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Gideon King: New York and Music

Sammy Stein By

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I want people who love many different types of music to like my music —Gideon King
Gideon King is a New York City boy. He was born and raised in the city. He is a composer, guitarist and producer and has worked with some of the finest musicians. He has been involved in projects which cover a range of music genres including pop, funk, jazz and fusion and has produced and collaborated with world class performers including John Scofield, Chris Potter, singer-songwriters Marc Broussard and Grace Weber and James Genus. He has recently made a long term commitment of creating the best studio band on earth and is calling this project City Blog. Gideon King and The City Blog is about bringing together quality jazz and fusion musicians to support his compositions. His music speaks of New York with its driving, pacey, up tempo beats. Of the city, King comments, "I have a love/hate relationship with the place. It's a place where intellectual bravery is as common as intellectual cowardice and group-think. Words spoken are often unfiltered and raw and yet at other times it seems every sentence is in the service of preserving image. I feel very at home here until the talking starts. It's a great city. It's the only place I know where I can go and get the best Cuban food on Tuesday and killer French food on Wednesday. Also good pickup basketball although my skills have deteriorated to alarming levels. It is hard not to vibe off the energy in this place. It's funny, angry, unfinished, dangerous, pretentious, and has great Dominican food. I hate it at least half the time though."

King's musical influences are varied. He says, "The first song I remember loving was "Just A Song Before I Go" by Crosby Stills and Nash. My sisters had a little bit of hippy vibe to them and I would beg them to play that tune for me. I was about 9 years old at the time. I loved the melody, the short guitar solo and the sad and haunting lyrics. Meanwhile on the other side of the apartment something very special was happening. My brother Jonny was turning into a virtuoso jazz pianist. I went to bed at night with my head against a wall rumbling with McCoy Tyner and Bill Evans lines. Jonny, who is a great composer and player, really introduced me to jazz phrasing and the idea of improvisation. He also encouraged me to learn harmony. I was very lucky to have a brother who introduced me to this very special way of playing and listening. I love classical music. I love jazz. I love soul music. I love rock and pop. I like some rap."

So, are there any musicians in particular you would say had more of an influence on you? I asked. King replied, "In terms of guitar players my favorite might be John Scofield. He is such a beautiful and soulful player and has crossed over so many genres. He really is a jazz player at heart but has used different guitar tones that make him more contemporary. Scofield played on one of my tunes in the last few years. That was a thrill. Pat Metheny is a genius. His solo on the tune "Third Wind" changed my life. It made me aspire to play faster and in a more flowing way. Also his solo acoustic stuff is beautiful. Kurt Rosenwinkel is a complete monster; there is great depth to the structure of his lines. I am deeply jealous of the skills these guys have. I will never get to their level or even close, but their phrasing and sonic choices permeate the music of Gideon King & City Blog. Of course Hendrix and guys like Peter Frampton had this aggressive attack that was so engaging. I can't not mention Bill Evans. My brother turned me onto the album 'Alone' at a young age. Some of the most contemplative haunting music ever. The liner notes to that album are my favorite liner notes ever. When I write a tune I imagine a great player on piano doing little fills or comping in a way that might somehow reference Evans and this prospect thrills me. Set against a quasi-pop structure, these small musical digressions make things interesting for me. "

King goes on. "I also love vocalists. I am a particularly bad singer so everybody from Ray Charles, Amy Winehouse, Freddie Mercury, Sarah Vaughan, Etta James and Stevie Wonder fascinate me. I have worked with some pretty special emerging and established singers like Grace Weber, Elliott Skinner and Marc Broussard and they all have this inclination to just get up and sing in front of people as if they were home. Very cool. Such different creatures these great vocalists are.

There are so many names to mention like Earth Wind & Fire and Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Dexter Gordon, Hank Mobley and Ralph Towner that I don't even know where to begin or end when talking about what I listen to. I will say though that for many years of my life Steely Dan had me captivated. I loved the sharp-edged lyrics, the jazz changes and the sonic perfection pouring from their albums. My favorite band ever."

