After the rise of rock and roll, jazz, and jazz guitar especially, has carried a penumbra of snooty affectation. If you take the time to learn how to play over “Giant Steps,” and learn four different voicings for a Bb13(#11) chord, why would you care about the pedantic, pentatonic noodling of Eric Clapton? That’s kid’s stuff. If someone is really into jazz guitar, they don’t like rock and roll.
I’ve always thought that was crap. I love jazz, and rock, and more or less every other genre of music. That jazz is more complex, and requires more of the player than the other, does not invalidate other genres.
Case in point? Mike Stern. Stern is one of the best-known jazz guitarists currently working, but few have taken better advantage of the genre-busting power of the electric guitar. He has played with everyone from Miles Davis and Joe Henderson to Roy Hargrove and the Yellowjackets, but he has never turned his nose up at rock and blues music, and on his latest release, Big Neighborhood, on Heads Up records, his original compositions run the gamut from rock to funk to jazz, and feature a star-studded guest list from Steve Vai to Randy Brecker to Medeski, Martin & Wood.
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Mike was kind enough to take some time from his non-stop touring schedule to talk to us about the record and a bit music generally. Mike was effusive in his praise of his long list of guest stars, and genuinely excited to not only discuss the album, but to dispense some advice to young musicians who want to get into jazz.
We also talked a bit about the “jazz-guitar uber-alles” affectation mentioned above, and he provided some very hopeful evidence that it is not as widespread a problem as my own experience might have suggested. Ever wonder what Joe Henderson thought of Stevie Ray Vaughan? What Jim Hall thought about Jeff Beck? Read on.
The title of the record is Big Neighborhood and it features, among others, Medeski, Martin & Wood, Randy Brecker, Steve Vai, and Eric Johnson. Was there a conscious push when you were asking all these people to play with you to broaden your listener base with this record?
No, not really. Wasn’t a conscious push to do that at all. I’ve done a record kind of like this before, with more diverse people on it. As I’m getting ready to record, finishing tunes, I think, “This guy would sound great on this.” I’m thinking in those terms. For Heads Up, I got Me’shell Ndegeocello who I have dug for years, and Kim Thompson was playing drums on that who I heard with Kenny Barron, and she’s playing with Beyonce now. She plays her ass off on a whole bunch of things. Roy Hargrove too, a lot of people I don’t normally get to play with, and was excited to play with. Very much the same with this record. This whole bunch of people that I got for this record, are actually people that I have always considered calling and asking if they would be interested to play with me on other records of mine, but never got around to it. Sometimes there are budget considerations or other considerations, or it just doesn’t work for that record. I’m very grateful to have been able to make so many records, and as I make more of them, I have the opportunity to include people I really dig. Sometimes it’s an impulsive thing. I have the tune and think a couple of people would sound great and really bring it to life.
I knew about Medeski, Martin & Wood for years, before they even did that record with Sco (John Scofield). They did two, I think; both came out great. I really love when a band stays together for years and has a real sound. They definitely have that going on. I really can’t say enough about them. It’s so great that a band can hang together and they really sound like it. We didn’t rehearse at all with them. Just boom, let’s go into the studio and hit it, and they got the vibe immediately.
I played one tune with them, this tune “That’s All It Is” — that’s the one tune I had played with my band previously that’s on the record, but had not recorded, and I played it a certain way. I wanted a certain vibe from Billy (Martin) and he played it a different way. So I heard it and thought, “that’s not really what I wanted, maybe he could change that part, or come in and do it again.” And Billy said, “Look, I don’t like to do that.” and I hate doing that too, but sometimes you miss something in the studio you think you could try and do it over. We couldn’t do it anyway, there was some logistic thing, too much leakage from the bass or something, but I’m so glad that we left it the way it was, decided it was cool. I had another idea of what I thought I wanted, but then I played it for (Dave) Weckl and he loved it. He thought the different approach was really cool. Weckl is more into the big drum kit and a lot of technique, but Martin is much more on the ground, and Weck is a big fan of Billy Martin, he really loves those two tracks. I let Billy know those are Weckl’s favorite tracks, and in large part because of what Billy did. Dave was asking me what drums Billy was using. Weckl is a maniac, so passionate about drum sounds. He takes care of business in a lot of ways. He’s also a great engineer and gets great sounds. He listens from that perspective, and he was really knocked out by Billy Martin. I thought they would be from different worlds, but Dave is a big fan and loves how it came out.
