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Shambhu: Soothing Guitar for Stressful Times


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Jazz is improvisation. Jazz is freedom. Jazz is a rainbow. Jazz is intuitive. Jazz is Nature. Jazz is how life should be. Improvisation is at the core of my music from inception to album. So is my own meditation experience. As John Coltrane, John McLaughlin, and others showed me, jazz is a way to express something deeper, and I have aimed my musical offering in that direction.
—Shambhu Neil Vineberg
The times we live in call for reflection and one of the ways of providing it is through music. Music can slow our lives down and make us live in the moment, but it can also connect people. Since he discovered music, guitarist and composer Shambhu Neil Vineberg has been on a journey that has seen him connecting with many different people and sounds, and he is still finding new ways to express the music he hears while staying to true to his lyrical aesthetic.

His music is sometimes conveniently categorized as New Age, but Shambhu also calls himself a jazz guitarist. Is this a contradiction? In fact, Shambhu sees the connection between New Age and jazz music and he is able to combine both worlds. The variety of his music challenges the listeners who think they have both genres pinned down, but Shambhu's music isn't about fitting into a particular genre. It's about creating music that is able to connect with people on a spiritual and emotional level. His latest album, Lilac Skies (Acoustic Shine, 2019), has the subtitle: soothing guitar for a peaceful world. It's a bold title, but it may also just refer to the fact that listening to music makes life better.

All About Jazz: Could you tell about your background and how you discovered music?

Shambhu Vineberg: I was born in Queens, New York, into a musical family. My mom was a singer and my 3 siblings studied, respectively, piano, bass and drums. I was in a band virtually my entire youth with my brother Barry playing bass. At home I was exposed to rock, classical, Broadway and jazz through my Mom. We had a piano in the living room, and jammed in the basement.

On the radio I heard rock and roll from before I could remember, and supported by my dad, I studied piano at 5 and guitar at 7. Turned out I had perfect pitch and as a pre-teen I was playing songs that I heard on the radio in real time. I played guitar in a jazz band in middle school, and clarinet in wind ensemble in high school. From 10 years on I was working in local cover bands. I joined Local 802 in NYC and I spent my teens playing rock guitar and singing pop tunes with top society bands in NYC—Lester Lanin, Peter Duchin, Roger Stanley, Steven Scott, Charlotte Russe, and others (this early work can be found on SoundCloud). I also attended Hewlett High School in Hewlett, NY two years ahead of Indo-jazz saxophonist George Brooks, who is featured on my first three albums.

AAJ: What kind of music did you listen to in the beginning and how has your musical taste evolved through the years?

SV: I loved harmony and melody but rarely heard the words to a song. I was lost in music almost all of the time, listening deeply, dissecting sounds, and transcribing songs for my bands. And I was learning from every track: writing and arranging from the Beatles, harmony from the Beach Boys, groove from Motown, soft mood from Antonio Carlos Jobim, big brassy bands from Buddy Rich and Maynard Ferguson, classical brilliance from Leonard Bernstein and Broadway from Stephen Sondheim. There were also many guitarists influencing my rock and roll approach -George Harrison, Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, the Allmans, Carlos Santana, and others. I fell in love with laid back California Sound and harmonies—Crosby Stills and Nash, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, and others. On my own I started arranging for horns once I heard Chicago and transcribed their music for my own Chicago cover band in high school. I'd played clarinet in wind ensemble in high school, performed Percy Grainger's Lincolnshire Posey, which led to my love for Ralph Vaughn Williams' music. I was so awed by all this amazing music that I felt my own guitar playing was small and meaningless in a cosmic sense, before such genius. That's how I left high school.

That summer I played in a Sly and the Family Stone cover band in Verona, Jersey (I was one of 2 white guys). I was diving into the fusion work of Larry Coryell, Brecker Brothers, Blood Sweat and Tears, and the jazz brilliance of Dave Brubeck, Charles Mingus, Cecil Taylor and Bill Evans. I was exploring all styles and loving it all. Everything shifted when I heard John McLaughlin and the Mahavishnu Orchestra, and then met up with drummer Narada Michael Walden and saxophonist Premik Russell Tubbs at a jam session on Long Island. They were students of guru Sri Chinmoy along with McLaughlin and Carlos Santana.

AAJ: Did you take music lessons early on? Who would you say helped shape and aspire you as musician?