So, what was it about Steely Dan for King? He said, "My lifelong love affair with Steely Dan began at a young age, as those cats embodied a musical blend to which I was naturally drawn. Also they didn't flood the air with excessively emotional love songs. They invented worlds based on what they saw. They had characters in their music almost like Faulker invented places and characters."

So how, I wondered, did King come to play guitar himself? He says, "I started playing guitar when I was in my very early teens. I think I turned into a fusion/crossover guy because at once I loved the lyrics of Neil Young and hard edges of Jimi Hendrix and I was drawn to the open and more exotic architecture of jazz harmony and improvisation. Eventually I was fortunate enough to study with some great jazz guitar players in New York. One guy in particular was Freddie Bryant." King still takes occasional lessons from Bryant.

On performing, King began early. "My first performances" he explains, "were for my sisters when I was a teenager. Ha! Then at parties and so on. I wrote some folk songs and people listened as long as I tossed in a good cover or two. Not exactly playing the Beacon but hey I at least got to experience the thrill of playing for others. In college I played in bands and then onward from there. That was super fun although stage fright would sometimes grip me. I don't recommend stage fright as a way to spend an evening. No wonder everybody drinks too much."

These days, King is much in demand and plays with different bands and projects but I wondered what it felt like, for him, when he plays. He told me, "Playing guitar for people, if you are feeling loose, is like no other feeling. I'm a big believer that something truly exquisite happens neurologically when you play or listen to music that gets under your skin, so to be able to advance that process is very cool. A doctor friend of mine who is also a well-known conductor, said the brain waves exhibit signs of a controlled seizure when music is played. Three cheers for controlled seizures! Anyway, now that we have covered neuroscience in a scientifically legitimate fashion here I can say playing in front of people is super fun. When you hear someone scream out in approval of a particular line you are playing it is a rare moment of pure agreement. In life it seems compatibility is about degrees of agreement, but in music there are moments of 100% union that don't require words to patch people together." King jokes, "That was super pretentious-if you print it I will complain but secretly be happy you did it. "(so here it is).

King's music is hard to define genre-wise so I asked him if he could explain it a little. He tried, "Well, clearly it is soaring genius. Or maybe it is just souring genius. Okay those were jokes. Actually what I am trying to create is true crossover music that different types of listeners will relate to. I want to have countervailing forces pushing on each other. Rock guitar tone playing some jazz phrasing. Sometimes almost an easy listening vibe against sharp lyrics. Acoustic sounds laid over modern tech sounds from beats programs like Ableton. I am not trying to tell any stories about how I am sad that I broke up with some woman or make political comments or talk about drug addiction. I just want to present abstract images lyrically which somehow hang together to say anything that anyone recognizes and relates to. Any communion with the listener is a win. Also there are lots of ironies out there that are really funny. Just go to any restaurant in NYC, or even worse a museum, and watch and listen to what people are saying. There is great material out there just waiting to be repeated and sung over some cool chord changes. When I was younger I loved writing short stories. They were weird stories. Very weird. It's fun to tell those stories over musical arrangements. If I had a model it is this: bring together some of the best jazz and fusion and crossover guys and have them play and support my tunes. Then have young emerging singers interpret what they hear. I like producing music this way. It brings on all kinds of unexpected benefits. When you have musicians like English/Canadian saxophonist Seamus Blake, Genus and US saxophonist Donny McCaslin on board to play through a structure something good usually happens. The key is not to tell them what to do. They know what to do better than I do. I want people who love many different types of music to like my music. People who have no interest in a good solo won't like this stuff I guess but people who like full expressions with solos and vocals and some improvisation hopefully will like it.

