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Mark Wingfield: The Continuing Evolution of the Electric Guitar

John Mark McGuire By

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What I am imagining is being able to take the guitar sound and change it so that it takes on some elements or the character of say a saxophone or a trumpet. I don't mean mixing in sampled sounds of these instruments. I mean reshaping the guitar sound... —Mark Wingfield
I was first introduced to the music of Mark Wingfield through listening to his first duo album with the inventive genius of Massachusetts acoustic mastermind, Kevin Kastning. Although in my gut I suspected it, it was almost impossible, still, to believe when it was confirmed that both players had indeed improvised the entire album. While retaining that just-baked freshness, there was still a grace, presence, flow and assurity presenting itself that one might expect from the delivery of music the two had performed together on numerous prior occasions; completely invented in the moment, in the studio, yet sounding like a composed—and brilliantly composed, at that—piece of music.

There was something in the combination of his tones, phrasing and nuance that harkened me back to the playing of modern guitar renaissance impressionist, the great David Torn. But beyond his sonic excellence and technical brilliance, there was a genuine, raw, emotional side to Mark's playing. Perhaps it was this willingness to explore the dynamics of a musical moment and bare one's soul in the midst of it that, ultimately, brought this comparison to mind.

I was overcome with emotion during the course of my very first listen. For my ears, there was something immediately profound—and supreme—about the guitar textures that flowed out of this guy.

In light of this first introduction (to his music), perhaps you can imagine how thrilled I was when MoonJune's Leonardo Pavkovic shared with me, in the fall of last year (2014), that MJR would produce his new solo album!

Even more so, when—while in NYC, during a trip up from Florida to meet the great Indonesian progressive legends, simakDialog—Leonardo snuck in a still-unmastered cut from Mark Wingfield's MoonJune debut, Proof of Light, during a listening session in his office.

Upon hearing just the first few notes, I knew Leonardo had a true unprecendented masterpiece on his hands: one so brilliantly creative and soaringly articulated that it immediately commanded not just your full attention, mentally, but it also grabbed you on an emotional level. There was something very special happening here, and it extended way beyond the ordinary!!

Leonardo hit me with another (track from the album), then another ...

After having consumed two glasses of a mystery-vintage vino, the combination of elations generated from multiple sources proved almost overwhelming. I felt as if my head was about to explode from this mind-altering music!!

...was this really a guitar I was listening to?? How can it be possible for someone to wring that much emotion and radical nuance from the instrument, really?

I was listening to the impossible.

...being articulated in the most sensitive trio setting ever.

Perhaps now you understand why it is, indeed, such a great honor to have been involved in the interview you are about to read.

Although in my gut I suspected this, also, I will go ahead and say it—after reading and rereading Mark's responses to the questions which follow: Mark Wingfield is the most inventive electric guitarist of the last 30 years.

Or maybe ever.

I truly believe he falls into the same category as two of the greatest, most innovative players of my lifetime: Jimi Hendrix, and Allan Holdsworth. As this interview evidences, Mark Wingfield's approach to creating electric guitar tones and textures is no less revolutionary than either of said predecessors. In fact, the manner in which he embraces and integrates technology—in terms of both tones and playing technique—qualifies him for consideration as the most innovative electric guitarist of all time, I believe.

But enough of my controversial meanderings; let's hear from the master, himself.

All About Jazz: Hi, Mark! Thanks for taking to time to provide our readers with some insights into yourself, your incredible music and your phenomenal, just-released debut album for MoonJune Records.

To prepare myself for this interview, I went back and digested some previous interviews that have been conducted with you. I read were you previously stated (in your interview for Anil Prasad's Innerviews) that there is no such thing as an original musical idea—citing "originality," in the musical sense, as being the result of a combination of influences. Given this perspective, can you identify any of the specific influences present on your MoonJune debut, Proof of Light?

Mark Wingfield: Thank you, John and All About Jazz—for the kind words, your time and for providing this forum. It's a pleasure to talk with you.

There are definitely original musical ideas. I was talking about the fact that any original idea played by a musician or written by a composer is made up from combinations of things they have heard at some point in the past. It's often said that every combination of notes has been played before at some point. That is undoubtedly true, but when you add rhythm into the equation the combinations become near limitless. Add in dynamics, tone, inflection and other expressive elements and there really is no limit to the variety of ways any combination of notes could sound.

Take the first four notes of the opening theme of Beethoven's 5th Symphony, most westerners at least know that theme. However these same four notes if played during an improvisation, could take on a completely different musical meaning. This is because, even if somewhere deep in they player's subconscious the notes originally came from hearing the 5th Symphony, years later, in the context of an improvisation, they no longer belong to that, they have become part of their musical language. If a musical idea you're heard has really become part of your personal musical language, on a deep enough level, it will sound like you. If it hasn't, it will sound like a borrowed musical quote. Beethoven himself must have got this combination of notes from something he heard, but he turned them into something new and something powerful enough to still be in many people's mind almost 200 years later.

The important point is that it's the combination of musical influences that creates an original idea. Wayne Shorter described it as "scrambling" your influences. All these different influences come in, they get scrambled up and they come out as your own sound. I think one of the key things that makes someone sound original, is that they have diverse or unusual influences. Influences don't even have to be musical. You could be influenced by the sounds of machinery in a construction site, or by bird song, or the rhythms of human speech. John Coltrane for example based his composition Alabama on the cadences of Martin Luther King's famous speech. Jazz players don't need to have jazz as their only big influence. Coltrane also was very influenced by African and Indian music. Or take Miles Davis who was influenced by classical composers like Ravel and Stockhausen.

