“I love leading because I’m happiest when I’m bringing my creative ideas to life. Especially in a vibrant city where one can call musicians to play who have the ability to sit down on a gig and sight-read challenging stuff, but still connect with it on a deep creative level.”Peter Mazza
New York based Jazz Guitarist Peter Mazza is no doubt one of the many players out there who truly deserves wider recognition. His harmonic and melodic sense is off the charts and his YouTube clips are legendary throughout the Jazz Guitar community. Oh…and he happens to be an extremely nice guy who just loves music, regardless of what instrument it’s played on!
In this interview Peter shares…well…everything!! It’s a long one folks so grab a beverage, settle into a comfy chair and enjoy!
Just for the record, any mention of an upcoming CD or CD’s have already been recorded.
This interview was conducted via email in 2013. You can find out more info on Peter by visiting his website at http://petermazza.com/
JGL: How old are you?
JGL: What geographical area do you live in?
PM: I am from New York City, where I was raised on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.
JGL: Were you interested in jazz from the beginning or were there other musical interests before jazz?
PM: Jazz is not what drew me to guitar, but my Dad is an excellent (non-professional) jazz pianist, who enjoys playing in all his spare time. He also loves the recordings of Bill Evans, Monk, Bud Powell, Chick Corea among all kinds of jazz, so jazz was definitely always around me. I started for Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix and the Beatles. There was classic rock, disco, rap, Motown, Big Band Swing/singers, jazz, classical, Latin music around me growing up.
JGL: Can you recall that particular moment that first excited you about jazz guitar or jazz in general? The one that made you say “that’s what I want to do”!
PM: How I came to guitar was that I had two friends in the 5th/6th grade who could already play all the Rolling Stones songs. Our classroom teacher had them play along with a school production of the Wiz (the musical) and they got to do a rock guitar-feature in the middle of the show. I knew I had to play the guitar after that. That was too cool!
My family lived in a relatively small apartment with neighbors above and below, with no basement or garage to rock-out in, hence my days of blasting distortion were limited. My dad brought me home a cassette tape of Joe Pass’s “Virtuoso #2” and it blew my mind! Although it was a solo recording, it was so dense and lush and really complete on its own. Introspective yet swinging and fiery, melodic and tender yet bold, and so intricate and perfect yet improvised and spontaneous. Truth be told, once I stepped into jazz, I connected more deeply with the subtlety and no-nonsense approach (that was sans the “theatrical” more present in pop, rock and metal). While I feel like I made an awkward 6th grader, I grew to love jazz plus progressive rock and fusion, thriving at the time.
JGL: Similarly, Was there a defining moment when you decided that Jazz Guitar would/could be your career path?
PM: I was one of those kids who knew he wanted to be a professional guitar player from the day he brought home the guitar from the music store. I remember looking at it in awe in the open hard case laying on my bed and only being able the play the harmonics to Yes’ “Round About”.
Although I studied from that point to present, on a pragmatic note, the reality of being a professional set in when I was at LaGuardia High School, applying to go the Manhattan School of Music for my undergraduate degree. Although I was fortunate to have teachers who taught me to read and learn tunes, knowing that I had to meet MSM’s audition requirements really forced me to focus and be more realistic about what I’d have to do to be able to play on a high level. Going to LaGuardia, there were fellow students who were already well on their ways to being pro if not pro already: Charnette Moffett, Justin Robinson, Stephen Scott, Jon Gordon, Ben Perowsky and many others.
On a purely inspirational level, seeing my two older high school friends, guitarists- Anthony Papamichael and Dan Rochlis, play fluidly and creatively through jazz tunes, even back then, really excited and motivated me. I am also grateful to my old high school friend, another excellent guitarist-turned-Pandeiro player- Scott Feiner, for introducing me to the recordings of Pat Metheny, Allan Holsdworth, The Dregs, Al DiMeola, Paco DeLucia, John McGlaughlin and so much great fusion. Although I played an acoustic guitar and/or mostly a clean sound, I loved hearing all the great jazz fusion guitarists.
JGL: If you were stuck on a desert island – and assuming you had a full working stereo system and electricity to run it – which 5 albums would you want by your side?
PM: This is interesting because the 5 have and will always change, but thinking back to the 5 albums that formed me, they would include
- “Take 6” by the group Take 6
- “Speak No Evil” by Wayne Shorter
- “Giant Steps” by John Coltrane
- “3 Quartets” by Chick Corea
- “80/81” by Pat Metheny
I apologize to Joe Pass, Chopin, Debussy,Wes, Coltrane, Miles, Bill Evans, George Benson, Tal Farlow, Johnny Smith and MANY others for not putting their compositions/albums down. I should mention that 2 of my amazing teachers, Jack Wilkins and Rodney Jones were beloved for making “famous” mix tapes of the songs/solos of their favorite guitarists. Rodney, a huge George and Wes lover, and Jack, a Johnny Smith, Tal and Jimmy Raney lover…I used to “live for” those cassettes in college, walking around w my headphones listening to 50 of the best Benson solos one after the other, or Johnny Smith chord melodies!