Steve Vai and Eric Johnson — I’ve been talking with Eric for years about playing on a record of mine, and he was always into it. I called him, and called Vai, too, because they are great guitar players who are out of my normal kind of orbit of who I hang with and listen to. I’ve heard both of them over the years, and it’s always really cool stuff, and I’ve recorded with Vinny Caliuto, who is a great drummer and played with Vai with Zappa, so I knew about his musicality. Not a jazz player, but great musician. So I hooked up with Eric first and then called Steve Vai to see if I get both of them on the record and it worked out. I found out Steve used to check me out when I was playing in Boston when he was at Berklee, but I had never met him. It was great to get both of them on the same record. I didn’t know this at the time, but Eric Johnson is on Steve’s Favored Nations label and has done some records for him, so they have that connection.
Esperanza Spalding is the same sort of thing, I’ve known about her since she was at Berklee, and she’s on my record label, so I heard her first record. It was really cool. I saw her at a festival and I asked her and Terri Lyne Carrington, they were playing together for that festival, the Red Sea Jazz Fest in Israel. I saw them both there. Terri Lyne almost played on Who Let the Cats Out (his previous record for Heads Up). I had tunes that I told them they would both sound great on. Sometimes it works that way.
So I had all these tunes that I thought all of these people would sound great on, but I thought it might be hard to fit them all on one record. Then I thought of the title, Big Neighborhood. That would definitely fit. I think of the musical community as a Big Neighborhood. I’m into a lot of different kinds of music. I consider myself primarily a jazz musician, but I’m wide open to all kinds of stuff. So then it was a question of “well this could go here” I had a few vague ideas about sequences, even before we recorded, and then you just go for it. Since I wrote all the tunes and I’ll be on the record, for better of for worse I thought that would glue all of this together. I think it came out really good. I like records that have some variety, and this has a lot, but I still think it hangs together. Richard Bona who I have played with a lot appears, Randy Brecker who is touring with me. Cindy Blackman. It was a neat experience for me to get to play with all these people. They are all such great musicians.
The diversity of the record is a real strong suit, I think. What you did a really nice job with is the compositions that featured all these different people — they all really let them do what they do. “Check One” could have been on that MMW/Scofield record. It’s very pocket-oriented and a great progression for them to be themselves, and the two tracks that Vai plays on…
That’s Steve Vai right there. That was the thing, to try and get something, first of all, that I’m comfortable with. If I’m going to write it and want someone to record it, it has to be something I’m feeling good about, or good enough about. Sometimes I’m hypercritical of my own stuff. Generally I felt really good about these tunes,especially with these people who can bring them to life. That was the challenge and the fun part. If I could get Esperanza to sing this melody, or Richard Bona to do this tune, or give Steve Vai this sort of Hendrix-y groove…he’ll kill this. There were some pleasant surprises, too. This €œMoroccan Roll€ song, sort of a middle eastern groove.
Right. With the sitar overdubs.
Yeah. With Steve, we didn’t get a lot of chances to rehearse with any of this stuff. With Medeski, Martin & Wood, we just sent them some demos and played it live in the studio, and tweaked some stuff live as we were rehearsing it down. It’s fresh, which I like. It was really important for me to play live with everyone in the studio. I don’t like doing too many overdubs. Later If you want to tweak it that’s one thing, but I like everybody there, because you come up with such fresh energy.
So this “Moroccan Roll” tune, Weckl was playing sort of funkier, and killin’ it. He had sort of a different concept. But I said “it’s more exotic that that.” I need a different vibe — have you heard of this this guy Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, a Pakistani singer who passed away?
Sure, he sang on “In Your Eyes” with Peter Gabriel.
Exactly. My wife is really into all kinds of world music, and brought some of his stuff home and I checked it out. It’s really swinging. It has a great groove and his voice is amazing. Turns out Richard once worked with him and said it was phenomenal. As soon a I mentioned his name to Steve Vai, Steve said “yeah, we almost played together.” They were going to do a project, but then he died. But as soon as I brought him up, Steve knew what I was going for. He said after we do our live stuff, which was the bulk of everything, he would overdub a sitar guitar, which I didn’t know existed, but is this cool thing by Fender. It wasn’t a direct anything from Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, but as soon as I said the name something else clicked with him, and he understood where it was coming from.
