August 15, 2012 § 4 Comments
Few things (and none that I may mention in polite company) give me as much pleasure as a bowl of well-tempered New England quahog chowdah. Simple to make, a pleasure to serve and comforting on all but the hottest days, especially coming off a brisk day of sailing, it is the perfect overture to a Maine lobstah bake. But, sadly enough, you rarely find the real deal on a restaurant menu.
My very last true road gig, back in the summer of ’79, ended on a high note: a month on Cape Cod, playing a now-defunct jazz room in Hyannisport- The Velvet Hammer. Having not missed an opportunity to try “Cape Cod’s best clam chowder” in nearly every restaurant in town (they all claimed to be the favorite chowdah of the Kennedy family) I was surprised to discover that the best was right there under my nose all the time- the Velvet Hammer’s coveted quahog chowder. Rich with deep, nutty ancient deep water clam flavor and devoid of the usual gummy, distracting flour thickening, this was pure succulent bivalve gastronomic heaven in a bowl. There were two versions on the menu: fresh and day-old chowder. The day-old quahog chowder was 25 cents higher per bowl. Why? Because it needed to set up overnight; and, believe it or not, that actually did cause a significant improvement in taste. They didn’t offer a ‘three day-old’ option on the menu- there was never any left over for a third day.
I had the chowder nearly every evening and, towards the end of our engagement, I started to fret over never being able to taste this wondrous concoction again in my lifetime. Then one night one of the cooks, who played acoustic guitar, approached me to request help in deciphering a Billy Joel tune he was trying to learn. I struck up a deal- I would write out the chord changes if he allowed me back in the kitchen, to watch him make their signature chowdah. To this day, I think I got the better end of that deal and I still make this Cape Cod classic at least three or four times a year.
As I said, this chowder is simple to make and the ingredients can be found in your local grocery stores, except perhaps for some unfortunates living in landlocked states, who may not have access to genuine quahogs. In case you didn’t know, a quahog is a large, hard-shelled clam found along the east coast, usually forty years old or more. Sometimes referred to as ‘chowder clams,’ they impart that rich, nutty clam flavor to the broth- a flavor you won’t ever taste in most commercially produced chowders. In case you poor inland people can’t find a seafood market offering the true quahog, try to buy the largest cherrystones you can find and hope for the best.
Below is the recipe and proper method for making this delight. If, after following these directions, you haven’t made the best clam chowder you’ve ever tasted, why… I’ll eat my shirt! Which I might do anyway, since I spilled a few drops on its front from the last batch I had made…
Bill’s Authentic Velvet Hammer Cape Cod Quahog Chowdah
12 to 16 large quahog or chowder clams
3 or 4 1″X 3″ slices of salt pork
1 cup diced yellow onion
3 cups roughly cubed russet potatoes
two stalks celery
2 tablespoons dried parsley
Fresh course-ground black pepper to taste
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup water
4 cups half & half
1. In a medium or large stockpot, render salt pork slices on medium heat.
2. While pork is rendering, cut up the onion; add to the salt pork and stir frequently until onions are caramelized.
3. Chop celery, add to onions in pot.
4. Roughly peel and dice (not too symmetrical) the potatoes. Add to the onions and celery mixture, add the parsley and a little salt to the potatoes; stir frequently.
5. Shuck quahogs, reserving liquor from clams (very important! This is the basis for the stock!)
A word here about clam shucking: This is the most difficult part, as these old clams tend to resent being opened and have the strength to deny you the pleasure. A good THIN-bladed clam knife helps but I have a secret which makes the job easier. While chopping onions, potatoes and celery and rendering the salt pork, set your bag of clams in the freezer (about 15 minutes.) This will not adversely affect the clams but will put them to sleep; the relaxed clam will be easy to open. Insert the clam knife blade into the heel (that protrusion in the back of the shell) and sever the muscle within. Go to the other side and sever that muscle. You now have an open quahog! Do this over a large bowl, as you want to save every drop of the juices.
6. Wash and strain the clam meat in a cup of water; set aside. Strain the wash water and clam juice through a fine wire strainer or cheese cloth, to remove any bits of shell.
7. Add strained water and clam juice to the potatoes; if broth does not cover the potatoes, add a litte extra water. Grind pepper onto the mixture, stir, reduce heat.
8. Chop clam meat and add to the chowder mixture. Stir and cover; cook on lowest possible setting for 3 to 4 hours, stirring occasionally. DO NOT BOIL!
9. Remove salt pork pieces and discard (the pork, not the chowder!) Add the half and half, stir and continue to cook ON LOW HEAT for 45 more minutes. Turn off burner and allow to cool, uncovered.
