Sam Kirmayer is a Montreal based working Jazz Guitarist. In this interview he shares his musical upbringing, the genesis of his debut CD, and what it is like being a working Jazz musician. An insightful read indeed. Enjoy!
Interview by Lyle Robinson via email May 2017
“I had a teacher in college, Nick Di Tomaso, who really helped me to develop a work ethic. Nick has this kind of Socratic way of making his students answer their own questions. Sometimes it would take a month or two to figure something out that could have been explained in 5 minutes, but once you got there, the understanding you had was so much deeper and more meaningful because of the struggle.”Sam Kirmayer
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JGL: Thank you Sam for taking the time to talk to Jazz Guitar Life. First off, if we can get into a little background about you that would be great. How old are you?
SK: Thank you! I’m a fan of the site, so its really a pleasure to be included. I’m 27 years old.
JGL: What geographical area do you reside in?
SK: I was born in and currently live in Montreal.
JGL: At what age did you first start playing the guitar and were you interested in jazz from the beginning or were there other musical interests before jazz? How did you find your way to this particular music and instrument?
SK: I started playing when I was 7, I was really into it but didn’t have much of a work ethic. I was taking some lessons but mostly I was fooling around, writing songs and trying to cop licks from rock and blues records. As a teenager I started listening to Coltrane and Monk but didn’t make the connection between guitar and jazz until I was in college and a teacher introduced me to Wes Montgomery and Grant Green.
JGL:Who were your influences on jazz guitar when you were beginning, and have they stayed the same or have they changed over the years? Who are you listening to today (guitarists or non-guitarists)?
SK: Early on I went through a pretty heavy Lage Lund phase, but I would say my biggest influences on the guitar are Wes Montgomery, Grant Green, Peter Bernstein and Jim Hall. Recently, I’ve been getting into Coleman Hawkins; I’m looking for other ways of getting through changes and he seems to be an early source for the more vertical approach that I’m interested in right now.
JGL: In the same vein, who has been most influential in your life as a Jazz Guitarist and why?
SK: I had a teacher in college, Nick Di Tomaso, who really helped me to develop a work ethic. Nick has this kind of Socratic way of making his students answer their own questions. Sometimes it would take a month or two to figure something out that could have been explained in 5 minutes, but once you got there, the understanding you had was so much deeper and more meaningful because of the struggle. I remember a lesson on drop 2 voicings that went something like “ok… Cmaj7. Now drop 2.” It was weeks before I had any idea what he was talking about, then it clicked and totally changed my perception of the instrument and harmony.
JGL: What kind of formal training do you have (ie: lessons, schooling, that sort of thing) and how did these experiences help you get where you are today?
SK: I have a bachelor’s degree in Jazz Performance from McGill University. The school environment was great for connecting with other musicians, both students and faculty and there were so many opportunities to play. In school I was also exposed to a lot of different approaches and ideas which helped me to figure out what I wanted to be doing more specifically.
JGL: What was your first guitar and what are you playing now? Any guitar of particular note in between?
SK: My first guitar was a really beat-up classical guitar with 1 string that my parents bought me from a garage sale for $3. Now I’m playing a Sadowsky Jim Hall that I got a few years ago. I’ve been through a lot of other guitars over the years, but none stand out.
JGL: Could you talk a bit about the Sadowsky Jim Hall model? How did you come to own it and what was it about that particular guitar/model that got you interested in buying one in the first place? Why not go for a tried and true maker like Gibson?
SK: I took a trip to NY to look for a guitar and played a whole bunch, including some Gibsons, but the Sadowsky just felt right. Its a really well made instrument with remarkable consistency across the entire range.
JGL: What other gear are you using? Do you have a specific stage set-up that works best for you in a variety of musical situations?
SK: I’ve got a reissue Deluxe Reverb that I like to use for recording and for gigs when I can justify dragging it around, which isn’t often since I don’t own a car. The rest of the time I use a Henriksen jazz amp 10″ combo which is really great for a small solid-state amp. My set up is just guitar into amp. Luckily, pedals wouldn’t be so helpful for the sound I’m after — I’m pretty glad not to have to deal with all the extra cables and knobs. I did recently get a new pickup put in, a Lindy Fralin Pure PAF. I’ve only been playing it for a few days but so far I’m really pleased.
JGL: Is there anyone – alive or dead – who you’d love to play and/or record with and why?
SK: Paul Chambers, for too many reasons to list.
JGL:Did you know early on that music was something you wanted to do as a career choice and if so, what have you done to make this choice work for you?
