Nate Najar Interview with Jazz Guitar Life

Nate Najar is a wonderful working guitarist out of Florida who has re-introduced the nylon string to Jazz. In this interview he talks about his approach to this instrument as well as his musical beginnings and how he keeps goign in this business. A great read.

This interview was conducted via email September, 2006. Check out his website at www.natenajar.com

“I try to treat the guitar like a piano. I don’t think I’ll ever succeed, but my desire is to get a sound like Bill Evans or Vince Guaraldi. I’ve come across plenty of limitations but I assure you they’re with the player and not the instrument! Seriously, I have had plenty of limitations and have overcome many of them and every day discover new ways to get closer to the sound I want.”

Nate Najar

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JGL: How old are you?

NN: Just turned 25

JGL: What geographical area do you live in?

NN: West Central Florida

JGL: How long have you been playing guitar for and at what age did you first get into guitar playing? Were you interested in jazz from the beginning or were there other musical interests before jazz?

NN: I first picked up the guitar around 9 or 10. at first I wanted to sing and the guitar was to accompany my singing. But I quickly realized I couldn’t sing and then my voice changed and it was no longer cute! So it was either get better at the guitar or hang it all up. My first musical interests were in the rhythm and blues vein – sam and dave, wilson pickett, etc…- (that’s what I was hearing around the house growing up). From there I got into delta blues and would gig around town at 13 years old with these older blues guys. I had a national steel and a dobro and I kept one tuned to open D and one to G. Looking back on it it must’ve been pretty funny! Of course I got into the whole blues rock Hendrix thing and from there found Trane.

From Trane it was Wes and then from there it just trickled down the line of all the great guitarists. I think I found Trane at about age 15 or so. But until I was 18 I still had a rock band. All the other kids had punk bands and things like that and I’m playing these extended jam tunes. I’d put together these big shows with 3 or 4 bands from different schools and people would come out. The other bands would be singing about girlfriends and stuff and I’m playing Eric Johnson’s “Cliffs of Dover” and following it with “Impressions” and then “Birdland.” I was all over the map. Kind of got bored with the rock thing and went totally into jazz by about 18 or so.

JGL: As far as I know you play Jazz exclusively on a nylon string much like Jay Berliner, Earl Klugh, Laurendo Almeida, Charlie Bryd and Gene Bertoncini. Was this a conscious choice from the beginning or did you come across the nylon string through other means?

NN: By the time I hit jazz full force I got with a great teacher, Frank Mullen. He used to gig quite a bit on both archtop and classical. He and Charlie Byrd were pals and both students at Papas’ school in Washington at the same time. So the two and them and Bill Harris would go out and play jazz gigs on classical guitar. Charlie and Bill both stuck with it and Frank continued to use both instruments. But Frank would teach on the classical. Because of his time with Papas he used a lot of classical literature in his lessons, so he suggested from the get go I pick up a nylon string. I had already known about Charlie by then and he was one of my favorite guitarists, so it seemed natural and logical.

When I picked up the nylon string, it felt natural to me. It didn’t sound natural! But I liked it a lot. I spent a few years trying to use both instruments on the gig but two things happened. First I wasn’t happy with any of the ways to amplify the classical. It didn’t sound through an amp the way it sounded when I played it at home acoustically. I have very sensitive ears and certain things really bother me. I tried a hundred different combinations of pickups, mics, you name it and couldn’t get it where I wanted it. So I gave it up. I played it a little at home, but not much. I started using the archtop exclusively. I added a 4th piece, a vibraphone, to my working group and tried to get a 50’s cool sound happening. I wanted to get the sound of the Peter Gunn soundtracks. Man Mancini’s scores for that are so cool. I started to slowly pick up the classical again when I got a gig at Blues Alley in DC. I hired Chuck Redd, Charlie’s old drummer, to play vibes. I sent him charts of my tunes and tried to get my Peter Gunn thing happening. Since he was with Charlie, and since it was Washington where Charlie made his mark I decided to bring the classical and play it on a few tunes the way I used to. Over the next few years Chuck and I played more gigs together and he would encourage me to use the classical more because I “sounded so good on it”.

At this time the second thing happened. I realized that as Ii was developing a voice on the nylon string, my archtop playing never really got off the ground. I always sounded like a very very low rent Barney Kessel. I could read well, play good freddie green rhythm and sounded good in ensemble things, but the single string concept never seemed to happen with me. I was having so much fun with the classical that while this was happening instead of working extra hard at the archtop, I just put it down and put my head full force into the fingerstyle nylon string. It’s been almost 3 years now I’ve been a mostly nylon string player. I say mostly because I still use the archtop on some gigs and some situations, but it’s very rare.

