"Q & A" with Joe Giglio By Ed Benson
EB: Are you self taught?
JG: To a certain extent, yes. I had been thinking about the guitar for quite a while prior to actually acquiring one. I had previously played piano and french horn. Not coincidentally, my mother was a professional pianist and singer, and my father was a professional french hornist. The impetus for my playing the guitar was seeing the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show. It took a while to convince my parents of the wisdom of my choice. In the meantime I was figuring out in my thoughts what I would do once I got a guitar. Consequentially, when I did get my guitar I was ready, and could play chords the first day, which I of course learned from my Beatles songbook. I have been fortunate to study over the years, with a number of fine teachers. My first teacher was a summer camp counselor Howard Fraidkin, who had a strong jazz consciousness, which had an effect on me. Next was Gus DeGazio, my mentor to this day. Gus is a fabulous player and still practices three hours a day. He turned me on to all the great jazz guitarists. I studied with Joe Puma for a short time when I was nineteen, and spent seven years studying improvisation with jazz pianist Sal Mosca. He is a disciple of Lenny Tristano, and a superb teacher. He shaped my playing more than anyone. I also studied with Jack Wilkins, who helped me a great deal with reading and comping, and showed me, by his fine example, what it means to be a complete musician.
EB: I assume your reading chops are very good.
JG: They are respectable. I read pretty much every day, but there is a difference between doing it at home, and doing it in the real world. Unfortunately it doesn’t come up very often on gigs or in recording situations.
EB: Are you doing a lot of teaching?
JG: All of my students are private, though up until last year I was teaching at Westchester Conservatory in White Plains, NY. I stopped since I was so busy here at my studio. I teach on the upper westside of Manhattan. The majority of my students are involved in the study of jazz improvisation. Most of them also need help in reading, theory and technique. I still use “Mel Bay 1” for beginning readers, after which I use “Rhythms Complete”, by Charles Collins and Bugs Bower. I also use “Classical Studies for the Pick Style Guitar”, by William Leavitt, as well as Bach flute and violin sonatas. One of the most difficult things is trying to get students to read. I incorporate the singing of classic jazz solos, practical music theory, and the thorough learning of tunes, as a way to develop one’s jazz playing.
EB: What are your thoughts on learning modes for most students?
JG: I think they are important. The way I use the modes in my teaching is to have the student learn the fingerings starting on the sixth through third strings, in all keys, with knowledge of the scale spellings. One must also understand the context and application of these scales, or they will just remain sequential notes, and won’t result in music being created. Modes can be applied to key centers as in ‘2-5-1’ progressions, where one ‘parent scale’ will fit a group of chords, and/or applied individually to specific chords as in ‘modal’ tunes such as Miles Davis’ “So What”, John Coltrane’s “Impressions”, and so many others. One needs to learn the harmonic and melodic minor modes, as well as the major modes.
EB: Can you teach improvisation?
JG: I think you can give someone the tools with which to improvise, and then set up improvisational situations to apply this material. By involving oneself in the study of the music of the jazz greats, one can start to absorb the sound of jazz. I take the study of jazz improvisation very seriously, and try to convey to my students that there is much more to it than playing the correct notes. It’s about self expression. I try to remind myself of this same concept daily.
EB: What was your first professional gig?
JG: I started doing little gigs here and there when I was twelve years old, making a few bucks playing at country clubs. In high school I was deeply involved in the ‘coffee house’ scene playing original songs, and covers by such artists as Bob Dylan and James Taylor. In college I learned to play jazz by ear and soon realized I was at a dead end, which is when I began my studies with Sal Mosca. He really helped me get my playing together, and I began doing some jazz gigs in my college town, New Paltz, NY. There was a very vibrant jazz scene going on there at the time, and I was able to learn ‘on the job’ so to speak. I pretty much played jazz all the time. Either I was gigging or sitting in. The proximity of New Paltz to Woodstock made the scene rich with fine players.
EB: Did you do society gigs in NYC?