10. Place pot full of cooled chowder in refrigerator; let stand overnight.
11. Take out 2 hours before serving time and reheat. Serve in bowls or cups with a dash of paprika on top and a side of crusty French bread and butter. Wicked Good Chowdah!
May 19, 2011 § 1 Comment
Back in December, 2010, my fiance Julie and I bought a farmhouse on three acres of land in Hope, Maine, a bucolic, progressive and somewhat artsy community in the hills about 9 miles inland of the beautiful coastal village of Camden. It was somewhat of a gutsy move- people don’t generally move to Mid Coast Maine without some sort of business plan.
Our business plan consisted of this: doing exactly what we wanted to do. In my case, it was to write a book, play jazz and record my next CD. While the book is slowly coming along, the jazz is happening now.
I suspected, but did not really know, that Maine had some talented musicians lurking in the hills and harbors. To my relief and delight, I continue to discover more really fine players who actually enjoy getting together with other like-minded musicians to play and exchange ideas and chops- and not always just for the bucks.
In addition to local paying venues, there are regularly scheduled jam sessions throughout the area, where some of Maine’s finest jazzmen show up to blow. Two that I attend regularly are the monthly jazz jams at the Waldoboro Theater Annex http://knox.villagesoup.com/ae/story/jazz-jams-continue-in-new-year/371063 and the Waterfall Arts Center in Belfast http://www.waterfallarts.org/Maine-Art-Centers/. For a while I hosted a guitar workshop at the Waterfall Arts Center prior to the monthly jam.
I will be resuming work on my next CD, Cerulean Blue shortly, which is slated to be released on Ponca Jazz Records http://www.poncajazzrec.no/, Norway’s prestigious jazz label, sometime in 2012. Here’s a video clip for the title cut (still a composition-in-progress): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GWyO1gXgKs4
Here’s a quick montage of my trio’s gig at Rock City Books and Coffee, Rockland, Maine, in March 2011.
Maine- the way jazz should be!
SOON, MORE TO COME ON MY ALBUM, CERULEAN BLUE
August 17, 2010 § Leave a comment
The Jazz.com Blog
November 17, 2008 ·
Bill Barnes is jazz.com’s resident expert on Gypsy jazz. Regular readers may recall his intriguing three-part article here on life at a Gypsy jazz camp. Now he turns his attention to the ninth annual Django Reinhardt festival, that one time each year when a little bit of jazz Manouche comes to New York. T.G.
It’s been said that, in New York clubs and bars, there really are no strangers and Birdland is no exception. I find myself sitting at a table with one such ‘un-stranger,’ a nice, if somewhat eccentric lady ‘of a certain age,’ as they say, with whom I am engaged in lively conversation before the first set. Despite the awe inspired by the history of all the great players and singers who have graced Birdland’s stage over the decades, this is still the friendliest, classiest and most comfortable jazz room in New York—due in no small part to owner John Valenti’s constant and tireless personal attention.
It’s the first week of November and, once again, this hallowed temple of jazz reverberates with the siren song of the Gypsy caravan as the ninth annual Django Reinhardt NY Festival returns. This year producers Pat Philips and Ettore Stratta have assembled a stellar international roster representing the latest generation of Django-inspired musicians they have dubbed the “Young Lions of Gypsy Jazz.”
My newfound friend turns out to be the only person in the room who isn’t aware of tonight’s program and our lively conversation has become a detailed interrogation as she asks “why Gypsy jazz? What do Gypsies have to do with it?” I try to give her a thumbnail sketch of the history of jazz Manouche, but she isn’t letting me off the hook. “Who was Django Reinhardt?” she asks. I have her write down the name of Michael Dregni’s comprehensive Django biography, along with a list of material and CDs which could help bring her up to speed. “Why do you spell his name with a D?” Mercifully, the first set begins, perhaps saving me from the inevitable water-boarding.
“What do Gypsies have to do with it? Who is Django Reinhardt?” she asks. “Why do you spell his name with a D?”
Producer Pat Philips introduces the program with a comment on the election. “I feel that this is a very special night because tonight, we can celebrate America.” It is the day after the historic Obama landslide and the crowd roars in approval. But, of course, we have come for the music—the audience is crackling in anticipation as bassist Brian Torff, the festival’s musical director, takes the stage, followed by Philadelphia’s top hot swing guitarist Kruno Spisic and Andreas Öberg, Sweden’s rising jazz guitar star.
