John Basile Interview with Jazz Guitar Life

“I’ve always been drawn to the chordal aspect of the guitar but in an improvised way – not in worked out “chord melody solos”. Much like learning scales I love to build vocabulary of voicings that can be used to represent a numbers of sounds and try to call on them freely during a tune – I call them “harmonic synonyms”…”

John Basile

John Basile is a wonderul Jazz Guitarist from New York City who shares with us his musical background, playing style, association with Jazz Guitar legend John Abercrombie, and more. A truly inspiring read.

JazzGuitarLife.com Interview with John Basille: This interview was conducted via email September, 2005. Check out his website at underhilljazz.com.

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JGL: Hi John and thanks for taking the time to talk with Jazz Guitar Life.com. First off, how old are you?

JB: 50 this year.

JGL: What geographical area do you live in?

JB: Originally from Boston I’ve lived in the NY metropolitan area since 1979.

JGL: How long have you been playing guitar for?

JB: Since I was about 15.

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

JB: My first was an old Guild Starfire III but I also eventually got a Gibson Byrdland that I had for years and wish I still had now – a very cool instrument. For the last 10 years or so my main instrument is a custom Tom Doyle. Tom is a wonderful luthier who also designs the pickups as well. It’s sort of a thin body, spruce archtop model, very versatile, that can function in any situation. It can really crank, play soft “acoustic” Freddie Green style, as well as get a nice clean and dark sound at any volume level.

JGL: At what age did you first get into guitar playing and were you interested in jazz from the beginning or were there other musical interests before jazz?

JB: In Boston at that time there were lots of “show bands”. 8-10 piece show groups that worked 7 nights week playing cover dance music etc. It was mostly funk/”soul” music of the day and lots of fun. That led me into a lifelong love of organ groups and working in that context for years and opening the door to jazz/straight-ahead influences.

JGL: What excited you about jazz guitar or jazz in general when you were young?

JB: Really the time feel and a real general excitement and joy in hearing the playing of people like Wes and Jimmy Smith, Cannonball, Miles, etc. etc. It felt like only a very select, privileged few had access to this special music and I wanted to “throw my hat into the ring” and see what could happen.

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?

JB: I really identified with the darker, warmer sound of “older”players like Wes, Kenny Burrell etc. at that time and not the “Boston” jazz guitar of the day (kind of a thinner, chorusy, single line approach). It wasn’t until I truly discovered Jim Hall and really understood his playing that a real total conception of what was possible on the guitar came into view for me.

Jim plays the “whole” guitar with an incredible blend of lyricism and composition that defies comparison. I love the way his playing has evolved over the years as other players of his generation (really great ones) sort of stayed put conceptually. “Less is more” and the way he achieves intensity in a solo by way of harmonic, chordal density and not by way of volume and playing more notes speaks clearly to his mastery of the instrument and maturity as a total musician – not just a guitarist. We got close in the late 80’s and I consider the times we got together socially and played duo some of my most important experiences. He’s a good friend and a continued big influence.

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

JB: Mostly pianists as I really think of the guitar like a piano in many respects and I’m constantly trying to emulate a “right hand/left hand” approach to playing. I really like Brad Melhdau and I’ve been checking out old Wynton Kelly lately and always Bill Evans. When just hanging out it’s usually a good singer as that’s how I learn new tunes – usually from a vocal version by a singer who “dig deep” like Sinatra to truly get a strong conception of the melody.

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?

JB: I felt then and still do that as strong an education as possible was essential so I ended up both at Berklee College in Boston and eventually graduated from the New England Conservatory of Music. During those years I was always playing in clubs any kind of gig possible. I took up the seven-string guitar back in the early 70’s to specifically develop as an accompanist in duo situations as most small gigs were usually a duo for financial reasons.

I also became very aware of becoming a good accompanist and really what that means as a guitarist. I tried to work with good singers and really worked hard at the art of accompaniment. I still feel that’s one of the hardest things to really “get” effectively. In many respects it’s easy to be an accomplished soloist and get attention etc. etc. but the idea of effectively making someone else sound good and making the subtle, selfless musical decisions needed to make that happen has always turned me on and stood as an ideal to go for.

