Monday, April 21, 2008

An Interview with Paul Bollenback

I'll let this video speak for itself, which contains more superlatives than I could write. He is playing It Could Happen to You, which I have been practicing ever since seeing this 2 months ago.



Now the interview. We did this through Gmail instant messaging, which is lovely because there is an immediate transcription of the conversation.

me: You are just about the most versatile guitarist I've heard. Blessing or curse or both?
Paul: Definitely a blessing....mostly. It becomes a curse as a leader if you are not careful to define what you are into at a particular moment in your career...so I won't put out a raga-based recording with pop grooves on it......and then play standards on the gigs around that time. As a leader, people listening to you have to know they will get some level of consistency in your performances, even if what you are working on changes over time....
me: I've noticed that reviewers or critics have a hard time labeling you, because that's what they like to do, label. Has that been a bit of an annoyance?
Paul: I've been very fortunate on the whole with writers, as the best ones really "get it".....that I'm not trying to copy the past, but that I'm still essentially a jazz improviser....or even take the word "jazz" out and leave "improviser". As in every aspect of our culture today, there are writers who don't do their homework, who don't want to have to actually really listen to the music with any degree of attention. Everybody has to deal with this, so at a certain point, while pats on the back are great, and let you know people are digging what you are doing, it's important not to loose sight of your role as a composer/player.....and to forge ahead, regardless. I've been told it might take a while for people to understand what I'm doing....and that's fine, because I'm going to keep doing it anyway!
me: You've done so much, and as I said, it's been so varied. Let me just summarize briefly, because I think it's puts you in a very unique position to see the jazz world. You've played with Joey D a lot, backed up Carol Sloane, played contemporary tunes, done your own composing, played with Houston Person--and traveled the world playing. If you were Dr. Jazz, how's the patient, how's jazz doing?
Paul: Wow...I wish I was that smart to know that! But in my world, there is a LOT of creative music going on, and musicians seem like they are open to trying different things, but with a real sensitivity to groove, vibe, creativity and making the music come across strongly. Also, folks are not afraid to cross-pollinate with other music, or to take older forms of jazz and look at them from new angles. So on the musician's end, I think it's a great time for creativity. Unfortunately, media control being what it is, a lot of this music is not heard by the general public, and jazz is defined in the mass media as being a replay of what happened in the 50's and 60's. Maybe not all of it, but a lot of it. That can mean it's more difficult to get gigs and record dates, and that can really stifle some of the players who might be having a hard time making ends meet.
me: What styles of jazz, since you play them all, seem to connect most with the public, and which parts of the country, and world are most enthusiastic about the music?
Paul: I just got back from a 3 week tour of Russia, a trio singer Chris McNulty and Russian pianist Andrei Kondakov. No bass or drums, doing original music from each of us, and some standards, but with my arrangements. On this tour, everybody plays some percussion, and Andrei also sings. The styles varied from modal vampy things in a straight 8th groove, to ballads, and really interactive duets....and the venues were all full. We were really happy that people enjoyed it so much, because it was a risk....new music, no rhythm section...But I think people everywhere enjoy a groove, a melody, and seeing the interactive magic of players communicating with each other on stage. It's like...."how did they do that?" for the audience. The best groups that I've played with, regardless of style, all had success with that. Best places to play....I love to play New York, because it's home....Most enthusiastic is definitely Europe, (including Russia!).
me: You mentioned that the media's preconceptions about jazz seem to be some type of blockage (just driving this Dr. metaphor into the ground here) between the musician and the public, could you elaborate on that just a bit more?
Paul: Sure. It seems that most major media outlets...television, radio, major internet retailers, major record labels, concert promoters, brick and mortar stores, newspapers, major concert venues and clubs, are either owned outright or affiliated with companies like Clear Channel, or Universal Entertainment, to name two. So....if you are not in with one of these gigantic multinational corporations it's going to be a lot more difficult to get on certain concert circuits, get recordings put out, get critics and reviewers to come to performances. Ever wonder how somebody with no talent and only the ability to entertain, or even just to look good onstage, becomes a huge star out of nowhere? This is how. I'm not complaining for myself...I've been very fortunate to have gotten some recognition without the benefit of a huge machine behind me. A lot of that has to do with the musicians around who have always been so supportive of each other. But the way that the "jazz business" seems to be going in the same direction of one-dimensional, media driven pop culture (ala American Idol), with only 2 or 3 giant companies pulling the strings is very disconcerting......whew....
me: Yeah, I was going to say you've dispelled any notion that quickness on the fretboard translates to the computer keyboard.:-)
