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Interviews

Chuck Anderson: Guitar Reemergence

By Published: April 20, 2010

Anderson's Composing and Guitar Approach

AAJ: Let's talk about the music itself. When I reviewed Freefall, I was struck by your attention to the smallest details, even the embellishments and glissandos are done perfectly, whereas many jazz guitarists, even the best, are careless about them. I never heard jazz guitar played quite so artistically before. You must have a remarkable ability to listen in the moment. What led you to such dedication to technique and artistry? Jazz players often take short cuts and cheat on a lot of things, sometimes for good reason, but you don't. You play as precisely as the best classical guitarists, without losing the jazz feel. You've achieved real finesse and beauty in your playing. What led you to that purpose, and do you have any suggestions for other musicians who seek that degree of accuracy in their playing?

CA: I never talk about this, but one of my passions was to develop guitar to the point that Nicolo Paganini had taken the violin. Students are always surprised when they come to my studio and see nothing but pictures of violins on my wall. There aren't any pictures of guitars in my studio. Students have often asked about the missing guitar pictures. The answer is that I was a great devotee of Paganini. The virtuosity and the thousands of hours of practice that the classical virtuosos put in was something that I felt the modern jazz guitar had not accomplished. That was partly why I did the neo-classical thing, and I brought that detail back to jazz when I left the neo style to return to jazz. So the Italian school of violin virtuosity, with its attention to detail, became my model, rather than looking at say, Charlie Christian

Charlie Christian
Charlie Christian
1916 - 1942
guitar, electric
as a role model. That probably affected my attention to detail.

AAJ: It's unusual—though not unheard of—for a jazz musician to use another instrument as his or her role model.

CA: Bob Miles, the host of the television show Miles of Music, has called me "the most distinctive voice of the jazz guitar." He said that he can recognize my sound after two or three notes. I did two of his TV shows a couple of weeks ago, and Bob wanted to know what it was about my guitar playing that was unique. There are some people who've developed a unique voice and others who have followed voices. I've never followed a voice; I've always played with my own voice. By that I mean that I never sat down to work out any guitarist's signature phrases. I never transcribed other jazz guitar solos.

AAJ: And yet you can hear echoes of some of the great guitarists in your playing.

CA: Wes Montgomery was very kind to me when I was sixteen. He was my biggest influence on jazz guitar, even though we play very differently. His passion and fire was one of my greatest influences. And then, there was Johnny Smith

Johnny Smith
Johnny Smith
1922 - 2013
guitar
, one of the first "pick" guitarists to use the "Sandole" technique. Some people pick from the wrist, some from the thumb, and some from the elbow. Johnny Smith was the first famous jazz guitarist to pick from the elbow. That style was developed by Sandole.

AAJ: So do you play from the elbow?

CA: Yes.

AAJ: The late Charlie Byrd

Charlie Byrd
Charlie Byrd
1925 - 1999
guitar
, who of course played acoustic guitar, occasionally played classical music such as Bach directly from the original music notation. I heard him do that at a small club in Philadelphia. Do you yourself ever play classical pieces as composed, but on the electric guitar? And if so, how do classical purists feel about that?

CA: Yes, I do. The Bach pieces that I've recorded are original notation. Classical purists were split. Some thought it was innovative. Others thought it was blasphemous. My recording Kaleidophon consisted of three sections. One was a group of classical pieces that I transcribed, for example, excerpts from the Bach Cello Suites. They are note-for-note. This is the same way that Paganini developed his repertoire. He would do transcriptions of a composer like Beethoven, he would do original writing, and he would do improvisations. So, in addition to transcriptions, I would take international folk songs and improvise on them, as well as my original compositions like "Kaleidophon," "Themes from a Shattered Moonbow" and "Passages from the End of Autumn." It's interesting that classical music lost two-thirds of its repertoire in this respect. That is, the performing musicians themselves stopped improvising and stopped composing. So Segovia, for example, never improvised or composed. He transcribed the work of other composers for the guitar. He also commissioned many works for the classical guitar.

AAJ: That's very interesting. In a sense, jazz filled that gap in classical music when those performers stopped improvising and composing. A propos of that, many are asking where jazz is going today, what its future will be. You have a unique way of blending classical, jazz, and folk music into your repertoire. Today, crossover music between classical and jazz is attracting interest, and beyond that, we have, for example, Uri Caine

Uri Caine
Uri Caine
b.1956
piano
going out on all sorts of limbs. Then, by contrast, there are those who don't like anything new. Do you think that the word jazz means anything specific anymore? `

CA: Yes, I do. Let me compare music to language. You have languages, like Spanish, and then you have dialects of Spanish, like Catalan. If you take jazz, rock, blues, classical, and so on as languages, then inside of each of those, you have the dialects. So Dixieland, bebop, avant-garde, and so on, are dialects of jazz. But when I play jazz, it's jazz to me. There's nothing on my Kaleidophon CD that would have fit on any of my jazz CDs. That recording was not created in the jazz idiom. So I do have a strong personal sense of what jazz is to me.