JGL: How difficult do you/did you find it making a living as a jazz guitar player, or have you found it to be relatively easy?
PM: One doesn’t pursue jazz expecting it to be easy or to get rich, so I won’t start complaining. The more self-generating and diverse I’ve been professionally, while artistically, remaining true to my vision is how/when I’ve found myself both fulfilled and pragmatically solid. For example, I accepted a full time job filling in for a teacher on maternity leave this past school year, at one of the city’s best private schools. I taught general music to 5th and 6th graders, not jazz! Upsides were a nice salary and benefits, which meant I had the financial means to only do the gigs I enjoyed and to use all my free time for my music. Obviously, it would be nice to live solely from performing my music and teaching the most dedicated students, but I do my share of that, too. I certainly want more, but I am grateful for what I have.
Although I am sure I have yet to really explore the greatest potential for using the Internet and You Tube among other tech-based vehicles for presenting myself, even in the capacity I’ve used them, they have proven to be great ways to share music and to learn about others from all over the world. My 2 “over the rainbow” videos have over 130, 000 views, which I’m massively grateful for. Being able to seek out the 100 people from every country, state and city/town in the world who might appreciate something relatively esoteric in jazz guitar, is something a guitar player of earlier generations would not have known.
JGL: What guitars are you using these days and what brand(s) of amplifiers and gear (electronics) are you running through?
PM: My “first-love” is my still main gigging guitar: a 1982 Gibson Super 5 (from the Kalamazoo factory) with Lindy Fralin pickups. This guitar plays like a dream! When it needs love/fret work I go to luthier-guru- Masanobu Hino.
I have two acoustic guitars that I enjoy playing: An Adamas 2080 that is amazingly comfortable but lacking in the quality of the electronics, then a Maton “Michael Fix” that is wonderfully balanced sounding and amplifies beautifully, but is not as comfortable physically, as the Adamas.
I use AER compact 60s, with an Alesis Nanoverb, plus I like to add MXR 10-band EQ’s to both the hollow body and either one of the acoustics, to acheive the right sonic balance for each instrument.
JGL: Who are you listening to today (guitarists or non-guitarists)?
PM: My wife Alexandra is a classical pianist, so I enjoy listening to a lot of Rachmaninov, Chopin, Liszt, Debussy, Beethoven, Brahms and Bach and I am VERY grateful for this opportunity. It is amazing to me, what young musicians today, allow themselves to call “modern” or “new”. Ted Rosenthal, the great NY based pianist wisely called those above descriptive words, inaccurate. I elect to use his more flexible word “personal” when talking about the sound that we create/aspire to vs “modern, new or original”.
I love Guinga, Nelson Veras, Jonathan Kreisberg, Lage Lund, Adam Rogers, Paul Bollenback, Ben Monder, Freddie Bryant, Yotam Silberstein, Dan Wilson and Mike Rood among the contemporary voices of guitar. I love so many pianists from the history like Wynton Kelly, Red Garland, Ahmad Jamal, McCoy Tyner, Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Keith Jarrett, Cesar Camargo Mariano, and all their “descendants”. I’m always floored by Brad Melhdau!
I love A cappella/choral music, including Charles Ives’ Psalms, Bulgarian Folk singers and some of the compositions of Eric Whitacre. I am huge fan of Vince Mendoza the arranger composer and love the album he did with Joni Mitchell with jazz rhythm section, big band and orchestra. He is a descendant of Duke Ellington, Gordon Jenkins, Nelson Riddle and Gil Evans, all of whom I love.
YouTube has introduced me to the music of Jacob Collier, the singer/multi instrumentalist from England and also the fusion band called Dirty Loops. I love their insanely creative and virtuoso arrangements of mundane pop (think Bieber, Rihanna and Britney) lol! I’ve also got an ear on the best guys in the local conservatories or who are relatively new on the scene in NYC. The guitarists: Pascuale Grasso, Jeff McLaughlin, Aleksi Glick and Mark Cocheo come to mind, as do an array of different horn players like Alex LoRe, Tom Finn and Benny Banack.
JGL: Who has been most influential in your life as a Jazz Guitarist/artist and why?
PM: All of my teachers certainly get the very first thank you and mention for being great musicians and role models. They included Allen Hanlon, Fred Fried, Justin DiCiocio, Chris Rosenberg, Jack Wilkins, Rodney Jones and Dennis Koster. If there is one all-encompassing living-iconic figure, it would definitely be Pat Metheny. First and foremost, I love his playing and compositions. As dazzling as he is as a player, his music is always heart felt and deep, meticulously crafted and sonically beautiful. Kurt Rosenwinkel, Mike Moreno, Adam Rogers, Lage Lund, Kreisberg and the whole generation today, all owe so much to Pat Metheny. As much if not more than that, I love the fact that although he defies genres/categories like Miles Davis did, he can be counted on to make defining musical statements in the areas he chooses to express himself in. Plus, in a competitive, clique-ish and marketing driven world, he is unpretentious, individual and absolutely generous-spirited and open-minded with his audiences, the jazz community and with individuals (having had some very inspiring interactions with him, myself).
