1. JJG: How did you first get interested in jazz guitar?
Joe: For me it was initially just about the guitar.
I heard an Elvis Presley record at around age three.
I responded to the beat and the singing, but as soon as I saw someone playing rock & roll on television with a guitar hanging from his neck, I became obsessed with the guitar.I used to watch ‘Ozzie & Harriet’ re-reruns in the hope that Ricky Nelson would play a tune at the show’s end. It was a real bonanza when it did happen, as I would hear Ricky sing & play, & better yet, got to check out James Burton, Ricky’s lead guitarist.
My parents preferred that I learn the piano. Guitar was thought of as some sort of exotic instrument at that time (early 1960’s). I suffered through piano lessons with a sadistic old lady teacher, but couldn’t go the distance. The french horn followed, which I actually liked playing, but a minor mishap sent me packing.
Enter the Beatles, and there was no stopping me.
For me, the years leading up to my discovery of jazz, are just as significant as the actual big bang moment.
When I first started to learn material as a jazz player, I realized that I already knew the melody and lyrics to loads of tunes. This was because there was always music being played in my house. My mom was a singer/pianist, and my dad a french hornist and violinist. As a result, I heard standards on a regular basis, throughout my first 18 years.
2. JJG: Who were or are some of your mentors and what about them has influenced you?
Joe: I have been so fortunate throughout my life, to have encountered many excellent teachers, and other individuals who have taken an interest in my development.
First of course were my parents, and the musical environment they fostered in our home. Next was my summer camp, music counselor/guitar teacher, Howard Fraidkin.
Howard recognized my potential and encouraged my curiosity about music in general.
He spoke with me as if I was an adult from the age of ten. The propulsion that I experienced at this acknowledgement was perhaps the most significant factor in my musical life. His taking me seriously allowed me to take myself seriously.
I am still in touch with Howard, and he comes to my gigs whenever he can.
My next guide was Gus DeGazio, a really fine guitarist and inspirational teacher. Within the first few months of our lessons he began to teach me his chord melody arrangements of standard tunes. This was done by rote, which has it’s obvious drawbacks, but it exposed me to lots of cool chord voicings, sharpened my ears, and really developed my musical memory as I had to run home and practice the tunes before I forgot them, since nothing was written down. We also are still in touch. Gus is to this day, an inveterate woodshedder.
Next was my cousin Tony – an alto saxophonist who was about eight years my senior, and was somewhat of a hero to me. I was frequently at his home, and he was always listening to jazz records or playing along with them. He turned me on to John Coltrane when I was age thirteen or so. It totally knocked/freaked me out – in a good way.
I remember listening to a Charles Lloyd record ‘Live in the Soviet Union’, and reading the liner notes. The bassist was Ron McClure. I always remembered that name for some reason, and for the past ten years or so, have regularly played and recorded with Ron – what a gift!
One day I asked my cousin to name a jazz guitarist I should listen to. He said he liked Jim Hall. I asked my teacher Gus about him and he gave me a record by Red Mitchell that featured Jim. That was the big bang moment for me.
Hearing Jim Hall convinced me that this great music could be played on the guitar as well as on the saxophone.
Through my studies with Gus DeGazio I met Joe Puma, who was the total jazz musician package. When he walked into a room, never mind when he picked up the guitar, one could feel the molecules speed up and crash into each other.
Puma was an amazing player and composer. I studied with him off and on for a few years. He really didn’t teach me so much as condition me to be a player.
He also fostered my next serious musical immersion. One day he said ‘You need to learn music theory.’ I asked him if he would teach it to me, to which he said no.
I sought someone who would, and began studying with jazz pianist Sal Mosca.
Through Sal’s very structured methods I learned how to improvise with more than my ears, while at the same time developing my ears to a much higher level.
After many years with Sal, I met Jack Wilkins at one of his gigs and began to study with him. I had loved his playing since hearing his first record when I was in high school. Jack really helped me to become a good guitarist - there really was no other choice. When confronted with the reality of what it takes to be a player of that level, I could either have backed away from it, or embraced it, the latter of which I chose.
Jack’s virtuosity was and is, the equivalent of Oscar Peterson playing the guitar.His enthusiasm and generosity has since been an inspiration. Jack holds nothing back, harbors no secrets – ask and he will share.
