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Take Five with Gene Ess

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Meet Gene Ess

Award-winning guitarist, Gene Ess, draws upon a diverse background to form his unique style. Studying classical piano, Gene's early years were filled with the sounds of Beethoven and Chopin. Originally from Tokyo, Japan and growing up on a U.S. Air Force Base on Okinawa, Gene was simultaneously receiving a mix of influences: he was exposed to the indigenous music of Okinawa and—to the pop and jazz music coming out of the clubs for the American soldiers. 

Gene performed in clubs and festivals all around Okinawa at the early age of 14. Gene studied classical music at George Mason University. Afterward, he continued his musical quest at Berklee where he was heavily influenced by the music of John Coltrane. In 1990, he graduated with honors and moved to New York in 1991.

During the '90's he worked with the great drummer Rashied Ali, touring globally and recording a well-received album No One in Particular. Through this group, Gene met and played with Carlos Santana, Ravi Coltrane, Matt Garrison, Lonnie Plaxico, Archie Shepp, and Reggie Workman among many others.

Gene's latest album, Ah-Bop, is an inquisitive journey through the classic guitar trio format that takes on an eclectic variety. Ess composed Ah-Bop while waiting in Tokyo to return to New York amid the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown.

Instrument:

Guitar.

Teachers and/or influences?

Charlie Banacos and Rashied Ali. Charlie Banacos taught me what to DO as a jazz musician and Rashied Ali taught me how to BE a jazz musician.

I knew I wanted to be a musician when...

I first heard John Coltrane at age 17. The album was Sunship and it completely changed my thoughts and attitudes toward my cognition of what music is. I vaguely knew then at 17 that if I entered this world, I would have to give up the common world. There was no hesitation then and certainly no regret now.   

Your sound and approach to music.

My approach to music is to keep it real and express myself at the moment. As for sound, I strive for a more beautiful sound than yesterday. In a nutshell, music is both my playground and sanctum in my life.

I am devoted to music but have so much fun as well. To be alive!

Your teaching approach

I try to teach the FACTS of music. Nothing else as those are disrespectful to the student. I don't believe in saying things like "the answer is within you" in a music lesson. I heard so much of that kind of BS in music education. Teach music, not watered-down, new age dribble masked as "music wisdom."

Your dream band

A quintet with Elvin Jones, Jimmy Garrison, Keith Jarrett, and John Coltrane.

Road story: Your best or worst experience

My worst road experience was when I did a European Tour with Rashied Ali. In France, the promoter was short two grand in dollars to Rashied. He kept on promising and never turned up. I found out later he was a coke addict along with being an alcoholic. He died not too long after... I learned a lot about the business of Jazz then.

Favorite venue

I have three. Live Spot Ee in Okinawa, Scholes Street Studio in Brooklyn, and B Flat in Tokyo.

Your favorite recording in your discography and why?

Currently, Ah-Bop. Perhaps because it is my latest release and I challenged myself immensely to put together eight original compositions that tell a story from the beginning to the end. And the configuration is a trio with Clarence Penn on drums and Scott Colley on bass. I found that to be quite a challenge musically as the music is recorded live to multi-track. The solos are all real time as well. I think I succeeded in releasing a very original and unique guitar trio album.  

What do you think is the most important thing you are contributing musically?

Personally, I don't find what I am doing any more or less important than other artists out there. We are all fighting to contribute our little drop of beauty into the collective ocean called music. In a world where horror and injustice seem to prevail, I think this collective effort by all the artists in the world is one of the most important contributions to humanity. As if to say, yes, we know we are all stuck in this mess but some of us are looking up!  

What I hear quite a bit from others is that me being an Asian-American jazz guitarist in the U.S., that it is inspiring as I seem to be one of the very few jazz guitarists of Asian ethnicity in the U.S. to keep on doing it. Which is a shame, in my opinion. Music and creativity is universal. I hope to see more Asian-American jazz artists around the world! 

The first jazz album I bought was:

John Coltrane: Sun Ship

Desert Island picks:

I have so many but will limit myself to three: John Coltrane: Crescent; Keith Jarrett: Dark Intervals; and Glenn Gould: Goldberg Variations (1955).

How would you describe the state of jazz today?

I agree with Keith Jarrett that it really is a miracle that any high quality jazz still exists now. Of course, there will always be an individual here or there who is endowed cognitively to create. But in general, the world has become even more hostile to anything that requires great effort and time. Financially, I don't really know how jazz is sustainable. Perhaps, it has become something of a bourgeois art form.

What are some of the essential requirements to keep jazz alive and growing?

First, I think the artist needs to be paid in a just and fair manner. Second, I think the jazz world needs to be far more inclusive and stop being so insular. This begins with artists and musicians but sadly, I agree with a well known saxophone master who told me, "it won't change because the artists who benefit from this unfair system will at best, keep quiet and at worst, fight to keep the status quo."

What is in the near future?

Return to NYC from Tokyo. Start composing for my next album. Keep growing as a musician and try to live a life that expresses my true nature as best I can.

What is your greatest fear when you perform?

That the bassist and the drummer drags the time down and doesn't swing.

What song would you like played at your funeral?

Not a song but Beethoven's 9th Symphony.

What is your favorite song to whistle or sing in the shower?

"The Old Country" by Nat Adderley

By Day:

Haven't had a day job in decades but I did work on Wall Street.

If I weren't a jazz musician, I would be a:

Activist or a pilot.

If I could have dinner with anyone from history, who would it be and why?

Arthur Schopenhauer. In my private life, I find music and philosophy to be the two most encouraging and engaging processes of my mind and soul.

If Schopenhauer was alive in 2022, he would sneer and chuckle and mutter "I told you so!" I find his work to be very humorous and optimistic in addition to his work to be brilliant cognitively and so insightful to what is true in the world. People who say he is a pessimistic philosopher have no clue of his real intent. There is nothing more optimistic to call spade a spade.

The iconic question of "What is the meaning of life?"

Precisely that there is no meaning in life so that the individual is free to give his or her life any meaning he or she desires.

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