But he’s amazing. He’s really creative, and a great guy, a real rocker in some ways, in terms of his attitude and looseness, but he’s incredibly well-practiced and has amazing control of the instrument. Back in the day when he was playing with rockers, like…the cat who was singing with Eddie Van Halen?
David Lee Roth.
Yeah. He was telling me stories about all that stuff. It was funny, but he was a lot more together than I was back in those days. I was crazy, drinking all the time, getting amazingly crazy. He said he never did that before he would play. Maybe smoke a little pot afterwards and that was it. He wanted to always be in control more You can hear it. Some of the stuff he comes up with is wild, but really controlled and with real creativity, that he’s really worked on to get happening. There’s also so much humor in his playing. I’m more of a fan of him now than I was then, and I’ve always dug him.
Yes, Vai is very singular. I’ve never been into that genre of heavy instrumental music, sort of “shred guitar,” but a friend of mine who I used to play with played me one of his solo records, and he had recorded his wife talking on the phone and was playing along with the phone conversation and matching the pitches of the spoken voice. That’s still one of the most amazing things I’ve ever heard. (Note: No idea what album that’s on, or what it’s called.)
He did something like that with Zappa, too. It’s really amazing. Some of that threw me, too. The shred stuff is not my favorite, but on this record I thought there was something about him that would work with the two of us. And he’s rocking [on the record], not really playing shred. More like Jeff Beck, and I’ve heard a lot of Jeff Beck over the years.
That’s a really good analogy, actually. Vai’s playing here (on Big Neighborhood) is definitely evocative of Beck.
A lot of that influence, those talking kind of sounds. Really clever and creative.
I also love Eric Johnson — really bluesy Texas guy, but a sweetheart, really great cat. It was fun. It was a challenge, though; I had to go to Austin with a rhythm section and Jim Beard and play with Eric and then go right to L.A. and do the day with Steve, because we had one day for each of them. Kind of a challenge, because we weren’t in NY. Everyone else was recorded in New York, but they couldn’t make it at the time I needed. I went to them with a drummer named Lionel Cordew to Austin, and Weckl was already in LA. Lincoln Goines played on Vai and Johnson’s songs. I took him and Beard to L.A., Lionel went home after Austin and Weckl played in L.A.
The whole record has a great live-in-the-studio feel. I know that’s how you prefer to work.
Definitely. It’s the only way I feel I can get it really happening.
So, when you only had one day with Vai and Eric Johnson, how much — if any — discussion about structure did you have beforehand, or did you just send the music out and go to the studio and see what happened?
Well, there was some. We sent the music ahead of time and talked to them on the phone about solo sections and such, which was clear on the CDs I sent. And I asked Steve to play the melody on one, and said he didn’t have to, but he said “no problem,” and he really had it together. Especially on “Moroccan Roll,” which is kind of tricky.
But then there are things that happen at the last minute. Like “Big Neighborhood” I thought would be a whole band right at the top, but the first section is just me, Vai and Weckl, then it gets real rockin’ when the band comes in. That sort of thing comes out of rehearsal, which was maybe 30 minutes total, because the flight was late as usual (laughs). We were supposed to have two hours, but we got in late and there was tons of traffic, so we had maybe half an hour. But Vai and Weckl were really well rehearsed and prepared, amazingly together with it. So the rehearsal was more for me to hear the tunes with them, and come up with ideas. We ended up doing two or three takes of each tune and that was it. It kind of jumped off right away.
Vai, Brecker, Johnson, MMW — I’m familiar with them. I had actually never heard Esperanza Spalding before.
Really revelatory. Beautiful voice. Really interesting voice. You don’t often hear an instrumental head with someone singing along. Both of those tracks (“Bird Blue” and “Song for Pepper”), I really liked them a lot. She played bass and sang on those. Were they recorded live in the studio with her singing and playing at the same time?
She can do that, she does it with her band, but it’s not easy. Generally, when we record, we don’t do that.
