Doug Wamble: A New Direction
It's never easy for an established artist to make a change in their musical output mid-career, especially if up until that point they have made a name for themselves in the realm of traditional jazz. While some of these artists make a switch because for monetary reasons or to reach a wider audience, others are drawn to a new and exciting sound that they feel the need to explore further and share with their fans, both old and new.
Guitarist Doug Wamble is an artist who firmly sits in this second category of performer, and his 2010 self-titled album, on E1 Music, showcases his new musical direction, one that is more in line with Jeff Buckley than Charlie Christian.
Making the switch from a traditional jazz guitarist, who cut his teeth by playing with such luminaries as Wynton and Branford Marsalis, and Cassandra Wilson, was a fairly easy choice, though one that Wamble might not have been able to make earlier in his career, as he was a dogmatic supporter of the traditional jazz genre. While there are some who won't quite understand Wamble's new direction, upon hearing the album it is very clear that this is not an attempt to sell out in any waythese songs were written and performed from the heart, and the genuine nature behind them comes out in every word, every chord, and every beat on the record.
Though he is not giving up jazz guitaras he continues to tour and record as a highly sought-after sideman and bandleaderWamble is showing a new side to his artistic personality with this record. And, judging by his enthusiasmand the reaction from critics and audiencesit is a musical path that the guitarist will continue to follow for years to come.
All About Jazz: On your self-titled album, your playing is less traditional than it has been in the past. You've mentioned that you have gone through a musical transformation over the past decade or so from a jazz purist to the multifaceted player that you are today. What prompted you to make this switch and move your playing into this new direction?
Doug Wamble: I think that particularly, for someone like me, who came to jazz through Wynton Marsalis' music, which is kind of all or nothing, that I was really focused on the tradition of jazz in a historical sense, and that's still there in my life. But, I've grown as a player in new directions, though I've never really wanted to make a record where I do jazz covers of Radiohead songs; that sort of thing never really appealed to me much. I just like to play all kinds of different music. There are so many people that really come up playing jazz and are now exploring other things without making it a fusion sort of thing, and I don't mean that in the '70s fusion sort of way, but more of a pop-jazz record, or a jazz record with pop songs on it.
For me, I had a period of time, a few years ago, where I was on a break from touring and totally slowed down. I was at home a lot. I had a couple of knee surgeries that took me out of my normal routine, which was writing and rehearsing songs for a jazz band that was on the road. I was listening to a lot of singer-songwriter music, probably more so than jazz, but I've always listened to a lot of that style of music, guys like Jeff Buckley and John Mayer. I'm a fan. I like the guy, he's a great songwriter. I was just sitting at home more, I wasn't on the road, and I was thinking about how I could make the band better, and I just started writing these songs that took me in a new direction. I would get up in the morning and practice Bach music on the guitar and then I started writing these other songs.
All through that, I'm still working as a jazz musician with other people, but I wound up with this batch of songs, and I had planned on using some of these songs for another project, but the label kept delaying the record and so I didn't think that would ever happen and so I moved to a different label, where I decided to do something completely different. It wasn't something that I had planned on, but I saw the opportunity to move outside of my comfort zone and so I took it.
AAJ: Was it a bit strange, going from thinking of yourself as a jazz musician to thinking of yourself as a singer-songwriter?
DW: It was a little strange because for so many years I would answer the question "What do you do?" with, I'm a jazz musician, and there's a level of pride that goes along with that statement. It's funny because now people look at it from a lot of different perspectives. After they hear the record, a lot of people say, "Oh, so you're not playing jazz anymore." Like I can't do both things at the same time, they feel that there has to be barriers around all of this stuff all the time.
Just a couple of weeks ago, it was actually kind of odd, I had been rehearsing for a few gigs with my band to promote this record, and I had this gig at the Lincoln center where I had to play Fats Waller music for four days, which is the beauty of being a jazz musician in New York. And I still love that music. I love playing jazz and that isn't going to change. The great thing is that you can use all of that information, all the hard work and dedication that it takes to be a jazz musician, and apply it to other forms of music, without playing Bebop over a pop song. That's been my challenge, not playing things that are inappropriate to the music.
There's a great quote from Branford Marsalis that I heard him say on a documentary a while back, and that's "The music tells you what you should play." Trying to impose something over something else is never a good idea. If you're playing a Jelly Roll Morton tune the song tells you what to play. You're not going to superimpose your Coltrane-harmonic subs over top of that, it's not going to work. I certainly plan on making more jazz records in the future, and more singer-songwriter albums, I want to do it all. I might even write a book, who knows. [Laughs.]
AAJ: You mentioned people questioning you a bit after moving into this new direction. Have you gotten any flak from your peers, fellow musicians who you've come up with who don't like the new direction you're going in with your music?
DW: No. If people have said that, they've never said it to me. First of all, I think that things have changed a lot in recent years. I think that certainly would've been an issue maybe 15 years ago, when people were more dogmatic about these sort of things. I remember that, it's so ridiculous but I don't regret it one bit; I was really wrapped up in that dogmatic type of thinking. I think that's good for a musician to go through, being very dogmatic about their music and that music's tradition, for a short period of time.
I can remember getting this Harry Connick Jr. Christmas record, and the second or third tune on it had a light rock beat and I was outraged. There was this swinging big band record and then I was appalled by this one track with a slight rock beat [laughs]. Things were much different back then, and I think nowadays it's much different.
First of all, look at all the jazz records that come out right now. A lot of them are really cool, but they don't really sound like jazz anymore. I think the sound of jazz, in a traditional sense, has been lost.
There is a lot of improvisation on these records but it doesn't sound like jazz in any traditional sense of the word. It's become a whole new thing, and I think that people are just so open to all kinds of music, and most jazz musicians that are around New York today, the vast majority of them are interested in music other than jazz, which I think breathes through on their records. People are checking out world music, hip-hop and all sorts of other modern styles, and it's all coming together on their records.
I think the whole notion of selling out has kind of gone away, at least in this context. Maybe if I was an underground, free jazz guy who then turned around and released a platinum-selling pop record, people would probably say that that qualified as selling out [laughs]. But it's just not that way. I'm a musician that does a lot of different things, and ultimately people will judge it by how it sounds.
The record is eclectic enough that it's obvious I'm not trying to compete with Lady Gaga. I don't think that mentality exists anymore, but if people think that way, it's like whatever. Even Wynton, who I know very well, was asking me about what I was doing lately, and he digs what I'm up to. He knows that there is a lot of great music to be made out there and I don't think the battle lines are drawn like they uses to be, I think people are more accepting of people's musical choices and as long as it sounds good they should go for it.
AAJ: One of the things that stands out in your playing on the album is that you play slide, acoustic and electric guitar on the record. Did the slide and electric side of your playing happen early on in your development, or were they sounds that came into your playing after you began to write in the singer-songwriter style?
DW: They were in there early actually. I was a fan of guitar music as a kid, but I wasn't a guitarist. When I got serious about playing guitar it was the same time that I got serious about playing jazz. Prior to that I could play three chords and it took five minutes to get between them, so I wasn't a guitarist. My goal of being a better player went hand-in-hand with my love of jazz.
In the beginning, I was a clarinetist in high school, I was turned on by the Benny Goodman, Charlie Christian albums, and from there, especially in college where people were really into Metheny and Scofield, I got really into that stuff. But I was drawn back to the early jazz period, the early Ellington records really drew me in. Within that context I was also checking out early Delta blues, with all the slide playing that went along with that music. I started to learn Johnny Hodges solos, which I found really led themselves to being played with a slide, so I did that before I was learning Robert Johnson and Son House stuff. It really grew out of me wanting to make my guitar sound like Johnny Hodges.
It was also acoustic music since I played almost exclusively acoustic guitar for many years. A few years later I started really getting into a record that was overseen by John Medeski on Ropeadope Records. Through that record I was turned onto Aubrey Ghent, who's an amazing pedal steel player, and a preacher who married Derek Trucks and his wife. He plays pedal steel like Mahalia Jackson sings, it's amazing. He was a big influence on Derek, and I'm a huge fan of Derek's playing, so that's been a big influence on my slide playing and so I wanted to do some of that on the new record.
I've come at the slide thing totally backwards but it's one of those things I've always liked and have kept working on over the years. I also wanted to experiment with an electric guitar on this record, all of my previous albums were done with a miked up acoustic guitar, so it gave me a chance to work with some new sounds that I haven't checked out before. I just bought my first pedals this year, and it was really tricky to get used to those things. It's hard to remember when to step on them and where to set the dials, but it was a great experience and it really opened up my music to new directions.
DW: I'm a big fan of her and her music. I think she's just a really remarkable songwriter and I love the way she approaches music. She's very serious about her music. She's not out there to play the game, she's out there to make music and I respect that. She's also really willing to just put herself out there and sing songs that are very personal, and that takes a lot of courage. A lot of the songs on this record were very personal, and that song, the lyrics and the story that it told, I really identified with and I felt that I could bring something to.
The song was something that I experienced in my own life and I wanted to have a little moment to close out the record, just me and an acoustic guitar, and do something different to finish the album. I had been doing that song on the road with my jazz group and this was just a different version of it. It's a song that I guess when I heard it 10 years ago when it came out became one of my favorite songs of hers and it made it onto my list of tunes that I wanted to record one day, and this album gave me a chance to do that.
AAJ: Some of your first gigs out of college were with huge name performers, such as Wynton and Cassandra Wilson, who helped you kick start your performing career. Now that you're older and more established, do you feel that you are in a place to become a mentor for the next generation of players, and is mentorship something that you feel is necessary in a young player's development?
DW: Absolutely. I do love to teach and I don't get a chance to do it as much as I want to. I went to jazz school, and I got a master's, because I wanted to teach one day but I didn't want to go straight from grad school to a teaching gig, I went to New York instead. If you want to learn to speak Spanish, you hang around people who speak Spanish; and if you want to learn jazz you need to hang out with people who do this every day and who do it better than you.
It's unfortunate, because today there are fewer opportunities to mentor with older, more established players than in previous eras. Those kinds of gigs are still around, but a lot of those older cats are in their 80s, or they're not playing anymore. I think Wynton and guys like Joe Lovano, and Herbieare helping to mentor the next generation. So are players like Sting, who I think has a few guys just bopping around New York looking for young talent to work with and take on the road.
When I first worked with Cassandra, she was great. She told me to finish my thing and then come to New York and get set up that way. I never went out on the road with her, but I was able to record and arrange some stuff with her and it was a great experience. Wynton was great too, and he still calls me from time to time and I'm always grateful for those opportunities. Branford is still a big influence on me. It was such an honor for him to pick me to make records with. We all need validation, I mean we're all human, and when you get validation from your heroes it's a big deal.
I'm not on the level of those guys in terms of my career, but when I get a chance to work with younger cats and help them out I take it. I recently had a young player from Oberlin come to New York and take some lessons with me, which was very cool and it's a big responsibility. There are a lot of players to study with in New York, so when someone chooses me I take it seriously. I also keep my house open to folks traveling through, or need a place to stay. I'm always willing to share a bowl of beans and rice with a fresh New Yorker. That's all part of the experience of coming here, and part of it once you've established yourself on the scene here as an older player.
Doug Wamble, Doug Wamble (E1 Music, 2010)
Sachal Vasandani, We Move (Mack Avenue, 2009)
Steven Bernstein, We Are MTO (MOWO, 2008)
Doug Wamble, Bluestate (Marsalis Music, 2005)
David Berger, Marlowe (Such Sweet Thunder, 2005)
Doug Wamble, Country Libations (Marsalis Music, 2003)
NJR All Stars, Tribute to Duke Ellington (NJR, 2000)