JGL: Your music education is quite impressive having received a Bachelor of Music from the Manhattan School of Music and a Masters from Juilliard on a full scholarship. Had you taken individual guitar instruction from anyone prior to your admittance to MSM?
PM: See above and to this I will add that all of these teachers very actively demonstrated the ability to know guitar/music traditions deeply, and to express it in their own voice. I felt very encouraged and challenged to do the same! I studied with Allen when I was in 7th grade, so I was blessed to get started young even if it still took me a long time to sound good! Fred Fried is a relatively “unsung” player. His command of harmony and counterpoint was totally influential and inspiring. He was immensely supportive of me and made me feel like I had something personal to say.
JGL: Given your education background and the fact that you live in one of the greatest cities in the Western Hemisphere where you could literally study guitar from the best of the best, what’s your take on the whole academic institutional learning versus learning on your own and getting schooled on the bandstand thing?
PM: I think that jazz school in the biggest sense, is something like organized religion. We seek community and structure, motivated by the desire to connect, collaborate and to make sense of it all. Certainly a lot of positive stuff exists inside the structure, but yes, there is a lot of “pre-fab” and dare-I-say negative stuff, pervading at times. We are human, therefore we can be deep, passionate, generous and creative, yet we can be selfish, jaded, short-sighted and unnecessarily competitive. I experienced all of this in music school. I gather a Law Student at Harvard (or anywhere) would say the same thing…
In the absence of the touring big bands and the generations of apprenticeship under the many jazz greats/leaders, school now provides the most common means to experience playing and network with others. Since it is based in a classroom setting, too much of the vital soul and creativity gets sucked out of it. That is where my college private guitar teachers really made a huge difference, in offering balance and a more personalized means of support and challenge.
School always felt like a grind. Ironically, the 2 years that FOLLOWED each of my degrees were some of the most powerful assimilating years of my development. Maybe I had to step into “the Ring” or what I call the overwhelming, competitive yet insular world that is school, to get” knocked around” for a while, to then take it all (both the creative stuff and “hard knocks”) back to my own self-expression. Many of the “knocks” that felt political and personal felt damaging. The musical ones were the ones that felt like “tough love” and hence, worth taking, not just negatively motivated.
When I was in my junior year of MSM, I got a rare opportunity to lead a house-jam session at Augie’s Jazz Bar (now called Smoke) for 4-nights-a-week! I played with Joel Frahm, Neal Miner, Scott Neumann or Andy Watson in the house-band and it was entirely normal for us to be joined by Chris Potter, Brad Mehldau, Greg Hutchison, Chris McBride, Roy Hargrove, Dwayne Burno, Antonio Hart, Adam Rogers, Dave Binney, Scott Colley, Rick Margitza and many, many others, all when we were just starting out in our early 20s. I did not feel ready to handle this level of playing and yet I certainly did my best to covet it and to learn from it. It bred a feeling of struggling to keep up, yet a drive to pursue a personal sound and the highest level that I’m capable of. I am very grateful for that!
My final comment on your question is that I constantly tell students that actively initiating their own ideas out of one of my ideas will do them as much or more good than studying a handful of my ideas, without any deeper reflection or musical processing. The best artists are good at taking input but as good at assimilating it creatively.
JGL: You have taught at the American Institute of Guitar/ISM, and the unfortunately now defunct National Guitar Workshop. Do you teach privately as well, and if so, how does one go about studying with you? Is there a particular level of student you are looking for?
PM: I am blessed to have had long associations with both of the mentioned schools above. I learned so much from the array of amazing guitarists in different styles who were my colleagues. They fed my love for musical diversity! I love the steel string and nylon string guitars, played in standard and alternate tunings, plus the various kinds of electric guitars. I have been very sad to see these programs/communities disappear. Having these jobs also taught me HOW TO TEACH. It insisted that I organize my concept and become articulate and empathetic. I can sit down with anyone who loves this instrument and connect with them in a fun and meaningful way. Teaching has fed my playing and vice-versa.
I have developed a very thorough approach to understanding jazz theory and harmony that I’ve merged with an approach to learning the fingerboard. I have actively tried to balance the harmonic content of playing with as helpful an approach to rhythm, meter and phrasing. The later makes the more technical and abstract concepts more immediately meaningful and usable. It surprises me how little is written about jazz guitar rhythm and meter!
I’m always more inclined to work with a student from where they truly are at, level-wise, which often involves teaching them a creative and thorough approach to mastering the fundamentals, but I am certainly open to teaching students my arrangements, voicings or lines. I think a mix of the broad basic technical concepts with some fun and musical applications does best.
I teach in-person in NYC and over Skype. I am reachable through my (ancient) web site, petermazza.com and through Face Book and Skype (username: hipchords).
JGL: Have you ever considered publishing a Jazz Guitar instructional book or DVD that features your special blend of solo guitar methodology? And if so, what would be at the core of the text?