SV: I studied jazz guitar with Dave Sarett from my elementary through high school years. He was a Queens-based guitarist in the style of Tal Farlow. Dave transcribed scales, modes, chords, and lessons in real time. He taught me the fundamentals: picking, scales, modes, 4-note and 3 note chords with melody on the first or second strings, and then full chord-melody arrangements. He made the music of Jim Hall, Farlow and Johnny Smith part of my listening. Honestly, a 14-year old hearing Johnny Smith play soft and sweet was kind of much for me at the time versus Eric Clapton and George Harrison. I was kind of absorbing so much at once. Dave transcribed gorgeous chord/melody charts for Autumn Leaves, Moonlight in Vermont, and Autumn in New York ...that I have today.

After high school, I studied composition and piano at the Manhattan School of Music (NYC) for 18 months. I was a jazz player; the Conservatory was a great choice for learning classical music, but a lousy choice for a jazz guitarist like myself. So I departed but not before picking up Nicholas Slonimsky's: Thesaurus of Scales and Musical Patterns in the music store. Slonimsky is still a mind-expanding experience for me and he led to a whole new way of looking at scales and progressions.

After I left the Conservatory, I found a new teacher in Dr. Maury Deutsch who taught me arranging, musical psychology and tonal acoustics in his cozy, Manhattan apartment office. Dr. Deutsch had also worked with Charlie Parker and he's renowned as one of America's most prolific musical arrangers. He taught me the harmonic series and how it's the basis of western music. It was a revelation and his teachings forever changed how I viewed tonality. It was a profound moment—kind of the equivalent of self-realization in a spiritual sense. And from there he taught me musical psychology, the theory of film composing. I was gaining core musical knowhow but it would take years before I really felt music as an inner, personal expression.

I also took a few lessons with drummer Andrew Cyrille who had blown my mind playing with Cecil Taylor and John McLaughlin's music blew me away and I felt like I was hearing something spiritual for the first time. I ended up following his teacher.

AAJ: What made you choose the guitar and what is it that you like about it?

SV: My mom chose the guitar for me. I was 7 and had successfully ended a 2-year relationship with a piano teacher who had insisted that I read music, when I simply wanted to play what I heard in my head. I was playing baseball lefty and wanted to flip the guitar. Learning guitar was rough at first but I got the hang of it. I played a Gretsch Country Gentleman and a Gibson L5 thanks to my parents.

AAJ: As I understand it, your music is partly inspired by Indian music traditions. Do you feel that you can express this influence fully on the guitar or have you thought about playing other instruments? In general, do you feel that the guitar can express what you want to say?

SV: I play with a softness, subtlety and humility that is surely Indian influenced. My own sense of 'musical perfection' emanates from a heart feeling I hold onto in my life. I dive into that feeling and deliver it through my songs and playing. Aldous Huxley said, "After silence that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music." My guru Sri Chinmoy saw music as an expression of the soul. From India I learned that in the hands of practiced artists, the meeting of intuition and outer expression is the penultimate music. Once I realized that, I no longer felt meaningless before the great composers like I did as a kid. And I began to feel my own music.

I play beginner sitar, tamboura and sarod and feel honored to feature India's great bansuri flutist Ravichandra Kulur who has performed with Ravi Shankar and Anoushka Shankar, on my albums Sacred Love and Soothe.

AAJ: You describe yourself as a jazz guitarist. What is jazz to you and what is the role of jazz in the way you play and compose music?

SV: Jazz is improvisation. Jazz is freedom. Jazz is a rainbow. Jazz is intuitive. Jazz is Nature. Jazz is how life should be. Improvisation is at the core of my music from inception to album. So is my own meditation experience. As John Coltrane, John McLaughlin, and others showed me, jazz is a way to express something deeper, and I have aimed my musical offering in that direction.

AAJ: A genre like new age also comes to mind when thinking of your music. It's a term that is sometimes seen in a negative light. What is your own take on this?

