling off chord changes; I didn’t understand any of them.  He would say, like, “C!” I’d play a C, and he’d say, “No, not that C.”  I said, “Wait a minute.  There’s more than one C?”  And he began to explain.  And man, what I learned has been with me to this day.  His name was Freddie Gambrell.  There’s not much on him.

TP:    Was he blind?

BENSON:  Yes, he was blind.

TP:    He did a record with Chico Hamilton, one trio record.

BENSON:  Is that right?  You know a lot, man!  Freddie Gambrell, man.  He was quite unique!

TP:    In other words, you were an ear player, and as the ’60s developed and your career developed, you learned much more about theory and you’ve been able to continually apply it.

BENSON:  Yeah.  I think people began to notice me when I started to apply the theory that I embarked on after spending that little time with Freddie Gambrell.  I began to experiment.  And what I learned from him I think separated me from the normal guitar thinking.  So I think that made me interesting to other players, who used to ask me all the time, “Where you coming from, man?”

TP:    So he gave you a kind of pianistic conception of harmony which you were able to put on what you did.

BENSON:  That’s right.

TP:    What have you been listening to lately?

BENSON:  I just came back from Hawaii, so I heard a lot of Hawaiian music, and there are a lot of Latin musicians over there.

TP:    You heard them in person.

BENSON:  Yes.  Then they gave me their records, and I listened to their records.  I’ve been listening to Rodney Jones’ latest album, THE UNDISCOVERED FEW.  He’s got some new stuff happening that’s really wonderful.  So he’s reaching out and stretching out!

TP:    A couple of others?

BENSON:  I’ve been listening to a guitar player from Spain called Tomatito.  He’s the newest hot guitar player from Spain.  He’s second only to Paco De Lucia.  Everybody is into him right now.  Tomatito is the cat I’m listening to.  It means “little tomato,” I think.

Let’s see what’s in front of me.  What I do is take stuff and just throw it on.  You’re going to be surprised at this one.  I went back in my archives and put on the Anthology of Smokey Robinson.  The reason why, there’s a song on there that nobody knows about it… You ask people if they’ve ever heard this song, and they say “No.”  It’s called “Bad Girl.”  You ever heard of that?

TP:    I might have… No, I’m thinking of “My Girl.”

BENSON:  “My Girl.”  I think he wrote that, too.  I think Smokey Robinson was one of the writers on “My Girl.”  But this song is called “Bad Girl.”  And the reason why Smokey Robinson is still on my mind is because we used to perform with them.  Whenever they came to my home town, we would be on the same show with them.  That’s way back in like 1959 or the very early ’60s.

TP:    When everything was mixed up, and there would be five-six bands on one show.

BENSON:  Uh-huh.  Well, see, I had a singing group then.  We had the most popular singing group in Pittsburgh.  So they were brand-new, and he was the first artist on Motown when they came out in 1959.   But the song “Bad Girl” was one we used to sing all the time from their early recordings, something he wrote that we sang all the time.  That’s the reason  why I picked up the CD.

TP:    One more, then I’ll let you go.

BENSON:  Let me think of something  that people will recognize.  I don’t want to get too much…

TP:    We can be esoteric and right down the middle, too.

BENSON:  All right.  Whoo, boy.  Well, what’s happening now is people are going back to Django Reinhardt, man, because the French guitar players… Oh, I’ll tell you something else that’s exciting.  Jimmy Bruno and Joe Beck, POLARITY.  There’s some exciting stuff on there!  I was up with Bruno the other day.  I went up to see him at the club in New York, and they lit the place up, though Joe Beck wasn’t with him.

TP:    And you’ve been listening a lot to Django?

BENSON:  to Django, yes.

TP:    Have you heard the Mosaic Box (THE COMPLETE DJANGO REINHARDT AND QUINTET OF THE HOT CLUB OF FRANCE: SWING/HMV SESSIONS, 1936-1948)?

BENSON:  Tell Barnes & Noble to send me that!

[-30-]

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Filed under bn.com, George Benson, guitar, Interview

For Mike Stern’s 61st Birthday, a 2003 Downbeat Feature

Today is the 61st birthday of master guitarist-composer Mike Stern, and to note the occasion I’m posting the print edit of a feature for DownBeat  that it was my privilege to write in 2003. I’m also linking to a conversation we had in 2009 for the www.jazz.com website.

Mike Stern:

Guitarist Mike Stern usually spends Monday and Wednesday nights playing at 55 Christopher, a dimly lit bar on the ground floor of a brownstone in Greenwich Village. Discolored white sound tiles coat the low ceiling, which hovers above some 20 tables placed between a long bar and a yellowish west wall festooned with photos and LP covers. The bandstand is an 8 x 10 rectangle in the back corner with a fourth wall that doubles as an aisle along which customers can wriggle backstage to the cramped restrooms, which had seen better days 20 years ago, when Stern, who was then Miles Davis guitarist of choice, began his residence.
Stern doesn’t need this twice-a-week gig when he’s off the road. But 55 Christopher serves his purposes well.  “I’ve always got to find a place where I can play regularly,” says Stern, who staked a similar claim in the early ‘80s at a famously bacchanalian Soho bar called 55 Grand. “Otherwise I’d  be playing in my room. It gives me joy, and over time I learn a lot. I’m  grateful to have a regular gig where I can try different things. It stretches you.”
“It’s the longest-running jazz show in New York, and on a recent installment, the second set of a frigid January night, Stern stood before a jam-packed house. He held his guitar hip level and wore black pullover, black jeans and black sneakers. Eyes shut, bending his neck at a slight angle and swaying to the beat, he strummed a rubato melody, slowly resolving into the familiar refrain of Cole Porter’s “I Love You” over drummer John Riley’s crisp brushwork. Then Stern developed an extended solo, phrasing interactively with the drummer, carving out chorus after chorus with immaculate execution, sustaining thematic logic, linear invention and melodic focus at a staggering pace, inexorably ratcheting up the tension.
Like a world-class relay runner, tenorist Chris Potter took the baton full stride, and launched a tonally extravagant statement filled with intervallic zigzags and surprising resolutions in the manner of 1965-vintage Sonny Rollins. Guitar and tenor sustained fresh dialogue on further tradeoffs. Francois Moutin was in complete command of his instrument, carving out surging melodic bass lines while clearly stating pulse and roots. It was world-class collective improvising by a unit that had never played together until that evening.
Curiously, Stern has rarely showcased this freewheeling aspect of his tonal personality on his 12 leader records since 1986. “A lot of people have told me they  like to hear a live record, and I’d love to do one,” says Stern, 51, citing the room’s acoustic idiosyncracies as one reason why such a project remains elusive. “At the end of the day, you want to document what you do. But whenever I get around to recording, I have new tunes I want to play.”
Stern offers 11 brand-new ones on These Times, his debut release for German label ESC. As on Voices, his 2001 finale for Atlantic, he explores songs with words and songs with sounds, blending the distinctive vocal timbres of Richard Bona and Elizabeth Kontomanou into the guitar-keyboard-sax voicings that are his trademark. He propels it all with forceful beats by Bona and Will Lee on bass, drummers Vinnie Colaiuta and Dennis Chambers, and percussionist Arto Tuncboyacian. Kenny Garrett and Bob Franceschini split the sax chores. Alternating gnarly burnouts and lyric ballads, Stern and producer Jim Beard is customary keyboardist weak the themes by which Stern has established his compositional identity and tonal personality to an international audience since 1981, the year he joined Davis and recorded an extended solo on  at Time, the opening track on Man With A Horn.
“One thing about Miles that always impressed me is that he always played music he wanted to play,” Stern says. “While I was with Miles, he was offered a fortune to play with Ron Carter and Tony Williams in Japan. But he was just interested in what he was doing, and didn  want to be swayed. At the same time, he always had this balance of wanting to reach people. That’s in all his music. Somebody who doesn’t  really know jazz can still get Miles Davis. And balance is always important to me, however I come up with it.”
Those imperatives and an encounter with Bona at a European festival inspired Stern’s  recent immersion in the voice. “He had the day free, so I grabbed Richard and brought him to my hotel room, where I had a little amplifier, and we were playing some standards,” Stern recalls. “He knew my stuff, and he started singing a couple of my ballads, which I thought was great. One way I write is to sing the melody and write it down, so I have tunes that lend themselves to singing. Anyway, when I was thinking about doing Voices, I asked him about it, and he told me that he knew the idea would work and that he’d sing a few tunes. So I leapt into this new thing.”
“Getting the gig with Miles was the pinnacle of jazz success for a young musician at that time,” says John Scofield, Stern’s friend since the late ‘70s and his guitar partner with Miles in 1982-83.  “Your status went up. That’s all there was to it.”
“Miles made it clear that he didn’t  want me to do what he did,” says Stern, who diligently followed the trumpet legend’s  instructions to “turn it up or turn it off.” “He would leave all the space, and he wanted more aggression and energy from me. He’d move his hands to signal Al Foster to open up behind me. It was almost like he was working with shapes. A lot of the music was easy vamps, and they’d go on for a while, so you had to milk it for whatever you could. He also wanted a lean sound, which you can get with just guitar and no keyboards even if you play a lot of notes. I have him in my ear to this day, that beautiful vocal sound and his phrasing.

Stern likes his drummers hard-hitting and in-the-pocket, and observers, noting his high-visibility associations with Miles, Blood, Sweat & Tears, Billy Cobham, Jaco Pastorius and Steps Ahead, often refer to his music as fusion. The term puzzles Stern, a hardcore Jim Hall-Wes Montgomery acolyte who continues to transcribe the solos of John Coltrane and McCoy Tyner to slake his thirst for new vocabulary. In 2002, he recorded Four Generations Of Miles (Chesky) with fellow Milesians Ron Carter, Jimmy Cobb and George Coleman.
“Blood, Sweat & Tears was one of the first jazz-rock bands, and Billy Cobham played what people have called fusion,” Stern says. “But I always wanted to hear some more swinging. When I first played guitar in the 60s, I listened to lots of blues, and then Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton and cats like that—and then got into jazz. Motown was always on the radio. And I always loved Joni Mitchell’s  Blue. So I didn’t leave one part of me behind, but incorporated all of it. Sometimes the sound and sensibility of rock or blues gives me more color and a wider range of expression, a singing quality, more legato and horn-like than percussive.”
As he did in the days when fusion was creative and organic, Stern takes pains to sustain his edge. “I try to be aware of content and find new stuff all the time,” he says. “I try to get players who are going to kick my ass. You react to the people around you, so if the drummer is playing energy, you’re likely to try to match it. The hardest thing is when I’m trying to play some funk with a jazz drummer, and you can tell it isn’t going on. It happens the other way, too. Only a handful have that balance, to play in the middle of the beat but keep that creative jazz sensibility. Sometimes they throw you in a huge hall in a festival, and you want someone who can slam it down.
“But when I write, I look to have the whole picture—both the lyrical and the more slamming stuff. I want the arrangements to have a quality of spontaneity, so there’s conversation between drums, bassist, soloist and keyboard, but I also want enough production to support the tune, even the less complicated ones, so there isn’t  any, ‘yeah, the solo is cool, but the tune ain’t  happening.’ The singable stuff is simpler, but sometimes the hardest to write, because you can  hide behind college chords. On those, I don’t want to write a bunch of weird harmony that’s vague but intellectually impressive. I want to limit myself.”
Simplicity of expression is a complex proposition for Stern. “One of the challenges on the guitar is to try to get a legato, horn-like phrasing,” says Scofield, who alternated with Bill Frisell as Stern’s guitar foil on the 1999 album Play. “Frisell, Pat Metheny and I do it by not picking every note. But if you do pick every note, you can get a precise attack. The problem with that style is that it can sound real mechanical; some guitar players try to do it, and it’s sloppy and weird. Mike can produce a beautiful legato sound but be absolutely accurate on his lines. I don  think I’ve met anybody who does that the way Mike can, and he could do it when I first met him.
“Whatever I have together didn’t  fall from the sky like rain,” Stern says. “It takes a lot of work. I still try to push myself to develop the potential I have. To sound fresh every night I have to discover new stuff, push the envelope. So I’m studying all the time.”
Frisell can speak to Stern’s  obsessive practice habits.  “I met Mike right after he got off the road with Blood, Sweat & Tears, and we immediately started playing at his apartment for hours and hours,” Frisell says. “You can practice all you want and not sound like an individual. But Mike was—and still is—thorough. He would work on every possible thing he could think of. We did ear-training exercises, trying to hear different harmonic structures against a certain note and testing each other. He did it to the point where I couldn’t  believe what he was hearing. All the elements you hear in his playing now were there in his apartment in the 70s.”
“Perfectionism is a character asset,” Stern says. “But it works against you if it paralyzes you. Once I was struggling with some pieces, and my composition teacher, Edgar Grana, told me that one rule is not to judge the tune, but finish it and play it with other people. That  the way you grow. If you throw it out halfway through, you won’t  know what you have. I remember Pat Metheny telling me, “You’ve got what you need, you sound terrific. All you’ve got to do is go out and play.” He recommended me for Blood, Sweat & Tears, and I thought I’d go do the audition and get turned down. But they called me back for the gig.
“My focus then was on playing more like Jim Hall—to play slow and hear whatever I was doing, and not let my fingers get ahead of me. I wasn’t concentrating on technique at all; I figured I’d be able to play tempos later on if I had to. But Blood, Sweat & Tears used to play Spain as an instrumental, and I couldn’t  make the tempo. So here was this real-world situation where I had to deal! Jaco was in the band then. He was a direct guy. He told me, ‘That slow and steady stuff is great, but now you’ve got to start practicing to get your chops happening more.’ Jaco and I were maniacs together. Later, when I lived over 55 Grand, he’d  crash with me upstairs. Then we’d  play downstairs non-stop.”