JG: Yes, I’ve done quite a few, freelancing for many of the New York booking agencies. These were mostly pick-up bands. Even though those gigs were often musically unsatisfying, I found there to be a positive aspect, as it necessitated my learning to play the chord changes of countless standards by ear. On some society gigs the leader would call thirty tunes in the first set, playing one chorus of each tune, most often neglecting to tell you the song and key. You had to find your way. It was also on these gigs that I began to play solo guitar.
EB: Are there any particular guitarists that you enjoy listening to?
JG: There are so many great ones that it's difficult to single them out. However, I've always loved Jim Hall and Joe Pass, who I feel are two of my biggest influences. I regularly play with guitar greats such as Howard Alden, Jack Wilkins, Paul Bollenback, Peter Bernstein, John Stowell, Carl Barry, and many others, and they all rank among my favorites. Playing in a duo setting with another guitarist really allows one to appreciate the other player in a unique and revealing way. Suffice it to say, I’ve heard a lot of great playing.
EB: How has the NY music scene changed in the past few years?
JG: There's less work and a lot of competition. It's a mecca for jazz musicians, and they come here from all over the world. I think in order to make a living as a jazz musician you have to be on the road or teach. I’ve been very fortunate to have an ongoing gig here in town on Friday nights at “107WEST”. It’s a duo gig, and I’m there every Friday with various guest guitarists, and the occasional bassist.
EB: What haven't you accomplished musically that you'd like to?
JG: I just want to keep learning and improving. When I first began to appreciate jazz I perceived of it as an almost holy experience. Improvisation was a concept that struck me as being pure, offering an opportunity to honestly express oneself. The reality of actually improvising jazz music on a high level though, necessitates an enormous amount of study and preparation. I’ve learned that a good portion of the self discovery occurs in that process, and what can follow, is a state of un-self consciousness where the music just happens. It is always my goal to be in that state. I’m currently working on a new CD which involves writing original compositions, choosing select standards, finding the right rhythm section, and deciding on the overall direction of the music. Of course, it’s a labor of love. I'd love to have the kind of gig schedule where I could keep a rhythm section together on a regular basis. My favorite playing situation is with bass and drums. I'd also like to be able to split my teaching and gigs equally.
EB: Do you do much composing, and is there a relationship between that and your improvising?
JG: Composition is a passion of mine, and has been for many years. I started writing songs in high school, and as I got further into jazz my compositions began to reflect that idiom. When I was studying with Sal Mosca I began to write be-bop type lines. That is, I would take the harmonic structure of a standard tune and compose a new melody based on those chords. The new melody or ‘line’ is usually of a more complex nature, sounding a bit like a composed solo. I’ve written many of these for “Just Jazz Guitar” over the last few years. Be-bop staples like “Donna Lee”, “Ornithology”, “Oleo”, etc. fit into this category. Other tunes that I compose in the jazz style have harmonic structures that are created with the melody in mind. I still write some ‘pop’ tunes and have a few placed with a publisher waiting for a home. I also write music that might be categorized for lack of a better description, as ‘serious’ composition. I’m currently working on a piece for two guitars that would definitely be thought of as atonal. Regarding the connection between composing and improvising, for me composing is improvising with the built in opportunity to tweak my ideas until I’m satisfied. I get a similar rush from both pursuits.
EB: If you could record with any guitarist who would it be?
JG: I have to say Jim Hall. He's the reason I started to play jazz guitar. I had an older cousin who played alto sax, and I looked up to him quite a bit. He used to play me recordings by John Coltrane, Art Blakey, Charles Lloyd, John Handy, and numerous others. One day I asked him for the name of a great jazz guitarist and he mentioned Jim Hall. I was around twelve or thirteen years old at the time. I went to Gus, my guitar teacher, and asked if he had any Jim Hall records. He gave me a Red Mitchell record featuring Jim, who just sounded great. His time, sound, concept, and overall feel, changed the course of my musical life. To this day I play one of Jim’s tunes from that record titled “Jim’s Blues”.