3. JJG: Do you feel like their mentorship has shaped how you teach/write currently?
Joe: The answer would have to be yes.
Howard Fraidkin shaped my musical outlook forever, Gus DeGazio showed me the artistry of the guitar, my cousin shared the music with me, Joe Puma let me see what it was like to play with the grownups, Sal Mosca taught me how to be a musician, and
Jack Wilkins gave me the instrument.
Specifically, Sal Mosca nurtured my passion for improvising, and helped me to develop high standards as a musician. One of my regular assignments was to learn to sing solos by Lester Young, Charlie Christian, Charlie Parker, Roy Eldridge, and many others.
This I believe is one of the most potent methods for developing one’s improvising.
I include this exercise in my teaching with anyone who is serious about playing jazz.I also employ his practical method of teaching music theory, which is mostly mental-verbal with very little writing. As I tell my students, one does not play with a pencil.I do of course, teach my students musical notation, which is a practical necessity.What Sal stressed and I uphold, is that the music has to come from inside.Nourish your musical self, and play with the energy that ensues.
I diverge from Sal’s approach in quite significant ways though.In retrospect I see that some of the exercises, and the extent to which they were explored, were excessive and obsessive, with no real benefit. Sal was a disciple, for lack of a better description, of jazz pianist Lennie Tristano, with whom he studied. As such, he adhered to most of Lennie’s extreme dictums about what was or was not jazz, what did or didn’t swing, what were the important tunes to learn, who was great and who wasn’t, what gigs were acceptable or not, etc. Ultimately I had to separate the wheat from the chaff, which led to the conclusion of my studies. The good thing is that as a result I approach playing and teaching with an open mind. I would do so anyway, but my experiences with this type of rigidity have made me ever aware of my responsibility to help my students develop their own music. I also am keenly aware of my responsibility to myself and my playing in this regard.
I think of Joe Puma as having been a very compositional player. He always sought the best note or chord for that moment in time. In creating chord melody arrangements, he encouraged me to think of the bass and melody lines, and then to fill in the inner voices. I do this routinely when composing. When I hear his recordings, or remember the many times I heard him in performance, I can visualize his playing in this way.
Over the past 15 or so years I have worked quite a bit with Jack Wilkins, playing a variety of gigs. He is also a good friend, so we hang out when we can. I always keep Jack’s example as a benchmark for great playing and musical integrity
4. JJG: Do you do a lot of teaching in New York?
Joe: Yes I do. I have been teaching since I was 16 years old - through high school, college, grad school, and on an ongoing basis. I really love to teach!
I learned how to teach from my studies with various instructors - in school settings, and more significantly in private lessons; from my own struggles – triumphs and failures in pursuit of my artistic visions; and most profoundly, from my students.
Each student is as am I, an individual, with all the concomitant needs, skill sets, issues, etc. As such, I am always learning how to teach, and consequently I am always learning more about what works or not – musically, technically, inter-personally, spiritually, etc.
I tend to have a majority of jazz guitar students on my roster, but am happy to work with anyone – beginner-intermediate-advanced, and pretty much any musical genre – who is enthusiastic about, and committed to learning and creating music.
Depending on one’s level of playing and musical direction, I include reading, theory/ear training, scale/arpeggio/chord vocabulary; technique; repertoire; vocal studies, and composition. Certainly, this material is all utilized in, and necessary for the development of one’s improvising, which is the main focus with any of my jazz students.
5. JJG: Describe your approach to practicing guitar and becoming the best musician you can be.
Joe: My personal approach to practicing has changed greatly through the years. This is in keeping with my development as a musician and person.When I committed myself to becoming a jazz musician I had so much to learn just to be able to function in that context. Consequently I practiced many hours each day in order to learn and assimilate the vast amount of knowledge and material I was lacking. Much time was spent in the developing of repertoire, which involved the thorough learning of tunes - melodically, harmonically and improvisationally.
The study of scales, arpeggios and chords was a big endeavor, as was reading, music theory, ear training, and guitar technique. As I progressed through these studies more time became available for me to focus on developing my own improvisational voice.
