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Vic Juris: Tension and Release

By Published: July 28, 2009
Tension and Release

AAJ: Let's focus in on your teaching and educational work. You do considerable teaching and mentoring. You've also published some top instructional books for Mel Bay. One of your manuals has the phrase "tension and release" in the title, with the subtitle "inside/outside playing." These phrases are striking. Can you briefly tell us what you had in mind?

VJ: This is a book that I did for Mel Bay Publications. What I did was to improvise over a collection of the standards, and part of the soloing would be directly on the chord changes, with notes pertaining to the chords—that's what I mean by the "inside." And then the "outside" would be the notes that were away from the tonality. This would then create the musical landscape of being in, being out, being in, being out. That's the way that Coltrane played, for example.

Vic JurisAAJ: So when you say inside and outside, you mean within the structure or outside of it.

VJ: In and out of the written harmony. And included are a transcription and a CD that comes along with the book which shows everything that I did. It's a great time to learn right now. There are some really amazing books out.

AAJ: The guitar in particular seems to generate a large literature.

VJ: One great series is that of Jamie Aebersold. He offers a rhythm section to play with, so you can be anywhere in the world and acquire the skills. That's a very valuable tool to simulate the real world of jazz.

AAJ: Now when you talk about tension and release, do you mean the same thing as inside and outside, or is that a different concept?

VJ: Tension and release comes from the bebop school: creating a tension on the V [five] chord and then resolving it on the I [one] chord. That was the way that Bird and Dizzy played in the 1950s. I asked Jimmy Heath
Jimmy Heath
Jimmy Heath
sax, tenor
about it, and he said they all played that way. They didn't play from scales those days, they played from tensions on the chords—play on the V chord and release on the I. From what I understand, Thelonious Monk
Thelonious Monk
Thelonious Monk
1917 - 1982
was their guru.

AAJ: They used the basic chord structure of Gershwin's "I Got Rhythm" in many instances.

Jazz: Past, Present and Future

VJ: Yes, as in the blues form. If you think about it, most of what Charlie Parker wrote was based on the harmonies of the standards. He just wrote the melodic lines. "Yardbird Suite" and "Confirmation" were totally original, but the rest of the tunes were based on popular songs.

AAJ: That's probably one reason why Miles Davis brought in modal playing rather than a harmonic basis.

VJ: He probably got into the modal playing through Bill Evans' influence. That seems to be the consensus.

AAJ: Wasn't it the other way around?

VJ: No. I think Evans came first—he was heavy into Ravel and Debussy.

AAJ: Debussy would be considered modal?

Vic JurisVJ: If you listen to the Debussy "Piano Preludes," you can really hear how it influenced Bill Evans. I think Bill was aware of modes and their functions before Miles. Although Miles may have studied it at Juilliard as well. We may never really know for certain.

AAJ: It's an interesting historical question. While we're talking about this, the origins and evolution of jazz are fascinating—for example, the way jazz syncopation and rhythm came out of African percussion music. It's striking how there are so many diverse influences that come into play throughout the history of jazz.

VJ: The rhythms are definitely African-based, but with the influence of Central and South America. But the harmonies are definitely European. I think jazz is a combination of African rhythm and European harmony.

AAJ: That raises a more general question that'd be difficult to answer. Nobody seems to know where jazz is going today—what is its future? In the past, jazz underwent various developments: swing, bebop, hard bop, free jazz, etc. There were various discussions and debates about what was essential versus peripheral. Today, most people seem to say that it's all been done already, and what is now done is variations and permutations of what's already been done.

VJ: I think jazz is in a big transition period. The bebop generation—the Sonny Stitt and Miles Davis guys—there are very few of them left. Then you've got the baby boomer generation, which is my generation, and a lot of us didn't become group leaders—we became teachers. And now you've got the new generation of players, and they're not going to so much apprentice with my generation. They're doing a lot of thinking for themselves. So I think it's going to be a new evolution.

AAJ: Many of the younger ones seem to be referencing earlier forms such as Duke Ellington
Duke Ellington
Duke Ellington
1899 - 1974
, ragtime and boogie woogie.

VJ: I'm very involved with that generation when I teach at the New School and at Rutgers. It's a whole other way of learning. I learned on the job, and they're learning in school. This affects the music and the way they're playing.

AAJ: What particular messages do you try to get across to young musicians whom you teach and mentor? And do you teach verbally as much as by example?