Paul: just takes some thought! Deep questions!
me: Anyway, last question on the big picture of jazz, do you think it is consigned to a small niche, or can it recover and become a dominant part of peoples hearts—deep questions because I'm assuming you're really smart, and you are.
Paul: lol-I'm no historian, but jazz was only ever a huge 'Pop" music in the big band era.....so it's always been a "niche" music relative to other more mainstream things. But I have a lot of hope these days, because I see so many young people digging the music, at concerts and buying cd's. Jazz is so strong and deep that it will be here in some way shape or form long after you and I are gone. Of that I am sure. How's that for speedy...?:)
me: Much better, but I had the same smiley issue with Carol, she figured it out first. I think I got it by luck.
Paul: all this new computer based language..
me: Let's talk about you as a player, your development--because this video I'm embedding is fabulous on so many levels. When you were a kid, you started with open chords, cheap guitar, right?
Paul: Exactly..folk music on a nylon string when I was 7.
me: Then at some point, you wanted to be, who, Clapton or...?
Paul: the Beatles...then Carlos Santana
me: So Carlos gets you to explore the rest of the fretboard, and you began playing in rock bands?
Paul: Yup...then Led Zeppelin, Johnny Winter, the Allman Brothers, Jimi Hendrix, of course.....but all the time I'm listening to all the Motown stuff that was on the radio in the 60's and early 70's...so I know that went in there, too.
me: Did you have lessons, or were you wearing out the vinyl and driving your folks crazy?
Paul: I had a few lessons for the folk stuff, but then none until I was about 16, which was when I got interested in jazz. And yes I drove my folks, and my friends’ folks crazy, because by the time I was in junior high school, I was playing every weekend and a lot during the week with friends....just jams, really. But it was constant!
me: Do you have perfect pitch or relative pitch?
Paul: I've been working on my ears for a long time, so my relative pitch is ok. I wish I had perfect pitch. Every time I'm around Joey DeFrancesco (perfect pitch and an audiographic memory) I feel like I need to work 6 times harder on it:)
me: I'm going to ask about Joey later, his conception is about a generation or two older than he is, it seems, but that's for later. Did jazz hit you from your teacher, or did you discover it and bring it to your teacher?
Paul: My dad was a big Benny Goodman fan, and he had all those records in the house, but I never really did anything but listen a few times just out of curiosity. He also loved Frank Sinatra and Nat Cole. But it was so foreign to me then....I just needed to hear that raging rock beat. But to make a long story short, a friend turned me onto Mahavishnu Orchestra, and that led to Miles Davis "Big Fun", which led to "Bitches Brew" which led to Return to Forever and 11th House, and THEN....(jeez this is going to be boring to read!) my dad's colleague gave me a "Best of John Coltrane" record with "Giant Steps", "Naima", "Cousin Mary", etc. I must have been 16 or 17 at the time and that did it for me! Hooked!
me: Wow. Didn't expect that. The direction, that is. I would have thought you heard some jazz guitarist that just knocked you over. So at this time were you teaching yourself, or did you still have a teacher?
Paul: After hacking my way around trying to play some kind of fusion/vamp things, I went to Berklee in Boston for their 6 week summer course. When I got back from there I could play better, but still was mystified by the jazz thing, so I found a guy in DC named Steve Gray who showed me a few things, got me into playing tunes out of the Real Book (big mistake...better to learn just from records..but I had no $$ for records, so..). After I graduated high school I kicked around DC for a year while attending American University, trying to find a direction. Then I went to University of Miami in Florida for two years, in their jazz studies program. I studied under Randall Dollahan, and learned exactly how little I knew. But I should say that both the junior high I went to in New York and the high school I finished at in DC had great music programs, and I learned all the music theory basics, played in a big band (badly), and had exposure to basic ear training before I went to college.
me: Okay. Here's the key--at what point in your playing did all of your formal training melt away? In other words, at what point were you just able to let loose and play and not think about it--because that's one of the beautiful things about that video of you, that the music seems to flow without thought, right from the heart.
Paul: I'm still working on that one!:) No, seriously, it's only in the last few years that I've felt like I've gotten a little closer to being able to flow, and express in a more complete way. Still a work in progress, but thanks!
me: Congratulations on the smiley. I understand the elation.
Paul: Hooray....?
me: Oh, here comes the modesty part. I knew I would run into it at some point. No, you've crossed a bridge that not many cross--it's definitely flowing. Especially those with formal training, it's hard to pry the brain off the fingers.
Paul: Thanks! I'm glad it comes across ("modest is my middle name--Carol Sloane")
me: Yes, I'm reminded of this every time I tell her that her music is exquisite. So, do you still feel the brain gripping your hand?
Paul: Naw...nothing left in the brain....:) But the key for me has been to be able to "hear" what the notes on the fretboard sound like, so getting the fingers to them is just a matter of mechanics....hopefully.