EB: What have your main guitars been over the years?
JG: I've had more guitars than I can count. I used a late 1950’s Gibson L7C for a very long time. It ran its course with me and I sold it, which I sometimes regret. From there I went to a Stratocaster for a while which was an outgrowth of playing club dates. I’ve played a heavily modified Gibson ES-330 “Longneck” for many years. The success of that guitar is due to the fine repair and restoration talents of legendary luthier Giuliano Balestra. I recently got a new guitar from Chris Forshage, a luthier from Austin, Texas (www.forshage.com). It’s a thin hollowbody with a great sound and playability. He’s also making me a chambered solidbody. I am also awaiting an instrument from Jim Mapson. He’s really figured out how to achieve a great jazz guitar sound from a carved guitar, at the same time eliminating the dreaded feedback monster. I have been fortunate to play many fine vintage guitars throughout the years, having a number of friends who are collectors. That said, I’ll always opt for a guitar that is easy to play, and is practical for gigs.
EB: What other equipment do you use?
JG: I use LaBella strings on all my guitars-“flatwounds” on my electrics; “silk and steel” on my flattops; and “extra hard tension” nylons on my classicals. I’ve been using them since I was a kid. My teacher always had a box of them in his studio. I’m endorsed by Takamine and regularly use their fine steel and nylon string instruments. I use a Clarus amp with a Raezer's Edge cabinet. This combination gives me the best sound I've ever had. I also use a Polytone Mega Brute, which is easy to carry around town.
EB: Any opinion about the use of tab in notation?
JG: I would rather students use tab than miss out on some good music that is now available in tablature. It's not a substitute though, for leaning to read traditional notation. People are missing out if they can't read. Over the years I’ve come to realize that reading is essential to thoroughly learning one’s chosen instrument. There is a mental process involved in reading music that I believe brings about a deeper understanding.
EB: Why isn't jazz more popular?
JG: When jazz was popular it was a dance-oriented music, and the tunes played by orchestras like those of Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Benny Goodman, were the popular songs of the day. These tunes were also very melodic when compared with much of the music of today. Jazz is no longer a dance-oriented music, and our repertoire mostly comes from older tunes. I am always amazed at how great the older standards are. I've recently gotten into Rogers and Hart, and they are my favorite composers of late. The study of jazz must include a thorough exploration of the great standards. It was truly a golden age, and riches abounding in that realm. I do think jazz is popular amongst a dedicated core group. When I first began to appreciate jazz there were very few recordings available. I remember numerous weekend trips to Manhattan to seek out recordings I had read about. The train ride back to the suburbs was always a joy, as I would read the liner notes, and look at the photos.Fortunately, I don’t think I am alone in my rather obsessive love of the idiom.
EB: Do you do a lot of solo gigs?
JG: I do a fair number of solo “corporate” jazz gigs, and private parties. I enjoy these greatly, as they give me a chance to try new things. I was fortunate as a young student to be introduced by my teacher, to the playing of George Van Epps, Johnny Smith, Tony Mottola, and many others. I listened to a lot of great solo guitar as a result. Later on when Joe Pass recorded his “Virtuoso” album, a new standard was set for solo jazz guitar, and imbued it with a respect and visibility, previously afforded only to the piano.
EB: Do you still practice much?
JG: I try to practice every day. I read through the Bach flute and violin sonatas, as well as those of Paganini and Kreutzer. I also play the “Kroepsch” clarinet studies. I have a routine of scales and arpeggios and picking exercises that I use. I try to take tunes and work them out in chord melody arrangements, and find different voicings. I also do some transcribing- things like Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Warne Marsh, John Coltrane, etc. In a perfect world all of this would happen every day. In the real world I adjust my practicing and expectations to the requirements of each day.
EB: Has your playing changed over the years?
JG: Most definitely. I think you would recognize my playing of twenty years ago. I feel though, that it is now more harmonically and rhythmically sophisticated, and that I am closer to my goal of really expressing myself musically. I of course have along way to go, which is a journey I look forward to.