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Gene Ess: One Note Says It All

By Published: July 11, 2006
AAJ: The themes seem pretty tricky.

GE: Yeah, and just the music in general. I don't think it's something you can sight-read at a session. It takes some time to get the gist of it. I'd had other players play this music on some gigs, and it just wasn't right, and it occurred to me to have Donny come in, because we'd just done a gig at the Blue Note together before the time of the recording, and I just thought he would be the perfect player for this. I was right; he played the heck out of it, man [laughing]. I'm very happy with the way he played. He interpreted the melodies and these intricate little fills pretty much the way I had imagined it. I guess that can happen—you know, I think we're exactly the same age, and he's had a really similar background to mine. He did a great, great job. He's another very busy player, so other saxophone players have filled in on my gigs since the recording, and it never comes off right. Not like Donny did it, anyway. Kudos to Donny.

Harvie is someone that I just met in the last two or three years. Of all of us, he's the veteran guy; he's older than we are. He's somebody I used to listen to as a student. I've always admired Harvie. Whenever I've heard his bass playing, I've been struck first by his characteristic sound of his playing, and second, by what a free-flowing kind of player he was. It was very attractive to me whenever I heard him on various recordings. So I just came across some people who knew him, and I gave him a call. He was very supportive. He wanted to hear the music first, but once he heard it, he said he loved it. He told me he thought it was very fresh and very different from what's coming out now. So he said he was happy to do it, and he's been doing almost all of my gigs—including the very small ones in New York. I'm very grateful for that.

AAJ: Gene Jackson is an essential part of this music—I've always admired his restlessness, and there's plenty of that here. He never plays on autopilot. He's really prowling around within the music here, almost fighting with it, and that really brings it to life.

GE: That's exactly right. He's unique in that way. I've never met a drummer with that intuitive thing he has. And you know, the way he approaches it can, and does, fall on its face from time to time. It's one of those situations where he'll try it and one night it just doesn't work. But the nights when it does work, it's magic—just unbelievable drumming. And I prefer that. I would rather have the band just screw it up, have an off night, rather than play that autopilot kind of sound that a lot of guys in New York have.

I guess a lot of these guys have such technical virtuosity that they do go on autopilot; that's what it is. Without mentioning any names, I remember not too long ago, this drummer was filling in for Gene, and he had heard from Harvie that the music was a little bit difficult. So he wanted the recording. I told him, "listen, I don't want you to play like Gene Jackson does on the recording. I want you to bring your own stuff. But he said he didn't want to sound bad on the gig, and that was understandable, so I gave him the recording before. And you know, he didn't try to play like Gene, but it didn't sound like jazz—it was this very-well-prepared thing. He wasn't trying to create something at that gig. Every time we play, wherever we play, each tune comes out differently.

AAJ: Well, there's no reason to learn Gene Jackson parts from the record. I suspect Gene couldn't play those himself now; he doesn't want to.

GE: He doesn't want to. He told me that when he was working with Herbie Hancock for those years he did, he noticed that Herbie never listens to any of his recordings. He hasn't for a long time. He doesn't want his music to be affected in that way, and Gene learned from that. He won't listen to anything he's played on either; he says, "that way, when I play the tunes next time, it's like the first time. So he brings that freshness. Plus, he's a very powerful drummer. Even though he's a different animal, there's something about him that reminds me of Rashied Ali, who was one of my first jazz employers when I first moved to New York. They have a very similar triplet feel, even though otherwise they have very little in common. I was talking to Gene about that, and he said it's a Philly thing; they're both from Philly. Of course, he also told me he loves Rashied Ali's playing.

AAJ: Your guitar tone on Sandbox and Sanctum is quite unique. It's got an electric brightness to it that's not exactly like anyone I've heard before. I also like how you mix just enough chords with your single-note lines in your playing. Do you have a philosophy of jazz guitar playing?

GE: I don't have a philosophy. Are you familiar with Charlie Banacos? He's a great teacher up in Boston. About three or four years ago, I asked him a similar question, because I was going through a period in my life where I wanted to come up with a maxim or methodology. He told me he didn't have it. I finally just came to the conclusion that I don't either, and that I wasn't even really a fan of the guitar per se. I know some people really love their guitars, and that's great. But I'm not a fan of the guitar itself—it just ended up being what I ended up playing. It's the instrument that I can express myself on in the most efficient way.

I started out as a pianist, but I rebelled against that—I was kind of forced into it when I was young because my mother's a classical piano teacher. I ran away from that, but fell in love with the guitar later when I was 14 or 15. So that's what I use to express myself, even though on the electronic record I did before Sandbox, I played keyboards as well. But I don't really have the proficiency on any other instrument.

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