JGL: How do you approach playing Jazz on the nylon string and have you come across any limitations that may hinder your choice of lines, harmony, or the tunes that you can play?

NN: I try to treat the guitar like a piano. I don’t think I’ll ever succeed, but my desire is to get a sound like Bill Evans or Vince Guaraldi. I’ve come across plenty of limitations but I assure you they’re with the player and not the instrument! Seriously, I have had plenty of limitations and have overcome many of them and every day discover new ways to get closer to the sound I want. One huge problem I had was with single note facility. I still grapple with it on some tempos, but they’re the ones I don’t play that often! At first it was hard to get horn type lines happening. But you hear flamenco players and they smoke most plectrists!

Then I heard Romero and based on his sound and force, I swore he played with a pick, but you could clearly hear his chording was with the fingers. So I was confused. I’ve always used a rest stroke for the single note thing – it’s more full and forceful sounding. Well I discovered Romero uses a kind of bastardized free stroke – it’s pretty much his own method of plucking the string – and he just kills! Once I saw it could be done I knew if I just kept at it I knew I’d start to get it. Gene’s book “Approaching the Guitar” has some great exercises in it for developing this facility. He advocates the rest stroke as well, but he does something that makes so much sense – in addition to “i” and “m”, he uses his “a” finger with the rest stroke for melody! You don’t find that in classical literature, but it makes grabbing notes so much more economical.

As far as harmony and tunes go, there’s really no limit except your imagination. You’ve only got 4 less notes than a piano player can play in a chord and most good piano players won’t use that many anyway, so why do we need them? And there’s so much tonal character you can give to your voicings. To me the most important thing is to get into the character of the tune. I don’t like hearing guys play a tune as an excuse to get to the ad-lib section. Well, let me rephrase that – I don’t look forward to it. There are a few guys who I’ll listen to at a jam session anytime. But for the most part, a tune evokes a certain feeling, mood or purpose. And it doesn’t have to be the composer’s intent either. But whatever that tune says to you – the character of the tune – I want to hear that kept intact when the tune is performed. That’s the only requirement I keep.

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”!

NN: When I first heard “Smokin At The Half Note.” It was given to me as a dub onto a cassette when I was 15. Unit 7 was the first tune and man it just swings from the start. There’s so much fun and joy on that bandstand too.

JGL: What was your first guitar and what are you playing now?

NN: My first guitar was a no name pawnshop steel string acoustic. My first classical guitar was a guild mark 2 that i still have hanging on my bedroom wall. Currently I use a Buscarino Cabaret I’ve had a little over a year. John’s such a great guy – very supportive and helpful and he builds in my opinion some of the best instruments out there. I have a Buscarino Gigmaster archtop for when I need an archtop, and I have an Ernie Ball Music Man “Steve Lukather” solidbody for pop gigs.

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?

NN: Well as far as guitarists go they’ve pretty much been the same group of guys. I was real heavy into Wes at the very beginning but I don’t listen to him that much these days. I loved Johnny Smith too. My main guys were always Charlie, Barney, Herbie Ellis, Jim Hall, Farlow, Django and Howard Roberts. Of course with the exception of Django that all goes back to Charlie Christian. Outside of that group, Gene Bertoncini has been a huge musical influence as well as great encouragement- Jack Wilkins, Romero Lubambo…that’s pretty much my guitar camp.

Outside of the guitar, Prez was the main guy for a long time. And the four brothers sound, so Getz, Cohn, Zoot, all those guys. Brew Moore is my favorite in that camp. He used to go around telling people “anyone who doens’t play like Lester Young is wrong!” That may be a bit extreme but his heart is in the right place! Bobby Hackett (who incidentally was a fair guitarist himself) played some of the most beautiful trumpet solos I ever heard. I love vibes players, Bags of course, Terry Gibbs and especially Cal Tjader. And I’ve always been a huge fan of paul desmond. I went through a period of about 6 months here I listened to nothing but desmond. Shorty Rogers and Shelley Manne too. Speaking of Shelley, I love drummers.

And then the pianists – Shearing has always been at the top of my list. Vince Guaraldi, Bill Evans, Oscar. More recently I’m very excited by Ray Kennedy and Bill Charlap.

JGL: Who are you listening to today (guitarists or non-guitarists)?

