Wrap up of Alternative Guitar Summit 2014

Reflections on Alternative Guitar Summit 2014

Joel Harrison to Fred Frith:

“Fred, how exactly do you practice and prepare for what you do?”

Fred replies- “I practice by being available to the possibilities of each moment.”

Joel to Dave Tronzo:

“Dave, sometimes I feel like I am still just trying to get one note in tune…”

Tronzo states- “I was backstage with Wayne Shorter once around 1989 and he said, out of the blue, “Magnify all your problems, and throw the rest away.”

Tronzo: “I have been practicing playing four microtones of the same note, so 48 tones in a scale. I think I’m finally getting it.”

A young man traveled from Lafayette, LA to see Nels Cline master class and the Saturday night show with Tronzo Trio and Frith/ Cline duo. He said,

“Tonight was an unparalleled experience for me as a guitarist, musician, artist, father, son, husband, human being, everything. I feel that my entire spirit has been somehow healed or made more whole by this entire experience and you were undeniably a crucial part of that. Like I said, I never get to experience things like this in Louisiana so thank you from the bottom of my soul for making this possible. I don’t know if you actually read these emails yourself, but if you do, thanks for reading this far and know that I have nothing but love for everything you’ve done and the impact you’ve had on my life forever.”

Three young ladies approached me after Sunday night’s music of Paul Motian. Giddy and wide-eyed they said, “That was incredible, we had no idea how moving this would be- what do you CALL this music?”

Working backwards…

Nine guitarists got on stage to end Sunday night with Paul Motian’s “It Should Have Happened a Long Time Ago.” There is a particularly good photo that Scott Friedlander took (it’s on facebook, naturally) that I know I will look at in old age, and have a surge of nostalgia. We were there- on earth. So many great creators all together in one place.

Through the lens of all these unique voices Paul Motian’s music demonstrated yet more improbable layers of possibility. Each of the twelve songs was a thing of beauty and surprise. There wasn’t a moment when something felt rote, or tossed off. Gorgeous, quiet lyricism mixed with squalling feedback, and parades of unpredictable chords followed somber stasis of droning vamps. Exuberant blasts of dissonance, gentle triadic ripples, shimmering textural effects, all in service of the melody. Hardly anyone “soloed”, and I think that’s what I loved the best. Each duo was a team, and the team played a fully through-composed composition as one mind, no leaders, all in the moment, with very little planning, but wonderful spontaneous architecture.

Nels and Julian- no effects! This is how Nels and I sounded when we first jammed in 1975 with acoustic guitars, except about thirty times better.

Ben Monder with Bill McHenry- the way Bill played the melody to Birdsong- incredibly plain, beautiful tone, simple and piercing. Ben, with all his technique in service of pure, simple, soul.

I played a crazy version of Misterioso with Steve Cardenas and Tyshawn.

Brandon on banjo with Stomu, earthy and bluesy, Gilad with a freeze pedal and Jeff Ballard, sailing, Steve and Jacob Sacks starting the night with a gorgeous quiet ramble through Blue Midnight.

Vic and Mary, their third appearance at AGS, going “around the park”, each chorus different, sometimes abstract and Monkish, sometimes more straight, linear, then horizontal.

As Nels said, “It was all too beautiful for words (But I will still be blabbing about it forever.)”

And then there was Tyshawn Sorey’s drum solo based off of Paul’s own solo “Chi Energy” from the cd Conception Vessel. There has been only one drum solo I have ever seen, besides this one, that made me stop breathing, and brought tears to my eyes- and that was Paul Motian’s at the Vanguard one night in 1998. Tyshawn’s solo, played almost completely at pianissimo, mostly with mallets, brought the house down with its whispered wisdom. One of the most shocking moments was a full thirty seconds where Tyshawn pulled the high hat mic towards the resonating frequency of the cymbal in such a way that it sounded like a huge chinese gong. He utilized the frequency of the feedback to pitch shift the cymbals down!

As Liberty Ellman stated effusively: “Leave it to Tyshawn to make the heaviest statement on drums at a guitar festival!”

Night Two:

It would be impossible to do any better than Jon Pareles fine review of this show. Here it is http://nyti.ms/1ejyW2O

But from the insider’s point of view, I offer this:

Nels and Fred- what makes them different from everyone else? Spending time backstage, and at Nels master class, illuminated a few points. They are artists first, guitarists second. Their inspiration is as much from painting, philosophy, and books, as music. This is true of most of my favorite musicians. Both were extremely enthused to finally play guitar together, great fans of each other. Over and over again it came back to living in the moment, being yourself, not caring what others think. A lot of life force blasted from the stage, a sound world was created that was utterly unique. Those were guitars? It was joyous, weird, apocalyptic, brazen, funny, and deeply inquisitive.

