Jonathan Kreisberg: Unearthed

Matthew Warnock By

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The world of jazz guitar has long been filled with some of the most storied names in jazz history. Artists such as Charlie Christian, Johnny Smith, Wes Montgomery, Pat Metheny and John Scofield have all become recognized as some of jazz's greatest innovators and most prolific performers.

In a day and age when it seems that jazz, and jazz guitar, has been through just about every transition, amalgamation and innovation possible, there are still new voices emerging to take the music forward into unexplored and exciting territory. One of the guitarists that is leading this charge is New York-based picker Jonathan Kreisberg. With a strong foundation in the jazz tradition, and a personal vision of the genre's future, Kreisberg is winning over crowds and critics alike with his albums and concerts held around the world.

Kreisberg's playing is not easily categorized, as it draws upon a diverse background of influences, and is constantly challenging the defined conception of modern jazz. His solos portray a player dedicated to absorbing the traditional vocabulary and vernacular of the jazz idiom, skills honed through a solid musical education and by studying on bandstands across the globe. Drawing the listener in with a healthy dose of swing and traditional vocabulary, Kreisberg acts as a skillful guide as he leads his audiences into new and entrancing harmonic and melodic territory, without ever sounding abrasive or disjointed.

This ability, to smoothly transition between established and inventive sonic ground, has helped raise Kreisberg to the upper echelon of today's jazz guitarists, and has firmly established his position one of the genres leading voices.

Apart from being an accomplished improviser and band leader, 2009's Night Songs (Criss Cross) is his sixth outing under his own name, Kreisberg is also a composer and arranger of merit that is continually exploring the possibilities of small group jazz. Kreisberg's albums, like his improvisations, contain a mixture of tunes drawn from the jazz tradition and his own original compositions.

Even when an album contains tunes that are one or the other, such as Night Songs which is a collection of jazz ballads or Unearth (Mel Bay Records, 2005) which is all original compositions, there is still a sense of Kreisberg's dual approach to writing and arranging found within his work.

When approaching a jazz standard, Kreisberg is rarely content to play the track in its original context. Instead, he is constantly looking for new ways to interpret many of the genre's classic tunes, such as his odd-meter rendition of "Stella by Starlight" from the album South of Everywhere (Mel Bay, 2007). On the other side of the coin, Kreisberg's original compositions will often have a sense of the jazz tradition weaving in and out of more modern sounding harmony and melodic phrases, such as the hard-driving composition "Fever Vision" from his 2004 release Nine Stories Wide (Criss Cross, 2005).

With such an array of accomplishments behind him, Kreisberg is showing no signs of slowing down. He is continuing to tour in support of Night Songs and is already at work on his next recording project. With such a busy schedule of performing, writing and recording, it's no wonder that Kreisberg has become one of the genre's young stars, a status that is sure to stick as he moves forward into his musical future.

All About Jazz: You began playing guitar at 10 years of age. How were you introduced to the instrument and had you always been interested in playing guitar?

Jonathan KreisbergJonathan Kreisberg: I grew up listening to a lot of great jazz, rock, and classical by way of my folks. They listened to John Coltrane, Miles Davis, and Dave Brubeck, things that I liked, as well as some classical guitar stuff, like John Williams playing the Aranjuez concerto.

I initially picked up a guitar after hearing Eddie Van Halen's playing on "Eruption." I was blown away by that great "other worldly" sound he was getting out of his guitar.

It's funny because years later I would realize that Eddie was reaching out for the sounds he'd heard from Allan Holdsworth, who was in turn channeling Coltrane. One of my childhood favorites was Coltrane's album "My Favorite Things," so I guess it all makes sense in a weird sort of way.

AAJ: Who were some of your early influences on the guitar? Were you listening to jazz at this time, or did your exploration of jazz music and musicians come later on?

JK: As I mentioned, I had heard a fair amount of jazz, but it was a bit strange and out of reach for me. I didn't really make the connection right away between the guitar and jazz. My influences on guitar at the time were Van Halen, Eric Clapton and classical composers such as Bach, but I would say that I began writing tunes and improvising pretty much right away though, so the creative thing was there and it would push me towards jazz eventually.

AAJ: When you were 16 you were admitted to the New World School of the Arts in Miami. Can you talk about how this experience changed you both musically and personally?

Jonathan Kreisberg JK: It was definitely a big change on both levels. There were some really talented people there who were already delving deep into the jazz tradition. I came along with plenty of creativity and chops, but basically got a major wakeup call in regards to the importance of knowing the jazz language. It was really good for me as a player. I had a great teacher named J.B. Dyas, who helped me structure my practicing and shifted my focus to learning tunes and absorbing the jazz language.