NN: A day doesn’t go by I don’t listen to Charlie Byrd at least a little bit. I go through stages where I live with a record for like 6 months before I listen to anything else. My current one is “From Left To Right” which is Bill Evans with orchestra and he’s playing both Steinway Grand and Fender Rhodes. Mickey Leonard did the arrangements and conducts. I love this record so much I recently recorded a few tunes in nod to it.

JGL: Who has been most influential in your life as a Jazz Guitarist and why?

NN: The most influential person to me probably has been Chuck Redd. He’s always been so encouraging and gives great advice. I’ve had a lot of opportunities open to me because of my friendship with him.

JGL: How difficult do you find it making a living as a jazz guitar player, or have you found it to be relatively easy?

NN: Well if all I did was play jazz I’d be in the poor house. I am fortunate I come from a reasonably well off family so I have inherited some things that have kept me on my feet. And I have some real estate interests. And like everyone else I work general business gigs and the like. I also work fairly steady in an R&B band. Obviously I have to play a plectrum style electric guitar. When I was asked to do the gig I had to get some equipment and then learn how to play like that! It’s been great for my plectrum technique though. The bandleader runs the band like a jazz group – every night the tunes are played differently and there’s a lot of improvisation and solo space so it’s been good to me on many levels. But I have to wear earplugs – it gets loud.

But now all my jazz gigs are nice gigs that I look forward to. I do some great concerts here in town and I get to go away and play great concerts out of town. This year I’ve had Ray Kennedy, the Redd Brothers and Harry Allen here for various gigs. And in November, Gene’s coming to play a guitar duet concert with me. So things have been good.

JGL: Did you know early on that music was something you wanted to do as a career choice and if so, what were some of the things you did to make this choice work for you?

NN: When I finally started to sound like I knew what I was doing it began to look viable. Which was good because it was the only thing I was interested in. I make it work because, as people tell me, I’m a “go getter” and I”make things happen”. I guess that’s probably true – I’ve been paid to be on bandstands when i had no business being on anyone’s bandstand! Thankfully those days are over.

JGL: Were your parent(s) and family members supportive of your musical career choice?

NN: My brother is very supportive – almost too supportive. He tells me all the time to drop everything and move to NY. I tell him i want to keep eating and living indoors! My parents have always been hot and cold as far as support goes. They are excited about it when I’m doing well and lately they’ve even been coming to some of my local concerts, but for the most part it’s always supposed to have been just a hobby.

JGL: What was your practice routine like when you were beginning and how has it developed over the years?

NN: It was terrible, then it got better, and then worse! Seriously, I need to get back in the shed. In the beginning it was playing tunes. Then I realized I needed to get technically better. So I focused on technical type things. These days it’s just about preparing materia l – writing arrangements or preparing things for a gig or recording. I’ve decided nothing should be impossible – if I want to play something in an arrangement I won’t simplify it for the sake of playing it. If it’s the right part, I need to figure out how to play it. So a lot of my time is spent figuring out how to play certain things!

JGL: You have studied with some serious and legendary players like Frank Mullen, Jack Wilkins, Gene Bertoncini and Romero Lubambo. Could you talk a bit about the experiences of studying with such prodigious artists?

NN: Well Frank was my main teacher for about 6 years. He lives here in town and although retired and doesn’t play anymore, he still writes and teaches. He came up in the golden age of jazz, and although he was mainly a regular gigging guy- sessions, sideman, restaurant gigs, parties, etc…he made some good friendships with guys like Barney and Charlie and Herb. So I’d get all kinds of stories from him.

As a teacher he was real tough, which is good. He made me strive for things just to get his approval. And I always felt like I was special when I would win his approval, which was rare. I only stopped studying with him because my gigging schedule became too hectic. It was great though – I was the last lesson of the night. So instead of getting a half hour or an hour like most guys, I was there until he was tired and ready to turn in. So we’d play and talk and listen to records for 3, 4, sometimes 5 hours. I can’t think of a better way to spend a Monday night.

I met Jack in NY at a memorial service for Barney. I just went up and asked him for a lesson. He told me to come by the apartment the next day. We just hung out for a few hours listening to records, playing duets and talking. It was real cool and laid back. He has a great mindset and approach to the instrument and music in general.

Gene had told me to check out Romero, so one time when I was in NY I called him up and introduced myself. I asked if we could get together for a lesson. He has to be one of the nicest guys I’ve ever met. I was going to borrow a car and drive out to his place in NJ and he calls me that morning and says “I was thinking about going into the city – give me directions where you are and I’ll just come to your place.”I’m staying at my cousin’s house, so Romero comes over and we just sit and talk and play for like 3 hours. When he gets there he says “I’m not a teacher, I don’t give lessons…what do you want to know?” He’s really the man these days when it comes to Bossa Nova guitar, and he showed me about the various Brazilian rhythms. We played a bunch of tunes and it was a real eye opening experience to me. It helped my Bossa Nova and Samba playing tremendously getting all that from him.