SK: I’ve known that I would be a musician since I was about 6 or 7 years old. Of course my goals and expectations have changed a lot since then, but the general trajectory has been consistent. I’ve tried to be honest with myself about my abilities and limitations and to seek out opportunities to challenge myself.
JGL: Do you give private lessons and if so, how does one go about studying with you, and if so, is there a particular level of student you are looking for?
SK: I have a handful of students. Most of them are either preparing for college or university auditions or have an interest in jazz or improvisation. I occasionally take less experienced students, but I don’t really feel that I’m the best teacher for beginners. For anyone interested in lessons, I can be reached by email, which you can find on my website (www.samkirmayer.com).
JGL: I’m really enjoying your debut CD Opening Statement – a very apt title by the way – and was a little surprised when I read that this CD might not have happened if it wasn’t for drummer Dave Laing. What was that all about?
SK: Dave Laing, the drummer on the CD, is also one of my local heroes and a musician who I’ve respected and looked up to since I started playing jazz. There’s a lot of pressure around a debut CD, and it can be hard to tell if you are ready. I certainly didn’t feel like I was, but after a gig with this band, Dave said something like “when are we going to record the CD?” I felt that that was about as clear a sign as I could hope to get so I decided to go ahead and do it. It can be hard to step back from the self-criticism necessary in the practice room, but I believe that as an artist, your job is to create art and put it out into the world. Evaluating it is better left to critics.
JGL: Any plans for a second CD in the near future?
SK: Yes. I’ll be recording my second CD in the fall, it will be an organ trio this time which I’m pretty excited about. I’m not sure when it will be released yet.
JGL: Your CD features four original tunes. Can you take us through the composing process a bit? Do you write with guitar in hand, at a piano or is there another process involved? Have there been any composers who you’ve sought out to learn from either locally or on record?
SK: I mostly write with the guitar, although I use the piano as well and sometimes I write in my head. I learned a lot from a composition class I took at McGill with the great trumpeter and composer Kevin Dean. Mostly however my approach has been to learn as many tunes as possible and to try to absorb what I can from the work of composers like Horace Silver, Thelonious Monk, Benny Golson, Tadd Dameron, Coltrane and others. I don’t worry so much about being innovative, I’m just trying to get better at writing music that I want to listen to.
JGL: On the other side of the coin, why did you choose the particular standards that you did – For All We Know, My Shining Hour, The Night We Called It A Day and Opening Statement?
SK: From the outset I knew that I wanted the record to be about half originals and half standards. For me, the tradition of interpreting standard material is an essential aspect of being a jazz musician. One of the things I enjoy as a listener is how a player references other recordings of a song or offers a radical new interpretation. Its part of what keeps this music exciting and ties the whole history together. I included “For All We Know” as an explicit acknowledgement of my debt to Grant Green. He recorded it on his record Am I Blue and I adapted his arrangement slightly. “The Night We Called It a Day” is a beautiful ballad that I was introduced to by one of Montreal’s greatest musicians, pianist/drummer André White. I studied with André during my final year at McGill. Each week he would send me off to learn some new tunes, often ones I hadn’t heard before or that would challenge me in some new way and this one really stood out. “Opening Statement” is a Booker Little composition from a quartet date he did with Tommy Flanagan, Scott LaFaro and Roy Haynes which is one of my favourite albums. Its got an interesting form and changes sort of like a demented “Just One of Those Things“. I felt like the album needed something uplifting and bright to have balance so I included an arrangement I had done of Harold Arlen’s “My Shining Hour“, which is a pretty optimistic song.
JGL: What was your practice routine like when you were beginning and what is it like now? Are there specific areas that you work on or do you just play through tunes?
SK: I used to have a pretty strict routine I’d follow of scales, etudes, different metronome exercises, transcription, etc. Now when I have time to practice that isn’t spent preparing for a gig, I’ll pick a tune, put the metronome on and spend some time playing the melody, comping and eventually blowing on it through a bunch of keys and tempos. I’m also trying to find a more vertical way of getting through changes and I’m always trying to develop my sound and my touch.
JGL: This is the second time you mention playing “vertically”. Can you expand on this notion for our readers? What does playing vertically actually mean?
SK: I guess I really mean two different things by vertical. The first is a vocabulary with a wider range – ideas that exist beyond an octave, the other is the melodic possibilities of structures or voicing. I hesitate to use the word “intervals” because for me it immediately calls to mind running patterns through a scale which is really not what I mean.
JGL: Getting back to your CD for a minute. How did this album come about and what were the challenges – if any – of getting this record out to the public?
