Mike Moreno: Focusing on the Music

Matthew Warnock By

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I want a record to be organized in a similar way to how I would set up an hour and twenty minute set. The order serves as a kind of storyline for the record.
Mike Moreno A native of Houston Texas, guitarist Mike Moreno has been making waves. After graduating from the famed Houston High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, Moreno received a scholarship to study jazz at the New School in New York.

Moreno first paid his dues playing gigs around New York, and has since been able to perform with some of the biggest names in jazz, including the Joshua Redman Elastic Band, Lizz Wright, Nicholas Payton, Greg Osby and Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.

Though he spends a lot of his time playing and touring as a sideman, Moreno leads his own band and has recorded two albums under his own name, Between the Lines (World Culture Music, 2007) and Third Wish (Criss Cross, 2008), which have received strong praise from fans and critics alike. Fresh from a series of gigs in Europe, Moreno is hitting his stride as he prepares to head into the studio later this year to record his third album.

All About Jazz: On your debut album Between the Lines, the material consists of all original pieces, while for your latest recording Third Wish you have decided to include several jazz standards. What was behind your decision to include these particular pieces as opposed to recording a second album of original material?

Mike Moreno: When I began thinking about which tunes I wanted to record on Third Wish, I'd originally intended it to be entirely standards. Not the usual songbook standards from composers such as George Gershwin or Cole Porter, but jazz standards that were written by artists that I felt had had a strong influence on my writing and playing.

I wanted to record pieces by players along the lines of Joe Henderson, Wayne Shorter and even older writers such as Billy Strayhorn, without including any of my original tunes. At the last minute, I decided to include a few of my original tunes alongside the standards. These were songs I'd written awhile back but had not recorded, so I took the opportunity to include some of my older material on the new album.

Also, since this album was released on the Criss Cross label, and was recorded very quickly compared to my first album, it was essentially a live recording. Because the album was going to be recorded very fast, and Criss Cross was going to do all the mixing, I wanted to use some simpler material, such as standards, that we could get down in one or, at the most, two takes.

With my original music I like to shape it after we record it, I don't want it to just be a recorded version of what we do as a live group. I like to take advantage of the benefits that the recording studio offers. When I record my own tunes, and am more involved in the mixing process, I tend to finish the composition after it has been initially recorded. I like to add layers and textures that come to me once I've had a chance to hear the tune back in the studio.

Mike MorenoAAJ: That leads me to my next question. You have now recorded two albums, one where you could take your time and be more involved in the mixing process and one that was essentially done live and the label mixed it afterward. After recording using these two approaches do you now have a preference for either, or do you find that certain songs lend themselves to being recorded with a "live" feel as opposed to the more compositional approach you discussed earlier?

MM: It definitely depends on the song, though usually I want the record to be about the tunes themselves and not necessarily about the soloing. I'll usually go with whatever take had the best overall vibe with the melody and the arrangement. For Between the Lines, I did go in afterward and add overdubs, basically adding different layers of guitars.

I really enjoy listening to alternative rock and folk records, even pop records. Most good pop and rock artists don't just go into the studio and record the track in the same way that they play it live. They use the studio to help create a sound that is different from the live versions, while a lot of jazz records are done in a very "live" sort of way. So I end up having a recorded version of the song and a live version that may be very similar, but are different at the same time. To me recording a tune and performing it live are two totally different things.

AAJ: Apart from having control over the arrangements and mixing of each tune, do you also like to have control of how each track is being recorded? Not in a demanding sort of way, but do you have certain microphones that you prefer to use, or is there a particular amp that you find sounds better in the studio than in a live situation?

MM: I'm not really concerned with a lot of that stuff. I'm usually more concerned with the music itself. To be honest, I'm not much of a gear guy in general. I like to try out different microphones when I'm there, but I'm not one of those guys who knows about all the different mics and the different types of recording equipment. I just focus on playing the guitar. This means that I have to make sure when I hire an engineer they really know what they are doing, because I'm not going to help them out much on that end of things.

I prefer to focus on the music and leave the recording to the engineer. I might make suggestions such as "let's try a different mic that's darker or brighter," but most of my input in the recording studio is usually during mixing. For me, the mixing process is usually pretty long. For Between the Lines, I had a definite idea of what I wanted each track to sound like, so I made sure to take enough time to mix it properly in order to bring out the sounds I wanted. I mixed for two full days and then went back and did a bit more on the third day. I find that I need at least two full days to properly mix one of my albums.

Mike Moreno (l) with Lizz Wright (c)

AAJ: How long did you spend recording Between the Lines compared to how long you spent mixing it?