SV: I understand the skepticism. New Age music became a part of my life when I wanted to hear a softer music for my own meditation and reflection. I remember traveling in the southwest listening to Paul Winter and native American flutist R. Carlos Nakai and I was blown away by the music like free improvisations with long tones. At my own new age shows with Premik, folks sat with closed eyes in meditation and reflection. At Jazz shows, I listen to brilliant instrumentalists and enjoy equally brilliant creative work. New Age has brilliance like jazz, but the artists have a different musical intention. Rather than dazzle with brilliant writing and excitement, New Age artists create music that calms the mind, opens the heart, and offers a moment of respite from a stressful life. Jazz compresses more notes into smaller spaces. New Age explores the spaciousness inside and around notes. Jazz feels like the city. New Age feels like the countryside.

New Age is really slow motion improvised jazz and some of the best jazz players are jazz artists. Who can deny the deep musicality and genius in the work of Shadowfax, Peter Kater, George Winston, David Lanz, Paul Winter, Eugene Friesen, Oregon and others who have huge New Age followings. My own songs are born in an improvisational moment and I work with jazz musicians who can read the notes and then transcend the music and become feeling. The players I have worked with are Tony Levin, Michael Manring and Kai Eckhardt (bass), Eugene Friesen (cello), George Brooks, Premik Russell Tubbs and Paul McCandless (sax), Celso Alberti (drums and percussion), Frank Martin (piano), Alec Hamilton (piano), Kristin Hoffmann (voice), Ravichadra Kulur (bansuri flute), Jeff Haynes (percussion) and others who are featured on my albums.

AAJ: Overall, how would you describe your own sound? Could you tell about the guitar you use and your approach to tunings, chord voicings and composition?

SV: My sound is evocative, intuitive, calm and laid back whether I'm playing up-tempo or slow. I use the standard guitar tuning except when I change the 6th and/or 5th string tunings to D/A of C/G to function as an Indian style drone and improvise sound paintings. Humility (on Sacred Love) features the D/A drone. Sanctuary (on Dreaming of Now) features the C/G drone. Both were created live. My writing process is simple -I record everything because my songs emerge at their own time, but generally when I'm warmed up. As I listen back to hours worth of jam sessions, I find the songs. I organize them into buckets, make demos of the ones I like, and return to them when I'm starting a new project. I typically have 40-50 ideas and whittle them down to an album's worth. What's left goes into the next album.

I play the Taylor GS6 acoustic for solo studio recording. For live gigs, I use the Taylor 816ce plugged into a Line 6 Helix with an Infinity Looper and LR Bags Para Acoustic Preamp. And I jam and loop with the T5 electric/acoustic which you can hear on the title track of Soothe.

AAJ: Your first album, Equinox (2009), was a duo collaboration with saxophonist Premik Tubbs. How did that record come about?

SV: After I met Premik Tubbs and Narada Michael Walden, I joined them as students of meditation teacher and guru Sri Chinmoy. In 1986 Premik and I wanted to do an album of improvisations on Sri Chinmoy's music and Equinox was born after a week's rehearsal in a Long Island recording studio. We each created jazzy arrangements of Sri Chinmoy's melodies, and every song led into a free improvisation. We spent 2-3 years playing small tours of the U.S., Canada and Europe organized by Sri Chinmoy's students. Premik and I continued to play together. He recorded on my albums Sacred Love, Soothe and Lilac Skies, and I introduced him to Will Ackerman who has included his work on dozens of albums.

AAJ: The title reminds me of John Coltrane and the album also strikes me as one of your most jazz-influenced records. What are your own thoughts about this?

SV: When Coltrane offered A Love Supreme he saw his music as an expression of his faith and spirit. That connection of music and spirit also inspired Carlos Santana and John McLaughlin, and it got my attention, too. For Premik and myself, Equinox was a jazz devotional album and we're both proud of this work.

AAJ: The guitar sound is very big on the record. Did you use any effects such as echo to achieve this?

SV: I used a boomy sounding and rare 1985-era Takamine roundtop acoustic electric 6-string which a natural echo, and a Takamine 12-string flat top. The roundtop never made it into production. I plugged them into a rack of Boss pedals including a chorus, flanger, compressor, echo, tremolo, etc.

AAJ: Some of the tracks have some very fast unison lines between you and Premik Tubbs. I primarily think of your music as spiritual and meditative, but this is often associated with slow tempo. What is your take on the relation between mood and tempo?