Sure, it’s impressive either way.
It’s even more amazing. Some of the stuff she does…Randy [Brecker] said — he’s played with her in a more straight-ahead setting — that she can scat one line and play the bass independently.
It’s stupid great. She has this incredible independent coordination between her voice and what she plays. She’s a phenomenon, and the sweetest person in the world. Really together. Real young, real cute, but really amazing musician. I really dug her record right away. I heard of her some from people I knew at Berklee, she went there, Vai went there, which I didn’t know. A lot of people have gone through that school. I know people still up there and they were talking about her. What a great bass player she was, what a great singer. Then she signed with Heads Up and I heard her first record. And I thought one of these days I would love to see if she would be interested in recording something on a record of mine, and I already had a few tunes that she could sing which would be great. Stuff I had done with different singers in the past on records I have done with singing, which isn’t a whole lot, but I’ve done a couple on the last few records, with Richard Bona and Elisabeth Kontomanou, who is exceptional. She lives in Paris and is half African half Greek. I’ve done some stuff like this, but I thought Esperanza would be great, and I asked her at that festival in Israel, I had asked Terri Lyne and Esperanza was right there and I asked if she would be interested, and she said “Absolutely. I’d love to do it.”
We were coming home on the same flight, and I took my guitar out and played the range of the tunes, and she just started vocalizing over it right there. I checked the ranges with her and she said they were great, so I figured we were good to go. Sometimes these things come together in the strangest places.
I hadn’t heard of her before, and I’m definitely going to track her record down. I was really impressed.
Yeah, she’s doing really well too, really catching on. She did some trio stuff with Prince and John Blackwell, a drummer who also lives up in Boston. I don’t think she played the gig, but they might do something. She was doing something with Stevie Wonder too. All of a sudden she’s really taking off. She sings so great, and has nice tunes. I was honored that she, and all these people were willing to do the record. I never take stuff like that for granted.
I’m really glad how this all come out — the next record I do I want to keep in NYC, though. Same four or five musicians. This was definitely a challenge, with everyone’s schedules, to get this happening live. But I’m certainly really glad to have done this.
It’s a great record, a really interesting record, and you have every reason to be proud of it.
Thank you, man, thank you.
I read an interview you did, as prep for this, and it said you had contact information and phone numbers for every working jazz musician in the world handwritten on the wall of your apartment.
(Laughs) Exactly, I’m…low tech, shall we say.
That’s such a great image, imagining what that must look like.
Yeah, I’m low tech, I don’t have a cell phone. My wife Lanie, I love her music, I love her of course, we’ve been married for like 30 years almost, neither one of us expected that, but it seems like a stronger hook up then ever. She’s more into computers, like everyone else on the planet except for me. I still write numbers in a book which is fading and the pages are dissolving, so I started writing numbers in pencil on the wall, and now…its a big mess. But who knows, maybe it’ll become a thing.
Exactly, it’ll be in a museum someday. They’ll take that whole wall out.
(Laughs) Exactly! I got Carlos Santana’s number on here, and a whole bunch of other motherfuckers…It’s kind of funny.
The same interview, I definitely wanted to touch on this, mentions you have a three foot stack of transcriptions that you have done of Coltrane and Brecker, McCoy Tyner. Everyone I have ever admired as a musician has done a ton of transcription, and I don’t think enough people talk about how important that is, so make the case for young musicians. Why is it important to do that?
I’m glad you brought that up. Listening is how you learn any language, and if you are trying to learn music, music is a language. The way you learn any language, ultimately, you can learn certain things from logistics of the language, verb conjugation, pronunciation, how you say certain vowel sounds, spelling and etc. But eventually, you learn by listening to the language and speaking it over and over again and making tons of mistakes, which I certainly did learning music, which was foreign when I started, and now I am more fluent. But one of the key elements of learning is listening and speaking, a bunch. In terms of listening, this is oversimplifying, but there are a few ways to listen to music. One is to listen from the heart, and not analyze. But if you really dig it and you want to absorb some of that vocabulary and get some of those lines and that phrasing in your playing, then you need to listen more analytically, and that’s transcribing, writing out the solo. When I was learning jazz, and listening to jazz players…with rock and blues I could play along with the records when I was first learning. And I love that stuff; just because it’s simple and easier for me to comprehend, it doesn’t lessen its power, it’s soulful stuff that I still listen to and still dig, Hendrix, Clapton with Cream, B.B. King, Motown…but when I got into jazz, my mom played a lot of jazz records around the house, and I took them up and tried to play along with them, it was more intricate, and more involved in some ways, and foreign to me. I wasn’t about to learn that without further…research.
Without doing the work.
So I took some lessons, and then went to Berklee. Tried to learn to read, learn the notes of the guitar. And some teachers recommended I transcribe a little bit, try to actually cop some solos and write them out, so you can see them, understand them, listen to them in a really close up kind of way. I started doing that. I had a tape recorder and slowed some things down. I still have some of that same stuff that I use today. Sometimes you have to slow it down to hear what they’re doing. The first solo I did was a Joe Pass solo, an amazing solo.
Do you remember which one?
It was a trio record. It was a blues, I forget what it was called, but it was a blues with Eberhard Faber and Shelley Mann I think. It was killin’. Joe sounded great. It was very straight ahead, not too out. Rhythmically I thought it was something I could get. Not like a Wes Montgomery solo — which I started transcribing later — with more chords and octaves. Anyway, with this Joe Pass solo, it took me forever to do my first one. When I was done I took it too one of my teachers at Berklee and he said it was great that I had done it myself because it really made me hear what was going on in a certain way. Having said that, most of it is wrong. (laughs)
But the process of doing it was incredibly helpful to me. Then it got better, then I started getting halfway right with it, and I did a whole bunch more guitar players staying with my instrument for a while. Then I started branching out, the last 15 years I’ve just been doing other instruments other than the guitar, piano like McCoy Tyner, Bill Evans…I did a Keith Jarrett solo piano piece that this guy Charlie Benachis that I study with, who is amazing — he’s a pianist, but he teaches all instruments, teaches theory — he had me do the Jarrett piece. It took forever. I couldn’t really get all of that stuff, but you know, you get what you can. That has been huge. For me, more than any one thing that I concentrate on, transcribing is what I have learned the most from. Not really to learn licks. In fact, not to learn licks.
More like learning the phrasing and vocabulary by osmosis by hearing what people are doing and analyzing them. If you learn a specific lick, it’s almost like if you read a book you really dig, and you underline a few phrases and say “the author said it like this,” and quote from the book, or you get ideas from how he or she puts it. You get your own ideas from that. That’s what happens when you transcribe, it forces you to listen in a really certain way. You have to balance it with NOT analyzing, though, just getting lost in the soul of the music. Music is a language of the heart and you can’t forget that unconsciously or consciously. That’s the priority. Whether you play a whole bunch of sophisticated stuff or more straight up blues. It’s more about what gets you in your gut.
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Exactly. The language metaphor is very apt, I think. The benefit of transcribing is not learning the solo or lick, it’s thinking about those notes framed against whatever harmony they were played against, and thinking about them the way the musician who played them was thinking about them. Doing that work to be able to play over chords in an advanced way.
The thing I wanted to mention about that is that you, unlike a lot of people who do that work, listen to Hendrix and stuff that does not have that harmonic complexity. What is laudable about your career, and this record, is that you have obviously done that work, but you do not put yourself above simpler music.
It feels natural to me. Some people don’t get off on it the same way . Part if it is the instrument I play. The guitar, really — I think this true with close friends of mine like John Scofield, Bill Frisell, Pat Metheny — the guitar blurs boundaries in a lot of ways. You can relate to it automatically. Whether or not it’s your favorite sort of music. It’s in a LOT of music. It’s in classical jazz, country, folk. Bob Dylan plays it. You know what I’m saying?
Right away, you have an affinity to a whole lot of music. Whether or not it’s your favorite, it draws you in, in a way that a trumpet or sax player might not be able to. That’s a plus of playing the guitar. There are many others. I was talking to Jim Hall, I did a few gigs with him and a record called Dialogs he did, which kind of cool. I’m a huge fan of his. Most of these guys I got to play with, Joe Henderson, Miles of course, all of them were wide open to all different kids of stuff, much more wide open than you would think. They may have priorities, but they are into a lot of kinds of music, and they hear the beauty of whether it’s simple or complicated. But Jim Hall said — he loves playing guitar, of course, but if he had it all to do over again or gets a chance to come back, he would be a tenor player.