PM: Yes! I have a solo CD in the works (from last summer that got “shelved” for the responsibilities of my full time teaching job) but I will absolutely complete that. I have 30 plus arrangements so were talking 2-3 discs spanning over time…
An educational DVD is absolutely a great step. I envision performing the arrangements then explaining how all the content functions, in which case I would have to break down my harmonic, technical and rhythm concept,. Nothing I do is abstract. Everything is rooted in principles which (hopefully) make even more dissonant passages sound coherent. I dread notating the arrangements! That’s going to be a lot of work! Lol…
JGL: In 2009 you released your first CD as a leader titled Through My Eyes that included some great original compositions along with a fun reharmonization of Green Dolphin Street featuring you on an acoustic steel string. How did this album come about and why didn’t you just go all original? What was it about Green Dolphin Street that made you want to record it the way you did?
PM: I was signed to a start-up label from Tokyo called Late Set through a former adult-student affiliated with them. Although I’m a jazz guitarist, not a “fusion” guitarist, I felt that a first CD should offer something even more personal/all-encompassing. I had read Pat Metheny talking about wanting to release Bright Size Life before releasing a standards album, even when the greater part of his gigging to that point was playing “jazz”. I identified with that especially in having been engaged in composing music and doing things that were not traditionally associated with jazz, like playing acoustic guitars in open tunings and using multiple guitars in live performance via live looping. “Through My Eyes” is the expression of that. I engaged a friend/mentor and master-guitarist: Matt Smith, very eclectic himself, who pushed me all the more, to stretch myself beyond my comfort zone (hence the distorted electric baritone guitar solo on Testa Rossa). Musically, the album does not feature my relationship the jazz language and repertoire I love so much, but I’m proud of the writing and what it stood for personally, at the time.
I arranged 2 standards for that disc: Green Dolphin Street and My Funny Valentine. Both songs I love, that I used as a vehicle to discover the available jazz harmonies in the Dsus tuning I used: DADEAD. Plus I always like creating moody and surprising ways to re-frame a melody via arranging a standard. The 2 tunes also allowed me to showcase the scaled down sound of guitar and saxophone (different from the band-songs on the disc). I have always loved intimate musical formats: solo, duos, trios…
JGL: What is your practice routine like these days? Do you work on specific things or just play tunes?
PM: I am an avid “practising-buff” with a super-detailed routine! I have an elaborate series of 2 octave triads, triad pairs ,7th chord arpeggios and lines that I superimpose over individual chords moving through cycles, then through II V Is in major and minor, in all keys in 4/4, ¾, 5/4 and 7/8. I play these ideas in eighth notes, triplets and 16th notes, both on-the-beat and off-the-beat but always in meter. I use consistent and/or syncopated lines/rhythms. I also apply these lines to loops of bass lines or comping chords from my list of tunes I like gigging with.
I have a whole other shedding routine based on playing chord voicing sequences through II V Is in all keys, doing different inversions and substitutions on different string groupings
All of the above is great ear training and fret board learning, which I derive GREAT value from.
Of course, a huge piece of my practicing is developing and maintaining my chord melody arrangements, which involves a lot of pure muscle-memory and flexibility, then many hours of creative and interpretive honing.
JGL: How do you approach improvisation? Is it based on the more traditional chord/scale relationship or are you following a more intuitive inquiry?
PM: I’m very aware of chord scales and all their derivative triads, 7ths and modes. I’m always thinking about the basic chord tones and the chord tensions in progressions, then trying to use them to convey some voice leading, harmonic movement and melodic purpose. Good jazz improvisation is always defined by the presence of rhythmic phrasing and call and response/development, not to mention the sound of the MELODY, so when I’m playing well, they all are always there.
JGL: Your series of solo guitar videos on YouTube have gotten some rave reviews from Jazz Guitar hobbyists and full-blown Jazz professionals alike. Kind of like when we were all first introduced to Ted Greene and/or Lenny Breau. Did those videos open any doors for you that weren’t open already?
PM: First of all, thank you for the generous praise/comparison. The specifics of that are hard to gauge, but yes, because YouTube is there, the opportunity for wide exposure is incredible. I’m sure way more people have watched me on You Tube in the last 4 years, than the amount of people who have seen me live at my steady Sunday evening gig at the Bar Next Door at La Lanterna over the last 12 years. The number of hits in relation to the intimate size of Bar Next Door states that as a fact. I have yet to be invited here there and everywhere to appear as a solo performer or teacher, but people are certainly aware of me, which is great. I will say that my video output is limited and has been around a while. I’m certainly due to update my presence and to share where I’ve taken the level and content of my approach since then. I’m very grateful that the response has been positive and hope people are still curious?!
JGL: Speaking of your solo guitar videos, the phrase WTF comes to mind when watching your approach to the solo guitar realm J You seem to throw an awful lot into those tunes. Devices like melodic reharmonization, chord substitutions, contrapuntal lines, voice leading, inner-voice work, independent fingerings, ridiculous chord stretches and God knows what else I’m missing. Would it be possible for you to walk us through your solo guitar approach and are the techniques you use common to other solo guitar luminaries like Joe Pass, Ted Greene, Martin Taylor and George Van Eps, or are there some tricks you hold close to your vest so to speak?