MM: For that album, it was about even. We spent two full days recording the tracks and then came back a third day for a short session to record two pieces that I hadn't planned to include up until then. I realized that the arrangement on "Road Song" didn't really fit the rest of the record. In order to have the song fit better within the overall context of the album I switched from electric to acoustic guitar and we re-recorded it with a different drummer in order to bring out a different feel for the song.

We also added the ballad "Gondola" on the third day, which wasn't supposed to be on the record, but I felt we needed a ballad on the album. I actually hadn't finished writing that tune before the first two days of recording. Since the third day was a month later, it gave me time to work on the tune and it made it onto the album on the third day.

That's what I mean about taking advantage of the studio environment. I'm not one of those guys who can go into the studio with everything written, arranged and ready to go. Sometimes I have to go in there for at least a day before I get an idea of how I want to shape the record from that point forward.

That's why when I recorded Third Wish, which was released by a jazz record label, there was no way that we would be able to record two days and then come back a month later to finish the record. That type of thing just doesn't exist anymore. Most people get two days in the studio to record, at most, and they get their record and that's it. Whatever comes out of those two days is it.

AAJ: Speaking of being conscious of the music and how it sounds on the album, how important is the tune order to you in the overall presentation of the music?

MM: It's definitely important to me. I spent time on both of my albums working out the best order for the tunes, which was actually the only post-recording control I had over Third Wish. For me, I want a record to be organized in a similar way to how I would set up an hour and 20 minute set. The order serves as a kind of storyline for the record.

AAJ: Getting more specific about the tunes you choose for your albums ... On your latest release, Third Wish, you included Wayne Shorter's "Children of the Night." Most casual jazz listeners may not be as familiar with this piece as they are with some of his more popular tunes such as "Speak No Evil" or "Wildflower." What is it about this particular song that spoke to you enough to include it on your latest album?

MM: To me, that is a song that has directly influenced my music and it's a song that I could include in a live set, alongside my original music, and it would fit. If I decided to break up a live set by playing "All the Things You Are" in the middle of my original tunes, it would sound very random. I also feel very free playing within the framework of "Children of the Night." Though on the record I did alter the chords a little bit, among other things, but only because I wanted the recording to sound different than how we do it live.

When we do it live, we use Wayne's original melody and changes and pretty much do it the same way he recorded it. Even when we do play it live it still has a connection to my original music because it was an influence on my writing as I was coming up.

AAJ: On Third Wish you also included two songs by the great writer Billy Strayhorn, "A Flower is a Lovesome Thing" and "Lush Life." Strayhorn is often a favorite among many jazz musicians, and listeners, and his tunes have been recorded by many of the greats over the years. While many jazz musicians play his tunes it seems that they all have found something different in Strayhorn's writing that has drawn them into his music. What is it about Strayhorn's writing, and these two tunes in particular, that inspired you to record them on your latest album?

MM: His music, and those tunes specifically, is very dramatic in nature. They have a certain weight and serious tone about them that I feel I relate to in a number of ways, especially in the way I write. The harmony, the melody, everything is so expressive and it really speaks to me compositionally. Those two tunes are also a regular part of my book, for when I am doing trio gigs, and I couldn't decide which one I wanted to record on this album so I ended up just doing both of them.

AAJ: On both of your recordings you have used a four piece rhythm section, with Aaron Parks on piano for Between the Lines and Kevin Hays on Third Wish, though you also perform quite a bit with your trio. What is it about the piano/guitar combination that you like, and was it a conscious decision to use keyboards on both of your albums, or did it just happen organically during the writing process?

MM: To be honest, I just don't want to do a trio record. I love playing in a trio live, but the way in which trio albums are recorded lately, I just can't get into the sound that much. For me, with the music I am doing at the moment, I need piano. If I ever did a trio record it would most likely be a live recording.

There is just something, I can't really explain it; I just don't like the sound of guitar trio records that much. I also don't feel that I have a concept in my head for a trio record. It's not about being uncomfortable playing without a pianist—in fact I am more comfortable playing in a trio setting now than ever before. But there is something about playing with certain pianists that I really enjoy and Aaron is definitely one of them. We have a certain connection at this point from playing in each other's band and doing duo gigs together.

Kevin Hays is someone whom I have always admired and wanted to play with, so this album was the perfect opportunity to do so. Just by knowing his playing, I could tell before we even performed together that it would work out. I felt a connection between our music that I felt would work well on the album.