Also I want to strive for that sonic excellence—that excellent studio band sound. I am willing to put in hundreds of hours on one tune if needs be to accomplish that goal. That's what I loved so much about Steely. They wrote the book on that. What really stinks about so much of today's music is that it is a closed system. You don't hear the air between the mic and the instruments, if there are even any real instruments.

What I write is not jazz, but it has appreciable jazz influence. There are some very special things that happen in live jazz in terms of musical interaction and flowing improvisation that don't take place here. Those guys are very special when they do it right. I am making rock/jazz/soul/fusion/crossover. Catchy huh? Guaranteed to only have three downloads on Spotify with that description. I lack musical focus and I like it that way, if you know what I mean.

Sadly I don't only love music with 'hooks.' A few pop producers to whom I have given my music have said I need more simplicity and 'hooks.' Of course I want people to remember a melody I wrote. Who would not want that? But what I most enjoy about tunes like "Freebird," "Third Wind," "Milky Way Express," and "Hotel California," is that whether they have 'hooks' or not they go somewhere else at some point in the composition. They are musical voyages, through-compositions that end in a different place than they started, or at least veer off course for some other kind of beauty for a moment. An entire of album of tunes with great 'hooks' repeated again and again may float well commercially but it sinks with monotony in my book."

King does, however, use jazz musicians in the studio and I asked him about this. He said, "To me, using these guys is like a no-brainer. I mean if I had to start a team why wouldn't I start with (NBA legends) Lebron, Michael, Wilt, Magic, Koby, and Larry? They are the best at what they do. Jazz guys bring rainbows of color to the music, harmonic sophistication, feel, and they almost all site-read and execute really well. The ability to go see the best musicians in the world in downtown New York for like 20 bucks is one of life's most luscious bargains. I totally get why people pay up to see Adele—she is great—but why not these guys? Most undervalued entities I have ever seen. It is a satisfying challenge to try and write music that jazz guys find harmonically worthy and pop singers find emotionally rich." Knowing nothing about NBA myself King found it highly amusing when I asked him what instruments Lebron, Wilt and Magic played. King has his own views on life. When I asked him about his philosophy his said, "Oh my goodness. What a question! Anyone interested in my answer to that question must not have a day job. No philosophy on life. Deep down I am shallow. But my philosophy on music? My philosophy on music is the same as my philosophy on anything else. The more work and obsessive attention to detail the better the product. The Duke had it right. There is good music and bad music. Hopefully if you make high quality and well-crafted music regardless of genre, good things will happen. The tune is not right until you have driven everyone involved in the process to more or less hating you. Another key element to my philosophy is play with people that are better than I am. It makes things sound better when the best people are involved. "

So what for the future? Does King have any projects up and coming in music or anything else? King replied, "Well Gideon King and City Blog is making its next album. We have a title. It's called Broken And Beautiful. It features many of the same musicians and vocalists I have used before but we are adding in some nice surprises. Some of the vocalists that have sung with us in the past have seen their careers take off. Elliott Skinner is now touring with singer/songwriter Tori Kelly and Grace Weber is making an album with Donnie Trumpet And The Social Experiment. McCaslin, who was already an established name on the jazz scene, cut his last album with the late David Bowie. It's a privilege to work with, produce and write for all these great players and singers. I will also being playing live in NYC so I will be sure to shamelessly keep everyone posted. As far as things I would like to do and am doing, I really enjoy bringing jazz and crossover sensibilities to certain really talented pop singers in writing sessions. I love working with vocalists to write music."

What about away from music? I asked King if he had any other pursuits which he was interested in. He said, "Actually I am a pretty obsessed woodworker and craftsman. I love building furniture in my furniture studio. I am an avid bowl turner. I increasingly worry however that cutting off one of my fingers with one of my beloved carpentry toys is inevitable. That would be bad for guitar playing. I am also obsessed with NBA basketball and tennis. I routinely fantasize that I am Roger Federer. I guess I should admit that I used to be a businessman and I still enjoy analyzing niche businesses. That pretty much decimates any possibility of me being cool on the music scene."

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