PM: Sure! Okay guitarists, well basic “boot camp” is to know your major, melodic minor and diminished scales so well that you can form/voice all kinds of chords, chord substitutes, or add tensions to chords. I will send you a supplement to show you what tensions I add to a Diatonic Cycle or Autumn Leaves progression. I’m essentially thinking a new key/scale for every chord. Try to play through the progression where you put one common interval on the top of the chord (either 1st or 2nd string), be it all the chord roots, 3rd, 5ths, 7ths, 9ths, 11s, or 13ths. This falls under the category of simply embellishing many of the common “grip chords” that Jazz guitarists use for the written/basic chords of a tune vs using a chord substitute, which is a chord w a different letter name or quality than the written chord.
Then there is knowing all your inversions of various 7th chords on your different string sets and how to superimpose them. Example- using inversions of Dmin7b5 and Emin7b5 from F melodic minor as voicings for E7#9#5 or Emin7 or Bmin7 inversions from Gmajor for Cma9. In both cases the 7th chords are groups of tensions being superimposed on the played/comped chord because they are derived from the Parent Key (what I call, the scale of origin). When you combine this w/ diatonic substitution and tritone substitution, you can drift very far from those written chords.
How about these chords for Autumn Leaves, played 2 beats each: Cmi9 Gb9#11 F9/13sus4 A7#11#9 BbMa9#11 E9#11/13 EbMa9#11 AbMa9#11 A7#11#9 EbMa7#9#11 D9sus4 D7b9/13overC to GminMa7/13overBb Ao7 AbminMa7/13 Db9#11/13 🙂
I also advise any guitarist to take chords and play with the voices/intervals inside a chord by moving them up or down in half steps: Take a Major 7 or Minor 7th chord and move the 5 to a #5 and then a 6th and back down. Take a Dom9 sus 4 chord and move the 4th up to a # 4th and back. Take a Dom7chord and have the 9th go from #9 to 9 to b9. Have a Major or Minor 9 chord resolve the 9 to the root then 7 then b7.
Again, if one really uses the harmonic principals of diatonic substitution, secondary dom7ths and tri tones really fluently, they can get surprisingly far! For All the Things You Are: Fmin7 to Bbmin7 to Eb7 to Abmajor: try starting in 8th position with Fmi7 w 9 to root, to B7 13 w #11 to 3 to Bbmin7 to Ma7 to E7sus to #11 to F#min7 B7 Emin7 to A7 to Ab
JGL: WOW! This may seem like a weird question, but…have you found that your prodigious harmonic knowledge and technique could possibly impede potential students from studying with you because they may feel somewhat intimated? Basically, in your opinion, what would one need, knowledge wise and technique wise, to be able to start addressing the concepts you deliver in your solo guitar arrangements?
PM: If this were the case, I would be really sad, both for the students and for me. I gather it must have occurred if you are pointing it out? I have taught all levels of jazz guitar, from beginners to advanced professionals and what makes a great student is their openness, their desire to learn/work hard and their ability to be patient yet forward- thinking. If someone loves the guitar and learning we are going to get along beautifully and I strongly advise anyone who might belong to the category Lyle mentioned, to take to heart what I say, and to connect with me. In the above question, I address the “mechanics”, which are better clarified in a more personal-in depth lesson vs. as a summary in an interview. But to reiterate, someone trying to grasp what I’m doing musically/technically should know chord/scales, basic jazz grip chords, and inversions. If you have that at easy access, I can take you safely out to the “deep water”. I also truly pride myself on being an excellent teacher of jazz beginners because I have a very thorough, step-wise and logical way to absorb basic harmony, fret board knowledge, rhythm, meter and phrasing.
JGL: It sounds like you spend as much time composing and arranging as you do guitar playing! Can you talk a bit about the process of each and how they directly or indirectly affect your guitar playing? Do you compose strictly on guitar or do you use other instruments like piano?
PM: A general comment: I love being creative! I feel like it has “cost me” 15 extra years of my career, lol! Many guys who I came up with were playing great 10-15 years ago, yet back then, I felt like I knew there was all of this creative and fundamental stuff that was not indigenous to my thinking and my technique that I wanted to get down, to facilitate the sound and style I aspired to play. Doing such “basic construction” while others were adding the “finishing touches” was frustrating, but worth it! I do all of this at the guitar and it is a long process.
With my arrangements, come many “writes and re-writes” over many, many years. I’ve been playing My Romance since high school! I’ll take a tune that I love, a ballad, and try to harmonize every note. I’m always thinking about the density of every chord and the voice leading, be it in the melody, bass or mid register. Chord melodies can be rubato but they can also be in tempo. The groove and flow element has been a rewarding challenge since many players elect to play free of time as soon as they start adding more chords/harmony. I have also derived great value from playing songs in other keys. It is also fun and valuable to work on tunes with range-y melodies like Stella, where you get a low Bb on the G string in the melody on an Ebmajor 7. How do you voice it? GDEbBb…then to move to Ab7 move the G to Gb…Knowing scales and inversions come to life when I’m in situations like the above because they force me to find creative solutions to what seem like unsolvable problems on the instrument.