The trio opens the set with a moderate swing, “Coquette,” both guitarists displaying their extensive command of Djangoese while getting a feel for the sound of the room. Kruno’s playing is firmly anchored in the disciplined Gypsy style, while Andreas is more eclectic in his approach, integrating elements of straight-ahead bebop with Django-rooted phrasing. The contrasting solo styles actually work well together.
“Coquette” is followed by a languid ballad based on a Grieg melody, “Danse Norvégienne.” Öberg’s solo intro is an elaborate display of arpeggios incorporating a few well-placed false harmonics, a technique perfected by the late Lenny Breau, but mastered by few guitarists since. I have followed the career of this remarkable young jazzman for several years; in fact, his playing was the catalyst which sparked my initial interest in the Hot Club Swing revival. If anything, tonight’s performance has increased my respect.
French accordion virtuoso Ludovic Beier now joins the onstage trio for an electrifying rendition of “Bernie’s Tune,” demonstrating the power of an instrument which, in spite of ample evidence to the contrary, is still not taken seriously by many in the U.S. jazz community. His fingers dance across the changes in rapid-fire triplets. Kruno takes his chorus with the crispness and energy that has helped forge a reputation as one of the top jazz Manouche guitar players in North America. Andreas follows suit, scatting along with his solo (à la Benson) before the quartet trades fours in a whirlwind of ideas that seem to connect each others’ thoughts.
But wait—there’s more…harmonica master Howard Levy! Simply put, Levy is a shock. I’m not normally prone to exaggeration, but what this cat does with an ordinary diatonic harmonica may be beyond the science of modern physics. A veteran of the Bela Fleck ensemble, as well as years of session work on both sides of the Atlantic, Levy is considered by many as the most advanced harmonica player in the world. Tonight his version of Django’s celebrated anthem of occupied France, “Nuages,” brings down the house.
Up to this point, all the players on stage have been Gadje, or non-Gypsies. With the introduction of Samson Schmitt and his younger brother Jean Baptiste, we are about to hear the real Magilla. Sons of the legendary Sinti guitarist, Dorado Schmitt, they provide the only element so far missing from the night’s display of virtuosity—the heart and soul of the Romani musician. Sampson galvanizes the crowd with a full-throttle, authoritative version of Django’s swing classic, “Daphne.” His eighteen year old brother Jean Baptiste leads the other guitarists pumping out a powerful la pompe rhythm.
Brian introduces the extraordinary French violinist Timbo Merstein, who frequently plays and records with Sampson. Suddenly the group is transformed into the quintessential Hot Club lineup as the fingers fly into a furious, blistering arrangement of the perennial swing favorite, “Stompin’ at Decca.” Stephane Grappelli’s influence is obvious in his quotes and phrases.
Another surprise: Ludovic brings out an odd-looking free reed wind instrument from France, the accordina, which appears to be the unintended result of a clandestine tryst between a harmonica and a button accordion. It has been making somewhat of a comeback in recent years due to its potential for subtle expression, as Ludovic admirably demonstrates in the poignant ballad “Souvenirs,” played in a duet with Sampson Schmitt. With the solid backing of Toriff’s bass, the intimate exchange between Sampson and Ludovic is intuitive and delicate. In the middle of his solo, Ludovic suddenly leaves the stage and walks through the audience, wielding the accordina like a Jaipur snake charmer. Freed of the microphone, the notes waft through the air as if they were part of a film noir soundtrack, transporting the mesmerized audience back in time to a 1930s Parisian café.
After a spirited “Lady Be Good” the whole ensemble caps off the set with a bouncing, up-tempo “Minor Swing,” perhaps the most ubiquitous number in the Django archives. As the first set audience leaves the room, you can still feel the energy from the steady pompe rhythm. I say farewell to my inquisitive new friend, who is now clearly becoming a fan of Gypsy jazz.
This is the end of part one of Bill Barnes’s two-part report on the Django Reinhardt jazz festival. Click here for part two, in which Bill takes us behind the scenes.
DUO MOSÏK // Dec 16, 2008 at 07:32 PM
- Will there be a video or cd of this? I’d love to hear Howard Levy’s interpretation of Nuages. I’ve seen him live a couple of times here in Germany and I can say without any doubt that he is the greatest harmonica player ever and a great musician, too.
- 3 Lionel Winston // Dec 28, 2008 at 05:03 PM
I played guitar years ago. I would go to the music shops near UC Berkely campus. There, I discovered Django’s style. I found it wonderful then. Today I still feel the same way. Thanks for re-awkening the experience. Lionel
In part one of this article, Bill Barnes reviewed the ninth annual Django Reinhardt jazz festival at Birdland. In this second, and final installment, he takes us behind the scenes for conversations with the performers and Gypsy jazz advocate Pat Philips. T.G.
