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Interviews

Gene Ess: One Note Says It All

By Published: July 11, 2006
AAJ: So now you're stuck with it.

GE: Yeah. I don't mind it—I love the sound of the instrument, and there are so many great guitar players. But if I have a philosophy, it's not to have a philosophy—just to play what's natural and what you need to express. And I'm not at the point where I feel I express everything as honestly or as naturally as I can. Whenever I reach that point, I think maybe it'll be time [laughing] to try something else. It's still a struggle. I do think that you need to try to find a voice that's your own, and I work very hard at that, man. I try to not sound like every guitarist out there, which is getting more and more difficult!

I remember reading an interview with Paul Bley, and he said, "well, it's not really your fault if you don't sound that individualistic in this day and age, because there's so much that's already been done! He said that in the forties and fifties, it was different. In terms of guitar sound, I know what I don't like and try to stay away from that—and that's how I ended up with the sound I have on the guitar. I am actually pretty happy with the guitar sound on that record.

AAJ: Beyond your guitar tone to the overall sound of the music on Sandbox and Sanctum—do you think this represents your mature sound, the music you're playing today?

GE: Yes and no. The live performances that we continue to do still include these songs, because it is my latest album. But this week, I'm going into my isolation booth to compose for five days straight to try to come up with my next record. I've had enough time—I usually know when it's time to go do that, to put it on paper. It's like giving birth. I don't really enjoy that process of putting it on paper—well, not on paper, I use composing software called Sibelius, but still, it's this time-consuming process of putting all the things inside you out as best you can. So I'm going to do that. Are you familiar with Jerry Bergonzi?

AAJ: The Boston tenor player?

GE: Yes. He was my teacher years ago. I gave him this record. He's one of the few people who I really respect in terms of what they'll say to me, and said he loved the record, but he thought the music carried with it a spiritual and inspirational value. That was touching to me that he caught on to that. I'm not an evangelist—some people want to convert other people, and I have nothing to do with that. But for me, music is the most spiritual activity that a human being can do. I don't really do it for any other reason than that. Why do I even do music? In this day and age, it's not really practical. Financially, it's almost like a hobby. But it's the one time in my life that I actually feel that I am doing what I'm supposed to do.

My next record is going to be less complex. There aren't going to be as many odd time signatures, not that shifting of time or things like that. Lately internally, I've been hearing something more hymn-like. So I think my next album will reflect that; it'll be something more simply stated. I'm hoping to have the same guys, but we'll see. Everyone's very busy. I'm hoping to do the record later this year.

AAJ: I do want to ask just a bit about your previous album, Sunrise Falling (AMP Records, 2003). This is very different from Sandbox and Sanctum. It's very much a studio album where aside from the drummers and bassists on the tracks, it's all you on guitars, synths, loops, and programmed parts. I suppose it's a fusion record, but to me it sounds as much like groups like Sound Tribe Sector 9 as anything in jazz. What were you going for?

GE: I'm an electronic buff. I like building electronic things. The one piece of electronic gear that fascinated me most, of course, is the computer. I'm still, after years of opening them up and looking inside, amazed at what a CPU does. And it comes from sand. It's amazing what a human mind can do. So computers have been this fascinating subject for me. I learned this 4GL language called FOCUS, just to be able to work with this software called Max/MFP, made by Cycling '74. It's a heavy piece of software and it's used by these musicians/philosophers to create their art.

There are two elements to that record. I wanted to express my electronic side, using some musician friends that I've worked with in the past. At the same time, I was contacted by AMP Records, this U.K. label that specialized in electronic music; they wanted me to do a recording for them. So I knew I couldn't do a jazz record because that's not what they did. And I'm of a generation of musicians that, when we grew up, there was no jazz. We didn't hear standards. They certainly weren't on the radio. Most of my generation of musicians learned jazz in more of an educational setting.

Gene Ess So I grew up with electric guitars and synthesizer, things like that. I was talking with one of the bassists on that record, Matt Garrison. He said, "why can't Weather Report be my standard? That's what I grew up with. And in a way, Heavy Weather is my standard; that's what I listened to as a 14-year-old kid. Not Coleman Hawkins playing "Body and Soul. That was not around! I hardly even heard jazz on public radio.

It's a peculiar problem for me that the greatness of this music, the invention of it, all came from the United States. And the United States seems to care about it the least. It's such a great music that you would think there would more public love for it.

But you know, in my darkest hour, I feel like one note on the piano says it all for me. I kind of like B flat. B flat on a nice grand piano—within that note and the overtones, everything in my life that means anything to me seems to be inside that. That one note is enough.


Selected Discography

Gene Ess, Sandbox and Sanctum (SIMP Music, 2005)
Gene Ess, Sunrise Falling (Amp Records, 2003)
Rashied Ali Quintet, No One in Particular (Survival Records, 2001)
One World Tribe, Prayer for September (Prayer Wheel, 1995)

Photo Credit
Courtesy of Gene Ess



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