Composition is even harder because once I get past the inspiration of a good idea, making something that has a meaningful “storyline” and effective shape usually takes me a lot of work. I like the work though! I’ll loop a series of chords I like and try to find a melody that speaks from inside it. The songs on Through My Eyes were through-composed with longer forms vs. written on the jazz-oriented song forms that players know, so the best way to address that was to record, play and listen to the stuff in the writing/developing phase. I gigged w them and rewrote them.
As said in earlier questions, listening is a crucial source of knowledge and inspiration. How would my heroes or my colleagues handle certain creative challenges? Listening to other guitarists provides the most direct answers, while listening to non-guitarists presents challenging but also imaginative possibilities. I actively seek them both and feel like I know when to not saturate myself with one or the other.
JGL: You have played with Brad Mehldau, Joel Frahm, Chris Potter, Larry Goldings, Uri Cane, Christian McBride, Larry Grenadier, Greg Hutchinson, Jeff Ballard, and Roy Hargrove to name but a few, not to mention guitar duos with Jonathan Kreisberg, Mike Moreno, Freddie Bryant, Pete Bernstein, Paul Bollenback, Kurt Rosenwinkel and Jack Wilkins to name but another few. Do you find that you have to tone down your musical approach when playing with others, or can you go full throttle and bring your A game?
PM: With any of the guys mentioned here, one can only bring their A game, because that is the ONLY game they are playing! Since music is to me is bringing forth the beauty in oneself, in others and in life, I naturally feel like I’m “tempering” my ideas to the moment and to what is appropriate/most meaningful. Real experience and maturity (built on lots and lots of mistakes and sounding lousy) has gotten me to a place where I’m more and more in control of using my knowledge to serve the music. To me, someone who embodies this fully is my amazing colleague and dear friend, the GREAT Paul Bollenback. Everything he does is so powerful, whether it is playing a ballad melody, a swinging blues or a blazing up- tempo. There is such inspiring “self and selflessness” in his playing. We PLAY music. We do not “do or work” music, so in the spirit of playfulness, I am certainly most happy when the players who surround me, invite invention and full-on play!
JGL: Which do you prefer more, being a sideman or a leader and why?
PM: I have yet to work a lot as a sideman. I gather that is because I’ve been really possessed with pursuing my own sound/vision and have elected to do it pretty uncompromisingly to get it together. It is taking me a LONG time. That said, as the sound and approach I’m cultivating becomes realized and clear, I hope that others will find it compelling enough to want to have it enhance their sound. When I play with people, be it on my own gigs or playing as a sideman in groups, I’m always trying to play what will elevate what they are saying/playing, be it in how I provide accompaniment or via when I take my solos. I have never been one to pursue “guitar-role” gigs where my sound/concept is secondary to being asked to play a style or a part. I admire those who do that well. I subbed on the Broadway show, Grease-the Musical and sat next to lead guitarist- Mike Aarons, who is a virtuoso of all styles, a joy to hear and a very busy player!
I love leading because I’m happiest when I’m bringing my creative ideas to life. Especially in a vibrant city where one can call musicians to play who have the ability to sit down on a gig and sight-read challenging stuff, but still connect with it on a deep creative level. Amazing! Even though great players in NYC can read/play, I’m also inspired by the fact they want to rehearse and play for the opportunity to make creative music with kindred players vs. solely whether there is big money involved or not. It not a bad thing when there IS great money involved, but it is not the norm in NYC. I am a music fan and a fan of nice people. Being a band leader allows me to showcase people’s talents and strengths, both as musicians and people. All of that feels like good karma.
I also like speaking to audiences, especially if they are new to jazz or hearing me, to try to create a context for what the music is and how enthusiastic I am to get to play it for them. Not all musicians like that sort of thing, they just want to play. I’ve had a lot of listeners, musicians and non-musicians tell me that they appreciated that part of my set! I’m truly grateful to play for people who are willing to bring their committed listening and openness to my gigs! I want them to feel appreciated and how that positive energy facilitates a beautiful collaboration between the group and them during a performance!
JGL: Apart from your love of solo guitar, do you have any other favorite group setting (ie: duo, trio, quartet) that you prefer, and if so, why?
PM: I’m really glad you asked that because since most of my videos are solo, many people assume that is the only setting I elect to play in or feel comfortable with. NOT true!
I have several trios that play my arrangements/chord melodies scripted out. One is with 6-string electric bassist- Kevin Farrell and either one of two hand percussionists- Rogerio Boccato or Keita Ogawa. Kevin has an incredible feel and amazing chops. The texture of the electric can be so subtle, which is the same great thing I can say about using percussion vs. drums. It’s really groovy and textured but quiet and subtle. It doesn’t overpower all the harmony and voice leading stuff I’m trying to do on the guitar, yet it’s totally involved in what I’m playing.
The second trio I have is with the amazing Misha Tsiganov on Keys and either Thomson Kneeland or Marco Panascia on upright bass (all total “monsters”). I am a HUGE fan of the piano, and especially someone who is so swinging, fiery and lush, like Misha. We are actually able to play chords and comp together, which is often considered “taboo” in jazz. Our listening and concepts are so aligned, that it just works, and is a blast! There are no drums here, but a unified and driving sense of time is something we are committed to creating together.
