Jazz Guitar.Be (Belgium)

December 01, 2005 | BY Dirk Laukens

1. At what age did you start playing guitar and when did you start playing jazz?

As long as I can remember, I was always drawn to the guitar. As a little kid, I would place my uncle's nylon string guitar on the floor and strum the open strings and make up songs. I'm sure it sounded awful but it was really fun! I started playing jazz when I was about ten or eleven years old.

2. Which people influenced you as an improvising musician?

My biggest influences as an improvising musician would have to include Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans, John Coltrane, Jim Hall, Wes Montgomery, Jimi Hendrix, B.B. King, Robert Johnson, Duane Allman, Grant Green, Wynton Kelly, Kenny Dorham (among many others)...

3. Did you take guitar lessons when you were young?

I started taking guitar lessons when I was seven years old.

4. What do you listen to today?

Today I listen to and am influenced by a lot of different styles of music - mainly jazz, blues, and old school R &B though. Most of the music I love is linked together by the Blues. Today I listen a lot to the following artists: The Band, Bill Evans, Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, Lightnin' Hopkins, Freddie King, Wes Montgomery, Bill Withers, The Meters, John Coltrane, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Skip James, Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Taj Mahal, Brad Mehldau, John Scofield...

5. What gear do you use and what was your first guitar?

My main axe these days is a 1987 Cherry Red Gibson ES-335 which I absolutely love playing. I also play a Gibson ES-125 which I use for open tunings. I also play a Gibson Wes Montgomery model L-5 which I've had for over 10 years and bought about six months before moving to New York in January of 1995. I've recorded a lot with my L-5.

The main amps I use on live gigs are a Reverend King Snake Tube Amp and a Polytone Mega Brute. I also have a 1960's Fender Vibrolux which I've used on a lot of recordings. I recorded all the cuts on ANOTHER DAY using my 335 with the Polytone and then recorded two solo tunes where I played my 125 with the Vibrolux.

6. Do you get frustrated about your guitar playing sometimes? What aspects of guitar playing do you feel you need to improve on?

I do get frustrated with my playing sometimes, as I'm sure everybody does. I try to remind myself that sometimes getting frustrated just means that there might be some new areas to check out and work on - and that is nothing but a GOOD thing!

Well, I sing too, and so I work on accompanying myself and coordinating the singing and the guitar playing. Over the past year, I've been really getting into some old school R&B like Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin so I've been learning a lot from listening to masters of that style of guitar playing like Steve Cropper, Cornell Dupree and Leo Nocentelli (of the Meters).

Playing really fast tempos can be challenging too so I work on that too. One of the great bass players I work with turned me onto something that I've found really helpful for playing fast tempos: interpreting the click of the metronome as beat THREE of every measure. So for a fast tempo, you could set the metronome to say 75 and this automatically forces you feel the tempo in half time. It's good to always feel the big, wide beat and feel the beat in larger units when you're playing fast tempos.

These days I also spend a lot of time working on writing original songs with lyrics to play with my band.

7. What is your practice routine like? How much time do you devote to studying music and guitar?

You can really accomplish a lot in two hours. I do a lot of ear training. A bunch of years ago, the great guitarist Paul Bollenback turned me onto this system of ear training for singing through changes that he learned from this Professor, a man named Zlotnick, I believe, at the Peabody Conservatory of Music in Maryland. I can't emphasize enough how important ear training is to playing jazz and playing music in general.

I do some technical exercises out of one of the George Van Eps method books sometimes. I play a lot with my fingers on my right hand and some of these exercises help with finger picking and can really expand your palate for comping and stuff. I'll practice different groupings which can help with picking technique. I'll take a standard like "Alone Together" or something and put on the metronome as I mentioned before, clicking just on beat THREE of each measure and work on playing fast tempos and just relaxing.

My practicing varies from day to day especially as my musical tastes have widened so much over the years. One day I might shed fast tempos, the next day, I might spend all day working on a new song with lyrics. I love playing solo Delta blues and am currently working on a new song inspired by the music of Mississippi Fred McDowell. A lot of the Delta Blues guys who played mainly solo, like Son House, Robert Johnson, John Lee Hooker or Lightnin' Hopkins have very unique and modern conceptions of time, almost like Thelonious Monk in a certain way - sometimes with several different grooves and tempos implied over one another - I'm fascinated by this. I sing a lot too, so I work on singing a lot at home too, singing my own songs and trying different things with the phrasing.

I also love playing along with records and trying to fit into different grooves that way. I love playing along with Aretha Franklin - Live at Filmore West because the rhythm section is just KILLIN'! It's Cornell Dupree on guitar with Jerry Jemmot on bass on Bernard Purdie on drums and Billy Preston - wow! There's not really enough time in one day to work on everything I want to work on and check out, so I vary it up from day to day and keep it fresh that way too.