me: So you can find what you hear?
Paul: It's something I've been working on for many years. It eliminates the need to rationalize. I mean, I do use what I know of jazz clich├ęs or stylistically based lines, and what I know of harmony and rhythm, but it's all dictated by the ear. So if I can hear it, and then know exactly where it is on the fretboard, then it makes life a lot easier.
me: I'm thinking of two things at once, I'm not sure if they're related. One is from a Barney Kessel video--the only one still in circulation, and I might have bought the last copy. He emphasized not naming chords, trying to keep the nouns and theory out for as long as possible--and I'm also wondering where you picked up this mastery of the fretboard. Just comment, I suppose.
Paul: It is definitely all about sound...not names. If you can hear it and play it but not name it, you are in better shape than naming everything but hearing nothing. Mastery.....? What mastery?
me: Oh please.
Paul: Well, you develop techniques for getting what you need out of the instrument. I should have some books coming out on these techniques sometime.....soon!
me: You know people can see it, the mastery. I'm going to embed the video.
Paul: Cool. The more the merrier
me: Which jazz guitarists--were there any jazz guitarists that just made your jaw perpetually drop?
Paul: Man....all of the greats. Lenny Breau is one who is less well known. Pat Martino and George Benson still kill me. John (how does he do that)McLaughlin. But the truth is that I try not to listen too much to guitar players, because all these guys sound so great that I want to be just like them. Which is silly, because I'm still working on my own voice. But I love listening to any good guitar player, and I always try to steal as much as I can without being obvious about it:)
me: That makes perfect sense. You have a sound that is unique, you've got your own voice, and that comes from walking a fine line between getting too close to another player and keeping your distance. I actually think that's the real barrier between the public and jazz, brain dominating hands, which hurts the musicians ability to find their own voice. So, to sum up this section--it just happened one day that the labels disappeared and you just were able to play what you heard. It was gradual?
Paul: Very gradual, and it still takes a lot of work. Music is sound, after all!
me: Last section, shouldn't be as long. Do you notice a different feel, even before the music starts when playing with fellows with an older conception, like Houston Person, or Joey, and younger more contemporary players? Remember, this is before the music begins.
Paul: Good question. I have so much respect for the older guys, it makes me feel honored to be with them, even just hanging out, because they've done so much. If I'm the older guy, then it feels like I can be the one with experience. But you know there is a great comraderie with most jazz players, regardless of age.
me: There may be no way to answer that, I mean you did, but there may be no way to ask that. I used to play with older guys in St. Louis, and there was a relaxed feel, either because of age or because of the classic swing that was just a part of who they were. It felt different when younger guys were playing.
Paul: Sure....I know what you mean...the voice of experience vs the wild energy of youth?
me: Could be, but you feel it too? I listened to a lot of your stuff yesterday, saved your record with Carol for last--I'm just blown away by the clarity of her harmonic concept, and I know she can't read, it's all natural. Do you find that as she sings, certain chords, shall we say, strongly suggest themselves, things you might not usually do?
Paul: Sure, and that's true in each situation. You have to treat as a thing of the moment and just find the right thing to say. Playing with Carol is much different than working with Chris McNulty, but the principle of finding the right thing is the same.
me: Okay, I just hear so much from her voice, but hey, I'm a fan.
Paul: Me too!
me: I guess we are at the point of guitars and strings and picks. What do you play--how are you set up?
Paul: Guild Starfire 4, .012 gauge round wound strings, Dunlop jazz 3 picks, and variety of amps, usually with tubes or a tube preamp in front.
me: So you don't lift your own equipment?
Paul: lol. Just one amp at a time.
me: The Guild is like a 335?
Paul: Yes, exactly
me: Well you make a great case for using that type of body. Are you planning a solo album, cd, whatever?
Paul: Yes. We own our own record label (not signing at the moment, sorry), Elefant Dreams (www.elefantdreams.com). I've put our Brightness of Being(2006)and Invocation (2007) and my next one will be a duo/trio recording with Andrei Kondakov and Chris McNulty. Then, maybe a solo guitar project, we'll see.
me: Do you think that nowadays it’s the wisest move for folks to have their own label?
Paul: Seems to be the growing trend.
me: One last question, unless your answer piques another one, is your book going to be written for the illiterate guitarist or for the literate, theoretically knowledgeable guitarist?
Paul: The illiterate one, of course. We all have to stick together...
me: Whew....
Paul: Amen.
me: Can't think of a better ending.
Paul: Thanks. I really appreciate your interest, man. It's guys like you who are keeping us working guys alive out there. Thanks! Gotta run--have a good one, too!
me: And thank you for spending the time, and I really hope your typing improves. I'm going to let GuitarPlayer know we've done this, and then Downbeat--and if they aren't interested I'll just polish it and post it. But they are editors and they don't like to respond to emails. I'll keep you posted.
Paul: Cool! Thanks and ciao!
me: chow
Paul: lol