I’ve never actually taken a lesson with Gene. We’ve hung out a bit and we’ve played together informally a number of times. So he’s shown me some things directly and I’ve picked up some things from playing with him. I think he has something really special in his concept I truly wish he were better known. Some people don’t realize what a treasure he is. And he is hands down the nicest guy I’ve ever encountered.

JGL: Do you teach privately and if so, how does one go about studying with you? Is there a particular level of student you are looking for?

NN: I’ve taught in the past, but not much. I’m usually too busy to teach, as is the case now. When the gigs dry up I’ll be wishing I had a roster full of students!

JGL: Could you describe some of your best musical sitautions or experiences and the worst?

NN: There have been many best ones. It usually involves a small to mid-sized audience listening intently. They’re there strictly to hear the music. The band is having a great time and playing excellent music. I’ve had these experiences here at home, at clubs in other cities, and other concerts. They’re the reason I play music.

The worst situations are when the rest of the band doesn’t show up on time, no one’s getting along and no one’s playing their parts right. I remember one gig in particular that pissed me off so much it was the last gig a certain drummer ever did for me. This was a few years back. I was opening for a well known smooth jazz artist in a pretty large concert hall. I had a sub on bass, my good buddy John Lamb. The drummer showed up way late, after repeated calls to his cell phone (which he had and just didn’t answer). The sound guys wouldn’t soundcheck us without the drums, and we missed soundcheck because he showed up 15 minutes before downbeat. I’ve only got to play an hour but my mind is anywhere but on music. It was not a fun night, but I got through it.

JGL: What type of musical situation do you enjoy the most (ie: trio, quartet, duo, solo, etc.)

NN: I love playing solo, that and trio are my main focus these days. I think solo, duo or trio gives the guitar the most ability to show its true potential.

JGL: You have played “side-man” to a few major players like Carl Amudson’s Modern Guitar Quartet, Frank Mullen’s Swinging Guitars and Duke Ellington alumnus trombonist Buster Cooper. Are there any particular stylistic changes that need to be worked out when performing with other artists vis-a-vis the nylon string or do you play electric on these dates?

NN: Well with Carl, I was mainly playing archtop when I joined his group. Towards the end there I had made my switch and made it known to him that I would be playing my nylon string from then on. He responded by transcribing some great guitars arrangements and giving me charlie’s part! So the last few months I was with the group I played exclusively nylon string. Now a lot of those parts Carl wrote were hard to play but I had had them in muscle memory. I had to relearn a lot of that stuff so I could play it and phrase it appropriately while playing the nylon string. I always did hate how loud that band played though, that part was difficult.

I never played in Frank’s band – I might have but I was about 10 years too late. I produced a repressing of a record he made a number of years ago.

When I was with Buster, I was the only chording instrument. Me, bass, drums and Buster. He would just start playing a tune and we’d all fall in. That’s an outdoor gig and the only trouble I had was getting the volume on the acoustic loud enough. Every week I had a different amplifier trying something new out. Other than the volume, the only other issue was that Buster would take some heavy tempos occasionally and I had to figure out how to play them. And I had to figure it out on the job!

JGL: In the same vein as the last question, which do you prefer being, a leader or a sideman? And why?

NN: There are 2 ways to answer that. As a leader I get to play all I want, what I want. So I play what I’m comfortable with, what sounds the best to my ears and what I like the most. As a sideman I play what I’m told to play. And I better play it right. That can force you to work on things you normally wouldn’t. Which is a blessing in disguise.

JGL: Your latest CD “Swinging With the Nate Najar Quartet” is a wonderful session that showcases your playing in a relaxed and swinging context. How many albums do you have as a leader and What was the initial motivator that made you decide to take the recording plunge?

NN: “Swinging…”was my 4th record. It’s my second “good one” I feel. I think I’ll always be proud of it. The first time I made a recording I just felt like it would be fun and I should do it. Never-mind I didn’t play that well. So I made a record.

JGL: There are no original compositions on “Swinging With the Nate Najar Quartet”. Was this a conscious decision not to write for this CD?