8. Do you teach music? What do you hope a student gets out of your teachings, besides the obvious?

I do teach private guitar lessons which I enjoy doing. I teach using a very "hands-on" approach - I try to show people stuff they can really use in a real playing situation, not just theory for theory's sake or anything. I try and help students play the music they want to play, I don't have a set agenda. You can play music on so many different levels, some people want to become serious jazz guitarists, others want to just play some blues for fun and jam with their friends - it's all good. I'm a very patient teacher. I try to teach a balance of fundamentals - scales, technique, theory, ear training- along with songs the student wants to learn. A lot of students come to me with specific songs they want to learn and then we can use that song as our guide and that will usually lead to some new and different techniques, chords, harmony or other concepts we can explore together.

9. What are your favorite standards to play?

My favorite standards to play would include "Nobody Else But Me" by Jerome Kern, "I Fall in Love too Easily", "Little Girl Blue" by Rodgers and Hart, "How Deep is the Ocean" by Irving Berlin, "Old Folks", Billy Strayhorn's "Chelsea Bridge", "Everything I Love" by Cole Porter, Duke Ellington's "Solitude", "Gone with the Wind" - there are so many great ones. "Skylark" by Hoagy Carmichael..."Old Devil Moon".

10. Are you make a living as a professional musician? What did you have to do to make this work for you? What are the pros and cons of being a professional musician?

I feel very grateful to be making a living as a professional musician and I have never had to have a day job, I feel very lucky for this. I guess being versatile helps. I stayed busy for many years accompanying some great singers and learning a lot of jazz standards and learning how to play in different keys. Being a supportive and sensitive accompanist will greatly improve your hire ability - being the type of musician that makes everyone else around them sound and feel good! Different gigs call for different things- being adaptable is very important, not approaching something like "well this is just how I play" rather then blending in with the specific vibe of the music you're playing at that exact moment. The more you're always listening to what the music or the band is sounding like as a whole, the better. Again, I like playing a lot of different styles of music.

The pros of being a professional musician in New York include getting to play with some of the best musicians in the world - Jay Collins, Chris Berger, Matt Wilson, Dennis Irwin, Larry Grenadier, Jeff Ballard, Al Foster, Sheryl Bailey, Dena DeRose... you learn so much (not to mention having such a great time, transcendent even, at times!) playing with great musicians like these. Having my own band playing my original music (a mixture of jazz, blues and soul) is a great thing and inspires me to write and work hard developing my own music.

Cons are the obvious- it's tough sometimes - financial ups and downs, financial instability- the fees for a lot of jazz gigs have never increased with inflation unlike everything else! There are certainly far easier ways to make money in this life! But as Charles Foster Kane says in Orson Welles' classic film, "It is very easy to make a lot of money if all you want to do is make a lot of money." I'm paraphrasing slightly but it's a point well taken. I feel lucky to be able to support myself as a musician - it is a real blessing and the rewards of playing music make it so worthwhile. I am very happy to be playing music.

11. What projects are you working on at the moment?

I've been writing a bunch of new songs with lyrics - I call them "song songs" because they often don't fit in just one style - they draw on all my influences, jazz, blues and soul. I'm still searching for ways to unite my love of jazz and blues and all my favorite jazz players - Coltrane, Miles, Wes Montgomery and Grant Green really come to mind and do this to my ears. I have a band with the great tenor sax player Jay Collins and I write with this group in mind.

I'm working on my solo playing and singing- working on a new tune in the style of Mississippi Fred McDowell, getting some different rhythms going on at once on top of one another. And for the live playing situation, it's all about having prepared and practiced enough at home, to have your ears wide open and just let go and play in that moment - that for me is when the greatest music happens, and you might surprise yourself and play something you've never played before.

12. Do you have any advice for beginning jazz guitarists?

Yes, spend more time developing your ears and your chops will follow. And a lot of beginning players will say "yeah, sure - i know that tune" when they can barely play the original melody. When I first moved to New York City, I used to get together sometimes with Peter Bernstein, one of my favorite guitarists. He really got on me about really knowing the original melody of a standard.

I would say also, to just work on playing what YOU hear, not what you think might be "hip". All the great jazz players in the past and now in 2005 - from Lester Young, Monk, Ben Webster to Joe Lovano or Brad Mehldau- can take a melody and really make it SING and communicate a sense of storytelling to an audience. A lot of beginning players just want to get to the blowing and play all the "hip shit" they've been practicing at home - the truth is no one really wants to hear that!

Jazz guitarists would be wise to listen a lot to piano players to learn how to comp too- and transcribe horn players in addition to all the great jazz guitarists. And don't forget to check out one of the greatest guitarists and improvisers ever in jazz - Charlie Christian! I don't know if there have been many improvisers much more concise and clear then Charlie Christian.

Writing one's own music can be helpful in trying to develop your own voice. When you hear some really great music, there can be a tendency to want to replicate and copy it exactly - sometimes it's better to go for the overall vibe and feeling of it.

I also can't emphasize how much you learn from going out and hearing great musicians, well known or not, LIVE. You will learn subtle things that way that will surprise you.

Above all else, although jazz certainly requires a ton of dedication and hard work - try to keep the learning process as fun and loose as possible - if we're all in it for the long haul, there's always tomorrow to work on something we messed up today!

Oh yeah, and check out Mick Goodrick's book "The Advancing Guitarist" - he's got some really great Zen guitar advice and a ton of knowledge to share.

Thanks so much for inviting me to take part in this interview. All the best to all you jazz guitarists out there!