Jonathan Kreisberg: Unearthed

Matthew Warnock By

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AAJ:You choose a bit of a larger group, a quintet, for your CD Unearthed, as compared to some of your other albums which are trio-based. Was this a result of the compositions, or were the compositions a result of the quintet set up?

JK: It's a bit of a chicken or the egg situation, really. I wrote some tunes specifically for a quintet, and I was really enjoying where this was going on the gigs. Next thing I knew I had an album waiting to be recorded. So I actually fronted the money to record the album. Afterwards, I was lucky to have Mel Bay buy it and release it on their new label. It was great luck for me, but the process took a while, that's why it came out after my first two records on the Criss Cross label, even though it was actually recorded before them.

AAJ: Unearth is a great example of your ability to mix the jazz tradition with a forward sense of the genre. Your lines and ideas always seem to be well rooted in the traditional vocabulary, yet they have a uniqueness that is all their own. How important was it to you to learn the bebop vocabulary when you were coming up, and do you feel that has helped you now as you explore new and exciting musical territories?

JK: Bebop, and the jazz tradition in general, is a huge part of my music. But within that tradition, it's been the innovators that I've been drawn to the most, guys like Charlie Parker, Coltrane, Lennie Tristano, Thelonious Monk, Miles etc. There are guys that are among us that are continuing that tradition. That's where that title of my record New for Now came from, the idea that innovation has the effect of always sounding fresh, even a hundred years later. I'm always trying to be open to those kinds of sounds.

AAJ: What was it like recording with Bill Stewart and FLY, who have both become regulars in the groups of some of the best jazz guitarists on the scene today, on your album Nine Stories Wide?

JK: Those guys were already playing with Metheny and Scofield, not to mention many of the other greats, so it was definitely intimidating. But nerves are just energy, so if you can focus it correctly, it can make for great playing. That's always a challenge in a new situation like that.

My favorite take on that record is probably "Relaxin' at Camarillo," which we recorded as a quick last take before Larry had to run to the Vanguard to play with Brad Mehldau. I think the energy in that moment translated nicely onto the recording.

AAJ: For your album New for Now, you choose to use the organ trio formation. What is it about the organ trio that draws you to that lineup?

JK: The organ trio sound is a real particular thing, and I have a great respect for it. The trio with Gary and Mark was touring a lot at the time, and I felt we were coming at the organ trio concept from a different angle than the tradition, and it was something that was worth documenting. Once again, it was the music on the gigs first, and then the decision to record what was happening came afterward.

AAJ: Jazz guitar albums can sometimes end up sounding like blowing sessions, but your album The South of Everywhere is very carefully arranged and well put together from a musical standpoint. Is this something you think about when putting an album together?

JK: Thanks for noticing. It was really important on that record that I could take the listener someplace new. Of course I wanted to feature all the great individual musicians, but it was more about creating a world where the band could then do their thing. I'm really happy with the mood of the record. It really captured the feeling of my life at that time.

AAJ: On the album's title track, you use a volume pedal to produce a very ethereal vibe during the song's intro. Although other guitarists such as Ben Monder and Bill Frisell have used volume pedals in their playing, you have a unique approach to the sounds you can produce with the pedal. Can you talk about why you like to use the volume pedal in your playing, and what you feel it adds to your compositions and improvisations?

Jonathan KreisbergJK: One main reason I use a volume pedal is that I often try to hear my place in the band and find the sweet spot in the "mix." By producing records, I've become pretty sensitive to that. Those types of sounds can be done with your hands, but the pedal gives you a way to do it without changing your attack, which can be a different sound all together.

Another reason is that it can give you a bit of air, or swell. You can make the guitar sound a bit more like a violin or horn, but that's tricky. Overall, I just feel it makes the guitar sound a bit more organic.

AAJ: On the song "Stella by Starlight," you lay down a very elegant chord-melody introduction that provides the listener with a window into that side of your playing. Do you play solo guitar often, and have you ever considered recording an album of solo guitar pieces?

JK: At some point it would be fun, but I'd have to give some thought as to how I'd approach it. I have a lot of respect for that tradition as well, solo guitar. The main issue for me is about trying to strike a balance between arrangements and improvisation.