SK: First of all, I was fortunate enough to receive funding through a couple of grants that made it possible for me to do the project the way I wanted to. The process required me to learn so many different aspects of the business that I had never been aware of. The learning curve was pretty steep, but now I’ve got a much clearer picture of what’s involved in making a CD. Opening Statement was released on a local label, Chromatic Audio, which is basically a curated artist collective, aiming to create awareness and cross-promotion for the work Montreal-based jazz musicians.
JGL: And speaking of getting the album to the public, how are you spreading the word (ie: Internet, Face Book, YouTube, Instagram etc…)?
SK: I’ve been mostly relying on word of mouth and interviews/reviews like this one. I’m on Instagram, Twitter (@samkirmayer) and Facebook (@samkirmayermusic) and am starting to be more active, but I’m a pretty introverted person in my personal life so the whole social media thing is a bit of an adjustment. Still, I think its essential, so I’m learning.
JGL: The CD features you in a classic quartet format alongside piano, bass and drums. I’ve also seen you perform in a trio setting. What type of musical situation do you enjoy the most (ie: trio, quartet, duo, solo, etc.) and why?
SK: It depends more on the players than the instrumentation and I can’t say that I have a favourite overall. There are things I like about all those formats. I really enjoy playing with a quartet because it allows me to focus a lot more on my sound, phrasing and articulation of melodies than I’m able to when I’m also responsible for fleshing out the harmonies – I make different fingering choices if I’m not worried about fitting a voicing underneath. Trios are great because of the flexibility, it’s easier to get spontaneous substitutions and arrangements going on when there are less players involved. Duo and Solo are definitely the most challenging for me, but a duo offers the opportunity to listen with near undivided attention to the other musician which is pretty cool. Solo is good for keeping your ego in check.
JGL: How difficult do you find it making a living as a jazz guitar player? Or have you found it to be relatively easy?
SK: There’s a lot of talk among musicians about how there aren’t as many gigs anymore and the ones that are still out there don’t pay as well, or pay the same as they did 30 years ago. I’m sure that’s true, and I think that there was a generation that really got the short end of the stick since they came up with certain expectations and then saw those opportunities disappearing. In a way, I feel fortunate because since I started, I was always hearing how tough it would be, so any opportunity I get feels like a blessing and when I don’t get them, its business as usual. So far I’ve been able to get by just playing and doing a very minimal amount of teaching and I’m extremely grateful for that, but Montreal is also one of the most affordable cities in the world and there are a ridiculous number of restaurants and bars for a city of this size, so there are no shortage of places to play if you are willing to create your own opportunities.
JGL: Almost every musician, no matter their level and professional stature have their own insecurities to deal with when it comes to music and playing their instrument. What, if any, insecurities do you face on your instrument and how do you work at getting over them?
SK: I definitely have weaknesses that I’m sometimes painfully aware of but I wouldn’t say that I have insecurities. I just try to have faith in the process and do the work. Acknowledging and respecting the strengths and accomplishments of others while staying focused on my own goals helps me to diffuse some of the negativity when it creeps up on me.
JGL: How do you handle the other side of being a working musician – the business side? Do you find the business side of being a Jazz musician something that should be taught in music schools or should the playing be left to the player and the business side of things be left to managers and agents?
SK: I think there are very few musicians who have the privilege of being able to leave the business to managers and agents — and most of them got there by putting in the work themselves. I try to set aside a certain amount of time for dealing with those kinds of things. Its a struggle though, my tendency is to either let it all slide too much and just practice, or get so caught up in the business stuff that it eats into my practicing. I definitely think schools should make an effort to address the business side, although I’m not sure what that would look like in terms of curriculum.
JGL: Have you ever had second thoughts about your choice to have music as a career and if so, what other career path do you think you would have followed had you not been a guitar player.
SK: No, I’ve never been interested enough in anything else to seriously consider it as a career.
JGL: What you’re not on the band-stand or in the recording studio, what do you like to do to unwind?
SK: I’m really into film. Some of my favourite directors are Jim Jarmusch, Akira Kurosawa and Stanley Kubrick. I also read a lot about history, politics, philosophy etc. I’m interested in trying to understand in some way, however limited, why the world is the way it is.
JGL: What does the future hold for Sam Kirmayer?
SK: I often think that just staying in the game is winning. I’d like to continue studying, playing and sharing this music as long as possible. I can’t really hope for anything more than that.
JGL: Thank you Sam for taking the time to chat with Jazz Guitar Life. I wish you much success in all your endeavors!
SK: Thank You!
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