These days I practice less and accomplish more. Sounds to good to be true doesn’t it? I might liken it to an auto mechanic who through years of experience in diagnosing and repairing cars, can quickly discern what is wrong with an engine, and fix it just as fast. As a result of my musical experience, I am able to get right to the heart of the matter regarding the areas I need to work on at a given time.
I have a technique routine that I follow in order to keep my chops up.I try to learn new tunes, and stay fresh and current with my existing repertoire.I also practice what I like to call improvising sketches – I pick a tune or a chord sequence and limit my improvising to using a certain note value, or only chord tones, playing densely or sparsely, improvising on the melody, playing the tune in a variety of keys, playing only chords, trading 4’s and 8’s with myself – basically anything that will stretch me. I also do some transcribing, and regularly compose.
6. JJG: What kind of gear do you play?
Joe: I have to confess that I love guitars. Amps I like, effects I use, but I love guitars.Consequently I have many, and have had way more.
I have three guitars made by luthier Chris Forshage of Austin, TX ( www.forshage.com ). Chris is an awesome builder and designer – he can make anything! I became an endorser of these fine instruments after receiving my first one.
Chris has been very generous and supportive, and a great friend.
One is a small hollowbody, another is a chambered solidbody, and the third is a headless semi-hollowbody. The headless or ‘Ergo’(ergonomic) model is my favorite of the three. I initially got it because it would easily fit into the overhead compartment on an airplane. As soon as I played it I realized that it would be one of my main guitars.
It is totally balanced and light, plays itself, and sounds fantastic.
I also have a WD semi-hollow Tele style (my thanks to Ron Casella), an Epiphone Riviera, a Gibson Longneck Es-330, two other Tele style axes, a Strat, a Les Paul, Takamine classical and steel string, two Epiphone Sorrento guitars , and a few players to be named later…
I have a couple of Polytone amps, a Fender Super Champ, a Roland acoustic amp, and a ZT Lunchbox. I think I like the Lunchbox the best! It is so small and light that it fits into a backpack, sounds amazing and is way loud. I use a pocket-size Pandora effects processor with it for reverb and delay. I used it on a trio gig recently playing very intense and aggressive music with a loud drummer, and it sliced and diced the gig. Finally – a great sounding, powerful amp I can take on the subway without a struggle!
I have used DiMarzio pickups on all my axes for the past 30 years, and La Bella Strings since I was a kid - because in my opinion, both of these companies are the best in their respective fields. After all the years of using these great products I became an endorser for both DiMarzio and La Bella. In addition to having access to these fine pickups and strings, the belief in, and support of what I do, from Steve Blucher at DiMarzio, and Bob Archigian and Richard Cocco at La Bella, is an emotional and professional boost.
7. JJG: Do you find it hard to be a professional musician financially?
Joe: As a working musician, whether here in NYC or elsewhere, teaching is a big part of the reality of supporting oneself. I am so fortunate to truly enjoy teaching, and grateful to attract people who are rewarding and fun to work with.
I can think of very few jazz musicians, with the exception of the most famous ones, who don’t either teach or hold down a job outside of gigging. If one were to work seven nights a week in NYC, it is doubtful that they would be able to pay the rent.
First, hardly anyone works that much, especially here in town, and second, most gigs pay poorly. The bulk of jazz gigs occurring in small clubs or restaurants pay less than they did in the 1980s, and they expect you to fill the room with your fans.
For those who perform at the major jazz clubs as band leaders, (Village Vanguard, Iridium, Blue Note, Birdland, Dizzy’s, etc) , the contract would most likely prohibit performing in other major NYC venues for a few months.
The corporate jazz scene – which loosely defined, is the playing of jazz at corporate and/or private events – has pretty much dried up in the last two, economically challenged years. This is especially unfortunate as these gigs generally pay five to ten times what a club gig pays.
The relationship of jazz to it’s environs is often difficult by nature, and here in NYC with it’s Mecca like status in the artistic world, the gig scene is an especially unique and complex one. NYC is perceived to be the jazz capital of the world, and maybe it is. Unfortunately with that status comes a glut of available players which dilutes the market – it is simple supply and demand.