VJ: I teach everything verbally. I tell them exactly what I think.

AAJ: Pat Martino focuses a great deal on his rather complex theory of the guitar when he gives master classes. When you teach, what do you focus on, and what do you want the musicians to take with them?

VJ: I teach private lessons, ensembles, and classes. In private lessons, I emphasize the fundamentals—the tools they need to make a living. In my ensembles, I lay my philosophy on them, about team effort, coordinating their playing with each other, traditional and modern playing. I try to cover all the bases.

AAJ: What's your take on the more experimental and avant-garde types of jazz? For example Ornette Coleman
Ornette Coleman
Ornette Coleman
sax, alto
and others' approaches to so-called free jazz cause reactions ranging from repulsion to high praise.

VJ: Ornette Coleman was almost crucified in the late-'50s and early-'60s for free jazz. But I've been involved in a lot of free jazz. I got into it very deeply when I played with Gary Peacock
Gary Peacock
Gary Peacock
for about a year. I came home exhausted from those gigs, because when you have to literally make something out of nothing, it's a lot harder than playing on chord changes. You know, in general, it's just another level of improvisation, and it's a matter of taste whether you like it or not, just like whether or not you prefer impressionism in art.

AAJ: Liebman has a great interest visual art. Do you share that with him?

VJ: Yes, when I go on the road, I tend to visit art museums. You've got one of the best in the world in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. I just performed there recently at their Friday evening music series. I'm always amazed what they've got in their collection.

AAJ: The Cezanne and Beyond exhibit showed Cezanne's influence on modern artists. For example, he painted a dresser drawer, of all things, and it was referenced in a 1950s American painting. That's similar to jazz, in that you pick up phrases, lines, and ideas that return in various forms over periods of years and decades. Jazz is a culture that keeps evolving.

VJ: For me, I've never been able to stay with one bag or sound. I'm always changing, and I think the critics have been a little confused about that. I haven't developed one regular sound and style. If you listen to my recordings from thirty years ago, they're completely different from what I'm doing now.

AAJ: That's creativity. It's great that you're always trying something different and new. But for many audiences, familiarity is what grabs them.

VJ: And when you're trying to get bookings, the managers want to easily categorize you. It helps them select the groups for festivals and concert series. So a hazard of doing what I do is that if I don't fit the profile, I don't get the gig. On the other hand, the critics are impressed with me and they wonder why aren't I better known?

AAJ: Unfortunately, the business aspect often interferes with the development of the music.

VJ: Sometimes, that's been my struggle. Like lately, I have this trio with bassist Jay Anderson
Jay Anderson
Jay Anderson
bass, acoustic
and drummer Adam Nussbaum
Adam Nussbaum
Adam Nussbaum
. We play often and have a residency at the 55 Bar in New York. We play there the first Sunday of every month and we've built up a good audience, and we're going to make a live recording there soon. But we play a wide variety of things, and I hope it will catch on.

Vic JurisAAJ: They have quite a litany of excellent players performing there, even though it's a tiny hole in the wall—I guess maybe like The Village Vanguard.

VJ: To me, it's the best club in New York. They have all kinds of music, and it's usually no more than $10 to get in there. You can hear some of the most original and creative stuff there. The owner, Scott, is a remarkable guy. He puts the programs together, and he's so supportive—he'll even help the guys carry their equipment in. He's 100 percent behind the music, which is rare these days.

AAJ: Talking about the diminution of those who are behind the music, sadly, the great guitarist Joe Beck
Joe Beck
Joe Beck
1945 - 2008
passed away not too long ago.

VJ: Joe was one of the first guitar players I met in New York, and probably the most versatile guitarist I've ever heard. He could play blues like B.B. King
B.B. King
B.B. King
guitar, electric
and at the same time be writing charts for Frank Sinatra
Frank Sinatra
Frank Sinatra
1915 - 1998
. Joe was a remarkable musician and accompanist—one of the all-time greats. Another one of those extremely underrated jazz musicians. He had a big influence on me and was very supportive of me.

AAJ: He was also a very sweet man. Did you hear their fabulous duet CD, Polarity (Concord Jazz, 2000), which features Joe on a guitar he actually invented?

VJ: Yes, sure. I also remember hearing Beck with Joe Farrell in the 1970s. I was amazed at his versatility.

AAJ: He was a true master. His passing is a great loss to all of us in the jazz community.

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