The third trio is with my old friend, the amazing Hendrik Meurkens on Chromatic Harmonica and the pianist from both of our respective groups- Misha Tsiganov. I love putting Hendrik’s powerful, unique and lyrical voice out front, with Misha and his harmonies. There is no bass in this group in which case I often play chords and bass, or we simply find other creative solutions to being sans-bass.
Trio playing is so amazing. It is complete yet sparse. It calls on each player to generate total concentration, groove, ideas and listening. I like the trios that are sans-bass or drums because they challenge me to play and to let go of the perception of “something missing”. Then when I play trios w bass and percussion, although still sparse, it feels so full!
JGL: If you could only pick one individual or group to play with (alive or dead), who would that be and why?
PM: This is TOO hard, but I guess I would say the band from Wayne Shoter’s “Speak No Evil”. That’s Herbie Hancock at the piano, Ron Carter at the Bass and Elvin Jones at the Drums. I wouldn’t mind if Freddie Hubbard and Wayne brought their horns…lol! This hard-bop group carried all of the complexity and drive of be-bop, the moody, beautiful texture and timbre of impressionistic classical music, fused with the earthiness of blues and swing. They played intricate and inventive arrangements/compositions but with “magical” improvisations.
JGL: You ranked as a semi-finalist in the prestigious Thelonius Monk Jazz Competition which is no walk in the park. Would you mind talking a bit about your experience going through the process of such a competition and do you remember the players you were up against? What did you come away with regarding that experience?
PM: I guess I will reference something that Pat Metheny said to me at the time (he, Scofield, Martino, Jim Hall and Mark Whitfield were the judges). I’m paraphrasing him, but something along the lines of “We were all talking (the judges) and thinking how weird it would be to have to compete against each other…none of us were sure how we’d deal with that”.
That said, of course it was an honor and privilege to be included in this event. I remember arriving at the University of DC with my mom and the elevator door opened and standing inside, was Pat Metheny, Scofield, Jim Hall, Pat Martino and Herbie Hancock. I thought I was going to pass out w awe! My mom had followed these guys through me over the years and she was speechless, too! I didn’t have a lot of interaction with the judges/greats during the event since they were surrounded with media, but Pat Martino was very uplifting in our brief conversations. Metheny was very nice to me when I saw him in NYC hanging out at various jazz clubs. He gave me some great support and encouragement.
Time and space really “slowed down” when I was on the stage playing for that 10-15 minutes. I felt very cognizant that the essence of my style was in place but I still had a long road ahead before it would manifest as totally strong and clear vs, creative but rough and undefined. This was very painful, as was the reality that this was as close to the “highest eschalon” I might get for some time, if ever again. Doing what we love the way we want to is bitter-sweet, because we have to live our story and pay our dues to get to where we want.
Jesse Van Ruller, the excellent Dutch guitarist won it that year. I’ve always enjoyed his playing ever since. Sheryl Bailey placed 3rd. She’s awesome for sure! This contest was the biggest thing any of us had done and so kudos to them both for being the “least nervous”. The pressure and intensity in the air was as audible as the music itself…
JGL: How would you like to see your life unfold in the coming years and what do you think would be needed to get you there?
PM: My biggest goal is to have a body of recorded music that shares as much of my work/playing as possible. Of course it takes money and time, so that is a concern, but one that must be solved! I would like to have several solo CD’s completed, plus CD’s of my trios. I still aspire to collaborate as a member of other groups. I would very much like to do more traveling and playing, in the States, Europe and Asia, among other places. Having an elaborate solo repertoire is something that I hope makes that easier. I think that my arrangements would be a creative and fun addition to programs at jazz festivals. Colleagues and audiences seem to find them really refreshing and memorable.
I would love to offer an array or inspiring educational materials to guitarists out there, including a DVD of chord melodies, a book on harmony/fingerboard knowledge and a book of etudes.
I love teaching. Although these positions are the “holy grail”, I would love to be full-time faculty and eventually the head of a jazz guitar program at a University. I love performing but I simply love playing, practicing and searching for ideas and forms of musical expression. I really enjoy sharing a musical conversation with a student or with classes. I think that music is so personal to us all and particularly to musicians. That said, my relationships with my students have been something to savor musically and personally.
JGL: Similarly, anything coming down the pike we should know about? A new CD perhaps?
PM: As said earlier, I have a solo CD project underway that I’m excited about. I’ve really appreciated the emails I’ve gotten from You Tube and Face Book friends asking about a recording and transcriptions. A friend has been videoing a number of my Sunday evening gigs at Bar Next Door with some of my different trios, so I’m eager to present more group playing to listeners/colleagues out there. I love these trios and hope the good vibes and fun music translate via the videos. As of now, I’m recording every Sunday in July! I’m considering presenting the management at BND with the idea of live broadcasting or archiving my music, if not a good portion of all the music there.