Offstage at the Django Reinhardt NY Festival, guitarist Andreas Öberg allows me to noodle a bit on his $30,000 Benedetto archtop. His recent release on Resonance Records, My Favorite Guitars, has him squarely back in the mainstream, where his formidable bebop chops are in full swing. For much of tonight’s sets he opted to play the archtop, rather than his more traditional Selmer-style AJL acoustic. As the author of Gypsy Fire, one of the best instructional materials on Django guitar, he is a dedicated advocate of the Gypsy technique, but lately has been increasingly drawn back to his earlier influences, mainstream players such as George Benson and Pat Martino.
Öberg admits that he isn’t doing as many Hot Club swing gigs as he was a few years ago. Still, he remains a proponent. “There’s real power in the Gypsy technique,” he says. “You can play so much faster, with greater clarity.” He will be expanding access to his experience and knowledge in the near future with an interactive instructional website, in partnership with AOL. For now, I’m content to observe and attempt to steal bits and pieces of his remarkable technique.
While hanging out in Birdland’s green room between sets, I had the opportunity to sample the Selmer-style guitars the Schmitt brothers have been playing, courtesy of Manouche Guitars North America’s representative, Barry Warhoftig. These are just stock production models but, in Sampson’s hands, they sound like vintage Selmers. Everybody is plucking away backstage—it’s interesting to hear the different approaches to the guitar during the interplay between Kruno, Sampson and Andreas. Kruno suddenly breaks into song, demonstrating a surprisingly good voice, as he renders a lovely, poignant ballad in his native Croatian. I recognize the tune, “Letch Gurgo,” written by violinist Schnuckenack Reinhardt, a cousin of Django. Ludovic joins in with the accordion, followed by Sampson, providing the perfect guitar embellishment. This wasn’t on the program, but I’m thinking it should have been.
Producer Pat Philips and her long time partner, Ettore Stratta are by the bar, waiting for the second set. Arguably New York’s most ardent supporters of Gypsy jazz, they had actually built their reputations working with a broad array of major talent (a very long list, trust me!) from Lena Horne and Count Basie to Lew Tabackin and Joshua Redman. Ettore has produced, arranged and conducted for so many prominent artists, including the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Tony Bennett and Eddie Daniels. So what has made them so passionate about Django Reinhardt and jazz Manouche? Pat responds, “It makes me feel good. I just fell in love with the music and with the artists.”
|“Half of the people we bring here live in caravans or cottages. They could afford to buy big houses but they don’t think that way—it’s all about the music, it’s all about the family.”
I ask for her take on why there is such a resurgence of interest now, after all these years. “It’s the hippest music out there, at least in my opinion. . . . I don’t think there’s any comparison. It’s very romantic, melodic, very swinging; it gets inside you and makes you feel great—and I’m talking kids, all the way to old people. I just think it’s hip and cutting edge forever.”
They have been involved in the jazz Manouche revival ever since 1988, when they produced Stephane Grappelli’s 70th birthday concert at Carnegie Hall, featuring Yo-Yo Ma, Michel Legrand, the Juilliard String Quartet, Maureen McGovern and Toots Thielemans. Since then, they have produced regular Django-inspired events at Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall, Birdland and other venues, getting to know many of the key players in the process—Dorado Schmitt, Angelo Debarre and Stochelo Rosenberg, to name a few.
Pat Philips loves the Romani musician’s esthetic. “Half of the people we bring here live in caravans or cottages. They could afford to buy big houses but they don’t think that way—it’s all about the music, it’s all about the family. They grow up with the music—they play for the joy of the music. That is the difference. That’s why you feel it. You feel what they feel. If they were home tonight, they’d be sitting in the living room playing music. When they get up after breakfast, they’re going to play music.” The search for the heart and soul of Gypsy jazz has led her to Romani camps across Europe. “We’ve gone there, we’ve been in their caravans, it’s all guitars, putting them in the hands of a three year-old. . . . It’s in the culture; it’s in the family.”
While the second set audience is not quite the overflowing capacity crowd of the first, they’re every bit as enthusiastic. Among the repeats of the first set’s tunes, the group offers some more classic Django numbers: “Troublant Boléro,” which is actually more of a rumba, and the popular “Swing Gitan.” The performance ends with an exuberant, buoyant crowd pleaser, “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love.”
That’s pretty much summed up the feeling when, at three o’clock in the morning, Birdland finally closed its doors behind the last of the stragglers and turned us out into the misty November night—we couldn’t feel anything but love. Latcho Drom and long live Django!