NN: Well that disc wasn’t planned. Were were playing gigs in NJ for a few days, so I said “hey lets take the band into a NNY studio and cut a record”. So I made a reservation at the studio and one morning we went to the studio and made a record. Then we went to the hotel, changed and went to the gig. So the record really was just a bunch of tunes we were playing on the gigs. I didn’t mean to release it, it didn’t go to radio, and you can only buy it from my website. It was a low key affair. But I like it.

JGL: As far as I know, and please correct me if I am wrong, “Swinging With the Nate Najar Quartet” as well as some of your other recordings are sold exclusively on your website as well as on CD Baby and at your live performances. How is this type of self-promotion and marketing working out for you and how does it stack up against the “old-school” method of recording and distribution with a label, be it major or otherwise?

NN: Well, “swinging…” is the only one like that. The rest of my recordings (including my new one yet to be released) are available at Amazon, Borders, etc….Jazz labels aren’t selling enough records to be putting out too much new product, and the new product they are putting out they are doing with their established artists. We all know what a sad state the record industry is in.

The good news is that for the jazz market, we’re not in commercial radio. So we can get our product played all across the country. And people who want to buy our CD’s will go to Amazon to buy it. They don’t expect to buy my CD at best buy (although you can special order it there if you want to). Aside from Diana Krall, Miles and Trane, you can’t really find any jazz records at the CD store anyway. Our market buys our CD’s mail order and online. So I don’t feel like I’m hurting in that regard. I just have to come up with the money upfront to make the record. That’s the hard part!

JGL: And speaking of self-promotion, you have a new CD on the way I believe. Would you talk a bit about the new project and is it any different from your other works?

NN: Well I felt it was time to make a trio CD. My first one was a trio, but I was 18, the band wasn’t great and neither was I! This new one, “I’m All Smiles” is a low key disc, but in a different way than my others. I don’t mean to make any musical quality comparisons, but the vibe would be similar to some of the desmond stuff with Jim Hall. I did a few Brazilian type things, including a tune I wrote a few years ago called “Remembering Charlie Byrd”. My arrangement of that was published last year in Just Jazz Guitar too. I did the old folk tune “House of the Rising Sun” as a 5/4 straight 8th groove. And a Jobim Samba also. There’s some solo guitar, a couple of waltzes and some swingers. I’m trying to get a big full sound out of the guitar and that is what I tried to focus on this record. I used my bass player here in Florida, Steve Boisen, Chuck Redd on drums, and as a guest on a few tracks Duduka Da Fonseca on percussion. I’m very excited it’s a nice record. I should have it in my hand by October and it will be on radio and regular distribution around January.

JGL: If you could only pick one individual or group to play with (alive or dead), who would that be and why?

NN: Charlie Byrd…I really love the simplicity of what he plays and yet it always sounds like that’s the right way to do it. I never met him and wish I did for sure.

JGL: Has your impressions and experiences of being a Jazz Guitar player been what you had expected when you first decided to become a musician?

NN: I honestly had no expectations.

JGL: How would you like to see your life unfold in the coming years and what would be needed to get you there?

NN: I’d like to see more people going out to listen to live music in a listening setting, not a background setting. I’d like someone else to pay for the making of my records. I’d like to play more of these nice concerts I’ve recently found myself doing. And I’d like more people to buy my records! On the other side of things, I’m playing so much better today than I was a year ago. And a year ago I said the same thing. As long as I keep getting better I’m happy.

JGL: Where would you like to see jazz guitar be in the coming years?

NN: It’s never been popular. These days guitarists in general have fallen out of favor in lieu of rappers and little girl singers who look skanky. I’d like to find a way to get music to people without labels. Don’t tell them it’s jazz! Maybe they’ll give it a chance then.

JGL: Any advice for the younger guy or gal who is thinking about playing jazz guitar?

NN: Learn to read, learn to write, enjoy and learn from your heroes but don’t copy them note for note (at least not on the gig!). Try to develop your own concept. And most importantly, find a way to make some money so you can keep this up. A job is good, hustling lots of gigs is better.

JGL: Apart from music what other pursuits do you enjoy tackling?

NN: These days it’s all I think about. I love to fish but I haven’t taken the boat out in months. Just too busy.

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.

NN: Well I still have my hand in the real estate development thing. I probably always will, there’s no other way I could afford Buscarino’s guitars! But the guitar has always been my main interest ever sicne I was growing up. When I was little there was talk about me being a lawyer – I guess that might’ve been possible. I’m really not sure.

JGL: Thank you Nate for participating in jazzguitarlife.com. It is most appreciated.

NN: Thank you so much for including me!

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