During the early 80s, Scofield says, 55 Grand “became the musician club in New York.” Lured by a louche, no-holds-barred atmosphere, A-list musicians from all varieties of jazz converged to play and be merry into the wee hours. “It wasn’t  like a fusion club and it wasn’t  a free music club,” Scofield recalls. “It was diverse, but it wasn’t  slick. Everybody played there. The owner didn’t charge much money to get in, and we could play whatever we wanted all night long.”
“I always think jazz is going in about five different directions,” says Stern, who now drinks coffee to sustain late nights at 55 Christopher rather than the cognac and cocaine combo that fueled his 55 Grand marathons. “In jazz there’s tons of music that’s timeless—when you rediscover it, it’s fresh again. Then there’s stuff that combines this-and-that, a fusion of different influences with a jazz sensibility at the core. A lot of that was happening at 55 Grand. It was a very cool hang, but self-destructive.”]
In 1984, Miles Davis told Stern, who was showing up to gigs visibly inebriated, “You have to cool out.” “I wasn’t  ready to do it,” Stern recalls. He joined forces with Pastorius, withdrew after a year to enter rehab, sobered up, moved to a quiet East Side neighborhood and rejoined Davis.
“The second time with Miles, he had two keyboard players, and was moving to the stuff he did with Marcus on Tutu, more pop-oriented and arranged,” Stern says. ”I could leave more space, and it felt more natural to do in that environment. He actually had me play some acoustic, nylon-string guitar. But the first band was open. When he told me we were going on the road after I played Fat Time, I said, ‘Great, that will be fun. Who’s playing keyboards?’ ‘Nobody. Just you.’ I was nervous. ‘Don’t  worry. I hear it. You just play.’ No one really knew what he wanted to do.
“You always had to be on your toes; sometimes we  get used to an arrangement, and he would change it on us at the last minute. He liked it when I  lay a chord underneath one of his notes, so I needed to listen closely to know what pitch he was playing. I didn’t get it right away. I thought some of this was going to fall flat on its face—and some of it wasn’t so happening. But some of it was amazing. That’s  what he was looking for.”

“Some people say, ‘I don’t care what anyone thinks.’” Stern remarks. “But that’s a bit strange for me. Music is supposed to be communicative.”
During an end-of-January week at Iridium in support of These Times, Stern balanced the populist imperatives that inform his writing with the workshopping attitude of musical adventure that inspires his 55 Christopher sessions. A heavyweight unit of Bona, Franceschini and drummer Dave Weckl helped Stern navigate five challenging compositions, replete with shifting tempos, gorgeous melodies, provocative hooks, and just enough harmonic protein to fuel the solos. Weckl modulated seamlessly from straight-eighth to spangalang; Bona, accompanying himself delicately on electric bass, sang two songs in a pure falsetto tenor, Stern matching his tone with lyric grace. During the burnouts, Bona carved out Afro-Pastorius flavored countermelodies that transcended the notion of a bassline. To use a cliche, the music was beyond category. Jazz, rock, blues and world feels coexisted and flourished, freed from their compartments, knit together by the smiling leader.
The tone of the proceedings recalled a comment from Frisell.  “I first became aware of Charlie Parker and bebop and the music of the ‘40s and ‘50s at just the moment when things were getting electric,” Frisell said. “So for me, that music was a natural continuum of using what was around to move ahead to the next step. Nobody knew what Fusion was; it didn’t seem that different from other moments that would happen along the way. Then after a few years, it seemed that fusion became codified. Patterns emerged, and people started fitting things into them. It became a style that you fit something into, just like jazz did. For me, jazz is a process of trying to make something happen.”

That was the way Miles Davis did things, and Stern seems to channel his restless spirit as organically as any of his fellow Miles alumni. “Whenever I hung out with Miles, he’d have the radio blasting to whatever was current at the time,” Stern says. “He was into all kinds of music. The more I step back, the older I get, I respect him even more. He was always moving.”

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Filed under Article, DownBeat, guitar, Mike Stern, Miles Davis

John Abercrombie’s Uncut Downbeat Blindfold Test

It’s John Abercrombie’s birthday, giving me an excuse to post the complete proceedings of a Blindfold Test I conducted with him about ten years ago.  His responses were terrific.

* * *

John Abercrombie Blindfold Test (Raw Copy):

1.    James Blood Ulmer, “Sphinx” (from MUSIC SPEAKS LOUDER THAN WORDS, DIW/Koch, 1995/1997) (James Blood Ulmer, g.; Calvin Jones, b.; Rashied Ali, d.) – (5 stars)

I love the feel of this piece.  It reminds me a little bit of something from sort of semi Sonny Sharrock, but not really.  It could be one of these Albert Ayler tunes or something like that, something in that vein.  It sounds like somebody who’s playing with their thumb a little bit, but it’s not Wes!  It doesn’t really sound like him, I didn’t know he played anything this out, but it could be… Could it be Kevin Eubanks?  It sounds too harmonically oriented to be Sonny Sharrock, but that was still my first take on it.  It still could even be somebody like that, but… James Blood?  Wow!  This is great.  I don’t know that tune.  I have to get this.  I’ve heard some other stuff by Blood and I liked it.  I have some of this stuff where he was singing that I enjoyed, but I’ll have to get this.  This definitely sounds very hip to me.  Very open.  And it’s kind of funny; that’s why I thought it was Sonny Sharrock, because of some of the similarities.  He sounds to me more harmonic.  I hear more harmonic information in his playing.  It’s cool.  And I think he does sort of play with his thumb a little bit, because it’s got a little bit of that feel.  It’s plucky.  He chokes the notes a little bit, so it… I’ll give this 5 stars.  I still like it. [AFTER] Now that you tell me it was Rashied Ali, it makes total sense, because I played with him once, and he has a great way of playing a sort of open music.  you really feel like they’re playing on a form or something.  It really has a great swing, a pulse to it.  It’s not just free.  I think that’s what makes it work.  That’s what makes everything sound so great.

2.    Gerardo Nunez, “Calima” (from CALIMA, Alula, 1998) (Nunez, guitar; Danilo Perez, piano; John Patitucci, b; Arto Tuncboyaci, d) – (4 stars)

An acoustic guitar.  Two players or it’s overdubbed.  I hear other parts.  That first part with just the guitar overdubs was just impeccable technique, whoever it is.  I mean, it’s almost perfect technically.  But I can’t tell from that who it is.  I might know, not by the content of what he’s playing, but just somebody playing the guitar that well.  This sounds like a Spanish Classical piece.  I’ll make a stab.  It’s not that guy Fareed Haque, is it?  Fareed is so technically proficient, that that’s what this kind of reminded me of.  The little bit I’ve heard him play Classical stuff, he has that kind of flawless technique.  I like it.  The beginning was beautiful, and this has a nice rhythm feel.  The approach of the guitar player… It sounds like everything’s almost kind of written, or it’s things you would include in a Classical or a Flamenco technique.  But it’s not a famous Flamenco player, I don’t think.  Now you’ve piqued my interest.  It’s not Paco, is it?  I’ve heard Paco do things that are kind of like this, with hand drums and of course that kind of technique is akin to a Flamenco player.  So it’s definitely somebody Spanish.  I can’t guess.  It’s very nice, but I can’t figure out who it is.  I’ll give it 4 stars for the really great feel.  Flawless guitar technique.  Wow.

3.    Jim Hall-Dave Holland, “End The Beguine” (from JIM HALL & BASSES, Telarc, 2001) (Hall, g; Holland, b) – (3-1/2 stars)

The bass player almost sounds like it could be Dave Holland, playing one of his little… But it’s probably not.  The only reason I mentioned Dave Holland (and I don’t think it’s Dave) is because I’ve played little pieces with Dave where it has this kind of feel.  Dave writes some of these little Indianesque-sounding, Arabian… The bass player does sound like he has some of Dave’s rhythmic concept, but I don’t know who… [Why don’t you think it’s Dave?] I don’t know.  I have to listen more.  I have to hear him solo to really know.  [Can you glean anything from the guitar player?] I’m not gleaning well right now.  It’s someone who’s Dave-like, but I don’t think it’s Dave.  The sound is not quite what I’m used to hearing; Dave has a bigger sound.  But then, he could be recorded differently.  And Dave usually sounds a little punchier.  And also Dave has certain rhythmic phrases that he does, because I’ve played with him so much, and I didn’t hear any of those.  But it does have an aura of that. It’s Dave?  Wow.  The guitar sounds like a 12-string.  I thought maybe it was Gismonti playing the 12-string, but I don’t think he and Dave ever played together. But the opening thing didn’t sound anything like something Gismonti would play.  That sounded more jazzy.  This is definitely somebody who’s a jazz player of sorts.  I know it’s not Ralph Towner, because it’s not good enough to be Ralph Towner playing 12-string. [LAUGHS] It’s good, but it’s not like what Ralph would play.  I don’t know if he started out on this instrument.  Did he change… No, there it is.  It’s all the same instrument.  I’m not going to get it. Can you give me a hint? [You’re going to feel bad if you don’t know who it is.] Oh, I think I know who it is now.  See, that’s all you had to say.  It’s Jim.  This sounds so different than what I’m used to hearing Jim play.  Harmonically and rhythmically, some of the chords… Now it does make sense that it’s Jim to me.  But at first it didn’t.  Maybe I still have Blood’s music in my head.  Because the opening, the first reading of the opening sounded a little Delta-like.  I got Dave, though.  I was pretty sure.  This is that album where Jim plays all the different duets.  I haven’t heard it.  Not that I have to, but I’ve never heard Jim play a 12-string guitar.  It’s not the instrument he normally would play.  It’s not the most interesting thing I’ve heard Jim do, but it’s still good, and I needed a hint from you to actually figure out who it was, although I was pretty good about Dave.  3-1/2 stars.  I think if I had heard him play on an electric guitar, with his more rounded tone and the tone I’m used to, playing a similar thing, I would have probably nailed it.  But like you said, it was hearing him play that instrument.

4.    Arsenio Rodriguez, “Rhapsodia del Maravilloso” (from Sabu, PALO CONGO, Blue Note, 1957/1999) (Rodriguez, guitar; “Sabu” L. Martinez, Raul Travieso, Israel Travieso, Ray Romero, congas; Ernesto Baro, bass) – (5 stars)

That’s a different instrument, too.  That’s either a 12-string or a tres.  A tres.  I got it.  That’s not Arsenio Rodriguez, is it?  I love this stuff.  The main reason I know about him, when I used to work years ago in a band called Dreams, was a trombone player who passed away named Barry Rogers, and Barry’s second instrument was the tres.  He used to play trombone and tres with a lot of the Latin bands, and he played me some Arsenio Rodriguez and said this was the cat.  This is more in the context of a rhythm section, but the bass player is very strongly prominent here, too.  This sounds not unlike the duet with Jim Hall and Dave Holland, in a strange way, because the tres is a double-stringed kind of instrument, if I’m not mistaken.  This gets 5 stars.  I’m not surprised I got it. But once I figured out what the instrument was… I know Wes didn’t record on tres!  I can make jokes.  But I know that other people didn’t, so it has to be either the heavyweight guy or somebody I didn’t know.  Beautiful music.

5.    Nels Cline-Gregg Bendian, “Mars” (from INTERSTELLAR SPACE, Atavistic, 1999) (Cline, el.g; Bendian, drums) – (3 stars)

Definitely sounds like a real free electric guitar player, but somebody with a lot of chops.  I don’t recognize… Wow.  Twisted.  I like it.  I can’t tell from the content of what he’s playing who it is. [Do you have any idea of what it is they’re playing?] I may know it.  I’ll listen a little bit more.  That part sounds like a tune!  There are a lot of guys I haven’t heard maybe that much.  Could it be Vernon Reid?  I don’t know.  It’s too jazzy to be Vernon.  Vernon would be more like Hendrix and Rock.  This has that tone, but it’s obviously somebody who’s played… [It’s a West Coast player.] Now I know who it is.  Nels Cline.  Nels is the only guy I know on the West Coast guitar-wise who would play something that might sound like this.  It sounds great.  For my ears there could be a little more dynamics, but I’m not playing it.  It maintains a real high density level at all times.  Which I enjoy playing more than I enjoy listening to, I think.  But I like it.  It’s definitely got some harmonic knowledge and some lines that he’s using… I’ll give it 3 stars. [This is “Mars” from INTERSTELLAR SPACE] Oh, I would never get that!