October 13, 2009 § Leave a comment
Below is the three-part article I had written on the state of jazz guitar and its future, now published on Jazz.com. Part One covers the evolution of instructional resources available to budding jazz guitarists. Part Two covers the innovators and technical breakthroughs that have helped shape the role of the guitar in jazz, while Part Three concerns the future of jazz and the guitar’s continued impact on this unique, complex art. Alas, Jazz.com, whose new content has been suspended since January, 2010 seems to be shutting down. If that is not the case, I will re-post the actual links when they are active.
THE ONCE AND FUTURE STRINGS
Los Angeles, 1939: On the bandstand a slender young black man from Oklahoma wields an archtop acoustic guitar adorned with a magnetic pickup connected to a primitive tube amplifier, an odd looking box slightly out of place on a stage crowded with horns and music stands. With a sideways glance at the quirky setup, the bandleader brings his clarinet to his lips and swings into the head of “Rose Room.”
The horn section blares, the drums crash and boom; the guitarist takes his chorus. Suddenly piercing, bell-clear solo lines spring from the grill of the tiny amplifier as the Gibson ES-150 shouts defiantly over the din of the orchestra in distinctively horn-like phrases: “I am jazz guitar and I have something to say!” The electronically enhanced soloist, Charlie Christian, would die of tuberculosis a few years later, but his legacy would live on. Of course, Christian was not the first jazz guitar player, nor was he unique in his ability to play intricate single-line solos. Eddie Lang had already forged a reputation for innovative solo technique on the archtop. Across the Atlantic, Django Reinhardt, Oscar Aleman and Pierre “Baro” Ferret were laying the foundation of Hot Club swing and jazz Manouche on Maccaferri-designed Selmers and the not-so-heavy metal Regulators.
However, Christian was successful in bringing the amplified guitar to the forefront as a solo instrument, opening the door a little wider for subsequent generations of guitarists.
The evolution of jazz guitar continued with legendary players such as Barney Kessel, Tal Farlow, Johnny Smith, Grant Green, Kenny Burrell, Jimmy Raney and Wes Montgomery. Through their fingers, the inspired elocution of finely crafted ideas defined the parameters of the instrument. At the same time, the physical development of the guitar also helped define the parameters of jazz. The amplified acoustic guitar could deliver flurries of notes cutting through the loudest horn sections, but it had a limited capacity for wailing; that is, until two musical pioneers, Les Paul and Leo Fender independently produced the next step in the instrument’s evolution- the solid body electric. Paradoxically, this innovation eliminated the feedback problems associated with the hollow body, while giving the guitar the ability to sustain notes and scream at inhuman decibel levels. As the solid body came into its own, elements of blues, rock and roll and funk broadened the role of the guitar in shaping the nature of the art.
With Gibson’s Les Paul model, British guitarist John McLaughlin added a bold, if slightly metallic voice to the groundbreaking Miles Davis album, Bitches Brew, and an electrified intensity to the first two Tony Williams Lifetime recordings. His Mahavishnu Orchestra further expanded the boundaries and permanently blurred the line between jazz and rock. Chick Corea’s Return to Forever ensemble followed suit with the dissonant and occasionally chaotic Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy featuring tortured, heartfelt solo work by guitarist Bill Conners and the white-hot sustain of his Les Paul Custom. Meanwhile, sixties blues and rock innovators Jimi Hendrix, Johnny Winter and others had pushed the edge of the envelope for Leo Fender’s Stratocasters, creating new dynamics which would leach into the approaching fusion movement. But the solid body would not completely dominate: McLaughlin also helped raise the acoustic bar in an unforgettable duet with Larry Coryell on the visionary milestone recording Spaces and featured the transducer-enhanced Ovation flattop on his My Goalotags Beyond. Pat Martino proved that the archtop still held a few surprises with the release of his cultural amalgam, East.
Other mainstream heavyweights like Joe Pass, Jim Hall, Herb Ellis, Bucky Pizzarelli and George Barnes would continue to keep faith with the hollow body jazz box. George Benson would utilize its warm, bubbly sound to achieve unprecedented commercial success.
In the following decades, the once supportive rhythm instrument took center stage as guitar wizards like Steve Khan, John Scofield, Mike Stern, Pat Metheny and Larry Carlton became pied pipers winning over thousands of new jazz fans among young listeners. Blues men and rockers like Duane Allman, Jeff Beck and Carlos Santana reached across the aisle for brief forays into the jazz genre. As audio technology evolved and CDs became the delivery system, a wave of new players vied for attention. At the same time, music trends were rapidly shifting and, although players such as Russell Malone, Mark Whitfield, Kurt Rosenwinkel and Ron Afif rose to prominence, there seemed to be less room at the top.
