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Steve Cardenas: From K.C. to N.Y.C.

By Published: July 27, 2010
AAJ: You recently spent three months in L.A. doing a teaching residency at Cal Arts. Since you mentioned that audiences, and jazz, differ from city to city, especially between New York and L.A., did some of that West Coast vibe rub off on your playing?

SC: I did the same residency at Cal Arts seven years ago for Larry Koonse, who's the regular guitar teacher there. He's an amazing player, just one of my favorite players and human beings. The scene in L.A. may not be as dense as it is here in New York. There's definitely a lot of creative music happing out there, but maybe not in the concentration as here. Having said that, all the players out there, that I've spent time with and checked out on the scene, are absolutely world class musicians. Whether it's more traditional or more modern, it's all great and very cool to check out. I'm not saying that to be political or anything, that's just what I hear.

That's actually true of my hometown of Kansas City, which would be considered more of a medium sized city though it has some amazing players. Two of my mentors growing up, Danny Embry and Rob Fleeman, who play with Karrin Allyson
Karrin Allyson
Karrin Allyson

are still two of my favorite players to this day. When I was in high school those guys took me under their wings. They would drag me out onto gigs, get me up on stage and scare me to death, all with good intentions of course [laughs].

AAJ: As an improviser you seem to have a wide variety of tones and textures that you use in your playing. You mentioned that don't think of what you're playing in the context of a tune, but are you thinking about how you're playing something?

SC: Those are definitely things that I'll think about. They'll become clearer to me when I get a new tune to a first rehearsal. Then after a gig or two, I'll have a good idea of how I want to approach the overall tone and texture of each section of a tune. For this album, I really felt like on each one of those tunes I found the sound I had in mind for each track.

Some of that was done in the studio, because even though we had rehearsed and gigged most of the tunes, a few of them were new charts when it came time to record them. We changed the form on a couple of things, but it was great, it was all so natural. We might have needed a few extra takes to get the vibe and form of a tune, but it all worked out great.

Getting back to tone, on some of the tracks I wanted a more open sound, like you were saying, but then on others I wanted more bite to my sound, with a bit of distortion to give it a little edge. I just tried to go after what I was hearing in my head for each tune and I think I got that down on the record.

AAJ: You also use a lot of different dynamics in your playing, approaching them as one would scales or arpeggios in the context of a solo. When you were coming up, did you focus on developing this side of your playing in your practicing or did it develop from years on the bandstand, or both?

SC: I would say yes, and I would also say that over time those things became more apparent to me. Actually, when I was teaching, as I felt those things becoming clear to me as a means of shaping the music, I would find that most guitarists would ask me about harmonic ideas, but rarely about touch, rhythms or articulation, those sorts of things. Without those things the harmonic stuff doesn't mean anything. You can learn all you want about those concepts, but when it comes time to play nobody's saying anything, they're just playing.

AAJ: Has this realization led you to teach more by ear or do you still talk things through with your students on a conceptual level?

SC: Every person is different, so I would say all of that happens to different degrees for different people. I don't have a huge agenda when I teach. I don't have a lot of written out exercises because everyone's different. I usually try and get a feel for how they play and where they want to go and work from there. I'll end up writing some things out sometimes, but mostly it's conceptual. Discussing things, doing some playing, talking about time or rhythm, whatever it is the student needs to work on.

AAJ: Getting back to the record, it has a very live vibe to it, very organic sounding. Did you guys use mostly first takes on the album to get that live sound on the tracks?

SC: Yeah it was done live in the studio, and I think that everyone who records live in the studio will do more than one take. Although, you end up using the first take anyway, it just seems to work out that way. Most of the tunes were done with one, two or three takes. Though some of the newer tracks had to be done a few more times because we were still working out the form and getting thing settled in that sense. That was just part of the process of saying, "Here's a new tune how do we make it work right?" Fortunately it worked.

The only tune that had overdubs was "Drifter," which I had in mind from the get go. It's a through-composed piece, with no real improvisation going on. I went in one day after we had finished recording and we picked things that worked and scraped what didn't. At times I was wondering if it was over the top, but considering the vibe of the tune I think I got what I was going for. It's kind of like what the progressive rock bands of the '70s would do. I wanted that tune to evoke that epic, massive sound quality but still feel like it had that small-group element to it at the same time.

Selected Discography

Steve Cardenas, West of Middle (Sunnyside, 2010)

Chris Potter 10, Song for Anyone (Sunnyside, 2007)

Donny McCaslin, Give and Go (Criss Cross, 2006)

Steve Cardenas, Panoramic (Blue Moon, 2004)

Rebecca Martin, People Behave Like Ballads (MAXJAZZ, 2004)

Steve Cardenas, Shebang (Fresh Sound, 2000)

Photo Credit

Todd Chalfant (page 1)

Geert Vandepoele (page 2)

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