SV: We can create a rhythm free or free flowing musical calm with a deep pedal bass with open harmonics while playing free form cascading lines on a guitar like water rolling over rocks. I spent years observing Nature and Rhythm on Maui. The morning sun and vast ocean with gentle rolling waves were so calming. Small birds were chirping high in the harmonic register and darting across the seascape. The waves were breaking randomly. Yet, it felt perfectly peaceful despite fast movement. I try to act as the meditative calm in all of my songs and my guitar work is a connecting link woven through every mood and tempo. Any calm or tension we feel in music is related to how the notes play out in the harmonic overtone series.

AAJ: Your next album, Sacred Love (2010), was co-produced by Will Ackerman. Could you tell about this collaboration? How did it come about and how did he influence the sound of the album? Was he involved in arrangements, choice of songs and so on?

SV: Working with Will was illuminating. His studio is like a temple. His equipment and work standard are phenomenal. His network of instrumentalists is as impressive as he is. We met through Jeff Oster, a flugelhorn player who had been recording with Will since 2005. Jeff and I met in San Francisco Bay in late 2009 when I was doing technology public relations in San Francisco. I had a few simple songs and arrangements and Will brought in several brilliant instrumentalists like Tony Levin, Charlie Bisharat, and Eugene Friesen. I brought in Celso Alberti, Claytoven Richardson, George Brooks and Ravichandra Kulur. Together with recording engineer Corin Nelsen, we brought these songs to life. Will produced my guitar work, and several of the artists who played. Corin and I mixed the album. There's a series of YouTube videos on the Sacred Love recording project and extensive interviews with Will and Corin, along with insights into the recording process: https://www.youtube.com/playlist? list=PLXhffem0gtamRCAHOE2KWfMVh7AEx_ay

AAJ: You play a duet together, "Imagine," on the album. How would you describe the difference between your style of playing?

SV: This was a song Will brought to the table and I over-layed a guitar lead. We both play intuitively and from the heart. We both play melodically and inspire imagery among listeners. Then we diverge. I am a melodic player. I know music theory. My perfect pitch lets me make choices based on the notes and colors that I know will achieve the feelings that I'm aiming at. I use a pick and fingers. My guitar tuning is generally standard and I navigate a Western musical vocabulary of scales and chords.

Will is a masterful guitarist who helped create the New Age genre. He feels music. He is intuitive. His music is hypnotizing. He tells compelling stories with unique guitar tunings. No song has the same tuning. Will wears metal picks on his right hand and his finger-style touch feels magical and intimate. His music and musical approach have influenced generations of listeners (like me), and launched a musical genre (New Age) and a successful music label (Windham Hill). Yet, Will is the first to say that he knows no music theory and he could not read a note of music. Yet, he creates musical magic and he delivers it consistently through his own beautiful work and for the artists he produces.

AAJ: The album revolves around the acoustic guitar but uses a wide palette of sounds and instruments. The influence from Indian music especially shines through. Could you elaborate on this influence on the album?

SV: It was my first solo album and, like Coltrane's A Love Supreme, I wanted the music to reflect the soulfulness of love. For this album I was working in a New Age format with the acoustic guitar as the centerpiece. Everything was built around the guitar. World flautist Ann Licater had introduced me to bansuri flutiest Ravichandra Kulur who added bansuri flute to a few tunes during a concert tour in San Francisco. I added sitar to Maui Breeze. I did a vocal, Hide and Seek, featuring Claytoven Richardson. George Brooks, Ravi and I jammed Shiva Grove. We had lots of voices.

AAJ: Ackerman also helped produced the follow-up Dreaming of Now (2013). It hardly feels like a repetition of the past record. To my ears it has a feeling closer to American roots music and the guitar is more in the center, even though there are still other instruments involved. How did you prepare this album? Could you tell about the process of making the album and the dialog you had with Ackerman about it?

SV: After Sacred Love, I went back into my box of songs and kept writing. Like the Beatles, I like to keep inventing so for the 2nd album I took a new approach. I rented Fantasy Studios in Berkeley and hired the best jazz players in the SF Bay. George Brooks (sax), Frank Martin (piano), Kai Eckhardt (bass) and Celso Alberti (drums). And we cut the songs on Dreaming of Now in two days. I took that work back to Imaginary Road Studios. With Will and Tom Eaton co-producing, I redid my acoustic guitars and added cello and violin. I mixed this one with Tom Eaton. Dreaming of Now won Best Contemporary Instrumental Album at the ZMR Music Awards (2013), which honors the best in new age music.