8. JJG: What projects are you currently working on?
Joe: I am writing music for an upcoming trio recording – guitar/bass/drums, my favorite setting. I hope to be recording in December 2010, (which would occur before this interview goes to press). I have evolved quite a lot since my last studio project. The seeds of change are fairly evident on that 2007 CD ‘Sound Scape’, a duo recording with saxophonist Jimmy Halperin. I have become much freer rhythmically, with less use of, and reliance on, bebop phrasing. My improvising has changed harmonically and melodically as well.I am much more able to play phrases that are reflective of what I am hearing, rather than what I know to be correct. It is actually quite an exciting time for me. Recently, I have increased my interaction with the drummers I play with, creating complex rhythmic dialogues involving quite a bit of intense polyrhythmic strumming. The use of tension and release, in both accompaniment and soloing has taken on an increased role.
My sound has undergone a lot of change in the last few years as well.I use lighter strings than I have in the past (11’s with a plain ‘G’). My reverb and delay settings have become more ambient, and what I seek from an amplifier is now more of a ‘tube’ sound , where as in the past I wanted the cleanest sound possible.
Up to the present moment, I have recordedsix CDs under my name.
Then first was post-bop - guitar trio, one was funk-fusion, another was guitar-violin-bass, the afore mentioned guitar-sax recording, a guitar duo with Joe Diorio, and a free- jazz/funk CD with guitar, bass and drums.
What is missing from my discography is an all vocal album, which I plan to record within the next year. Singing is an important component of what I do. This project will feature my vocals, and my guitar playing will be integral.
here are also some multi-media projects in the wind.
I have done quite a bit of work with the great poet Heller Levinson in recent years, including the recording of an epic poem about climate change, and a really cool video shot at a French bistro on the eastside of Manhattan. This video was shot and produced by the acclaimed photographer Elmar Lemes from Germany. Both projects involved Heller’s recitation accompanied by free improvisation on saxophone and guitar. The former had Jimmy Halperin on sax, the latter was done with saxophonist Sedric Choukron, with me on guitar in both instances.
In the last two years I have begun to paint quite a bit as well, and have been approached about doing some visual art /music, gallery shows. This is all very exciting and much fun!
9. JJG: What was your time like at Purchase College and what are some of the positives nd negatives you see in jazz education?
Joe: I attended Purchase College for my masters degree many years after graduating from college. My aim was to improve my marketability as a college instructor. Unfortunately I didn’t learn much at all - it was very clinical, and the ensembles were poorly run. I think they were suffering a budget crisis n the late 1990s when I was there. Subsequently, I think funds were made available and the program is said to be a good one currently. Generally though, other than meeting other musicians, I don’t see a real value in music school. I took a theory class that covered more material than one could put into practice in two years, yet it was a one semester class with no playing involved – something is wrong with that scenario. I have some rather strong views about jazz and higher education, and for that matter I believe they apply to classical and pop music programs as well. I think it mostly benefits the institution, giving professional musicians employment. I am certainly in support of professional musicians earning a living, but not at the expense – literally and figuratively – of the students. I believe that private lessons and field study is the absolute best way to learn this craft. And what of the enormous sums involved in paying for this higher education? When students ask me about music school , assuming that they are at an appropriate skill level for music school, I ask them one question: How will you pay for school? If they are able to afford the fees without going into debt, or have a substantial scholarship, I tell them to do what they feel is right. If they have to take out large loans in order to pay for school I ask them a second question: How will you repay the loans working as a musician? I then strongly advise them not to attend music school
10. JJG: I am sure that you are now in the role of a serious mentor to many young guitarists and musicians. What are some things you would recommend to up and coming performers?
Joe: I am in a mentoring role mostly as a teacher. As such I try to insure that my students are well prepared to function as professional musicians in the real world.This involves them mastering the requisite skill sets, and honing their artistic visions and practical expectations.
11. JJG: It must be both exhilarating and daunting living amongst some of the greatest artists in the world. How do you enjoy living in NY?
Joe: I really love living in NYC. For me it is only daunting in that it is an expensive city to live in, especially as a musician. The amazing colleagues with whom I interact are a joy and inspiration, and a happy reminder of artistic achievement and commitment.
These colleagues are musicians, painters, poets, actors, and writers, and I learn from them all. I have been in town full time since 1999, and my playing has grown more than in any other period of my life – happily!