For the arrangements on my second album, as well as my original tunes, I really needed to have the piano there. It's more of a compositional thing than anything else. I am really into the sound of the piano and guitar blending together. At some point I might get tired of it, but at the moment I hear a piano in all of the tunes that I am writing. The piano might not always play a dominant roll, like on my next album which will be more guitar oriented, but it will still be there adding texture to the tunes.

AAJ: For both of your albums, you used Doug Weiss and Kendrick Scott as your rhythm section. What is it about their playing, as individuals and together, that you feel adds to your group in performances and on your recordings?

MM: Doug is an amazingly-solid bassist, very musical and he has ears like no other young bassist I know. I call Doug because he'll be in there and he'll be creative while not getting in the way. His whole approach is based on making everything sound good, with good tone, good time and having big ears. He's also a great guy to work with, so he's been my first call on a lot of the gigs that I do.

Kendrick is someone that I went to high school with and we have collaborated on a number of projects together. His sound on the drums is a really warm, broad sound and his time and swing just feels incredible. He also works well together with Doug, which is very important to me. I have played in many situations where there is a great drummer and a great bassist, but when they get together it just doesn't work out, but Doug and Kendrick always work out.

AAJ: Stepping away from your recordings a little bit. One of things that sets you apart from many other jazz guitarists is your use of the acoustic guitar in your writing and recording. Since most jazz guitarists tend to use a nylon stringed instrument when they play acoustically, did you ever find it hard to blend the acoustic guitar's tone and sound with your groups, or did it just seem to fit right away?

MM: In the studio it's easy to work with, but in a live situation it's hard to bring into the set, unless I am in a very controlled environment. On a club gig for instance, it's very hard to just bust out in the middle of a set and have it work well. The acoustic guitar started to become a part of my playing when I was preparing for the Lizz Wright gig that I did for a while. I reached the point when I was basically tired of jazz, the sound of jazz guitar, and I wanted to get more into a "pure" kind of sound. That's when I started listening to a lot of Joni Mitchell and Nick Drake albums, as well as Pat Metheny's acoustic work.

When I started to bring the acoustic guitar into my own music, people would tell me things like, "I can feel what you are doing much more with the acoustic." So I felt a certain connection to it and other people related to it, which was encouraging. The acoustic became a source of motivation when I was discouraged. I kept trying it out and people kept telling me to keep doing it. It was more a case of other people providing the motivation for me to keep the acoustic in my playing. In the studio it works really well to use it in the background and to fuse it in with the electric guitar and the piano.

Also, the music I listen to now has changed so much from what I was listening to eight years ago. Most of the music I listen to now has both electric and acoustic guitars on it, so I'm trying to bring that sound into my own music.

AAJ: Apart from your work as a band leader, you are also a highly sought after sideman, as you spend a lot of your time touring and performing in groups other than you own. How do you keep a balance between going on tour as a member of someone else's group and making sure that you spend enough time working on and performing your own music?

Mikke MorenoMM: It really depends. At the moment I make the majority of my living playing with other people, but I make sure that I play at least one gig a month in New York with my own band. This helps to keep the music evolving and gives me the opportunity to try out different musicians in my band.

For my first album I tried many different players until I found the right combination that I felt worked best for my music. I had a lot of time to choose the band at that time. It was basically five years of gigging in New York that led up to that point, which gave me ample time to find the right working band for the album.

I also try and book a few good paying gigs here and there where I can afford to hire players that I don't normally get to play with, like Nasheet Waits and other similar musicians. For now, I know that I can't put all my time into my band and make a living, but I am always playing in New York and am conscious of not letting too much time go by without playing a gig with my own band.

AAJ: What can people expect from Mike Moreno in the next year or so as far as a new recording or touring?

MM: All the music for the new recording is finished, pretty much, and it's ready to go in and record, which is where I'll finish writing it. Definitely before the year is out, I'll have the new album recorded. For this album I'm going to bring in some new elements, such as the vibraphone and more acoustic guitar, that weren't on my first two albums. It'll also be more centered around the guitar. All of the tunes and arrangements I've written are very guitar oriented, as compared to my first two albums which focused more on the sound of the ensemble.

AAJ: Is the new album coming out on Criss Cross or are you self-producing it?

MM: I'm going to self-produce it. I need to take more time on this recording than I did on Third Wish, which was recorded in six hours, with six out of the eight tracks being first takes.

Selected Discography

Mike Moreno, Third Wish (Criss Cross, 2008)
Mike Moreno, Between the Lines (World Culture Music, 2007)

Eldar, Re-Imagination (Sony, 2007)

Jeremy Pelt, Identity (MAXJAZZ, 2005)

Photo Credits

Courtesy of Mike Moreno

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