AAJ: After graduating from high school, you were awarded a scholarship to attend the University of Miami. Can you talk about your decision to attend college, instead of pursuing your professional career right out of high school, and what you felt you learned in school that helped you once you moved to New York?

JK: I had actually thought about just playing and maybe moving to New York right out of high school. In hindsight, it would've been too early and I really learned a lot during my time at UM. Randall Dollahon, who I studied with, was a great teacher. I also met the guys that would become my first trio, and we had some great times playing and hanging together.

AAJ: Your first post-college trio was an electric group based out of Miami. Who were the other members of this first trio, and how did you meet these musicians?

JK: The group was bassist Javier Carrion and drummer Vince Verderame, we played together in a band called Third Wish that was kind of a progressive rock thing with a lot of intricate writing and improvising. We started playing gigs on the side as my jazz trio and realized something special was happening. We ended up touring the East Coast a bit, and I think I really began forming my identity as an artist and band leader at that point. We were also the best of friends and had a great time jamming and hanging.

AAJ: After finding success with your electric trio, you opened for Steve Morse and George Benson among others, you felt the need to move from Miami to New York. What were the factors that necessitated this move, and did the change of scenery affect you musically?

JK: Having been born in New York, it really felt like it was about getting back to my roots. This was true on a personal level, but also as a student of jazz. The emphasis put on the importance of swinging and learning the jazz language was really heavy in New York at that time, so it all just happened naturally.

Living in Miami, I had become a bit too focused on the texture and communication aspects of music. I just wanted to delve deeper into the tradition and work on the craft of being a jazz musician. At that time I began playing a lot with Ari Hoenig and Johannes Weidenmueller.

We recorded a disc called Trioing (New for Now Music, 2000) that documented what we were up to musically at that time in our careers. Years later, I got a lot of cats telling me how much they dug and were influenced by that record, and I had barely finished paying for the mix-down by selling some of the amps that I had used in Miami [laughs].

AAJ: You have recorded and performed in many different ensemble configurations, from organ trios to acoustic quintets and more. How does a change in the size and make-up of your ensemble affect the way you approach the music, as both a composer and improviser?

JK: Playing in different size ensembles definitely effects my role as a guitarist. For instance, if there is another harmonic instrument, such as piano or organ, obviously it will change if and how I approach playing chords.

Every situation is unique in this respect. I might play things differently depending on who is playing piano, or what the audience's energy feels like, or what kind of mood the band is in that day. That's the organic beauty of jazz. It's a real living music.

Jonathan KreisbergAAJ: Now that you have spent a number of years performing mostly in acoustic groups is this where you see yourself musically for the foreseeable future, or can you envision a time in the future when you return to a more electric based group?

JK: It's tough to say. My group now already straddles the acoustic-electric zone a bit. I sometimes use effects on my guitar, and we've used the Fender Rhodes, for example.

The only major difference would probably be to use an electric bass, but that always seems to change up the overall feel of the band. My main issue with the electric bass is the lack of dynamics. In my experience, the acoustic bass seems to provide a more organic feel, and makes the drummer approach things differently. With the electric bass, the drummer seems to go into "lock up the kick with the bass" mode and becomes a bit more heavy-footed.

I tend to prefer bass players who grew up with some experience playing and getting a sound on an electric. That way when they play upright, they can really get the groove thing happening and use the amp on some tunes. They know what it's supposed to feel like. Then you can go wherever the music takes you.

AAJ: Apart from your work as a bandleader, you have also worked as a sideman alongside some of the biggest names in jazz, including organist Dr. Lonnie Smith. How did you first meet Smith?

JK: I actually saw the Doc play in Miami when I was a kid. He was laying low and playing piano for a few years down there. I thought, "Man, that pianist is a bad dude!" It's funny, at the time I didn't realize exactly who he was and that I was already listening to him on organ and some totally burning Benson stuff I had from the '60s. Then of course I was kicking myself years later for not camping out on his front porch until he'd show me some of his tunes [laughs].

AAJ: You were an accomplished performer before you began playing with Smith. What have you learned, both musically and professionally, from playing in Smith's group?

JK: Oh, man, I've learned so much. The first thing is the importance of the blues. I mean, Doc's the real deal when it comes to the blues. So I'm just trying to absorb some of that, and of course there's his time feel. He's an original funkmaster who swings like nobody else can.

Another thing, which was a reconfirming rather than new thing for me, was to see this legend of jazz embrace such a wide range of influences within his music. I mean our shows go from the most intimate ballad to a screaming post-apocalyptic psychedelic rock tune [laughs].

I feel like this trio really travels through a great range of music on a really organic journey. It's like I was mentioning with the bass thing, Lonnie can go anywhere and it's always the real deal.
About Jonathan Kreisberg
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