Then, along came the Gypsies. In the nineties, Sinti musicians such as Bireli Lagrene, Jimmy Rosenberg and Angelo Debarre rode the first wave of enthusiasm for the rediscovered music of Django Reinhardt and the Hot Club Swing Revival took hold. Gypsy jazz is still growing in popularity, even as some of its major practitioners are breaking away from its tight pompe form in favor of mainstream, bop and cool idioms. But the Gypsy technique has had a major impact on European players like Robin Nolan, Andreas Öberg and Jon Larsen, and has been working its way into the musical vocabulary on this side of the Atlantic as well, with versatile session players John Jorgenson and Howard Alden and French guitarist Stephane Wrembel as its leading protagonists.
Currently there are so many wonderful jazz guitarists on the forefront that it would take volumes to give them justice. But the shifting dynamics of a shrinking, interconnected world and the resultant cultural exchanges have created a new synergy, changing the nature of how we experience music. Just as the last Broadway production of Cabaret had audience members seated at tables onstage as part of the act, today’s jazz audience is assuming an increasingly participatory role as jazz camps, clinics and interactive websites further integrate the separate worlds of performer and patron. The guitar’s unique properties give it a critical role in this increasingly evolving jazz environment.
The ubiquitous guitar has long been an instrument of the masses, comfortable, expressive and familiar to listeners of all tastes and backgrounds, the ideal “gateway instrument” to jazz. With its unique genre-spanning properties, no other polyphonic instrument is as accessible, versatile or malleable. Entry-level guitars are available in any price range, and, like the piano, comparatively easy for young fingers to play. Unlike the piano, guitars travel light and take up hardly any room. It has been the de rigueur accessory to the activist folkie, necessary equipment for the leather-clad rocker and a principal voice for the perfervid bluesman. While the reasons for taking up the guitar are as varied as the styles played on the instrument, there has been a tendency for many guitarists who begin to outgrow the technical limitations of a particular genre to gravitate to the art of jazz. I was one of those who made the leap.
The Christmas of 1958 was perhaps the most special Santa drop of my childhood. That morning, under the aromatic balsam with its glowing, oversized lights, shimmering tinsel and German glass ornaments sat my very first guitar, a Silvertone flattop acoustic.
It was a gift from my older brother Ken, who had promised to buy me a guitar of my own if I ever learned how to play- but until then I was to keep my grubby eight year-old hands off his gorgeous Espana classical. Taking the bait, I snuck into his room at every opportunity, constructing simple chords by ear until I was able to master the historic “Ballad of Davy Crockett,” much to my brother’s chagrin. Lionizing the king of the wild frontier in first position triads is hardly an auspicious beginning to a jazz guitarist’s career, but in rural 1950s North Carolina, there was little available inspiration beyond Elvis and Chuck Berry, who I assumed were the defining boundaries of the instrument. My musical development was haphazard, migrating from folk music to rock & roll, then to R & B. I was well into my teens before I discovered the unlimited possibilities of jazz, and then only after I had begun playing with older, more sophisticated musicians, mostly university students from other parts of the country. It was a gradual, meandering progression, crossing the chasm between Louie, Louie and Louis Armstrong. I mention this only because my story is far from unique- it’s the way many aspiring guitar players stumbled into the art of jazz. But not any more- the digital age has now leveled the playing field.
Until recently there were few educational resources beyond Berklee for jazz guitar other than private studies, the dry, tediously rote Mel Bay method books and, of course, the painstaking analysis of solos from vinyl LP records, which could be slowed to half-speed. A fledgling jazz guitarist could spend hours deciphering lines, practicing modes and scales, picking the brains of other guitar players. Fortunately this situation has improved by leaps and bounds. The advent of affordable digital recording technology and the Internet have opened a floodgate of recording options, instruction videos, student-teacher interaction and connectivity, transforming the way we learn the craft, write the music and the way we do business. Digital music file-sharing allows musicians in different hemispheres to work on recording projects together in the comfort of their homes. More albums are being released in digital format only, as more music buffs migrate to their iPods. Record stores, nightclubs, recording studios and concert halls are becoming subjugated by traffic on the information superhighway. This new techno-musical universe presents both opportunities and challenges, but as new batches of musical larvae emerge from their cocoons, it is the stage upon which the next act will be played.
Jazz education and jazz guitar in particular are entering a new, exciting era – YouTube, MP3 portability and a plethora of Internet networks supporting jazz guitar are increasing the exchange of ideas and accelerating the learning curve. Interactive online instruction websites have increased the free exchange of knowledge making top level instruction a mere mouse click away. A guitar student in Bucharest, Mexico City or Osaka can interact with and study under the same cutting-edge instructors as the kid in Brooklyn- assuming he has a decent computer, a digital video recorder and high-speed Internet access.