It's a shame most guys end up arranging too much and trying to sound like a bassist, pianist and horn all at once. There is so much freedom as a solo guitarist to have fun with the keys, tempos, lines etc.

AAJ: Your 2009 CD is the quartet recording Night Songs that was released on the Criss Cross label. While you have recorded for Criss Cross in the past, your last few albums were for the Mel Bay label. What brought you back to the Criss Cross label for this recording?

JK: Well, Criss Cross is a great label with such a quality roster, so of course it's always great to work with them. When Producer Gerry Teekins called, I'd been writing some new originals that I was really excited about, but I wasn't quite ready to go into the studio for that stuff. So we got excited about the concept, which became Night Songs.

AAJ: Night Songs is a collection of jazz and American songbook ballads. What was the inspiration for releasing an album of ballads?

JK: It was a heartbreak-induced episode, and an excuse to record a bunch of my favorite tunes. Also, it seemed like a great challenge to make a compelling disc entirely of ballads. I was thinking of the concept as a whole throughout the process. Hopefully, that translated well onto the recording.

AAJ: You use an acoustic guitar on some of the tracks on the album, on "Laura" for example. Though others have used an acoustic guitar in a jazz setting, it is still a rare sound. What was the inspiration to bring the acoustic guitar sound to your new CD?

JK: Well, I'd already played acoustic on Unearth, so it wasn't the first time I'd experimented with that sound, but it definitely was used more often on this record. It's really just about another color that I can use in my playing and writing.

AAJ: The songs on Night Songs have a very "organic" feel to them. How much time did you spend in the studio recording the album? It sounds as if you guys are just playing live and having a great time laying down each track.

JK: Well, Criss Cross albums are generally done in about 6 hours, so it was definitely a very "live" session. Some tunes were a bit more arranged like "Spring is Here," while others were completely off the cuff. We had never even played "Nefertiti" or "September Song" as a band before, so those were both one-take wonders.

AAJ: What guitars and amps did you use to record Night Songs?

JK: My acoustic is a Collings, my electric is my semi-trusty Gibson 175 and the amp is my blackface Fender Princeton.

AAJ: With your latest album receiving positive reviews from critics and fans alike, are you already working on your next recording project, and if so what can people expect?

JK: There are already some clips on YouTube of some of my new music, so my die-hard fans have already checked some of it out. I've heard via email how excited they are about it, so that's really been inspiring.

I guess it's been interesting coming to terms with YouTube, show taping, downloading, etc., in the past few years, but it really does have its positives. The true fans are really with you through the process. That being said, of course it will be great to go into the studio to officially document the new music. I'm looking forward to it.

AAJ: After accomplishing so much as a composer and performer at such an early stage in your career, where do you see yourself as a musician over the long term? Are there any projects or genres of music that you would like to incorporate into your writing or improvising that you have not yet had the chance to do?

JK: For sure, I want to continue expanding the concepts I've explored in my band, I could spend a lifetime doing that. But there are always such great lessons to be learned playing in situations with different parameters than the ones I've personally created as a composer or band leader.

I recently played a bit in Paris with the incredible Brazilian guitarist Nelson Veras, and we had so much fun that we are talking about more shows and some recording. In that duo situation, you have to call upon completely different instincts, compared to playing with a full ensemble.

Let's see, definitely looking forward to more gigs and learning experiences with Dr. Lonnie Smith, Ari Hoenig's Punk Bop and Joe Locke. I also love working with singers of all styles, and hope to eventually record material ranging from a solo setting to a big band. I better get to work.

Selected Discography

Jonathan Kreisberg, Night Songs (Criss Cross, 2009)

Jonathan Kreisberg, The South of Everywhere (Mel Bay, 2007)

Joe Locke, Sticks and Strings (Music Eyes, 2007)

Jonathan Kreisberg, Unearth (Mel Bay, 2005)

Jonathan Kreisberg, New for Now (Criss Cross, 2005)

Jonathan Kreisberg, Nine Stories Wide (Criss Cross, 2004)

Photo Credits

Page 1 (top): Jimmy Katz

Page 3 (top): Noah Shaye

Page 3 (bottom): George Schiavone

Pages 4, 5: Nadja von Massow

Featured Story: Jonathan Kreisberg MySpace page
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