(Laughs) Which I can kind of relate to. There is a beauty in the air of playing a horn.
Of having to breathe, yeah.
You’re kind of singing into the horn. I’ve always tried to get that through guitar, and the blues and rock guys, with their string bending, have more of that, probably because there’s so much singing in that music, so the guitar has that vocal sound. So quote-unquote “jazz players” in guitar nowadays, when I came up it was less prominent, now it’s far more prevalent to hear jazz guitarists bend strings, to play more vocal-sounding lines, and more rock-sounding lines. That rock element as come into the jazz world — like, Scofield will use a little distortion all the time. Because of that, people really into the horn get more of a hornlike sound rather than a plucked sound, which is cool.
There are those purists out there that will actively criticize any blues element in jazz guitar…but those people are no fun. You know?
Yeah! But there are less and less of them, and less than you think. I did this gig with Joe Henderson, a really classic jazz tenor player, just an amazing musician, he had just done a record with Scofield and Scofield couldn’t make the gig, at the Blue Note, so his manager Edith Keegan asked me to do it. Said Joe would like me to do it. Al Foster was the drummer and Dave Holland was the bass player, just a quartet. Week-long gig at the blue note. Before I did the gig I said, “I don’t want Joe to come in and throw a whole bunch of charts at me.” because me reading ain’t that slick and I don’t like to read anyway, I would rather learn the stuff. Can we rehearse? Edith called Joe back and told me Joe will come rehearse with me. I was nervous, I was such a fan of Joe, I didn’t want to get there and suck . So I called Al, we used to play with Miles together, Al Foster is an incredible drummer, and he was playing with Joe at the time, he has played with tons of people, Sonny Rollins, Miles. So I said Al I’m feeling better because Joe is going to rehearse with me. Al laughed his ass off and said, €œMan you will be lucky if she shows up at the gig!€ (laughs) Joe was known as the Phantom, that’s what they used to call him. Some times he was there sometimes you couldn’t find him. But he showed up and we played for five hours, he didn’t want to take the horn out of his mouth. We were talking as well. He was looking through my CD collection at one point, saw a lot of his CDs, Trane, Stan Getz, McCoy, all of that, but then picked up one record, a Stevie Ray Vaughan record. And I said “Joe, what did you think of Stevie Ray Vaughan?”
He said €œStevie Ray…was a MOTHERFUCKER at what he did.€
(Laughs) That is absolutely correct.
Yeah. It was cool to hear that from Joe, you know? A lot of those guys were like that. Jim Hall hadn’t heard Jeff Beck. I told him to check it out, I was interested to hear what he thought. So he called me back and said, €œMike, I heard a Jeff Beck record, and I’m happy to say I REALLY dug it!€ He does some stuff that’s really amazing.
A lot of those guys were wide open. Jaco of course, and Miles. Miles was a big fan of the guitar, but he really had a wide open sensibility obviously. He listened to music from a real gut level. He didn’t have to get a slide rule to figure it out. But he loved complex stuff too. Gil Evans was like that too, Really sophisticated arrangements and voicing, but he was a big fan of Hendrix, the Beatles, James Brown. That’s always been the way to go for me. Whatever gets my heart. Folk music knocks me out. I heard a Bob Dylan thing the other day. I remember riding back from a recording session with Bob Berg, and that Dylan tune…”Like a Woman”?
“Just Like a Woman,” yeah. Beautiful song.
That’s it. “Just Like a Woman” came on the radio, and he turned it up and said, €œMan, that is some soulful shit.€ The shit was totally out of tune, a harmonica he couldn’t play, but it was killin’, you know? It was absolutely perfect. Bob [Berg] was a bebop tenor player but the soul of that music was incredible. I think it’s always important to listen to that music that way.
Any set plans to tour on this record? Any of the special guests going to appear with you?