There are a number of jazz guitar instructional sites on the Internet, but I would like to mention three interactive courses I feel offer the most bang for the buck. For a mainstream, thoroughly technical approach, the Mark Elf Guitar Conservatory [http://markelfguitarconservatory.com/Default.aspx] and the Jimmy Bruno Guitar Institute [http://www.jimmybrunoguitarinstitute.com/public/main.cfm] offer richly detailed, methodical lessons on theory and guitar technique, along with valuable tips extracted from their considerable experience. Both are highly acclaimed virtuosi with impressive professional pedigrees. Elf has been a university instructor, frequent clinician for Clark Terry’s jazz camps and has recorded or performed with a Who’s Who of jazz legends, from Dizzy Gillespie to Jack McDuff. Bruno’s credentials include a world tour with the Buddy Rich Orchestra and long stints with Frank Sinatra, Doc Severinsen, Anthony Newley and Lena Horne, as well as an impressive discography. Both guitarists’ sites offer incentives for improvement and individual master class video feedback, along with extensive accompanying sheet music with tablature.
But the website that I find the most intriguing is from Sweden’s fiery young guitar phenom, Andreas Öberg. Andreas Guitar Universe [http://alpha.andreasguitaruniverse.com/], is a user-friendly interactive site offering a fast-track, streamlined method incorporating Öberg’s aggressive technique with a common sense, ear-oriented approach to playing. “I want you to learn to play what’s in your head, not just what’s in your fingers,” he says in one of his introductory lessons- and quite convincingly shows us how its done, no tricks, no secrets. I love his logical, no-nonsense approach- utilizing the fretboard much the same way the Gypsy players do, relating modal phrasing to the underlying chord structure without being overly concerned over positions. “I try to get the students to hear everything they play and learn how to visualize the whole fretboard instead of just learning different positions.” This site is also unique for its comprehensive instruction on Gypsy jazz, blues, funk, rock and special techniques like harp harmonics, bass line-chord comping and sweeps. Barely in his thirties, Öberg hasn’t accumulated the same decades of road work as Bruno or Elf, but in terms of knowledge, technique and versatility, he is very much an old soul and his playing speaks volumes- solid technicality seasoned with street-smart, monster chops.
As jazz completes its first decade of the millennium in a boiling cauldron of new technology, migrating tastes and shifting markets, the old, woody sound of the archtop is enjoying a resurgence of popularity among young players. The buoyant, crunchy swing of Django Reinhardt has a growing mob of jazz Manouche enthusiasts, the lines between jazz, blues and R&B continue to meld and new generations of guitarists are helping to keep the fires of bebop, fusion and mainstream burning. But live venues are closing, working musicians are competing with synthesized gadgetry and recorded music revenues are shrinking. The transition to a digital universe has increased musicians’ capacity to study, write, record and communicate, but has also created a bit of collateral damage. To be fully realized, jazz needs to be played and heard live and, unfortunately, at least here in the United States, the size of the audience is shrinking.
The “audience factor” can no longer be ignored; we are fast approaching a period in which jazz musicians may outnumber the people who want to hear them play. When that happens, we will no longer have a living, breathing art; we will be left with a hobbyist-driven artifact, the musical equivalent of Latin, a dead language spoken only in lecture halls and courtrooms. So the questions remain: Who will save performance jazz? As much as I’d like to suggest that a few caped “jazz guitar heroes” will swoop down from the sky, dazzling stadiums full of newly-enraptured jazz Moonies, we know that’s probably not going to happen.
In reality, the future viability of jazz is dependent on two radical changes in our cultural environment. First, music education must become a priority in our public school systems, with emphasis on jazz and classical music in elementary school curricula. Like foreign languages, complex musical concepts are more easily assimilated if taught early and have the additional benefit of increasing a child’s right brain-left brain connection. Second, musicians must be willing to communicate more and connect with their target audiences. This would be a cultural compromise of sorts- ‘opening up’ the public ear, with a bit of ‘sweetening up’ from jazz artists. After all, even the boldest pioneers knew when to pitch camp and dig in after opening up new territories. John Pizzarelli gets it- with an aura of urbane charm and the judicious use of comfortable, flowing bop lines he has made a career of repackaging the Great American Songbook. George Benson has been climbing the charts for years, though his prowess as a player is sometimes kept in the background by his vocal finesse. It’s no accident that Herbie Hancock has sold millions of records and filled concert halls, revitalizing his audience base by incorporating elements of hip hop, funk and techno into his compositions and utilizing guitarists like “Wah Wah” Watson and Lionel Loueke along the way. After winning a Grammy for Album of the Year for his interpretations of Joni Mitchell tunes and his projects with vocalists Elvis Costello and Christina Aguilera, Herbie is the closest thing we have to a popular jazz superstar. His music has enough broad appeal to reach the neophytes; they may not understand it but it still makes them want to dance. “Horrors,” you say? Well, if you happen to be in Paris, pay a visit to the Caveau Huchette. You will see an ancient cellar full of young people dancing to bebop, swing and cool jazz. Huchette is not exactly avant-garde, nor is it the hippest jazz salon in Europe, but its patrons are having fun. What’s wrong with that?