One of the things people who shy away from jazz don't like is the dissonant, jangled sound that radio stations often play and call jazz. But that's really only true of some of the music, for example, the avant-garde side of jazz, like AAlbert Ayler

Albert Ayler
Albert Ayler
1936 - 1970
sax, tenor
. Jazz itself is defined by certain harmonic characteristics, chord progressions, scalar and melodic characteristics, and the feature of thematic statement followed by improvisational development, reiteration of the theme, and conclusion. It's monophonic, not polyphonic. As far as the themes are concerned. There's still primarily a single melody on top of a single harmony.



I wrote a blog about "What is jazz guitar" in response to a reader's question on my website, and I started out by saying what is not characteristic of jazz guitar. I made this whole list, including distortion, high volume, solid body guitars, simplistic chord progressions—they're part of heavy metal guitar and other forms, but they're not part of the jazz guitar. Moreover, for me, guitar is a super-language and jazz is a sub-language of that. I believe the guitar is one of the strongest elements to bring the world to jazz.



I have a column called "The Art and Science of Jazz" on the AAJ website. People come to me and say, "Is what you play jazz?" And I say, "Why do you ask?" And they say, "Well, we hate jazz, but we love what you play." That tells me that jazz has not been presented to the world in the best light. One of my dedications has been to bring the jazz guitar to the world internationally.

AAJ: In my opinion, Freefall is great jazz. Even though it is unique, it is squarely in the mainstream.

CA: To me, It's absolutely jazz.

AAJ: And I was struck by the quality and listenability of your compositions—all your originals—in Freefall. And even though they're beautiful melodies that could even be set to words, I heard them as if written for guitar specifically. What are you intending to achieve in your composing? Also, do you ever consider writing in more extended forms, such as the suites of Duke Ellington

Duke Ellington
Duke Ellington
1899 - 1974
piano
, Gunther Schuller
Gunther Schuller
Gunther Schuller
b.1925
composer/conductor
, and others?

CA: It's funny you should mention that, because during that period of twenty years when I didn't perform, I made my living as a composer. I compose more than most jazz guitarists. I've written orchestral works and string quartets. I wrote for many corporate clients. I've written jingles and TV themes but also some documentary scores. In addition, I composed albums on specialized topics, like The International Collection, where I took twelve different countries and wrote or arranged music representative of each country. Some were huge 100-track recordings. I think that the period devoted to composing made a big difference for me, musically speaking. Now I'm trying to take the diversity of everything I've done and bring it back to two fields: music education and the jazz guitar.



I actually spent seven years studying classical composition and orchestration with Dr. Harold Boatrite of Philadelphia. I think most of the jazz guitarists have not been composers. Wes Montgomery wrote some cute tunes, but he wasn't a composer per se. Three days ago, I wrote a string trio. But now, I'm focused primarily on my website, www.ChuckAndersonJazzGuitar.com, which has a growing fan base for my jazz performance, education and composition. We have even developed a new concept called the "Jazz Guitar Club." Eric Hebert of Evolvor.com is responsible for all of these new developments.

AAJ: In your music, you come across as very disciplined and individualistic. So, do you ever just hang out with other musicians, or get involved in spontaneous jam sessions?

CA: No! I've never participated in a jam session in my life.

AAJ: And you don't work as a sideman at all?

CA: I do not work as a sideman at all.

AAJ: So it's obvious that you have artistic and creative strivings well beyond being a good player. The term "player" itself is a somewhat questionable term for jazz musicians in any case.

CA: Right!

AAJ: How do you envision the creative process, and do you have an aesthetic, a concept you mentioned earlier in connection with Sandole?

CA: That's a deep question. I view what I do as trying to express the totality of myself and the human condition. I'm not into words in my music. I'm a great devotee of instrumental music. So I don't go in the pop song direction. I'm basically trying to elevate the status of the jazz guitar to an international art form. Rather than view jazz as the art form and the guitar as one of the instruments, one of my platforms is to regard jazz guitar as the form. I work to develop the ability to express art and aesthetics through the instrument.

AAJ: In the Freefall album, you've got Ed Rick and Eric Schreiber with you, and it struck me how well they complement your playing, so that at times you guys sound almost like one instrument. Tell us a bit about them, and what brought the three of you together?

CA: They aren't as well known as my past sidemen, but I wanted to develop a group that I could mold in the direction that I was going. Eric Schreiber is a bassist who was a student of mine for many years. He became a virtuosic player, but circumstances like a family prevented him from a full time music career. Ed Rick was the drummer in one of my wife's bands. My wife, Coreen Anderson, is a brilliant singer, and I always liked Ed's energy, agreeableness, and flexibility. He didn't have a lot of experience as a jazz drummer per se. But through the trio's hard work, we were able to capture what I was looking for, and that's what you hear on the CD Freefall.



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