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Shambhu: Soothing Guitar for Stressful Times

Jakob Baekgaard By

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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.
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