Vic Juris: Topflight Guitarist

R.J. DeLuke By

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Vic Juris is a well known in the New York City area, and jazz circles in general, for his thoughtful musicianship, his broad stylistic range and the dexterity with which he handles his instrument, whether swinging madly or in a reflective pose. The fact that he can play very well in any mode, not just with a constant barrage of chops, is reflected in his new recording A Second Look (Mel Bay Records) that came out in April. It shows Juris exploring music as a musician, not just a guitarsmith.

Juris is playing — and composing — as well as ever, as his recent albums show. He's been around for more than 30 years. He's touring in a variety of settings, including his own band and associations with saxophonist David Liebman and others. Yet in public circles, the 52- year-old isn't as well known as some contemporaries. But it doesn't appear to bother this artist.

Juris is realistic about the music business, strong enough to negotiate it, in spite of its potholes, and talented enough to shine. He's happy with the new CD, as he should be, which features a mix of original songs and some standards, with Jay Anderson on bass and Tim Horner on drums. Guests include Liebman and his wife, vocalist Kate Baker (with whom he sometimes works).

"The thing I like about it, it features the many different kinds of guitars I'm into playing, he says. "Electric and acoustic. I wanted to go with that instead of a pianist. I wanted it so showcase my playing as well as my writing... It's got modern tunes, originals, it's got some traditional with 21st Century treatment.

He and Anderson did the mixing for producer Corey Christiansen (another guitarist), and the result shows Juris in settings from Latin-tinged titles like "Barney K to up-tempo burners like "Diz, Trane and You. He says it's being promoted better by Mel bay than other labels he's dealt with. Who knows? It might get people to give this topflight guitarist a "second look.

It's the third recording on the label, the others also featuring guitarists, in Christiansen (Awakening) and Jimmy Bruno ( Solo).

"It doesn't hurt to be on Blue Note or Verve. But a lot of people, like the independent labels, are doing a good job. Mel Bay is good for guitarists. The music is presented in a quality package. And my CD is also an enhanced CD, Juris says. "It has an extensive interview as well as a gallery of pictures. Pictures of the guitars and the equipment that's used. So you get a lot more for what you're paying for. Which is good.

It comes on the heels of Blue Horizon on the Zoho label, which is also a strong representation from this versatile guitarist. Recordings like the duet with flutist Jeremy Steig, Improvised ("Something we put out ourselves. A little underground record company. It's doing pretty well. ), Moonscape (1997, Steeplechase) and even as far back as For the Music (Jazzpoint, 1993) all show a musician of interest, with ideas, and with big ears.

Juris' broad range of interests comes from growing up in the 1960s, an era when jazz wasn't popular, and sounds were coming from everywhere else — hard rock, folk-rock, pop. he started playing at the age of 9, teaching himself and also taking lessons.

"My dad had some old Chess Records of Howling Wolf, Chuck Berry. That's how I kind of got into the guitar. I played them in hi-fi, later in stereo. I got into it through that. And also television the 60s. Variety shows. Shows like 'Hollywood Palace,''Lawrence Welk,' they always had guitar players. I was intrigued. This was before the British Invasion. Accordion was actually more popular with the kids in those days. Every neighborhood had a champion accordion player.

The New Jersey native was also taking in the classic rock music of the day, a music he still appreciates. It was his guitar teacher that exposed him to jazz, which also hit home. "He didn't steer me toward it, but he would always have records playing in his house. He had records by Kenny Burrell and Wes Montgomery. I liked the sound of that, but he didn't start steering me toward it, says Juris.

As he progressed, he started playing in rock bands, like most kids his age. but he eventually landed a jazz gig with organist Don Patterson, a hot player who came out in Jimmy Smith's wake. that led to work with the likes of Smith and Wild Bill Davis, and eventually away from organs and into bands with people like Phil Woods, Dizzy Gillespie, Chico Hamilton and many more. As his reputation grew among musicians, his work broadened, as did his recording career. and it wasn't just jazz.

"I was doing the fusion thing at the same time. I was playing with Barry Miles, Eric Kloss. So I was kind of going back and forth, between the traditional and the rock. I enjoy both genres, he says. "I just love music. I enjoy all kinds of music. I enjoy playing it.

Stylistically, Juris was listening to a variety of players growing up. "In the beginning it was non-jazz players like Harold Bradley, Al Caiola, Tony Mottola. More commercial-type players. And then in jazz it was Pat Martino, Larry Coryell, John McLaughlin, John Abercrombie. I still listen to a lot of guitarists.

He's teamed with various quality guitar players over the years, like Coryell, Biréli Lagrène and Russell Malone.

"Lately I've been listening to a composer called Lutoslovsky, contemporary classical. I've been listening to more orchestra music. I don't know why. More classical, because I kind of neglected that in the past. Turning 50 had an effect, he quips, adding, "I'm influenced by everything I hear. It's such a wide variety of stuff. Somehow it all comes out in my playing and writing.

Mingus, Coltrane, Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor have all had their affect on Juris, not just the straight-ahead jazz or classic rock, he says. In fact, a decade or so ago he was involved in the group Five Guitars Play Mingus, which group a quintet of guitarists with a rhythm section to play specially devised charts of music from the bass-playing legend.

"That came about through an arranger in Canada who had too many guitars in his guitar players in his jazz program, so he was writing arrangements for the lack of horn players, recalls Juris. "So he got in touch with Sue Mingus. He wrote about a dozen charts for five guitars and piano bass and drums. (Pianist) John Hicks got the call from Sue Mingus to put a guitar band together. So John Hicks is the one who got it going. The original band was myself, Peter Leitch, Jack Wilkins, Ron Jackson and Ted Dunbar.

"We opened for the (Mingus) big band at times. That lasted for about a year. It intrigued Sue, so she wanted to do it. It didn't last, but was good while it lasted. Guitar players don't generally get the chance to play together in an ensemble, like the way saxophones do, or brass players. It was great for us to all hang out, trade ideas. And of course we played all Mingus music. Most guitar players don't get a chance to do that either. It gave us all a real insight into his writing.

Juris is also involved in education, authoring books on guitar technique and improvisation. He teaches at the New School of Music in Manhattan and also in the Rutgers University jazz program. Like many musicians involved in colleges across the land, passing things on and helping younger musicians is important. Juris excels at it. But in this day and age, it is also valuable in a basic survival way.

"It's always kind of been that way, for me, to make a living. You have to supplement in different ways, he says.

Many jazz artists have to look elsewhere to keep business going, whether it's education, studio work — whatever can keep them busy and help pay the bills. That necessity is not lost on any musician, even if they are so successful they can make it on gigs and recording alone. All have paid their dues at one time or another.

"Times change, says Juris without bitterness or undue concern. "Unfortunately, I don't think the next generation of people go out much. A lot of people stay home and communicate on the computer rather than going out and doing it live. It's really affected a lot of weeknight (nightclub) business, I've noticed. People go out on weekends. It's also more expensive to go out to places than it was 20 years ago. The cover charges are a lot higher. Before you could go to three or four places in the course of an evening. Now you've got to pick and one place and stay there. So the economy has affected it to.

But Juris is staying busy fronting his group when he can, touring with Liebman, and arranging other gigs as they come up. His name is one that will keep being found on recordings, because of the quality of his work. There's hopefully another Mel Bay recording on the horizon, he notes.

It might not always be jazz music that moves Juris, with his broad tastes and eclectic ideals. But the music has propelled him to the upper echelon of guitar improvisers. Whether a lot of people know it or not, that's where he stands.

Visit Vic Juris on the web.

Photo Credit
Jimmy Katz

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