Well you can see that there is quite a bit of material that we covered, and I'm going to do a parallel post after this, summarizing, highlighting all of the gems that Paul gave us. Of course, I could try to IM with him again, but that would entail letting him type, and...well, let's just not.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Musical String Theory

Science has this peculiar habit of not being quite as scientific as it would like to be. The main reason is that it is almost impossible to prove new theories because the instruments needed to get the hard data don’t yet exist. As I said in on another blog, the first person to invent a machine that measures ‘life force’, will win a Nobel Prize, even though every other culture in the world already recognizes this force as not only existing, but being a cornerstone of that culture. It took years before Einstein’s theory of curved space was proven. The latest theory on the table, pretty well accepted, seen in PBS specials, is String Theory, that the universe is made of these super duper extra special tiny strings. So tiny that one string has never been seen. So tiny that it is reasonable to assume no string ever will be seen. And yet, more like a detective story than a scientific investigation, the theory of strings just seems to fit the available facts. Most times that’s just the best we can do, toss out a theory to which the available facts stick for the time being.

The problem tackled by this blog, in many ways, shapes, and forms, is trying to figure out what happened to jazz. What happened to the most beautiful, inspired, elegant, moving, even life-saving music the world has seen—that it is now relegated to either an afterthought by people who know music, that those playing it can’t seem to reach the heights of their predecessors, that at present, it is, at the most, hip background music for various television commercials? And most importantly, how can it be saved, how can it be brought back to life?

Well, here’s a theory.

In western civilization we just don’t like to improvise. The western mind likes things to be ordered, formulaic, predictable, known, regulated, and rational. Western civilization has survived because of time periods, eras, of improvisation, but those only lasted for a short period of time. One of those periods was the Renaissance, covered over by the formula guys, the math guys, the orderly guys of the Enlightenment. Another one of those periods was when this Enlightenment world collapsed under the weight of its own discoveries, and a period began that we haven’t yet classified. We’re still close enough to it that no historian or sociologist could really get the old conceptual meat hooks into it.

Einstein was improvising, and then other physicists began discovering things that were supposed to be impossible, and then all of physics had to start improvising. This is when Louis Armstrong was born, and he also began taking music—that most ordered product of the western mind, and threw it into chaos, and it became more chaotic, until it crawled into the universities to become ordered and clean once again. I was just looking through a book last night on improving your skills at improvisation. Literally the guy was talking about formulas to use with certain chord progressions, and he wrote with no sense that he was mocking himself.

Jazz improvisation is walking down a dark alley, it is purposely making wrong turns—you the improviser are trying to do something that you haven’t done before. For every note you know, you’re looking for a note or phrase you don’t know. In other words, you’re looking to get into trouble, and then looking for a way out of that trouble. That one sentence is Charlie Parker’s life in a nutshell, it is Stan Getz, it is so many of the pioneers of jazz in one form or another. Or it was played by immigrants and the poor, those whose every day life was a form of improvisation. For Wes Montgomery, intense headaches would come as he discovered how to use octaves the way no one has since. But none of this can possibly be comfortable. And if there is one other thing marking this historical phase, it is that we certainly like our comfort.

For the early and great jazz musicians, it was nothing, soulfully, to walk over the edge of the cliff. They were pretty sure they would fly—but how can a human be certain of this? But they did fly. And we, the audience at the time, went along. That was the feeling of the music, that’s what the musicians were doing, that was the dominant new technology of the time, that was the name of the dance—the Lindy Hop. Jazz began to drop off when the fascination with flying dropped off, and that would be 1969.

Today, jazz players are concerned about making it through the changes, flying is not an operative concept. Comfort through the changes, that is the goal. The solo has become a quest for comfort, the opposite direction of their predecessors. It is learned in an orderly manner, with formulas, the western mind has once again taken control. It is the opposite of Horace Greeley’s frontier spirit, the call of Go West. Today, it isn’t even Go East, it’s Go to School.

And so, where is the life, where is the pulse of this great music? Is it now in Asia, another bud on their tree of knowledge—the tree of how to deal with life force, with chi, with prana, with nefesh? Because, this stuff within us, can only be dealt with on the improv. And who knows, maybe we can fly.