6.    David Fiuczynski, “Down Under” (from CHARTBUSTERS, Hip-Bop, 1995) (Fiuczynski, guitar; Dr. Lonnie Smith, organ; Lenny White, drums) – (4 stars)

Nice guitar tone.  I like the tone.  It’s over-driven, but in a nice sort of sweet way.  I like that. That part sounded like something Scofield would play.  Amazing technique.  All these lines here are pure Scofield.  Pretty pure.  But the other stuff isn’t.  He’s a funny composite of things, real blues-drenched, a great tone, some real heavy… Those lines didn’t sound… Super slinky technique.  Amazing.  Some of it sounds pretty original.  He definitely sounds like a pastiche of a lot of different players, but amazing control.  This sounds like Larry Young almost.  Dr. Lonnie.  I could tell by these sort of broken arpeggiated things he does that kind of go across the keys.  That’s beautiful.  Now I can guess on the guitar player, and it may be a wrong guess.  Is it Paul Bollenbeck?  I’ve heard Paul play things that are technically like speed of light.  This guy’s got speed-of-light technique.  Definitely 4 stars. [AFTER] Fiuczynski!  He sounds amazing.  He really does.  It’s amazing technique.  Great lines.  Some of them directly culled from the Scofield vocabulary.  Sounds great.  Like I say, he’s a pastiche of many things.  But he sure has picked some good things to put in his trick bag.

7.    Russell Malone, “Heartstrings” (from HEARTSTRINGS, Verve, 2001) (Russell Malone, g.; Kenny Barron, p.; Christian McBride, b; Jeff Watts, d.; strings; arr. Johnny Mandel) – (4-1/2 stars)

Another great guitar sound.  I like this sound.  This sounds a little more familiar to me.  I think I know who this is.  Is it Russell Malone?  I heard this actually driving in a car one time, and I was so taken with the pretty sound he got… It really is a lovely sound.  I distinctly remember it.  When I first heard it, I wasn’t sure who it was, so it was like in a blindfold test.  I was driving my car waiting for the announcer, and I was kind of going through my mind, and Russell’s name was one of the names that popped into my head.  I don’t know his playing that well.  I’ve only heard him on a couple of things, but this is the best thing I’ve heard him do with his tone.  His solo is very bluesy, more than I’m used to hearing him play.  Maybe he’s more of a bluesy player than I realize.  I haven’t checked him out that much.  Isn’t he from Georgia?  I thought the solo was really good.  The time when I did hear this record in my car, this is exactly the tune I heard, and I was struck not only by the sound, but by some really interesting parts in the solo that I wasn’t expecting.  Because the solo has kind of a very laid-back, bluesy feel, and all of a sudden there’s these oddball notes and a couple of funny phrases.  So I thought it was a very good solo, well-constructed and a beautiful tone.  I’ll give it 4-1/2.

8.    Simon Shaheen, “Blue Flame” (from BLUE FLAME, 2001, Ark-21) (Simon Shaheen, oud; Bassam Saba, nay & fl.; Billy Drewes, ss; Adam Rodgers, ag; Francois Moutin, b; Lorenzo Martinez, bongos; Steve Sheehan, caxixi, brushes, cymbals, diembe, durbakka; Jamie Haddad, hadjira drum, cymbals, hadgini) – (5 stars)

It’s an oud.  There’s a couple of oud players I’ve heard, and one is the guy who records… I’ve heard a few.  I brought back some music from Istanbul.  But I can never pronounce this guy’s name.  Isn’t this Rabih… No?  Then maybe I don’t know who this person is.  There’s a couple of guys I used to listen to.  There’s a guy who records for ECM, Anwar, but he wouldn’t play this kind of stuff. This is more rhythmic; he’s more floaty, from what I’ve heard.  Then there’s the guy that used to make the records for Enja years ago, Rabih ..(?).. This is what it reminds me of.  I like the solo a lot, maybe more than the composition.  I like the feel of the composition, but I like the sound of the solo.  I like this part.  It’s really open. It’s almost like a jazz player playing oud.  But it’s not.  It’s an oud player playing oud.  It’s got a looseness to it, though.  Makes me want to play with a pick again, hearing some of these fast lines.  The solo was absolutely beautiful with the rhythm section.  It’s so loose.  It sounds like they’re playing in 5/4.  It takes me a while to figure out sometimes what the odd time signature is, but I’m pretty sure it was 5, which is a very hard time signature to play in — at least for me.  But it was so loose and so effortless.  And the sound of the oud, it’s like one of my favorite instruments.  It almost sounds like somebody took a classical guitar and tuned it down real low so the strings are really elastic.  It’s really one of the warmest instruments.  But this guy, I’m sorry I didn’t know him.  Now I’ll have to go and listen more to him.  5 stars.  It’s totally happening.  I wish I knew him.  Now I will know.

9.    Joe Morris, “Manipulatives” (from UNDERTHRU, Omnitone, 1999) (Morris, guitar; Mat Maneri, violin; Chris Lightcap, b.; Gerald Cleaver, d) – (3 stars)

This almost reminds me of something I did years ago with Barre Phillips and John Surman and Stu Martin.  I played on a couple of tunes on Barre’s record.  The rhythm section sounded like this, kind of in time but really kind of wacky.  This is kind of how I played back then!  It’s interesting, but I wish it was a little more cohesive somehow.  The rhythm section seems to be almost overpowering the soloist a bit.  It also could be the mix.  If you heard these guys play live, maybe it would be the opposite, or maybe it’s perfectly balanced, but it sounds a little more… The thing about this kind of playing to me is… Which is what I liked more about, say, the Blood Ulmer thing.  Even though that was rambling and a little wacky, it’s clear somehow.  It has a real cohesiveness.  This doesn’t have that.  This feels scattered, kind of.  It’s not my most favorite stuff.  It’s probably me!  I have no idea who he is.  I could make an educated guess. Joe Morris.  Wow!  I’m a good educated guesser.  I like this, but for me it lacks the cohesiveness of the Blood Ulmer thing or maybe even the Nels Cline thing you played me.  It’s in that same genre.  Well, my band can no doubt at times sound like this!  It sounds more balanced during the violin solo in terms of the actual sonic density of it.  This is another kind of music that maybe I like to play a little more than actually sit down and listen to it.  But because I play this way, I can appreciate it.  It’s fun to play this way and they sound good.  My educated guess for the violin player is Maneri.  But I don’t know him.  He sounds good.  Now the music is starting to gel for me.  Even though it’s more dense, it sounds better now.  3 stars. I like what they’re trying to do, but it doesn’t sound as cohesive as some of the other stuff to me.

10.    Kurt Rosenwinkel, “A Life Unfolds” (from THE NEXT STEP, Verve, 2000) (Rosenwinkel, guitar; Mark Turner, ts; Ben Street, bass; Jeff Ballard, drums) – (5 stars)

I’ve got to know this.  It’s probably a 7-string guitar.  Very nice.  Again, sometimes I go for the tone first.  Even if I’m not trying to figure out who it, almost all the players… Actually, everybody you played me today has a good tone, in their own way.  They’re all different, too.  Every one of them had a completely different approach to the tone of the guitar.  This sounds so familiar to me.  It’s a very nice composition.  It’s beautiful.  I think I know who this is.  I think it’s Kurt Rosenwinkel.  I know this.  This is from his second CD.  This is gorgeous.  I remember when bought this CD, and I liked the whole CD, but I remember when I got to this tune, I played it three or four times.  I had to hear it that many times.  This guy has got something that’s different.  I don’t know what the tuning is.  He’s definitely got the guitar retuned on the bottom on some lower strings.  You can hear them… A very clear but warm tone.  Again, I’m attracted to the tone, but he also is a very fluid, melodic player — lyrical, let’s say.  He also sings when he plays.  When I’ve heard him, he sings these little falsetto things.  Sometimes he’ll actually sing the lines, and he’s not just playing some blues ideas.  He’s playing some complicated lines and he sings with it.  So the response to that is he actually hears what he plays!  It’s amazing.  This is a great composition.  5 stars all the way.  Playing, composition…this is great.

11.    St. Germain, “Montego Bay Spleen” (from TOURIST, Blue Note, 2000) (Ernest Ranglin, g.; Ludovic Navarre, conductor; Alexandre Destrez, keyboards; Idresse Diop, talking drum; Carneiro, percussion) – (3 stars)

Nice groove, nice atmosphere.  It’s hard for me to tell who the guitar player is.  The actual guitar playing sounds a little more mainstream than I thought it would sound hearing the rhythm.  I thought the guitar player might play further out, but this is more in playing.  Very sparse.  He’s not playing a lot.  Sure it’s not one of my records?  No… What the hell was that?  That sounded like an edit.  I couldn’t tell; it was so strange. It’s strange, because most of what he’s playing is kind of straight, and then when he played these quirky lines, it didn’t seem to fit in with the rest of what he was playing.  This is a hard one to even make an educated guess at.  The tone is like a jazz guitar tone, a sort of brighter sound.  It’s not my favorite; I like a darker sound.  Well, that’s HIS sound.  I shouldn’t comment. But it sounds like a big guitar with sort of a bright sound, like a big jazz box — or at least a medium-size jazz box.  This one completely stumps me. 3 stars. Ernest Ranglin!  Sorry.  There’s no way I could get it.  I know the name.  Is he from Jamaica?

12.    Sylvain Luc & Bireli Lagrene, “Stompin’ At The Savoy” (from DUET, Dreyfuss, 1999) (Sylvain Luc, Bireli Lagrene, guitars) – (4 stars)

Acoustic guitar duo.  Wow, he’s so astute!  I like the way they’re breaking it up. The one guy is playing almost like a percussion instrument, tapping.  The guy playing the solo sounds very blues-like.  Good blues player.  Mmm!  I like this guitar player a lot.  Whoo!  I want to steal some of his lines.  Impeccable kind of technique, but very bluesy at the same time.  I mean, he’s not like somebody who I’d all of a sudden go, “Oh, that’s Wes or Kenny or Sco or Bill Frisell or Grant Green.”  A lot of this kind of playing… I think it’s great.  I totally admire it, and think it’s fantastic.  But it doesn’t have as much of an instantly identifiable thing.  It’s like amazingly great guitar playing.  Is this the second guy playing now?  I can’t tell.  I think maybe it’s the second guy.  It almost sounds like something I’ve heard before, but I can’t put my finger on it.  I mean, it’s “Stompin’ At The Savoy.”  I know the tune, but I don’t know the… Some of the other things you played me, I might know the player but not the tune.  Here I know the tune but not the players.  Is it Bireli Lagrene?  Yeah, and there’s another guy on this.  I’ve heard this before.  I think this is the other guy playing, but I can’t remember who it is.  Sylvain Luc.  Okay.  I may even have this.  It’s amazing playing. I’ll give it 4 stars because it maybe didn’t sound as original as some of the other things, but man, I wish I had those chops.

13.    Derek Bailey-John Butcher, “High Vortex” (from VORTICES AND ANGELS, Emanem, 1992/2001) (Bailey, guitar; Butcher, ss) – (4 stars)

Sounds like my train is here!  I’d better run and get to the platform.  It’s the 5:07; it’s in early.  I’m trying to figure out if the instrument on the right is actually a guitar, whether it’s processed, or if the bass is being bowed… Derek Bailey?  It’s a horn.  Is it a horn?  I can’t tell. Soprano saxophone?  Then maybe it’s somebody like Evan Parker.  No?  Somebody whose name I probably know, but wouldn’t be able to… [He’s English] I figured he’d be a gentleman.  I’m sure when I hear his name, I’ll know it.  I may even have played with the guy, because I’ve played with some English musicians.  This is the kind of thing that unless you really listen to this music a lot, it would be hard to tell.  But it’s instantly identifiable as Derek Bailey…because he’s instantly identifiable! [LAUGHS] It’s the least guitar-like in terms of what most of the world thinks of as guitar playing, but I knew who it was pretty quickly, whereas some of the other things I wouldn’t know, especially when it’s amazing feats of technique.  I’m impressed with that.  But I know who he is when I hear him.  So that’s kind of an interesting take on it all — style or being able to recognize somebody, even if it’s just abstract, in comparison to what you played before. I’m really nice today.  I’ll give it 4 stars.  I like it.  He sustains a mood that’s kind of interesting. It’s like free playing that’s sort of… You can go on for a long time, because the density is not so dense as a couple of the other things you played for me, that are hard to listen to.  It’s very quiet, it’s almost chamber-like, so you can listen to it and get inside it.

14.    Mark Elf, “Cheek To Cheek” (from DREAM STEPPIN’, Jen-Bay, 2002) (Elf, guitar; Neal Miner, b; Lewis Nash, d.) – (3 stars)

“Cheek to Cheek.”  Again, I know the tune.  We’ll see if I know the player.  But this sounds like somebody, just from the outset, who’s a real traditionalist.  Nice-a feel, like Lawrence Welk used to say.  They’ve got a good feeling.  This could be a lot of different people.  Again, it’s not one of the major guys that I grew up listening to.  It’s not Tal or Jimmy Raney, but it has that kind of sound.  It sounds like a more modern recording.  Nice.  It’s someone who kind of bridges.. They’re a bebopper, but they’ve also got a swing kind of feel to it.  Is it somebody like Howard Alden?  It’s great playing.  I just don’t know… It could be several different people.  That’s why I mentioned Howard.  But yeah, this is maybe a little more bebop than Howard, a little more Howard.  This has a little bit of that swing feel.  He loves the eighth note, and he manages to play just about every one.  There’s a little space.  It’s not somebody like Cal Collins, is it?  There’s a lot of these guys whose playing I’m sort of familiar with, but I don’t really know them that well. [He’s not a Concord artist] Then I wouldn’t know him.  If it’s not ECM or Concord, I’m screwed.  It’s none of the guys I really know.  And I don’t think it’s someone like Bucky Pizzarelli, because he doesn’t play this many lines.  It’s not someone I know.  It’s not Jack Wilkins.  That’s a modern voicing.  Wow!  It’s got me stumped.  I don’t recognize the bass player and drummer particularly.  Everybody is good, but nothing is grabbing me.  It’s funny, he sort of ends with something a little more modern, a little harmonically different.  The other playing was pretty inside, in a way.  It’s very good, but it didn’t strike a bell with me.  3 stars.

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Filed under Blindfold Test, DownBeat, guitar, John Abercrombie

Uncut Blindfold Test With Vernon Reid, Who Turns 53 Today

To mark guitar giant Vernon Reid’s 53rd birthday, I’m posting the uncut proceedings of a DownBeat Blindfold Test that he sat for a few years back on the occasion of the release of Birthright, an unaccompanied Ulmer recording that he produced, following the ensemble dates Memphis Blood: The Sun Sessions (2001) and No Escape from the Blues: The Electric Lady Sessions (2003).

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1. Henry Threadgill, “Biggest Crumb” (from MAKE A MOVE: EVERYBODY’S MOUTH’S A BOOK, Pi, 2001) (Threadgill, as, comp; Brandon Ross, eg; Bryan Carrott, vb; Stomu Takeishi, eb: Dafnis Prieto, d) (4 stars)

I said before I was not going to try to guess, because I’ll get it all wrong.  But this is very reminiscent of a period of jazz and improvised music… It’s very much in the Henry Threadgill-Anthony Davis… I sort of would take a stab at guessing the guitarist. I think maybe Brandon Ross, maybe Michael Gregory… The thing about it is the sense of space, the sense of giving each note a kind of weight. Which comes from… There’s a certain kind of power in applying one’s chops in that way, to give each note its dignity, if you will. This reminds me of a certain time period, or a certain school of composition, very much like Oliver Lake, Henry Threadgill… It’s the kind of thing that Jay Hoggard used to do. There are other players that have come up, like Ben Monder, who… I mean, Ben Monder is absolutely outrageous.  Or Jef Lee Johnson, who’s another monster, has an unbelievable amount of chops, but is also able to give each note a kind of dignity.  I don’t mean that in any pompous or stiff kind of way, but more like the space around the notes really has an important sense of weight. I would say Frisell is another player, in a completely different way than the school I’m talking about… But he’s another practitioner of that, giving weight to the notes, a kind of dignified weight. I loved it. I don’t want to be too easy a marker, but I would give it 4 stars. [AFTER] It’s a school that I have a great deal of respect for. I love it. I think about a whole bunch of cats, like Baikida Carroll.  Jerome Harris, who’s a phenomenal bassist-guitarist and one of my personal heroes, is part of that whole crew. Even cats like Tim Berne… There’s a thing about giving space and angles. It’s very angled and pointillistic. Very astringent. Not sentimental at all, but not cold. Not at all cold.  Not mathematical.

2. Robert Lockwood, Jr., “Terraplane Blues” (from THE COMPLETE TRIX RECORDINGS, 32 Jazz, 1977/2003) (Robert Lockwood, Jr., vocals, g; Robert Johnson, composer.) (2½ stars)

This is one of those records that I should be able to just say, “Oh, yeah, that’s his date! Jimmy Kimbrough!” Know what I mean? [LAUGHS] It’s a funny thing with records like this, is like… Oh, man! One thing that’s interesting about it is that the tuning is so… It’s slide guitar in an open tuning, with the guitarist sort of, to most ears, out of tune. Know what I mean? But that’s part of an aesthetic that’s like not trying to plug into a chord tuner and work that out. I wouldn’t want to hazard a guess. I’d probably get it wrong. [What did you think about the way he sang?] It’s very funny, because that “you-hoo!” reminds me very much of Robert Johnson. There’s somebody else who it reminds me of and maybe that’s who it is! “Terraplane Blues.” But whenever I hear a song like this, I want to hear “Hellhound On My Trail.”It’s a firmly traditional approach.  These sorts of things are difficult to critique, because it’s like who am I? How dare… Certain traditions are sacrosanct almost. One of the things I like about a cat like Alvin Youngblood Hart is that he’s taken this approach, but he’s singing about modern times. It’s very much like someone that’s studied to be an oil painter but is painting modern subjects. Alvin will have a song about a crack dealer in a country blues style, which I think is really important for the development of the music, and I think traditions can’t get stuck in stone. [Did that sound like a guy who was born in the tradition or a younger guy?] It’s very funny, because the tuning says to me that it’s an older traditional thing, but it could very well be a younger guy tuning with that kind of tuning, which would be very… Not arch, but it would be very knowing. It’s a real gesture for a modern person to have an open tuning in a country blues setting where the tuning is out of tune. It feels…I don’t know, a little arch. Whereas I almost expect it with the more primitive… I mean that in terms of the more primal blues recordings. It’s kind of hard, because you compare this to “Death Letter” by Son House… That is another level of what this is. But it’s a respectable performance.  It’s hard to say how much this performer had at stake. I mean, he’s firmly in command of the idiom, whether it’s an older performer or younger.  But I didn’t get a sense of… It was good. Can you give it stars?  If “Hellhound on My Trail” or “Death Letter” is 5… I mean, it’s well performed.  I wasn’t sure if… It’s weird… [It depends who it is, kind of?] Well, actually it doesn’t.  Because if it turns out to be an older character… If it’s a younger guy, wow.  If it turns out to be Keb Mo’, it’s like, dope. If it’s an older cat, it’s like “Oh.” But these things do have qualitative differences, too. Like I said, if I’m taking “Hellhound On My Trail” as a 5 and “Death Letter” as a 5, or “Devil Got My Woman” as 5, this is really maybe 2-1/2. [AFTER] Really! All right. You know what? It’s so funny, because I love him in more urban… To me, he’s a city blues guy, and I love him with a rhythm section and like that. I think he’s brilliant. I think this is the sort of thing where it’s cool that he can do it, but this is not really his… I mean, who am I to say? It’s like a performer I really dig, but this particular song didn’t do it for me.

3. Rodney Jones, “Oliver and Thad” (from THE UNDISCOVERED FEW, Blue Note, 1999) (Rodney Jones, g. & comp; Lonnie Plaxico, b; Eric Harland, d; Robert Allende, perc.; Earl Gardner, tp; Morris Goldberg, as; Tim Ries, ts; Charles Gordon, tb) (4½ stars)

Swinging the doors off! Wow. All right, now. It’s so fun, man! I would take a stab at Grant Green. Whoo! It’s also so wild, because it also reminds me of one of my teachers, Rodney Jones. Rodney Jones and Bruce Johnson, too. I love it. Beautiful. I love this. The use of parallel fourths. [SINGS THEM] Beautiful arrangement. You know what’s so funny, man, I can’t tell whether this is an older recording or… [HORN SOLI/SHOUT CHORUS] It’s such a… Wow!  Whoo! I love this. It blows me away.  Totally blows me away. Killing. It’s such a kind of late ‘50s-early ‘60s kind of arrangement.  It’s a total jazz lounge, hipster… It’s such an arched-eyebrow arrangement. You know what I mean? It’s Hip with a capital H. Phenomenal. And this is very much built on Wes Montgomery’s kind of chordal voicings. Man, I loved that! That is outstanding. I mean, it’s so funny, because I’m hearing… First I’m hearing that R&B’ish, almost kind of funk to it. To me, Grant Green had this whole kind of… It’s very uptown, very kind of North Philly or Harlem type of thing. It really brings to mind a whole social milieu. There’s a whole thing that went along with music like that. There’s so much to admire.  The arrangement sounds more like a transcription, the way the chord solo was arranged for the horns. I said it reminded me of Rodney Jones. I could hear Rodney arching his eyebrow and doing that, absolutely. I’m probably going to be wrong, but the school of playing is a very kind of hard swing school that incorporates… Obviously, the bebop thing is there, but it’s also very modal, very modernist. The augmented fourths, or augmented fourth type of things, the superimpositions and things like that. And very aware of… Wes’ thing was very much. Bruce Johnson has a song called “I Remember Wes”. [SINGS REFRAIN] That’s the school. I would hate to be wrong!  But it reminds me of Rodney. 4-1/2 stars.

4. Egberto Gismonti, “Salvador (branco)” (from DANÇA DOS ESCRAVOS, ECM, 1988) (Gismonti, guitars, composer) (3½ stars)

I’m going to take a guess and say Egberto Gismonti. I spent so much time listening to DANCA DOS CARBAS, and listening to his duet record with Nana Vasconcelos. The ten-string guitar thing. At first, I was thinking, “Okay, this is an oud” or something. But this is… He’s got a very punchy, very physical, very… It’s interesting, because it reminds me a bit of Ralph Towner, even though it’s very different, but there was a certain kind of attack and very kind of dense clustered improvisation that was very much a kind…I don’t know about ECM school, but it was very… If that’s not Egberto, well, sure… It’s hard to think of a record label as having a school, but it’s very intense, terse melodic statements, attacking the instrument… It’s sort of like the anti Michael Hedges. It’s weird. Like, the level of playing ability is astronomical. It’s incredibly high. Stratosphere. It’s a virtuosity that’s very… It’s very not Paco De Lucia. It’s very much not that. It’s also tied to… You could picture this happening in the Amazon by the side of a river. I will stick by… If that’s not Egberto Gismonti, it is someone who is paying an homage. How many stars?  Egberto is one of these cats that’s almost… I won’t say it’s above criticism. The playing is phenomenal, the improvisation is phenomenal. He’s done other pieces that I’ve liked better. As far as the realm of guitar players, 5 stars, but for his own work… If that’s who it is!  If I’m right, comparing it to his own work, I’d give it 3½.

5. George Freeman, “I Wish I Knew” (from REBELLION, Southport, 1995) (George Freeman, g; Von Freeman, p; Penny Pendleton, b; Michael Raynor, d) (4 stars)

This is very romantic. Beautiful tone. What I like about this is that this is a very much… People should only play ballads if they really believe. I think a lot of times, it’s like an exercise where you’ve got to play a ballad, that’s how you’re a well-rounded player, blah-blah-blah. But to me, ballads only sing if there’s a THERE there. It’s not really about the chops, but it’s really about the commitment to what the melody is, or what the lyric is, or what that feeling is.  And this person unquestionably has that commitment. I love the minimalism in this approach. Because the minimalism is not for any lack of… You can hear the players negotiating the changes very well.  But there’s a kind of forbearance.  It really is about wanting to tell a story. To want to tell the particular story of this song. It seems to me that so many of these songs were wartime songs and post-war songs, from the ‘40s and ‘50s, this kind of writing… The guitar just sings. It sings. I love the use of… If you want to talk about techniques, I love the use of slurring in some of the phrases. I love this. I’m a little… I would guess Grant Green again! [LAUGHS] When I talked about Rodney… [You’re in the right geographic range.] I’m in the right geographic range. It’s not Grant Green. It’s definitely not. Whoo! Using fourths like octaves! I love that. Well, this isn’t my favorite part of the solo. You can leave the fourths alone now! It’s beautiful, though. Beautiful player. Man, it’s weird, because I hear a little of the Jim Hall thing, strangely enough. It sounds like a solid body guitar… Definitely not Jim Hall. I’m in a real bind. Because I know I’ll just throw names out. Definitely 4 stars. [AFTER] Fantastic! What year is this? Good heavens! Man, I love this. Good for him. I loved that. That’s fantastic. So that’s Chico Freeman’s uncle? Has Chico ever made a record with him. What’s up with that? I’m almost positive that was a solid body guitar. Very, very nice.

6. Mike Stern, “Chatter” (from IN THESE TIMES, ESC, 2003) (Stern, eg. comp.; Kenny Garrett, ss; Arto Tuncboyaci, perc.; Jim Beard, p, synth; Will Lee, b; Vinnie Colaiuta, d; Elizabeth Kontomanou, voc) (4 stars)

That head is a bitch! [LAUGHS] They’re still playing the head! It’s very neat. It’s kind of spiffy! [LAUGHS] I mean, it’s incredibly well-arranged music. First thing I want to say is Mike Stern. Some of that phrasing. [Is “spiffy and neat” positive or negative?] It’s cool! It’s very… I mean, there are several people. I’m trying to figure out who that is soprano. It’s a very kind of New York school recording. It’s weird. There are certain people… It makes me think of like super bop head mixed with the Scott Henderson type of trip, too. But it’s funky, too. Not that Scott Henderson isn’t funky… But it’s hard to play.  There are several people I could turn around and go, “Oh, it could be that person.” I like it, too, because it’s sort of goofy, in a weird… [LAST CHORD] See, that’s what I mean. See, that ending, the neat ending. That’s what I mean, it’s neat. Boy, that’s a tough one, man. In the rock section of the solo, it made me think of Mike Stern. It reminded me, for that matter, of Leni Stern. I’m not trying to lump people into a bag. But there was definitely a part of that that’s reminiscent of Mike. See, I didn’t want to play the guessing game.  The worst thing is I actually got a few right, and now that I got a few right, I’m like “Okay.” It’s very well done. The musicianship is high. Like, everyone that’s on the set is kicking. It’s a little nudge-wink-wink. It’s a little bit of “because I can” which is in the mix, which is fair enough, because everyone from M-BASE to Tribal Tech is kind of there—“because I can!” I’ll give it 4. [AFTER] Mike plays at a super high level. Mike’s walked in the fire, and I have mad respect for him, and admiration, too, because he plays his ass off. It’s funny, because a cat like him, there isn’t really much that he can’t play, so then it becomes a question of choices. Because he’s at that level of technical accomplishment where… So it’s really about choices. I mean, this was cool. A little overdetermined for my taste.

7. Bill Frisell, “Ron Carter” (from BLUES DREAM, Nonesuch, 2001 (Frisell, eg, comp.; Greg Leisz, guitars; Ron Miles, tp; Curtis Fowlkes, tb; David Piltch, b; Kenny Wolleson, d) (4 stars)

This is lovely. There’s something, for want of a better word, grand about it. There are two guitar players? Wow! This is a hard one. Mmm. Man, the phrasing reminds me of Frisell’s. It’s so funny, because the tone is so, in a way… If this is Bill, it’s the more agro side of his playing. Then the other person I’m thinking is Dave Tronzo. I’m grasping at straws. If it’s not Bill, the person is not a stranger to Bill’s work. It’s weird, I’m saying that, but it’s strange… It’s so… Okay. Listening to it, I will stick my neck out and say it’s Frisell. For the other guitarist, I could guess Wolfgang Muthspiel… I said Tronzo before. Maybe Tronzo. If not Tronzo, then I’m stumped. I don’t know that Marc Ribot and Frisell have recorded together, which would be frightening! But I loved it.  It was very stately.  I loved the simplicity of the bass line. I’m a sucker for that. I kind of came up with A Love Supreme playing in the background. [The piece is named “Ron Carter.”] I love that. I think people should start naming free jazz tracks for people in our government. Miles did it, and people should never stop that. I want to have a song called “John Ashcroft,” 20 minutes of total… Do an entire record where every record is a member of the Bush Cabinet. Condy Rice. That would be pretty funny. But I’ll give this 4 stars. I loved the arrangement.

8. Bireli Lagrene, Jimmy Rosenberg, “Swing ‘49” (from DJANGO REINHARDT NY FESTIVAL: LIVE AT BIRDLAND, Atlantic, 2000) (Lagrene, lead gtr solo, Rosenberg, 2nd guitar solo; Frank Vignola, rhythm guitar; Jon Burr, b) (3-3/4)

Whoo!  Whoa-hoo-hoo-whoo-hoo!  Whoa! Wow! It’s weird. I know who I want to guess the  guitar player is, but I can’t think of it. My brain won’t allow me his name. This is a gypsy kind of… I’ll know when you say the name… I’m completely blanking on it. But I’ll tell you what.  There was one arpeggio in the beginning of the thing that was just HO-LEE COW! This is the kind of thing Larry Coryell loves to do, though. This is very much a Larry Coryell… Larry Coryell is funny, because… This could be Larry and Julian. I was thinking about somebody totally else, but now… Because… Oh, BROTHER!! The playing is outrageously good. The other gypsy kid… It’s killing me. I can’t think of who it is. I hate when that happens to me.  He’s technically phenomenal, and I’m literally blanking on his name. But you know, the thought that it’s Larry… This guessing game is a craziness. Hey, man, shit, it… It’s a very regimented… It’s the kind of style where the playing is very on-the-beat. It’s like 16ths, 32nds, 64ths, with the occasional triplet thrown in. This is the kind of thing that you either do or you don’t. Heh-heh. I guess every music is like that, but… It’s another episode of “because I can.” They’re killing. They’re killing players. Star-wise? Can I give stars for technique and stars for… To me, shit, technique, it’s like, wow, 4½—the technique is high. The music? You know, I have to be in a mood… It’s sort of like music that wows me, but, like, “wow.” It’s music I respect. I love Django, of course, because Django is the great poet of the style. But the tune… So the technique is 4½, but the actual music I’ll give 3. That’s 3-3/4. [AFTER] I could not for the life of me call his name up. Especially after hearing that first arpeggio, I’d instantly say, “Oh, that’s Bireli Lagrene.” Absolutely. You know, he was a prodigy like Pat Martino. He was like a wunderkind. The guy’s playing at an incredibly high level. It’s like a heavily traditional thing. You go, “Okay, that’s great, I respect it, it’s wonderful, blah-blah-blah.” It’s a vernacular thing. It’s like not my thing, you know. Heh.

9.  Jimmy Smith/B.B. King, “Three O’Clock Blues” (from Jimmy Smith, DOT COM BLUES, Verve, 2000) (King, g, vocal, comp.; Smith, organ; Neil Hubbard, John Porter, g; Chris Stainton, p; Pino Palladino, b; Andy Newark, d)

[INSTANTLY] B.B. King. Well, I could have told you after that first note. B.B. King, baby! One of the King family. Freddie, Albert… You know what I love about this? He sounds committed. Tell you what. One time I saw Miles Davis and B.B. King, and B.B. King was opening for Miles Davis—the Beacon Theater. B.B. King opened up a can of whup-ass. Let me tell you something. I’d seen Miles before after he came back, and my jaw must have just pulled open. He came out, and I was enthralled. I couldn’t help myself. B.B. King came out, and maybe he knew he was opening for Miles Davis, but… You know all that kind of showy stuff?  He came out, and it was like, “Oh, no. Miles, you gon’ have to work tonight.” It took two-three songs before Miles… I mean, Miles was great. But B.B. King came out, and it was like, “No-no, no-no-no. No.” B.B. King will pull out some Charlie Christian shit out on your ass. Don’t sleep. He will pull some shit. “What did you do…?!” Lovely, man. The tone. The tone! The TONE. Tone. I like that this is an acoustic band. This is a little bit away from his… He’s a very popular artist. But this is more a back-in-the-day type of vibe than what he’s been doing a lot lately. I had the honor of working with Mr. King in the studio, co-producing a couple of tracks, and it was one of the great honors of my life to be in his presence. So I am very biased. People talk about the B.B. King style, and they don’t know what they’re talking about. It’s so encoded in his hands. You know what I mean? I’d definitely give it 4. [AFTER] Jimmy Smith?  See, that might be why! [LAUGH] It had that quality, man, of just… It’s raw. It’s rawer. Beautiful.

10. Noel Akchoté, “Peanut” (from SONNY II: THE MUSIC OF SONNY SHARROCK, Winter & Winter, 2004) (Akchoté, guitars; Sonny Sharrock, comp.) (3 stars)

Buggin’ out on the prairie! I like this. And one of the things I like about this is that it’s really not an attempt… It really is about the melody. It really is not about the technique. This is the kind of thing which is very difficult to do, to be interesting by oneself. I would take a guess that it’s Marc Ribot. It’s not Marc? Is it John Preshante(?)? Well, I don’t know who it is, but I like it. Marc put out a solo record which is very much in this… But that’s an electric guitar record, and this is obviously acoustic. But just the idea of just the guitar naked, but in a particularly… To do something that’s really not so based on kind of trying to do a virtuoso, Joe Pass type of thing, but just the melody, and really just an approach to what the song is. It’s not meant to blow you away with the guitar playing. It’s meant to deliver a particular interpretation of a melody. It’s funny, man. That to me is much more risky. Because if you are a guitarist of some accomplishment and you just keep at it-keep at it-keep at it, get it flawless, and record the flawless, impressive thing, there’s a certain… It speaks to an already going conversation about the guitar, that it should be done by highly skilled practitioners who play flawlessly. That’s very much a conversation about the instrument that is incredibly limiting. That’s not to say that people who can’t play should just do whatever.  And can’t-playing is more like, “Well, I really want to play like this, but I haven’t put in the time to play like that, so I’ll play like this.” Or, “I’m really not prepared to deliver this melody.” Or, “I’m not committed to the melody.” Or, if there is no melody, “I’m not committed to my improvisation.” And I’m not committed to it stand or fall. I’m making excuses about it, or I’m doing this fallback thing where, okay, well, I’ll put in something impressive technically or I’ll play the bebop thing so you know that I can play. To put in the bebop phrase to let you know that I “can play.” This whole need to justify. It’s a particular disease that guitarists have. It’s sort of like this idea that I’ve got to come up and let you know that I’m impressive like Buckethead or impressive like Sean Lane or impressive like this one or that one, and not to let the melody be itself. Obviously, these things can take you to technical places. I’m certainly not anti-technique. But what I liked about that piece is the fact that it is, in a way, a kind of un-playing, that is really about the song, about that melody, and there’s something very… I hear the wide-open plains. Obviously, a bluegrass cat would approach it in a totally different way, or someone into the Country-and-Western thing is going to go into the idiomatic thing. But I can go on and on and on, and I’ll stop right here! How many stars? Sticking my neck out… Having said all of that, then I give him 1! 1 star. 1 star forever, buddy! I’d give him 3.[AFTER] I have never heard of him. It’s interesting, because there’s this French cat, Marc Ducret. Wow! This cat is a cat of high accomplishment and derring-do.

11. John Scofield, “Name That Tune” (from LIVE: EN ROUTE, Verve, 2004) (John Scofield, g.; Steve Swallow, eb, comp.; Bill Stewart, d) (4½ stars)

It’s very interesting. This is Pat Metheny at his best. I might be wrong. I could be very wrong. It’s so not his tone. But the phrasing is so Pat Metheny at his most free, where he’s kind of… Like, on RIGHT SIZE LIFE, he played a couple of things by Ornette, and… It was a funny thing with Pat. Because on the one hand, Pat has got this… There’s a public, the popular face of Pat Metheny. And Pat Metheny operates at clearly three or four different levels. There’s the kind of damp hand…there’s the kind of moist and sensitive guitar-synth thing. Now, I give him a lot of credit, because I personally am really dedicated to guitar synth as well. But he’s really the kind of standard bearer for that.  Then there’s the very melodic kind of guitar playing thing. Then there’s the shit that’s like, okay…the OTHER part. That’s what I love. The SONG X kind of thing. [It’s not Pat Metheny, but generationally you’re in the ballpark.] That’s funny, because it’s very like Pat Metheny. Is it Scofield?! No way. Scofield!  Holy shit. Wow, this is fantastic! It’s so interesting, because there’s a school, Scofield, Metheny, Mike Stern… I mean, wow! He’s fucking going off! All right! I’ll give it 4½.  I’ll tell you what, man. When he joined Cobham… Cobham was one of those cats who brought out great guitar players. Tommy Boland. Stern. Ray Mouton, who nobody knows about, who is working in Las Vegas, who… He actually came to a Living Color gig, and I didn’t get a chance to see him. Ray Mouton is out of New Orleans. Truly gifted. Phenomenal guitar player and guitar synthesist.

12. Blood Ulmer, “What Is” (from FORBIDDEN BLUES, DIW, 1996) (Ulmer, eg, comp; Calvin Jones, ab; Calvin Weston, d)

Blood. I got it right. Instantly. He has a singularity. In a lot of ways, he’s very reminiscent of B.B. King, because his tone really resides in his hands. He has huge hands, and he has this way of making the notes literally pop out of the guitar. Sitting with him in his loft, and just hearing him play acoustically, it’s the same thing. The notes just pop out of the instrument. The band is playing fantastic, and Blood is just… Really, to me, two of the main guys in free guitar are him and Sonny Sharrock. Blood is a cat of almost mythic power. I mean, there is a real, dare I say it, dark majesty about him. 4½ stars, definitely. I didn’t give anything 5. I reserve 5 stars for hearing “My Favorite Things.” Or hearing…

[What would those things be? What would be a 5-star record?]

A five-star record would be literally something that… It would be very idiomatic to me. A five-star record to me wouldn’t have so much to do with the… The song would just destroy me. If it was possible, five stars would be hearing something that’s so connected to my life… It  would be hearing “My Favorite Things” for the first time. That would be 5 stars. “My Favorite Things” changed my life, because I knew The Sound of Music version, and hearing Coltrane’s version of it, I was struck by how different it was and how the-same it was. He’s playing to the lyric. He’s not using the song to blow over. He’s playing to the lyric. “When the dog barks, when the bee stings, when I’m feeling sad, I simply remember my favorite things…” I mean, that’s what he’s playing to.  And that conversation has lasted all the way up through Outkast putting an uncredited version of “My Favorite Things” on “The Love Below.” That’s a very powerful conversation for a piece of music to have.  And that is there because of Coltrane’s version. That’s 5.

Five stars is hearing Sly Stone’s “Family Affair” for the first time, or hearing “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” the first time, hearing “Are You Experienced” the first time. That’s what that is. It’s like hearing “Never Mind The Bollocks”… Like, hearing “God Save The Queen” the FIRST time. Having the impact of it… In terms of improvisation, James Blood Ulmer, 5 stars is like the first time I heard “Are You Glad To Be In America?” The audaciousness of it. It’s like hearing the first U. Shrinivas tape I heard when he was 12 years old. He’s an Indian mandolin player.  And knowing, hearing him, that eventually his paths would cross with John McLaughlin, and he would eventually become involved with Shakti. It was inevitable. Like, hearing it, I said, “This kid is at least as good as John McLaughlin, and he’s 12 years old.” So those kinds of things are five-star experiences. Like, literally hearing “Remain In Light.” The first time I heard it, I was unmoored. I was like, “What is this?” Or hearing “Sucker Emcees,” the first time I heard it, is 5 stars.

So it’s not to denigrate anything I’ve heard. But it’s a very specific sort of thing, like life is different… It’s not really whether the cat playing this or that… But it’s like life is different now. Like, the first time I heard “Believe It,” heard Allen Holdsworth… But it’s not just Allen Holdsworth playing it. Because that record is weird. It’s a very ambient record almost. The sound of it is very ambient. It’s very unusual out of anything in the Fusion oeuvre. The song for me is “Wildlife.” I love the melody of that.

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Filed under Blindfold Test, DownBeat, guitar

Interview From 1999 with Pat Metheny, Who Turns 57 Today

On September 18th, five weeks from today, Pat Metheny will embark on a 2-1/2 month tour, the first leg in duo with bassist Larry Grenadier in various U.S. venues, with the second leg comprising six weeks of one-nighters in Europe in trio with Grenadier and drummer Bill Stewart. This trio first launched in 1999, a while before I had my first opportunity to interview the master guitarist-composer for the editorial component of bn.com, in conjunction with the contemporaneous release of the soundtrack recording A Map Of The World.

Metheny also graciously submitted to a bit of bn.com sillness that we titled “My Favorite Things,” a short-lived series in which various musicians cited favorite recordings, instrumental influences, and the like.

The questions at the end about Michael Brecker were for a DownBeat feature I was putting together at the time about Michael.

What follows is the unedited  transcript of our conversation.

* * *

Let’s address the various recordings you’ve done in recent years, beginning with the soundtrack that the record company is interested in, Imaginary Day.  I haven’t seen the movie.  Would you tell me something about the logistics of how A Map Of The World came to be.

It’s a very well known book.  It was a best-seller a couple of years ago, written by a great author, Jane Hamilton, who has written several really nice books in the last couple of years.  It’s one of those projects that I feel lucky to have been asked to do.  The thing of doing film scores in general is something that I’ve done a bunch over the years.  I did a bunch of them during the early ’80s, Under Fire, The Falcon and the Snowman, and one called Twice In A Lifetime, and a couple of smaller independent ones, one called Big Time, which had Mia Farrow in it, one called Little Sister which was with John Savage, one called Lemon Sky with Kevin Bacon.  I’m a big movie fan, I love movies, and from a young age thought, “Wow it would be cool to write movies someday,” and did that bunch over a few years.  Then I realized at that point in my life, and in some ways it’s still true, that if I was going to take three or four months to do something, I’d rather do a record or do a tour — do the things that I do.

You commented in one of these old interviews that’s on your website (and I read all of them this afternoon) that you found it very difficult to really get to your sound on a film soundtrack. You said if somebody gets 2 minutes of good music out of a movie, your hat goes off to them.

Yeah, it can be a very difficult process on the sort of committee level.  One thing about films is that it’s usually the last thing that happens, and it’s at the point in the film where people are often kind of desperate for things to come along and make things better.  More than anything, music is one of the subjects that many people feel that they can talk about, including producers’ wives, girlfriends, buddies, everything else, and have opinions without necessarily knowing that much about it, and it’s a hard thing to do in a consensus way.  It’s a little different than visual arts, where somebody can say, “Oh, I don’t really like the purple part over there.”  You get somebody who doesn’t know about music talking in those kinds of terms, and you can really wind up with a kind of Frankenstein, committee-ized version of something that might not have been that great in the first place!  Those aspects of it are part of what every major Hollywood kind of guy can deal with… A lot of it is just human skill.  I actually don’t interface with Hollywood well at all.  I kind of figured that around the time of Twice In A Lifetime

Are they a bit too oblique for you?

Well, part of it is that I’m really spoiled.  I’ve been able to make my own kind of music kind of on my own terms pretty much from day one.  On the other hand, the part of film scoring that I really love is, in fact, the collaboration of it.

This particular project, Map Of The World, was sort of like a dream.  It was a complete pleasure on every level right from the beginning.  It was a great story.  The acting is amazing.  Sigourney Weaver has probably never done anything this great in her career.  It’s her career performance, no question about it.  It’s the director’s first film, but he’s actually quite a well-known theater director here in New York, heading an interesting theater group called The New Group.  I was the guy that he wanted to do the score, there was no one else they were really even considering… In a way, it’s kind of gotten me back in the thing of, like, “Wow, doing film scores is kind of cool again.”  It was a very pleasant and very rewarding experience.

Was there an Americana aspect to the film that made it felicitous with your aesthetic, or the way a lot of people perceive it anyway?

Yeah.  The movie takes place in a small town in Wisconsin, and has a very strong Midwestern theme to it in the sense that… Well, actually one of the interesting things about it is that it’s sort of a look of the darker side of that.  By that I don’t necessarily mean the evil side of it.  But there’s this Americana thing that people think of as whatever that thing is.  But having grown up in a small Midwestern town myself, there’s also a lot of sort of closed-minded, ignorant kind of stuff there, too, that kind of gets shoved under the rug of all those major chords! [LAUGHS] This film really just deals with that.  And the film also…

It’s the underbelly of Americana type of thing.

Yeah.  It also deals with a certain aspect of current American culture that’s interesting, which is the thing of, like, when something does go wrong, this incredible need to find a place to put blame, to identify somebody who fucked up, and how it’s sort of just like an obsession right now.  The music doesn’t really get down and dirty with all that stuff.  The music functions in the film as kind of the… I hope to try to keep it sort of neutral to several different things…

Is it used ironically in the film?  Because it doesn’t have a very dark sound, frankly.  Are they using it as ironic counterpoint to certain scenes?

I would say that it’s not ironic at all.  It’s kind of neutral.  Hopefully, it’s not happy, it’s not sad, it’s just kind of the way it is.  That’s kind of the tone I wanted it to have.  And that’s a zone I try to address often anyway, this kind of thing, especially on a melodic level, where things don’t necessarily push it too much one way or the other in terms of the actual notes that are on the page.  It’s just kind of like almost making a commentary on what the thematic element is.  If you had to say the movie is about one thing, it’s about forgiveness.  That’s the tone of it.  There’s all this other stuff that happens, but I really wanted to keep the music in that specific shade of forgiveness.

Does that shade have a color for you?  You’ve said you think in colors, and you think of your compositional process as sound painting in a certain sense.

Yeah, but I would say that the color of it only would exist in the syntax of music.  It doesn’t exist outside of that realm.

Why the use of the full orchestra?  Was that a directorial choice, or was that the way you were hearing the music?

That’s the way I heard it.  To do a score for me, there’s a moment early on where I either sort of hear it or I don’t know, what the basic sound of it is.  To me, this was very clearly acoustic guitar and orchestra.  That’s what the tone of it was for me.  Also, it was great, because that’s an area of writing that I love to do and hadn’t done that much of in recent years, so it was a great chance to explore that kind of writing, too, again.  The feeling of the scenery and everything is big.  It’s out there in the spaces, and it kind of needed something bigger like that to represent that.

Before I get to Imaginary Days, this might be a good place to segue to Missouri Skies, the duo with Charlie Haden.  I know he’s been such a significant musical figure for you over the years, from close to the beginning of your getting out into the great wide world as a working musician.

Yeah, we’ve known each other for a really long time.  When I first started playing with Gary Burton’s band, which I guess was in 1974, we’d play opposite Keith Jarrett’s band of the time, all the time.  That’s when Charlie and I became friends.  We didn’t really start a strong musical relationship playing together until ’80/’81, and from that point on it seems like we’ve played together on project after project.  I’ve just always had a thing.  It may be because we’ve become such good friends, or may not be — I can’t even quantify what it is.  But there is a thing that happens when we play together that we can anticipate each other.  I mean, Charlie is good at that with anybody he plays with.  But for me, the way we play together, it almost becomes like one instrument, and that’s something rarer and great to participate in.

Is there a certain vibe for you of a very acoustic feeling in playing with him?

I mean, that word “acoustic” is one that gets thrown around so…

Oh yes, you’ve had much to say about it in many of these interviews.  I shouldn’t have opened that can of worms.

Yeah.  To me, Charlie is just Charlie, and whether he’s plugged into his amp or not doesn’t have too much to do with the Charlieness of it all.

So the vibe that the two of you have is an ineffable thing.

Yeah.  To me it all boils down to listening.  All of the musicians that I really love playing with have one thing in common, and that’s that they’re able to sort of absorb and respond to what’s happening on a sort of microsecond-by-microsecond basis, and come up with really cool answers to whatever question the music is asking at a moment’s notice.

In his liner notes Charlie Haden says that he calls your sound “contemporary impressionistic Americana.”  Can you talk about the arc of that record?

Well, that was a special one, and one that kind of surprised me, because I never would have guessed that record would become as successful as it’s become.  That’s going to be one of the most successful records I’ve ever been a part of. I’m so proud of that record, because it’s so direct, it’s so intimate.  At the time we were making it, it was almost like we weren’t even making a record.  We were just kind of hanging out, playing, and we’d work on something, then we’d do another one, and about ten tunes in I remember turning to Charlie and saying, “Charlie, it seems we’re doing an awful lot of ballads here!”  “Yeah, I know, I know, that’s what I want to do.”  I was like, “Well, okay.”  It’s probably not something I would have thought of, to do a whole record of ballads like that on acoustic guitar, and yet at the same time I’ve learned so much about the way I play, and that record kind of reveals a side of me as a player that I didn’t even know.

Can you quantify what that is?

No.  I guess I didn’t realize that somehow over the years I had gotten a thing going on acoustic guitar that I just didn’t know about.  I mean, I would play a tune here or there on acoustic guitar, but Charlie would always rave about my acoustic guitar playing to other people and to me.  I didn’t get it exactly.  But now I listen to that record, and I… “First Song” especially.  It’s like, I get it, man.  It’s like, “Oh yeah!”  I don’t think anybody else really plays like that on an acoustic guitar.  So that’s good.

So the record gave you a sense that you have a singular sound on that end of the spectrum.

Yeah, more than just… I guess I always knew I did that and I could do that.  I didn’t realize… It’s something I guess I can’t even put into words.  Maybe I can’t really quantify what it is.  It’s a way of playing melodies, where the melodies can really stand on their own, without there necessarily being any chords, where it’s just sound.  That’s about as close as I can get to it.

Let me segue to another record you did a few years with Derek Bailey that was almost all about sound… It was interesting to read these interviews, because in the early ’80s you were talking about the dangers of basing compositions only on sound because it was too easy to get new sounds, and so therefore the pieces might tend to wane in value in a few years.  Then as time goes and these new sonic options make themselves open to you, you’re moving more and more to this incredibly expansive sonic palette.  It’s interesting to read all those interviews in one spot, and brave of you to try to put all that stuff in one spot…

That’s an interesting comment from the early ’80s.  I mean, in a lot of ways I still stand by that.  Especially my regular group… A big part of what my group is, is the sound of it.  That’s been true right from the very beginning.  Yet at the same time, Lyle and I, being the guys who write most of the music, are aware of the temptations of just using sound as the final thing.  At the same time, we’re aware of the power of that.  The idea is to get a lot of things working together.  That’s to me one of the fun and exciting things about being a musician at this particular moment in time, is that we have all these options, we have all these possibilities, and we have a whole set of new things to explore and try.  In that range of possibilities, to me, is included acoustic guitar, duets with Charlie, playing the way that I was playing with Derek, playing with synthesized stuff and combining it with acoustic instruments, like we do with the group, using an orchestra for a film score, or playing solo guitar, or playing in a quartet or something like that.  All of those to me are very viable, sort of real, everyday kind of musical situations that I feel very lucky to get the chance to address.  And all of them are primarily about sound.  All of them are kind of within a palette or a range of sonic color that’s very familiar to me.  Yet at the same time, the sound is just the envelope, and what you put inside that has to do with kind of everything that’s happening to you outside your life as a musician.  I think that might be more what I was talking about in the ’80s there.

So it’s not about style for you.  It’s really about sound.  It’s like one enormous palette.

It was never about style for me.  To me, style is the easiest to talk about and the least resonant aspect of what music is.  In fact, that’s the area that I would say 90% of — for lack of a better word — criticism is talking about, is style and idiom, both of which are absolutely meaningless to me and to most people, I think, post-1965 or so.  I mean, it’s just not an issue now.  I think that hasn’t completely sunk into the culture yet, how deeply that’s been obliterated from the scope of the world that we live in.  I mean, we live in a world where everything is completely smashed together.  For those of us who are making records and trying to work as musicians or as artists or whatever, it can be extremely confusing.  But I welcome that confusion, too.  That’s part of it.  And to try to avoid that confusion by retreating into a world of nostalgia or some, like, mythical purist kind of way of thinking of style or idiom or whatever, it’s a real copout for me.  It’s much more valuable to just, “okay, be confused.”

That said, the Pat Metheny Group does operate within a certain sonic parameter.  Or not.  I mean, you’re not going to step out, for instance, and do what you do with Roy Haynes, say, when you’re a sideman with him.

I would say that if you look at however many group records there are now, 10 or something like that, the range of sound from the earliest group record through Imaginary Day, and including records like Quartet or Off-Ramp or whatever, you can find things on those records that absolutely refers to the way I play with Roy Haynes.  In fact, Roy has even covered several of the group tunes on his records.  I do think that there is sometimes a perception of the group that is based on two or three tunes.  I mean, a lot of bands have this same thing.  But if you really go deeper into some of the records, there’s a lot of other stuff going on there that maybe isn’t as noticed as some of the other stuff.  Addressing your question in particular, there are things on Quartet, which is the group record right before Imaginary Day, that would be way too far out for a Roy Haynes record.  So it’s  hard for me…

Let me change gears.  This band has been together for 20 years now, right?

Yes.

And how much are you still touring… Oh, here’s another quote from about 15-16 years ago.  You said, “I don’t expect to be on the road 300 days a year when I’m 50.”  Now you’re 45.

45, yeah. [LAUGHS]

Are you close to meeting that aspiration?

It has changed a little bit.  Although the year following the release of Imaginary Day, I think we did do 220 shows or something like that.  Also, the scene in the world is wildly different now than it was when I did that interview.  There’s fewer places to play, and it’s harder to get gigs for everybody.  That may have been the last time, actually, that jazz was not separated from Pop music.  Since then, there’s been a strong movement to get jazz to be something more like Classical music, like almost a defined little branch separate from the sort of like mainstream music that was just people’s music.  We used to play like in the same places that Rock bands would play and everything like that.  The generation immediately after me kind of gave up on that, and took what for me is the easier route of playing for much older people rather than playing for their own generation, and kind of dressing and acting like people much older than they were, while we were… Like I say, I think we were the last generation of guys who really were of the generation we were in.  There’s of course lots of exceptions to that, but I’m talking about on a sort of larger scale.  Now I think there’s been two or three generations of kids, jazz is just not part of their world because they’ve never had people their own age playing it.  The people who were their own age were playing it for people older than them.  And that’s made it harder, because the scene sort of lost its momentum.

A lot of the young players hear it in school.  They sort of get tracked onto it, I think.  Whereas you are from a generation who was able to grow up in proximity to smaller cities and play with very strong musicians and work out your own ideas about music in a situation that was without orthodoxies and without an academic program, as it were.

Yes, I’m so lucky for that.  I look back on that often and think what a lucky thing it was for me to be near Kansas City, where there was this very real kind of scene — and also lucky to be able to participate in it when I was 14-15-16-17 years old.

And you were working fairly much from the age of 15 or 16?

Yeah.  By the time I was 16 I was working five or six nights a week.

By that time, when you were 15 or 16, did you have any inkling in your mind’s ear of the type of sounds that you eventually started moving toward during your time with Gary Burton?  Talk about the development of that inner ear.

I think there was a certain kind of harmony that I always liked and a certain kind of rhythm thing that I always felt good playing.  When I look back on it now, kind of in retrospect, those two areas were what defined a lot of what I do even now.  I never had any fear of triads.  A lot of jazz guys, if there’s not at least four notes happening, they’re going to stick one in there.  For me, triads were always a viable option.  I think when people talk about Midwestern blah-blah-blah, a lot of that is just simplicity.  I’ve always loved to play simple.  As much as I like playing things that are very dense and complicated now, underneath all that is this thing where I just love playing real simple things.

It seems you’re also able to find the essence of simplicity within very complex forms, and get right to the point, which I’m sure is one reason why you’ve stayed so popular for so long.

Well, it’s a hard thing to do, what you just said.  Now, you want to talk about Brecker’s thing.  To me, that’s one of the real challenges of playing his music, is that it’s so dense.  I mean, that is the hardest music I could ever imagine playing.  And that’s true on all three records of his that I’ve been on.  He’s another guy who can really find ways of playing sort of straight lines through really complicated sets of changes.  I would aspire to try to be at that same level.  I mean, Brecker is one of the guys I really look up to, like Herbie is.  Those two guys kind of remind me of each other in that respect, in that harmony becomes…it’s just not an issue because they’re so advanced harmonically.  What I try to do is, I aspire to that level of harmonic wisdom, but I also really want to play things that even if you don’t know anything about the chords you could still kind of sing it.  That’s kind of what I try to go for.

Do you look objectively at your records once you’re done with them, or do you just let them go and move on to the next project?

I just have to let them go and move on.  I think everybody’s like that.  You do your best and… For instance, the first record I made, Bright-Sized Life, which almost 25 years ago now…that record for me was just a horror at the time and for maybe ten years after it came out.  I thought, “God, how could I have blown my first record that much?”  Yet there were people who kept talking about how good that record was, and how it was a really nice record and all that sort of thing.  I’d go, “Oh, people are just nuts, man!”  Then about ten years afterwards I was somewhere, and I heard it, and I was like, “Well, that’s not so bad.  Now, 25 years later, I listen to it and I think, “Man, I was 19 and Jaco was 20… We were onto something!”  It’s something I would never have gotten for years after it.  On the other hand, there’s records that at the time I made them I thought, “Ooh, that’s really good,” and now it’s like, “Whoa, what were we thinking?”

Tell me a bit about the arc of Imaginary Days.  You mentioned that each record tells a complete story and set of circumstances unto itself.

I think that’s one of the better group records.  And I’m only a couple of years away from it now, so what do I know?  But it’s a record where I think we upped the ante on several levels in terms of what the group could be, sonically and in terms of the instrumentation, and also just in terms of the density of the writing.  We kind of had an idea early on, which was to try to get this arc of a day.  Even if that doesn’t come through in the music, it gave us a place to start and get our foot in the door, which sometimes is enough.  The group’s thing… I think that a lot of people like the group for the sort of trip quotient, the way that we have these long pieces that really kind of develop over these 9- and 10-minute periods as opposed to just a little tune where everybody solos or something like that.  We really try to write fairly elaborate environments for improvisation to live in.  And it always does boil down to the improvising, but the settings are particular to the possibilities that are available to that band, with those people and the instruments that are available to us, and the way of making records that are available now.  We try to address all those things, and tell a story about them.

You’ve certainly always embraced technology wholeheartedly.

Well, to me, because I’m a guitar player and all that…

You had to plug in.

My first musical act was plugging it in.  If you’re a guitar player, you have no choices, because the acoustic guitar really has, in my life, one true function, and that’s if I want to play a tune for my girlfriend sitting on the bed.  Beyond that, there’s going to be a mike or an amp or a pickup or something like that, and if I want to play with a drummer there’s got to be.  I’ve spent a fair amount of energy examining those details to try to be hopefully creative and hopefully musically responsible with what those things offer.  And it’s exciting.  It’s an exciting time to be a musician right now.  I’m always a little bit puzzled by what appear to be creative musicians who, from what I can see, have their head in the sand as to what’s possible now, like preferring to just deal with the tried and true.  I can dig that, too; it’s easier.  But there’s some stuff that a lot of people could be doing now, and aren’t, because… I don’t know why they’re not.  There are some cool things out there.

That’s a good segue to ask you about your duo with Jim Hall (Pat Metheny and Jim Hall).  You’ve said that along with Wes Montgomery he’s the guitarist who had the biggest impact on you.

Definitely.  I’ve said this before, that I call him the father of modern jazz guitar, in the sense that all of us — Frisell, Sco, Mick Goodrick, Abercrombie, especially the five of us — are all very easily traceable through Jim’s thing, yet at the same time we don’t sound very much like each other.  That’s an interesting thing.  I think you could say the same thing about Charlie Christian and Jim and Wes.  They both point to Charlie Christian, yet they don’t sound like each other either.  It’s an interesting thing.  To me Jim is also a bit like Roy Haynes in the respect that there’s Jack and Tain and all those other guys who would talk about Roy without really sounding like each other.  It’s like Jim, especially with The Bridge and Undercurrent, sort of opened up a door of thinking.  And when I think about the way I actually play, it doesn’t have too much to do with the way Jim actually plays.  It’s more just a way of thinking of what the guitar can mean than anything else.  I think that there was a point where guitar was a little bit of an odd piece in the puzzle.  Let’s say prior to The Bridge, even, you had guitar players who were leaders, like Barney Kessel, Kenny Burrell and various other guys, but they weren’t playing in major bands.  It was sort of this other thing.  Then you’d have guys like Herb Ellis who were half rhythm guitar players and half single note or soloist kind of players.   But to me, until The Bridge, there wasn’t a guy who kind of said, okay, the guitar can really function in this sort of in between zone, the way Jim…

Not Wes Montgomery?

Well, Wes didn’t really play in those kind of bands.  Wes is one of those guys who came on the scene as a leader.  Wes is like the original Joshua Redman or something like that, just kind of showed up and became a leader instantly.  That’s very rare.  Nowadays that seems to happen more.  But in terms of players who make a major impact it’s very rare that somebody comes along just out of the blue like that.

[ETC.]

One other recording I think we should address, because it seems to be a very summational thing for you, is Like Minds on Stretch, with Gary Burton and Roy Haynes.

That was a fun record to make, actually.  It was really easy.  Actually, we did that record in a day.  I think Gary had booked three days, and we did it in one day.  You do a take or two, and…

Nothing else to say.

Right.  It was real fun, because everybody knew each other and had played together in different situations, even though we hadn’t all played together… I mean, the criss-cross lines of the different situations that everybody had played in was kind of funny almost — how many different contexts we all had shared at various points.  But it was a great, pleasant experience.  Gary to me is a musician who is kind of underrated, even though he’s famous and everything like that.  Having been around at this point a lot of really good improvisers, some of the best improvisers around, from Herbie to Sonny Rollins to Ornette, all the different guys I’ve had the chance to play with, in terms of somebody who can really come up with the stuff at a high level night-after-night-after-night-after-night, and really just play… I don’t think I’ve been around anybody like Gary, who can just deal like that in terms of melodic-harmonic invention, and playing his ass off, and grooving, and just coming up with the goods! — and really making stuff up.  He is something else, that guy.  Because it’s the vibes and because he plays with four mallets and there’s a lot of ringing going on and stuff, I think sometimes people miss it a little bit with him.  But he’s an incredible improviser.  He’s a heavy cat.

And that band put you in the big leagues real quick, I mean, with Steve Swallow and Mick Goodrick…

Oh, I was so lucky to get that experience.  I mean, I was 18 really when I started playing with those guys, and all four of them, Swallow, Mick, Gary and Moses, just had a major-major-major impact on the way that I play to this day.  They were already an incredible band, and they had to make room for me, in a way, which kind of caused them all to have to talk to me in very specific terms about, “Do this; don’t do that” kind of thing. Which was actually kind of difficult at the time.  First of all, it would be hard for me now to walk into a situation as perfectly balanced as a vibes, guitar, bass and drums quartet, and make it a quintet with another guitar.  It was just hard.  There wasn’t an obvious thing to do and an obvious place to be.  Combined with the fact that, like you say, I wasn’t exactly green prior to that, because I had played a lot with great musicians even, but I hadn’t played with people at that level night after night after night before.  It was a fantastic experience.

Why don’t we do the “My Favorite Things” component of this interview now. So you’re still traveling a huge amount…

This year it’s been a little bit less, but generally speaking, yes.

What CD or CDs would be things you would want to accompany you if you’re flying from New York to, say, a gig at the Japanese Blue Notes?

The honest answer to that question is nothing.  Because I rarely listen to music except when I can really like sit in front of a good stereo and sort of hear it.

In that case, what five CDs are in your rotation at this point?

Let me go over here, because I’ve been listening to a bunch of stuff lately.  Well, the new Keith Jarrett solo piano record is in there.  Larry Goldings’ new trio record. Larry is something.  I’ve got actually Brecker’s record sitting here.  I’ve got Tenor Madness, Sonny Rollins.  And I’ve got Brad Mehldau’s new trio record, Live At the Vanguard, which for me is the release of the year.  I’ve loved Brad ever since he came on the scene.  In fact, my favorite prior to this one was that Live in Barcelona one that he did.

What albums, if there were albums, inspired you to get into music?

Oh, there are some real specific ones.  There’s four sort of like big records for me.  New York Is Now is one.  Miles Davis, Four and More is another one.  Four and More is really the reason I became a musician.  In fact, it has probably as much to do with Tony Williams as it does with Miles.  I heard 10 seconds of that ride cymbal and it just blew my mind.  Wes Montgomery, Smokin’ At the Half Note.

Two sentences about New York Is Now and Smokin’ At the Half-Note.

I got New York Is Now I got when I was probably about 12, and I had no idea about the controversy surrounding Ornette or anything.  I didn’t know there was any difference between the way Ornette played and the Beatles and marching band music.  To me it was all music that was on record.  All I knew was they were on records.  To me, it just sounded like they were having a lot of fun.  I just remember thinking, “It’s fun.”  I think in a lot of ways that’s the essence of what Ornette’s thing is, is that it’s fun.

Smokin’ At the Half Note for me is the record (I think everybody has got one or more) where you actually learn every note that every person on the record plays.  I mean, there was a time I could sing you every note of every solo on that record.  It’s not only a great Wes Montgomery record or a great guitar record.  That’s a great jazz record.  I mean, that’s people playing together the way people are supposed to play together.  And also the sound of that record always… It’s just so stuck in my brain, the tone of that record.

The fourth one is actually the Gary Burton Quartet, Live In Concert at Carnegie Hall on RCA, which I don’t think was ever reissued, and isn’t very well-known record.  It’s Gary, Swallow, Moses and Larry Coryell.  That record blew my mind in a whole other way.  It was jazz, and yet at the same time it was guys sort of addressing the other stuff, the kind of Country and Rock thing, but not doing it for any reason other than you could tell it was natural for them to do that.  I guess a lot of people point to Bitches Brew as sort of the beginning of a movement.  To me it happened some years before that, and it’s somewhat uncredited, which is, you know, Gary’s band of the time, and there were a couple of other bands like the Fourth Way and Jeremy Steig’s band in ’65 or so… What those guys were doing kind of predates the Miles thing significantly, and in some ways it’s a little bit more interesting.  But that particular record has a few things about it… Larry Coryell on that record is just staggering.  He’s a musician who is still around and still plays really good and everything, but what he was suggesting on that record is kind of mindblowing to me.  And it still blows my mind.  I still get that record out every now and then, just to check out what Larry did on there.  I’m a fan of him in general, but that record is just light years past anything else he ever did.  In particular his solo on “Walter L,” which is just a blues, is one of the greatest blues solos anybody ever played.

Speaking of Gary Burton, he said in his liner notes he thinks you carry around a secret list of people you want to play with and you just walk around, do a project and cross it off.  Is there such a list, and if so, or even not, what artists haven’t you played with that you’d like to?

You know, I saw that Gary wrote that, and actually it’s funny, because I don’t really think of it that way at all.  In fact, honestly… Playing with people that I don’t know is not something I do easily or casually.  For the things that I’ve ended up doing compared to the things that I’ve been asked to do, it’s a small sub-group.  If I’m going to play with somebody I have to first of all really love what they do, and also, more importantly, feel like I can play with them.  There’s musicians that I absolutely love but I know I wouldn’t play that well with them.  For me, each time I go into a project, I go into it with the same commitment to making it as good as it can be that I put into my own band or any records I make on my own.  So it’s not really that easy for me to go playing with people.  On the other hand, I look at the list of people I’ve played with, and in fact, it does include literally all of my favorite musicians, with one exception, and that’s Joe Henderson.  We’ve talked about doing something two or three times over the years, and it just never happened for one reason or another, most recently because he’s been ill.  But I think that he and I could play really well together, and that’s one thing I haven’t done.  The other one was Elvin, and I actually would love to play with Elvin more.  It was so much fun playing with him!  But I got to do that on Brecker’s record, and that was a real thrill.

Given that the premise for this interview is the film score, give me five of your favorite films, and perhaps you can mention soundtracks in there as well.

Let’s do it featuring the soundtracks.  Number one would be Cinema Paradiso.  I recorded a couple of the songs from that on Missouri Skies because I love it so much.  Ennio Morricone is awesome, just the greatest really.

Schindler’s List, besides being one of the most incredible movies anybody’s made, also has for me one of the greatest scores ever written.  People almost dismiss John Williams, oh, Star Wars and Spielberg and all that.  He is such an incredibly great writer, and he’s got such a great mind for texture and kind of density and… With him, I really get this feeling of a canvas, and the way he places colors and everything is really something.  Even on a craft level, just what he does with those really big movies… It’s kind of hard to do that.  It’s hard to keep something going for 45 minutes buried underneath explosions and everything like that, and have it still kind of swing, in a way.  Swing in the sort of broadest sense of the word, glueing everything together with this forward motion thing.  He’s a heavy cat, John Williams is.  But that score in particular also has some incredible melodies in it.

Henry Mancini.  You could pick a number of scores, but in particular “Two For the Road,” which I covered on Missouri Skies.  It’s a score that basically is that one song sort of repeated endlessly.  In fact, a number of Mancini scores were like that.  You can say Breakfast at Tiffany’s with “Moon River”… He just had this thing where he could actually write an amazing melody that you really wanted to hear over and over again.  So many film scores have a theme, and you do hear it over and over again, and you couldn’t sing it if your life depended upon it two seconds after you walk out of the theater.  Mancini, it’s like the first time you hear it, it’s like stuck in your brain forever.  Then he can really do something with it, too; his sense of how to develop those themes was kind of unparalleled.

Sticking with a contemporary guy, James Newton Howard to me is the best of the current guys who do a lot of scores.  That David Mamet play about real estate, Glengarry Glen Ross, with Jack Lemmon and Alec Baldwin… His score for that is incredible.

One more is a guy who people have a little bit of the wrong impression about because he can do other things, and that’s Danny Elfman.  His score for Dolores Clairborne is one of the most interesting harmonic pieces of music that I’ve heard in several years, just for this sort of floating, like nondescript harmony thing he gets going, which is absolutely perfect for the movie, but just to listen to as a kind of modern composition is really advanced.  Also, his way of writing, from what I understand, is wildly different than a conventional composer who sits at the piano and writes notes on a page.  He’s almost doing it in a sort of intuitive way, it sounds like.  But the result is really special.

I should also ask you about your favorite guitar players.

Of all time?  Number one would be Wes Montgomery.  Wes was the guy who embodied everything about music that makes me love music.  He had incredible time and one of the great rhythm feels of any modern improviser.  He has the most incredibly soulful, inviting, warm persona as a musician, which I think more than anything is what made his music accessible to people who  maybe only have one jazz record in their collection.  They can feel it.  They get it.  To me, he’s like Stevie Wonder that way.  You know, everybody digs Stevie Wonder.  If you’re a musician, you can dig it because of all the incredible melodies and the aspects of it that deal with Funk and all that stuff.  But everybody digs it because it’s just THERE, and Wes has that same thing.  It’s just there.  You can’t help but dig it.  It’s just there.

Django Reinhardt would probably be number two for just finding a way of making the instrument sound that no one before him and no one after him has ever even approached.  I mean, he was completely singular.  There may be somebody who could imitate that a little bit, but even the people who have tried to imitate it sound kind of silly.  It’s like he just found a voice.  And that voice sort of crosses time and space.  It’s like hearing Bird.  It just doesn’t sound old.  Like, you hear all these things around him that sound old, and his thing sounds as modern now as it must have been when he was playing it, just like Bird.  Maybe he’s the only guitar player who has that quality of sort of transcending the time that he actually played in.

I have to mention Jim, who opened the door for the guitar’s place in modern music with a very subtle touch and a very quiet way of presenting the instrument.  He sort of expanded its voice more than if he had turned it up to 10!  Somehow through reduction he expanded things.

I’d have to pick amongst my contemporaries John Scofield, who for me is everything that a great musician should be, and he happens to be a guitar player.  He makes everybody around him sound better and play better.  He is an incredibly interesting and inventive and exciting improviser.  He can deal with harmony in a very expanded way, but he can also play blues probably better than almost any other jazz guy on any instrument right now.  He’s such a great blues player, and that sort of informs everything he does and gives it the spirit that makes it… Again, anybody can dig John.  They don’t have to be a jazz fan.

Just a few questions about Michael Brecker.  You gave me a very nice quote about his being so authoritative harmonically.  You and he have been close for many years, and he said that being in the ’80/’81 band opened him up in a certain way, it gave him a sense of freedom he’d never experienced before, even in his first days in New York in that sort of Coltraneish loft scene out of which a lot of things emerged.  How do you see his sound having evolved from 1980 and when you first knew him to now?

I’ve heard him say that a lot of times, and some of his friends from that time have said that, too, that he came back from that tour kind of a changed person.  Which makes me feel really good!  Because that music really was written for him. That way of playing was the way I imagined he sounded like.  It’s a little bit like me with Charlie.  Charlie showed me a way that he thought I sounded that I didn’t even know I sounded like.   Sometimes in this kind of broad community of musicians that every guy functions in, the guys you play with sometimes illuminate your own thing to yourself in a way that you might not notice.  So it makes feel good that Mike feels that way.  I think that there is kind of a pre-’80/’81 Mike and a sort of post ’80/’81 Mike that exists even on his own records.  I think it’s a more adventurous.  I always felt like his first record, that Michael Brecker one, was kind of the followup to ’80/’81.  It’s basically the same band, and we kind of took up where that record left off.  The thing that I have seen evolve, and starting with that record, is what a great composer Mike has become.  You could see that coming in the Brecker Brothers records.  Regardless of what anyone thinks of them stylistically, the writing on there, Randy and Mike, is really advanced.  There’s very little three-horn writing going on today in any sphere that approaches the sophistication of the three-horn writing on the first Brecker Brothers record.  I mean, I go down to Smalls all the time and hear guys play; I don’t hear anyone writing three-horn charts that are that hip.  And that’s 25 or more years ago.

Mike’s thing for coming up with tunes that you play like night after night after night I think has evolved as he’s become a bandleader, which has been going on now for almost 15 years.  For me, it’s incredibly flattering that he asked me to play on his records.  It was flattering the first time.  Then Tales From the Hudson for me, of all the dates I’ve done in the past few years, or really ever, as a sideman, is the one I point to as the most satisfying.  It was just a great record to be a part of.  I thought the band was absolutely perfectly suited for the music.  Everybody played well together, and played as a band.  To me, that’s what Modern Jazz is in the ’90s.  That kind of playing, those kinds of tunes, the way that the record felt as a whole… I was really proud to be on that record.  Now the new one is sort of a continuation of that Tales From the Hudson thing, and compositionally it’s the best of them all in terms of his writing.

He’s a heavy cat, Brecker.  I said the same thing about Gary Burton before, but I mean… Again, he’s famous and everything, and I think well-respected and all that, but sometimes I see people put Brecker down.  Like, you would know the criticisms the same way I would, some people say, “Oh, Brecker…”  I’d like to see any of those guys follow him anywhere.  Following a Mike Brecker solo is like nothing else that I have ever experienced.  There are very few musicians on any instrument who can follow Brecker.  And it’s because he’s deep!  You can say, “Oh, it’s technical and it’s flash.  No.  Man, by the time he gets done with an audience, people are standing on their chairs screaming.  He gets to people under their skin, and that’s what makes him heavy.  Yes, I can sit here and talk all day long, and it’s true… In terms of harmonic knowledge and really understanding what Trane did, there are not too many people at his level.  Yet at the same time, he’s not about that any more.  What makes him, him, is what he does to people.  He drives people crazy!  People will like start screaming and stuff.  He can just keep going.  It’s kind of the way Herbie can do that, too.  He just gets people where they live.  And it doesn’t have anything to do with any of that technical stuff.  It’s what he does to people.  He whips them up.

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