AAJ: When you recorded Soothe (2017), you changed co-producer from Ackerman to Todd Boston, a fellow guitarist and Ackerman-associate. What did he bring to the table? How would you describe the songs and approach to this album?

SV: I met Todd in 2009 after arriving in northern California and I loved his guitar music. We played together and during the recording of Sacred Love in LA, I introduced him to Will Ackerman. Todd later recorded with Will at Imaginary Road Studios, and then he opened his own Magic Cottage Studios in northern California with his wife Andrea, a film producer who shot the Soothe trailer. I wanted to support my friends Todd and Andrea and started recording at their studio. What I love about working with Todd is that he feels the connection of Nature and conveying music in organic ways. Just like Sacred Love, we recorded Soothe one track at a time starting with guitars. We featured sax and English horn player Paul McCandless, bassist Michael Manring, percussionist Jeff Haynes, and others.

AAJ: Your latest album, Lilac Skies (2019), finds you alone in the producer's chair. Could you tell about the thoughts and considerations you had about the album and talk about some of the key tracks and musicians?

SV: From the start I wanted to create an album that was upbeat, positive and uplifting for anyone experiencing the stressed out times in which we live. I also wanted this album to feature some quiet guitar and include some of my jazz tunes from my teens and recent days ... without losing my new age audience. I also wanted to work again with drummer Celso Alberti. I rented Fantasy Studios for a full day and invited Frank Martin, Celso Alberti and Kai Eckhardt and we recorded the songs of Lilac Skies that I had been developing and transcribing over a period of months. It was the first time I had fully arranged my music in such detail, and the first time the songs had been played. It was a day-long session. We cut 12 tracks in 9 hours and used 8 of them on the album.

AAJ: Many of your titles are very poetic. Do you name the songs after they have been played or have you named a song before you composed it? Could you talk about some of the titles that are special to you and how they can be related to the music?

SV: When I was writing songs for off-Broadway shows, I wrote to evoke feelings in a title or a scene. Now I start with the song and then title it. Thematically through my life I've been working on self-awareness, so my titles often aim in that direction. "Knowingness" (on Soothe) is about those brief and passing moments when we are conscious of a higher 'awareness.' "Pondering When" (on Lilac Skies) is built on a chord progression that could live under a Stephen Sondheim song expressing moments when you're stuck on a thought and figuring out how you'll resolve it. "Sanctuary" (on Dreaming of Now) is my peaceful place inside. "Inspired by the Night" (on Lilac Skies) is one of those amazing nights that you think is the harbinger of the future, but it was just a passing moment. "Eyes of a Child" (on Sacred Love) expresses the spark of innocence in a child's eyes. "Together" (on Sacred Love) is my anthem for a United world family. "Revelation" (on Sacred Love) is the unfolding of self-knowledge. Other titles are just fun, like "Blue Whispers" (on Lilac Skies).

AAJ: Overall, when going through your discography, there's a distinctive lyrical approach, but the sound changes from album to album. How would you sum up your musical journey so far?

SV: The Beatles saw every song as an opportunity to do something unique. I'm still exploring my world of musical possibility and exploring the sounds that I hear inside. My unique 'feel' hopefully binds together the styles in my work.

AAJ: What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from music?

SV: Seems like the world is tearing itself apart these days. Music is a universal language that can bring us together. I'm living in service to that idea. And you gotta put in the time. Music takes lots of work.

AAJ: So far, you haven't recorded a solo guitar album, could you envision doing this or is the interplay with other instruments too important to you?

SV: There is more quiet, relaxing guitar music to come, as well as deeper harmonic explorations that I enjoy. A solo guitar album is definitely on the way.

AAJ: Will you be touring with the new record? Where is it possible to hear you live?

SV: I just moved back to New York and hope to set up performances later in the year. Last year I was busy playing at regional wineries and Festivals in the San Diego area where I lived.

AAJ: Do you have any other projects coming up?

SV: The 5th album is currently happening; I'm running through songs old and new and making studio demos.

Selected Discography

Shambhu, Lilac Skies (Acoustic Shine, 2019)

Shambhu, Soothe (Acoustic Shine, 2016)

Shambhu, Dreaming of Now (Acoustic Shine, 2013)

Shambhu, Sacred Love (Acoustic Shine, 2010)

Shambhu Vineberg & Premik Tubbs, Equinox (Shambhu Records, 2009)


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