With regard to Proof of Light (Mark's debut album for MJR), it's very hard to point out any influence in particular. What I will say is that I listen to a huge variety of different music. I am influenced as much by Indian and African music as I am by western music and as much by classical music as I am by jazz or rock. I do love the music that happened in the 70's and 80's on the ECM label which you mention. I think that was a time when whole new vistas of musical sound were opened up.

Miles Davis' Bitches Brew was one of the most original sounding albums in the history of Jazz and still one of my personal favourites. But equally original albums came out in the decade after that; Ralph Towner's Solstice is an example. That album sounded like something out of a completely new musical world—moving from haunting ghostly shades to intense uplifting energy within the same album. Kenny Wheeler, Keith Jarrett, and Jan Garbarek were others who created completely unique musical landscapes. These are all influences.

AAJ: What about your influences on guitar? Are there any particular players you've been listening to recently?

MW: The main influences on my guitar playing, for quite some while now, have not been guitarists. This was a deliberate decision on my part, to stop listening to guitar players. I made the choice because I was finding it too hard to break away from playing too much like which ever favourite guitarist I had been listening to at the time. I was always sounding to myself like a lesser version of one of my heroes, depending on which one I had been listening to the most.

So from that point on I've listened mainly to other instruments, for example: sax, trumpet, and a lot of vocalists. What I learned from these instruments is just how much they can do with their tone. By comparison, guitar sounded extremely limited, so I spent a long time working on different ways of sounding notes and different ways of moving between notes to create different tones. Most of the tonal changes you'll hear in my playing are based on these techniques, but I do also use electronics to manipulate the tone in real time which is why I have various attachments on my guitar.

AAJ: So, you prefer not listening to guitarists, by and large, these days. I find your perspective quite intriguing, as it is indicative of your determination to pursue your own authentic voice—not just as a guitarist, but as a musician.

That said, I guess if we are going to get to some guitarists who have had an impact on your playing and your mental approach to the instrument we'll have to dig a little deeper! When did you first start playing guitar, how did it come about, and what guitarists were your role models during your formative years as a beginner-to intermediate-level player?

MW: Jimi Hendrix was my first major influence, and interestingly he has remained a major one. I'll caveat what I said about not listening to guitarists. I will listen to the occasional player who is far enough away from the way I play that there is no danger I'll start playing like them. Kevin Kastning is an example; his concept on the guitar is so completely unique that there is no chance I'd ever be able to start playing like him.

Jimi Hendrix is another player who's phrasing is different enough from what I do that I'm not worried about starting to sound like him. For me, Hendrix's Star Spangled Banner at Woodstock is one of the greatest works ever performed on electric guitar; it is utter sonic genius.

Then I heard Mahavishnu Orchestra's The Inner Mounting Flame and that totally blew me away. But not at first; at first, I didn't like it much—but I could hear that what McLaughlin was playing was unbelievable, so I stuck with it. Before long, it became one of my favourite albums and a benchmark for guitar playing which I aspired to as a young player. As a result, I starting practicing 8 hours a day and this went on for about a year. Then I started getting into bands and that cut it down to 6 hours a day for the next year.

Around the same time as Mahavishnu, I got into Yes and Steve Howe's imaginative approach to the guitar. A little later, I started listening to Terje Rypdal and John Abercrombie, and through that discovered all the great ECM artists; that changed everything, yet again, for me. Listening to Terje showed me that it is as much what you do with the notes as it is how many of them you play, which points back again to Hendrix. I listened to Terje and he might just play a few notes, but every note was exactly the right note, each note seemed to say so much. That was a great lesson.

Around the same time I was getting into Terje Rypdal, I heard Bill Bruford's One of a Kind. Allan Holdsworth's playing on that was a complete revelation. That's still some of my favourite of Allan's playing. King Crimson's second incarnation with Adrian Belew and obviously Robert Fripp was another favourite for me at that time. That was an amazing band. Both Fripp and Belew were big influences. Then it was Pat Metheny who, again, at first, I didn't like, because I found it too 'nice' sounding. But before long I realized the great emotional depths this music contained and just how brilliant a player Pat is. He became another all-time favourite, along with Lyle Mays, of course.

It was at this point, though, that I realized I really needed to stop listening to all these guys. I would be out somewhere with no music and I'd start hearing things in my head—things from my imagination; things which I really wanted to play.

But as soon as I got back to my music collection, those ideas were instantly subsumed by which ever brilliant player I decided to listen to. Then I'd pick up the guitar and my head would be full of their playing rather than any of my own ideas. I knew that in order for my own playing to come through, I was going to have to give it space to do so, and filling my ears with Allan, Pat, Bill Frisell, or Jeff Beck was not going to let that happen.

Fortunately, by this time I was also heavily into Coltrane, Miles, Jarrett, Garbarek; and classical music like Ravel, Prokofiev, Stravinsky, Bartok and Elliot Carter; I had more than enough to listen to. Also, I knew that however much I listened to these other instruments, I would never be able to sound anything like them—however hard I tried—so I could take in as much influence as I wanted. I found that it freed up my mind to start imagining more of my own guitar lines, which would still be there even after I'd listened to Lester Bowie, Anthony Braxton or whoever it was—as long as it wasn't a guitarist.

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