Dave Tronzo’s trio, with Ben Perowsky and Stomu, may be one of the great jazz groups of the past twenty years. Somehow they bring together an amazing amount in one package: freedom and structure in balance, a grab bag of American roots and branches, soul, earthy groove, surprise, humor, gravity, stratospheric slide guitar playing. Yes, I know Dave is well-known, but he SHOULD be as famous as Derek Trucks. Alas, he was never an Allman, but while Greg is still here, it’s not too late. I hear Derek and Warren are departing. One last new line-up with Dave?

And Nels master class- there were avid fans there, from Munich (!), Georgia, and the afore-mentioned Louisiana. He talked a lot about how he grew up as a musician. Allow me to summarize and offer insider pontification.

1. As a teenager he could not find a decent teacher. He was tormented by bad, even damaging instruction, forcing him inward. There was little if any formal training and Lord knows no music school. He was insecure about his abilities for years.

“Our real teachers are the people we play with.”  Fred Frith

Joel chimes in with his own version of the facts as witnessed not from inside Nels’ mind, but from outside, from a fellow seeker: One of Nels great traits has always been genuine humility. His testimony of his own years-long awkwardness and fear notwithstanding, I can say that when I met him at age 18 he was already the most fully-formed guitarist I had met in my peer group and didn’t seem awkward at all! He just seemed genuine and welcoming. It is interesting how many personas exist inside all of us, some more visible behind our eyes than in front. He and his brother just seemed to know stuff that I hadn’t come to yet. Simply put, they were a bit more evolved. Not only was Nels already a player for whom all styles were one, and for whom boundaries did not exist, he had a lot of technique and was stretching towards the kind of naive virtuosity that would become his hallmark.

Nels discussed his early influences many of whom were my own heroes. What we grew up with, of course, explains us: Ravi Shankar, Michael Gregory Jackson, McLaughlin, Hendrix, Ralph Towner. It was like a trip down memory lane.

He mentioned how desperately hard it was for him to find unity amongst all the pieces, and perhaps truly began to after finally starting his own trio. His two main pieces of advice:

“Be yourself and don’t take grief from anyone for who you are.”

“Join a famous rock band if you want your jazz/ experimental career to take off.” (ha!) 

 Joel further points out the implied but unstated fact, to seekers of career wisdom younger than he and Nels: Nels, like so many of us, could barely scratch together enough gigs to survive until his mid 40’s! In 1997 he might play for 10 people a night, not 300 or 1000. Take note ye beloved aspirants!

Nels played an inspired solo piece and engaged in gear talk. Lovely! Warm! “It’s not so much about the gear, it’s about intent.”

Our Sunday master class, myself, Ben Monder, Steve Cardenas, Liberty Ellman was well-received by an enthusiastic group. With four of us there was a ton of information transmitted, enough to last anyone for quite a while, between discussions of chord-voicings, rhythm, composing for guitar, and unity of purpose. Three High School students came down from Inwood which was fulfilling. I got to comp two choruses of Stella with Ben while he demonstrated layering polyrhythms over a groove, which was both exhilarating and challenging as hell. My inner metronome was on high alert. Steve and Ben did a duo that was amazingly cooperative, their voices each falling right into place, adding up to a whole.

Night one there was one quartet with three drummers, and three drum/bass/ electric guitar trios, that all had amazing personnel and showed us different aspects of how rhythm plays out in modern jazz. Miles Okazaki almost played bass in his quartet as he guided and corresponded with the percussionists. Liberty had a warm, open sound that was loose and free, and particularly based in the jazz guitar continuum, while Will Bernard funked it up with an electric, effects-laden approach that had the audience almost dancing along. It was more body-based, and less cerebral than the others which made it a great match. David Gilmore demonstrated stellar technique and really interesting compositions. Gene Lake on drums! Everyone played semi hollow body guitars. Not a Stratocaster in sight.

The glow keeps lasting on facebook as we post photos. How proud I am to have enabled so many great artists to have a night to remember. In the forgettable noise of any given year, the magic we experienced is something to treasure.

I am a better player and better human being from experiencing this tidal wave of inspiration.

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