I’m touring in Europe coming up. I’m always on the road. I just got back from some dates with the Yellowjackets. They’re really great. Just a fantastic band. Better than people know. Those guys are adventurous, amazing musicians. Bob Mintzer is incredible. Russ Ferrante is an incredible piano player. And Jimmy Haslip is special — he plays the bass upside down, for one thing. You can’t get a sound like that unless you do what the hell he does. I can’t watch him play because I get totally thrown off. And Marcus Baylor is the drummer. I’m still playing with them some.
For this record I’m touring with Dave Weckl and Randy Brecker, and Tom Kennedy is playing bass on same dates and Chris Minh Doky on the others, on that European tour. As far as Steve Vai and Eric Johnson, I haven’t asked them, but I would love to do some dates with them. I would love to play anything with them. Stuff on the record, but a minor blues or something, let them stretch a little.
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I always like to ask this, especially of prolific writers. If you could have written any one standard, and any one pop song, which ones would you choose?
Wow. That’s so hard. I love that question, actually, but it’s so hard to say. There are so many of them that are so beautiful.
I’ll tell you mine. I would pick “‘Round Midnight” and “Here, There and Everywhere.”
Oh, man! Two great ones! I’ll sign on to both of those! I love “Blackbird.” So much Beatles stuff was remarkable. “Penny Lane”…now I’m just thinking of Beatles tunes. I love “Satisfaction” by the Stones. They wrote all these great, gritty songs.
I like Motown stuff, “ABC.”
Yeah, Motown is like the Beatles — once you hear one, you think, why didn’t I say €œI Want You Back€ or €œWhat’s Going On?€ It’s not a fair question, I realize.
No, it’s a great question, but it’s just hard to narrow it down. Let me see. This other friend of mine, a great piano player on the record, Bob Franceschini, was talking about Burt Bacharach tunes.
Just great stuff.
Before I started playing I was aware of Burt Bacharach, but after you play, you go back and hear “Walk on By” and it’s just unbelievable.
Yeah, and that’s a great one. “Walk on By,” who sings that?
Yeah. That’s right.
Also Isaac Hayes — ever hear his version?
“If Ever I Should Lose You”…any of those tunes are so beautiful. Any Cole Porter. There was one that Bob Mintzer quoted while we were playing live, a Cole Porter tune, I can’t remember the title. Cole Porter was just amazing. Really interesting question, but I’ll have to pick a million of them.
This will be the last question, because I’ve taken a big chunk of your time. I’ve really enjoyed the conversation.
It’s a pleasure, thank you very much! Me too, man.
You’ve already done me the favor of making the case to young musicians to do the transcription work, so stepping back from that, what advice would you give to younger guitarists who play rock pop or country, and want to get into jazz, but are intimidated?
That’s a good question for me, because that’s how I was for a while; for a long time, I was scared to get into jazz, when I tried to learn by playing along with records like I learned rock and pop. It was intimidating. For me, I tried to get a teacher and just take it one step at a time. It came really slowly to get any fluency with the language. I remember thinking, at one point, that I would never get this stuff. There’s too many chords. There’s too much thinking going on. I can’t remember all the chords to “Stella by Starlight.” How do you remember all this stuff? And then to play melodies that you can hear what’s going on? All I knew was scales over every chord and chord tones. Chord tones are actually very helpful. To play chord tone melodies is a good way to start.
I had a couple of teachers that used the analogy of learning a language, and that it’s going to be awkward at first. No matter what language you learn, it’ll be intimidating and awkward and you will be shy about making mistakes, and you have to get over that, because you are going to make mistakes.
So for me, the stubbornness of staying with it and trying to learn the language until it became more fluent and I had more fun with it. It was still a pain in the ass and I still wanted to throw the guitar out the window. As I tell some people, I lived in a basement apartment, so I would have had to throw it UP through the window (laughs), but I had kind of a blind faith that it would come together. I didn’t know if I would get gigs, but I wanted to learn the language. I decided it would help my other playing my blues and rock playing, and the more I got into it the more I loved it. For me just having music in my life, the older I get, the more grateful I am about it. If there are gigs or not, the fact that I have something that I’m this passionate about that is so uplifting, it’s such a great place to put your energy. It’s been a real motivator and it’s kept me going. The more you practice, the more you’ll love, it — you will be frustrated, but the more you’ll love it, and the more you’ll get gigs.