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Take Five With Mike Brannon


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Meet Mike Brannon:
Having been born in Atlanta and then lived in North Carolina growing up, those Southern roots were likely to blame when I started playing blues/rock guitar. But I soon discovered Wes Montgomery, Hank Garland, Joe Pass, Tal Farlow and finally Pat Martino. After attending Jackie King's Guitar Conservatory of the Southwest, where i got to play with traditionalists like Herb Ellis, I went to Berklee for Guitar performance/composition and then studied with Charlie Banacos for five years. After returning to Texas I formed Synergy which has so far released three CDs: Barcodes with 3-time Grammy winner, Jeff Coffin and Trey Gunn; Later with 2-time Grammy winner Bill Evans, 7-time Grammy winner Paul Wertico, Harvie S, Gerry Gibbs and Andy Langham and Off the Map featuring Don Alias and Barry Brake.


Teachers and/or influences?
I've been fortunate enough to have had some great teachers and influences. Originally inspired by Jimi Hendrix, The Rolling Stones, Cream, Kinks, Jethro Tull, Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page, later influences were Wes Montgomery, Pat Martino, Pat Metheny, Mike Stern, Keith Jarrett, Wayne Shorter, Joe Henderson, Michael Brecker, Jaco Pastorius, Joshua Redman, Bill Frisell, Weather Report, MM&W, Earthworks, Steps Ahead, 'Trane and Miles, of course.

As for teachers, the biggest influence was pianist Charlie Banacos. He expected a lot and had a way of inspiring students beyond what they thought they were capable. He was extremely logical, thorough and organized and could play like anyone you could name. Each lesson was matched for whatever your needs were. And though he taught Mike Stern, Bill Frisell, Wayne Krantz, Jeff Berlin, Leni Stern, (Brecker and Metheny even took a few lessons) everyone was equally important to him. He had a band with Jerry Bergonzi, Harvie S and Tony Williams right before he went with Miles, though few people have heard of him. His passing was a huge loss to the global music community.

I also had a great teacher in Texas, Jackie King, who is an amazing and underrated guitarist—jazz, classical and studio.

At Berklee I had classes with Gary Burton, Mike Metheny, John LaPorta and Jon Damian.

I knew I wanted to be a musician when...
I first heard things like Jeff Beck with Jan Hammer and Johnny Winter cover "Jumpin' Jack Flash." The energy beyond the the original was obvious. It made me realize you could take music you thiught you knew knew and bring your own thing to it.

Your sound and approach to music:
Originally from a blues/rock background that seems to always be present in everything I do now, to some degree. As improvisation, composition and abstraction became more important to me staying authentic meant that the blues and/or a minor based sonority would usually be present in whatever I did.

Certain key players are worth noting for their influence. Wes Montgomery: listening to Wes always made me smile. There was an inherent warmth to everything he did regardless of the arrangement or setting it was in. The groove and soul was always without question, the blues always present, even in standards and his harmonic sense just so hip. He was a true eternal musical life force. Pat Martino: when I came upon Pat's music it was like being dropped on another planet. It was at once a vast new world and way of perceiving and yet made sense for both its analytical nature and its soulfulness. Pats playing and writing has a beautiful warmth and darkness to it and that direct lineage to Wes and the organ trio culture. Pat Metheny: Pat's music is just joyous. Whether somber ballad or blistering swing or all out angular abstraction, it's full of heart and commitment and an intensely personal take on what improvisation and composition can be. Intensity is present in everything he does, as is a meticulousness. He clearly cares about every note and it's specific attack and release. It all matters as if his life depended on it. A brilliant composer and a true inspiration into the depth of what music can and should be. And Miles. I transcribed a lot of Miles and sensed an Essence in what he did where the silence was as important as what he played or wrote. Of course he had an original voice, from his tone to his writing to how he arranged in real time, but It became about restraint, balance and taking the time neccesary to tell the story. Something he was always a master of.

Your teaching approach:
I've had some great teachers who were both open minded and yet very specific about ways to approach things. I've never been one to force anything on someone. They have to know what they want. Charlie Banacos was a brilliant musician and teacher and could encapsulate what you could work on for the next five years in five minutes; leaving you at once full of questions and at a near loss for words. From him and Pat Martino I came to realize an inkling of how much there was to music. That no single lifetime would ever allow any of us to do more than begin. So you had to make choices. Decide who you were artistically, be in the moment and find / create your most effective toolset to articulate that most authentically. In teaching I'd try to discover what the students goals were and let them know what might help them bridge the gap most effectively. Very few musicians are prepared for Banacos' approach, as it's so demanding. It changes you and the way you think about everything else to even immerse yourself in that intensity and philosophy or way of being. I'm glad to have had that experience and been made aware of those possibilities.

Your dream band:
I've always thought Metheny and Jarrett would have a great conversation. Though I'm sure it'll never happen it would be amazing.

There are all kinds of great musicians of all stylistic stripes I'd like to have a chance to play or work with. We all would. Josh Redman, Pat Martino, Mike Stern, Bill Frisell, Jack DeJohnette, Brian Blade, John Medeski, Joni Mitchell, Anna Maria Jopek, Jeff Beck, Alana, Davis, kd Lang, KT Tunstall; many others.

Road story: Your best or worst experience:
Synergy was playing a late 4 hr gig at a club in Texas. It was a clear Summer night in south Texas and literally the last song of the gig. The keys player, who works with Tower of Power, was playing the riff from Riders in the Storm in Bm and I just said go with it. So we went into the song. We weren't into it more than 30 seconds when off in the distance we started to hear thunder. We all just looked at each other in astonishment and by the end of the song it was a full out storm. You really can't make this stuff up. No one would believe you anyway. The universe definitely has a sense of humor.

The worst thing, and I try not to dwell on the negative, but I'd had conversations with Bob Berg leading up to his guesting on Later. Everything was set and we were to record tracks with him that very morning in December (5th) when I heard he was killed in a car accident on long island. He was a monumental and underated talent and a great and down to Earth person and were just becoming friends. A similar thing happened while getting to know Don Alias. A lot of people may not know, they were both very generous people. Most great musicians seem to be. But we had plans to do four different projects with Don and during our last call we agreed to talk again the next weekend. Nine days went by and his Ex told me he'd passed away. You really never know. It's hard to believe. All of it.

Favorite venue:
We were playing Ornette Coleman's now defunct, Caravan of Dreams in Fort Worth and though we weren't a well known band outside of Texas, at the time, they treated us very well. The staff was all very kind. When people are kind and helpful you don't forget things like that. It was a great night with great players.

Another time we we playing a club called Jazz, in San Antonio. Our group, Synergy was playing inside and there was an outside band, the headliner. For some reason the stars aligned and we were having a great, inspired, high energy gig. Even the players from the other band who's pianist was with Wynton Marsalis, were checking it out. We found out late into the gig that Ottmar Liebert and his band Luna Negra were all in the back checking it out, as well. That was kind of cool.

On a gig at the Driskill hotel in Austin, we're were doing a quartet fusion thing in the bar and noticed one of the guests was there watching with his entourage. It was Stephane Grappelli and his band with an incredible Russian pianist who's name escapes me. We formed a bassless side project called Carbon for awhile, played and recorded a bit. I remember playing the Houston Jazz fest one summer, up there without the expected bass behind things and realized it gave the music a lot of air and freedom.

One last one: I got a call from Vintage Guitar to interview Eric Johnson for them. It was a really cold November day but we had to record outside due to the noise inside, so we're there shivering but having a good chat. I'd brought guitars up for a gig and Eric played my old '65 Es 175. We both had tickets to see Metheny's trio with Bill Stewart and Larry Grenadier, which was one of the best gigs I've ever heard by anyone. They did everything a guitar trio or power trio could do and then some. Transcendant.

Your favorite recording in your discography and why?
Different aspects of various projects are memorable for me. Barcodes, our first CD was the first time we'd worked with musicians the caliber of Jeff Coffin or Trey Gunn, though I'd gone to the guitar conservatory with Trey, it was before he was with Robert Fripp/King Crimson. There were times when the group was really focused and in the moment and improvisation just clicked unexpectedly on a deeper level, as on the keys/guitar interplay on Tripod. It was strange the way the comping and soloing roles blurred. The best music/art is the hardest to label. If you can script moments like that I wouldn't begin to know how.

On Later, the Followup album to Barcodes, working with the likes of Bill Evans, Paul Wertico and Harvie S showed that the music I'd written could actually sound even better than l dreamed. It's really hard to go back to a level beneath that once you've heard what's really possible in the hands of astounding musicians like that. Thanks to them all.

The first Jazz album I bought was:
Jazz Winds from a New Direction (Hank Garland) or Great Guitars (Joe Pass & Herb Ellis). Then Wes Montgomery's Incredible Jazz Guitar. Then I found Metheny's PMG/white album in a cutout bin for $3.95. That changed everything.

What do you think is the most important thing you are contributing musically?
Like any musician, just being myself and bringing what I can. No one else can do what you do exactly the way you do it, for whatever that's worth. So, authenticity, I imagine. We're all a unique mix of our influences and perceptions.

Did you know...
I also design lighting and furniture and am really into architecture and design. I found it really cool that in one review of Barcodes from the UK the writer referred to the playing as having 'an impressive architectural sense even at high velocity.' I'd never heard music referred to that way and yet it made sense somehow. It was cool to hear someone remote pick up on that, Like an audio version of all the things I was into. Though it wasn't a conscious goal. so it's interesting synesthetically.

CDs you are listening to now:
Josh Redman— Freedom in the Groove
Pat Metheny -One Quiet Night

Desert Island picks:
Norah Jones -Come Away with Me
Keith Jarrett -Koln Concert
Joshua Redman -Wish
Michael Brecker -Wide Angles
Pat Metheny— 80/81
Weather Report -8:30
Jaco Pastorius— Word of Mouth

How would you describe the state of jazz today?
Alive. Growing. Challenged. Ever more eclectic and inclusive, responding to its environment and serving a new generation.

What are some of the essential requirements to keep jazz alive and growing?
Authenticity, integrity, creativity, personalization. Not repeating what's gone before as if its a museum piece, but learning from it and growing from there. Putting a personal spin on whatever you do.

What is in the near future?
Finishing Off the Map, a neo-flamenco influenced film-score like project with special guest, Don Alias.

Starting Guitarchitecture, a series of guitar solo & duo recordings, both original music and covers of specific music from the 60s-70s like: "Cant Find My Way Home," "Woodstock," "Grapevine," "Dock of the Bay," "Can't Stand the Rain" and Jaco's "Three Views of a Secret."

Also continuing work with NoNet, our spontaneous improvisation project, which will have a series of live recordings available starting next year.

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