JGL: Any advice for the younger guy or gal who is thinking about playing jazz guitar as a career?
PM: I think the bigger answer to this question already exists in several of the other questions answered, but to all that I will add, know the history of the guitar and jazz. As great as they are, guitar history did not start with Kurt Rosenwinkel and Mike Moreno! Take anything you learn from someone and try to expand it and personalize it. Know how to play solo guitar and to comp well, don’t just be a “horn”. Play your techniques and lines in meter not just free of time or form. Develop a concept for rhythm, articulation and phrasing and don’t favor harmony. Develop your ears! Learn tunes! (thank you Joe Pass!). Teach to help others, to develop a marketable skill and to become more articulate about what it means to know music and convey it to others.
Be truly humble. Yes, you’d be humble if you met Mike Moreno hanging out in NYC jazz club, but I mean be humble enough to trust your talent and ambition enough to be respectful to your peers/competitors and certainly to teachers/guys who have been at this for a while, vs critical/aloof. Whether you think they are the “hippest new thing” or not, they probably know a lot of things you don’t, so have the ability to receive that without feeling threatened.
Emulate all kinds of players, don’t get stuck being too derivative because while it takes discipline, it can be a trap…
To get a gig in NYC, be prepared to hang out on the scene. It is not a scene entered by submitting “demos” or CDs per se. Each venue is kind of a “living community” with an aesthetic and “culture” and it shows depth and insight on a lot of levels, to seek to understand that and integrate one’ self into that by hanging, listening and getting to know people. It’s the “ground troops” who seem to get the mission accomplished in NYC work culture.
JGL: Have you ever had second thoughts about making music a career choice and if so, what other career path do you think you would have followed had you not been a guitar player?
PM: I don’t want to spend too much time on this, but if it is helpful for some people to hear, YES, I have wanted to quit, many times! It is hard being a musician. The pragmatic challenges alone are enough to instill doubt. Then the fact that the music is so humbling and requires such a high degree of honesty, integrity, strength and love, is rewarding but again, very, very humbling. All told, no matter how doubtful or challenged I’ve ever felt, not being as good as I wanted to be, or as successful as my heroes are in all the various ways, I’ve never been able to walk away from music. Hence I’m left with the fact that I just LOVE this. Even if I’m not as great or successful as whomever, I just love this. The joys I’ve felt playing the guitar, be it alone, for my students, for my friends and/or for audiences around, are some of the most profound and timeless experiences in life. I will teach or encourage any eager student or aspiring musician ALWAYS. I don’t mean this as cryptic, I promise, but when someone asks “should I be a musician?” I say that if you have to ask, then probably not…It has to simply be what you do because you HAVE to. It won’t always feel good, and pretty often it will feel like the “wrong” thing, but in spite of it all, you have to want/need to do it anyway. THAT is a musician. J
JGL: Apart from music, what else do you like to do for fun?
PM: My wife Alexandra is an amazing classical pianist (I mentioned her earlier) who I met at Juilliard. Although her music is a great source of inspiration to me, her desire to be worldly, cultured, fun and well traveled is as much of an inspiration to me. I am grateful to her for insisting on balance in our lives and for advocating for a lot of great traveling/vacationing (sans guitar/piano) to beautiful places, always on a smart budget. This boy from Brooklyn has been to Paris, Alsace, The south of France, Tuscany, St. Lucia, Mexico, San Francisco and many other beautiful places because she has always had the inclination to make it happen (in a way we can afford!).
We also got our first dog together, a chocolate long haired mini-dachshund with green eyes, named Mia. I never had dogs growing up, and never thought I wanted to, but now that we have her, she really inspires me. I guess any animal lover/owner will tell you how loving, intuitive and fun they can be, all without words. A lot like much of the music I love…The three of us love going to Central Park or Riverside Park, which are 2 wonderful restorative “sanctuaries” in NYC.
At one time I not too long ago, I spent a lot of time and energy being very fitness-oriented which for better and for worse, I channelled that energy into music in the last 3-4 years. I truly aspire to change that, recognizing that good health and the ability to be physically mobile are some of the greatest gifts in life.
JGL: For those not in the know, where can folks come to see you play in NY?
PM: My “home base” in NYC is at the Bar Next Door at La Lanterna Di Vittorio, at 129 MacDougal Street between West 3rd and 4th streets, around the corner from the illustrious Blue Note, but where many people claim to experience a more real and personal sound of NY Jazz. It is one of the very favorite clubs of musicians, particularly guitarists, since the club features mostly guitar-led trios. My night is Sunday has sets at 8 and 10pm. Look forward to a wonderful intimate setting that offers great (reasonably priced) food and wine, along with the very heartfelt and inspired music! 🙂
Always see the BND web site to confirm I’m there: http://www.lalanternacaffe.com
JGL: Thank you Peter for taking the time to talk with us on Jazz Guitar Life. It is most appreciated and I wish you great success in your career and life.
PM: Thank you, Lyle, for the opportunity, for the thoughtful questions, for your great playing and all you do for the jazz guitar community!
Hope we cross musical paths soon!
All the best to you and to your readers who are our friends and colleagues!