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Take Five with Zvonimir Tot

AAJ Staff By

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Musician Zvonimir Tot:

Zvonimir Tot (z-VON-e-mere TOTE) is a Chicago-based jazz guitarist, composer and arranger with a style deeply rooted in the jazz tradition but flavored by his European origin. Tot has performed in the United States, Belgium, Croatia, Germany, Hungary, Macedonia, Mexico, the Netherlands, Portugal, Romania, Serbia, South Africa, and Spain. He has performed and/or recorded with many world-renowned musicians, including: Saxophonists Chris Potter, Scott Hamilton, Billy Harper, Jamey Aebersold, Eric Alexander, and Peter King; Violinists Johnny Frigo and Stefan Milenković; drummers Ernie Adams, Paul Wertico and Byron Landham; bassists Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen and John Clayton; pianists Larry Novak and Larry Vuckovich; harmonica virtuoso Howard Levy; guitarists Philip Catherine, Henry Johnson, and Paulinho Garcia; organists Joey DeFrancesco and Bobby Floyd; vocalists Patricia Barber, Jackie Allen, and Carmen Lundy.

Tot has recorded six CDs as a leader: Sarabande Blue (2021), Standards Live at the Jazz Showcase (2016), Eloquent Silence (2009), Unspoken Desire (2007), Blue Quest (2007), and Travels and Dreams (2004). He is the author of the book Jazz Guitar Harmony—The Melodic Approach, published by Jamey Aebersold Jazz. Endorsements: Godin electric/MIDI guitars, Taylor acoustic guitars, D'Addario strings, Acoustic Image amplifiers and Raezer's Edge speakers.

Instrument:

Guitar

Teachers and/or influences?

Some of my influences are predictable for a jazz musician (in no particular order): Miles, Bird, Sonny Stitt, Chet Baker, Wes Montgomery, Kenny Burrell, Pat Metheny, Pat Martino, Jim Hall... I am also strongly influenced by Philip Catherine, the greatest living European jazz guitarist. Outside of jazz, a highly abbreviated list includes Bach, Ennio Morricone, and various folkloric musicians from around the world.

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

...I heard a very good jazz band live at the jazz festival in my hometown. I appreciated the freedom, the strong groove, and the sophisticated harmonies. I thought "I have no idea what they are doing, but I wanna be a part of this."

Your sound and approach to music:

My musical (not just guitar) sound was shaped by many influences, such as jazz, concert music, film music, traditional folk music of ex-Yugoslavia, and many folk musics from around the world. One of the challenges for a European-born jazz musician is to be highly fluent in the jazz language while retaining the original cultural heritage; a graceful blend of the two may be helpful in reaching a certain measure of musical distinctiveness.

Your teaching approach:

I aim to teach my students the craftsmanship and esthetics of music in a supportive environment. https://www.zt-music.com/lessons I teach a limited number of private students at locations in Chicago, western suburbs and via Zoom or Skype. I have over 30 years of teaching experience at all levels. If you want to major in jazz guitar, you may be able to study with me at University of Illinois-Chicago. Please contact me for details. Current position: Clinical Associate Professor of Music, University of Illinois at Chicago. Education: Doctor of Musical Arts (University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign), Master of Music (Northern Illinois University, DeKalb, Illinois), Bachelor of Music (Amsterdam Conservatory, Amsterdam, The Netherlands), Bachelor of Music (Franz Liszt Academy of Musical Arts, Budapest, Hungary).

Your dream band:

Waaaay too long to list... :-)

Road story: Your best or worst experience:

I had one of my best gigging experiences the first time I ever played in Germany, in a small town near Hanover. The gig was at a local pub, but it was not at all what I had expected. The chairs were arranged in rows, as if it were a concert. Most people were already seated when we arrived, quietly talking and having a drink. The gig was a de facto concert, with a quiet, engaged and highly appreciative audience. Their beautiful energy made the whole band strive to give our very best.

Favorite venue:

Probably the Green Mill and the Jazz Showcase in Chicago. Both clubs are renowned for their respective histories, having hosted many of the greatest jazz musicians in the world. They are also renowned for their respective owners, stalwart supporters of Chicago's jazz scene.

Your favorite recording in your discography and why?

There are many, but let me mention one great record because it's not necessarily famous (it should be): Moods I and II, a 2-CD set by guitarist Philip Catherine with trumpeter Tom Harrell and bassist Hein van de Geyn. Gorgeous original music by Catherine mixed with a few standards, showing superb musical interaction and love.

The first Jazz album I bought was:

I didn't :-) My first jazz albums weren't bought, but copied on cassette tapes from a friend who had a very good jazz discography. One of the first records I heard was Kind of Blue.

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

This is probably more appropriate for others to ascertain. I aim to musically express an honest emotion through solid craftsmanship and distinctive expression.

Did you know...

I was born in Serbia (then Yugoslavia), then lived all over Europe for about a decade. I came to the United States in 2000.

CDs you are listening to now:

Mike Stern: Give and Take (Atlantic); Joe Pass and Red Mitchell: Finally (Verve); John Rutter: Requiem (Collegium); Los Chalchaleros: Adios Chalchaleros (Dbn Records).

Desert Island picks:

Wes Montgomery: The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery (Riverside); Miles Davis: Kind of Blue (Columbia); Ennio Morricone: The Mission (Virgin); Bach: St. John's Passion (various performers).

How would you describe the state of jazz today?

That's for theorists to debate. Musicians make music.

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

Keep it grounded in tradition while exploring new boundaries.

What is in the near future?

I am composing the material for my next CD, a Balkan/jazz/classical fusion for an acoustic nonet. I am hoping to record this project somewhere between August and December of 2021, public health situation permitting.

What's your greatest fear when you perform?

That I won't make my bandmates feel supported.

What song would you like played at your funeral?

None. Silence shall suffice.

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

It varies greatly. I seldom literally whistle, but I run musical lines in my mind all the time.

By Day:

I am a university professor of music. Fortunately, my "day job" is inextricably connected to my work as a musician.

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

A concert music ("classical") composer. This is something I do anyway, adjacent to being a jazz musician.

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

It's probably a tossup between Bach, Ennio Morricone, and Bill Evans, for their beautiful and complex minds.

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