Today jazz guitarists are in a position to effect positive change as trailblazers of the next wave, nujazz or whatever you wish to call it. These frontiersmen may choose to dazzle with pyrotechnics and shatter existing tenets of music, or they can choose to communicate with clarity. I don’t suggest that we ‘dumb down’ the music. There is a world of difference between vapidity and clarity. What we need is deeper simplicity, a value often embraced by guitar virtuosi like Jim Hall, Joe Pass, Pat Metheny and Earl Klugh. Playing it safe never factored into the equation for any of these artists- in their hands, simplicity is merely the thoughtful restraint of brilliant ideas. In the wrong hands, simplicity is nothing more than mediocrity with the safety on, banality disguised as taste. By the same token, we can’t force the public to listen to angry, strident, chaotic exhortation in the name of Great Art. There must come a time when jazz once again enjoys a broad appeal, without losing its soul, when people everywhere no longer feel threatened and intimidated by its complexity and have no qualms over dancing joyfully to its boundless energy. If we play it, they will come, but only if they can hear it- and if they dig what they hear. As Thoreau famously said, “It’s not enough to be busy. The question is what are you busy about?” It is high time we redoubled our effort to find common ground with the public ear.
Jazzers don’t have to be the victims in this technological revolution. The tail has been wagging the dog much too long- we must use mass media and technology in a proactive, intelligent way, striking a balance between art and commerce. Imagine multi-media events where a growing legion of young, musically savvy fans dance a superlocrian dervish generated by hypnotically rhythmic world-beat newsion guitarist ensembles. Just as Charlie Christian changed the playbook with his use of the tube amplifier, the next generation of digitally supercharged jazz guitarists can forge a future limited only by its collective imagination.
September 13, 2009 § Leave a comment
Welcoming the Fall
Autumn has always been my favorite time of year, with its crisp nights, colorful trees, fireplace blazing and all the fall festivities! After a difficult summer it is even more welcome.
The good news is that I have formed a new trio, with bassist Jon Wilkins and drummer Scott Kinnison.
I’m very excited about the new sound! We have been rehearsing in Manchester, New Hampshire and should be playing New England venues soon. In addition to some of my originals, classic jazz standards, tunes from the Great American Songbook and some modal favorites from titans like Bill Evans, Wayne Shorter and Chick Corea, we will be working on new material for my upcoming album, Guitar Noir.
Recently Jazz.com published my article on one of my all-time favorite guitarists, Duane Allman. Here’s the link to the article:
Soon my three-part article on the future of jazz guitar will be out. The central theme of these articles focuses on the myriad challenges the art of jazz faces in the 21st century and the need to retain and expand the audience base- vital for the music to thrive, evolve and grow.
In the meantime, here are links to some other Jazz.com pieces I have written:
Your comments are welcome. Thanks for visiting my blog and have a great fall season!
Photo by Julie Powers
“Bill Barnes Trio”- acrylic on canvas, by Colette Nolcox
September 13, 2009 § Leave a comment
Jon Wilkins and I play my version of Oliver Nelson’s classic “Stolen Moments” at a Boston-area bistro.
April 6, 2009 § Leave a comment
Greetings and welcome to my blog, where I will be discussing jazz in general, jazz guitar, gigs, jams and other music-related subjects, along with life experiences. Please check in later, as this blog is new and still under construction. Meanwhile, here’s a brief montage of a recent gig in the Boston area I did with bassist Jonathan Wilkins.
You may also check out my articles, track reviews and features on Jazz.com. an entertaining, informative and occasionally provocative website, featuring an international staff of writers, including Ted Gioia, Marissa Dodge, Alan Kurtz, Nat Hentoff, Bill Kirchner, Scott Albin, Thierry Quénum and many others.
Feel free to visit my website for more information.
Also, you may check out my general blog: