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Chris Jentsch: Cycles and Reflecting on the Journey

Ludwig vanTrikt By

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John Coltrane once said, "Let the music speak for itself." The guitarist/composer and band leader Chris Jentsch adds an interesting twist on that subject by opting to describe himself when asked about the broader subject of how to capture his music in his own words. "I think of myself as a composer/guitarist working with contemporary improvisational forms on the fringe of jazz, but jazz that is inclusive of rock/pop, world music and classical genres. I also strive generally for a balance between lyricism and dissonance and a deliberate combination of complexity and simplicity—with a smattering of the avant-garde," he says. "We play tunes, for sure, but a certain amount of free improvisation is also important to the mix. Since I have used so many different things in my development as a source material, sometimes I use the term 'hopelessly eclectic' to suggest a confrontation with categorization."

"I was intrigued by a recent John Abercrombie interview in which he described his Jazz as European influenced," Jentsch says. "When pressed for elaboration of that buzz-term, he indicated European Classical and Folk music influences in balance with or even at the expense of more hardcore Bebop or Blues sonorities."

All About Jazz: What kinds of music were you hearing growing up in Brooklyn?

Christopher Jentsch: I grew up in the '60s in Cherry Hill, NJ, which is a nice suburb across the river from Philadelphia. The music I heard was basically the Beatles (from my interest), Frank Sinatra (from my father), the musical family next door and all the hits on pop/rock radio at that time, since I listened to the radio a lot. I've been in Brooklyn since 1999.

AAJ: Did you do the usual sideman apprenticeship while studying the guitar and composing?

CJ: Not as much as many other NY musicians. I was self- or informally taught for quite a while on guitar before I began doing gigs or attending music schools. Consequently, my sight-reading was poor, even for a guitarist. The sideman apprenticeship thing you refer to still happens, but it is much less common a phenomenon for learning the music. Colleges and conservatories of music have sort of replaced the sideman thing you refer to, and I'm afraid I'm an example of this trend for better or worse. As the rise of jazz in music schools has developed, touring and keeping a regular band has become more challenging. My friend Gary Versace is a great contemporary example of someone who has combined the best of both of these two educational models.

My reading has gotten better over the years, but only to the point where it helps me with what I'm trying to create as a composer and guitarist. I don't really get calls to be a sideman because there are so many others who are faster at being able to contribute to the situation. Plus, I'm not as strong rhythmically as many others. As [Frank] Frank Zappa once referred to himself, "I'm an unreliable parts player," so perhaps I'm perceived as best cut out for playing my own music.

Having said all that, I'm comfortable with the situation as it is and also with my continuing evolution as a player. I'm so busy with teaching and organizing my own projects, that I probably don't have time for adding on a bunch of sideman stuff. Plus, a guitarist friend of mine does too much sideman work in his own view; he remarked that he felt I was lucky I didn't have to make my living that way.

AAJ: Your candor about your sight-reading is interesting in light of the formal education which you received at the New England Conservatory and the Eastman School of Music.

CJ: I began attending all the music schools six years after I had already graduated from college. (I have a degree in history from Gettysburg College.) Like I said before, I had been largely self-taught on an instrument that was not known for players who were great readers in the first place, especially back in the big hair metal '80s. I didn't even start guitar in the first place until age 17, so I also missed out on the whole high school band experience where a lot of players get their early intensive reading experience. I never played a band instrument. So I gained admittance to those schools on the strength of my ears and guitar audition—a modest ability to play standard tunes and improvise that I had developed in the '80s playing in small jazz groups and also doing casuals and weddings (good situations in which to be expected to know tunes). I was already somewhat of a working professional, playing commercial gigs, touring with top-40 bands, etc., but I sensed a real dead end for my musical development in that direction and decided to get some more education.

I even went to Berklee [College of Music] for a semester, waiting for a spot to open up at the conservatory. At Berklee, all the musicians earned a four-digit "ensemble number" that changed with the twice-a-year instrument juries; it was used primarily to place people in the different bands. The first digit was for sight-reading, the second for scales or modes or something, and then playing a standard melody with improvising, and the fourth was all-around musicianship. At one point during the one semester I was there, I was assigned something like a 2445 or a 1334 as a 26-year-old "freshman." If you asked someone to play a session, they would ask you for your ensemble number, and if it was too much lower than theirs, they might say no and vibe you. Tiger Okoshi [the trumpeter, now on Berklee staff] was rumored to have had the only 9999.

I went into the toilet once at Berklee, and in one of the stalls was a kid sitting on the commode practicing guitar with his pants around his ankles. That's the kind of school it was, and ultimately not for me, but I certainly learned a lot of important fundamentals in the four months I was there (beginning harmony, ear training, arranging basics, calligraphy/notation, etc). I think the people who could read and play at a higher level even upon entering Berklee made out better than I did. Plenty of friends that I know now thrived there back in the day.

It was assumed then that my deficiency in sight-reading would be rectified along the way as I progressed through music schools. Once I actually got into the schools, I concentrated more on improvisation, ear training, composition and orchestration. I got better at reading since I was dealing with printed music all the time and playing a lot, but I never achieved the sort of reading fluency that many of the good NYC guitarists have. In the end, I think this unusual path has helped me develop an individual musical personality.


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