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

JB: Very much and I’ve been very fortunate in that regard. My father really “caught the jazz bug” with me over the years so we spent a lot of time together during those early years.

JGL: In a previous discussion you mentioned, “I have been ‘off the scene’ for about 8-9 years studying and working in the field of radiology and currently manage a radiology department here in NY”. If it is not too personal, why were you “off the scene” for so long? Do you feel it hurt your career or the possibility of becoming better known and what are you doing now to get back in the scene?

JB: I’m still not sure what exactly the “scene” is, as it seems very intangible sometimes but back in 1994 I had had a long series of shall we say disappointing events that occurred regarding the music business specifically that caused some real soul-searching as to who I was and wanted to become musically and personally for the rest of my career. Although I was not sure what I could possibly do or offer other than play/teach music etc, I somehow gravitated toward medical imaging and ended up in x-ray school – an initial step into an exciting field. This led to becoming an MRI technologist and eventually teaching MRI and managing a number of imaging centers here in N.Y. – a much bigger, longer, and time-consuming journey than I ever expected.

It’s really been a great trip as I’ve gotten exposed to a completely different world in a field that has an incredible future. Technically it really appeals to that side of me (digital technology in medical imaging) and personally the “people skills” piece is so very tied to how/why/we try to communicate in playing jazz music. There are tremendous parallels between the two fields that I ‘m still discovering and it feels like a gift in having a chance to experience those opportunities in two completely different areas.

Medical imaging has definitely taken me off of the traditional career path in music but in the last few years coming back to playing more often really feels totally different. Many of the heavy “career expectations” are gone that foster a lot of negative emotion and playing is really fun again. Underhill Jazz is a long-range goal I have to release music and educational projects in the next few years.

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

JB: The best are any situation that people are really listening and the sound is good. If you have any doubt in the connection between spirituality and improvisation it’s clear as day when those factors are in effect. It’s truly the convergence of years of technical study merging with an “in the moment” experience with an audience. Conversely during the journey of making a living as a working musician we often end up in less than ideal situations where you need to draw on whatever professional skills it takes to get through. For me, a common downside is typically noise. Ambient noise in a performance setting or (although rarely for me these days) noise/distractions in my head that block the path to those “in the moment” moments, if you will.

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

JB: Each for different reasons but probably duo is my favorite. I learned to play by just literally sitting down with players much more experienced than myself but in duo contexts. It’s a real challenge but one with huge payoffs in learning how to play with a more conversational approach. You need to become aware of how to structure both your accompaniment and solos simultaneously so as to “tell a story”. Otherwise the music can get reduced to certain sameness. Composition and form become of paramount importance – it has to, as there’s no place to hide!

JGL: You are a major exponent of jazz education having designed the original Jazz Guitar curriculum at The New School in NYC. Plus, you are also a very in-demand clinician throughout Europe and have created an instructional video with John Abercrombie. How did musical education become so much an important part of your life and how do you approach teaching? What were the kind of things you brought to the New School?

JB: I try to break down the major components of any topic (chordal/single-line improvisation/listening etc.) and reassemble them to the student so the process can become clear. That can sometimes be a real challenge as it forces you, the teacher, to codify each piece of what you do and put a logic to it so as to make sense to a student. Lot’s of jazz education can get reduced to ‘let’s just play a tune” and although that can be a huge learning tool in itself most students of jazz guitar I’ve found, need something more to take with them as a “lesson”. I felt a strong addition for guitar education was a sight-reading/ensemble class that I had started.

As we all know guitarists are notoriously weak in that area so I brought in materials from lot’s sources that drew on classical and recording session music that forced everyone to focus on an ensemble approach and really learning to read across the whole fingerboard no matter what style of music you aspire to.

JGL: In your experience as an educator, what are the most important elements of jazz guitar study that young people (or any student of jazz guitar) need to acquire early on to sustain the dream of becoming a professional musician? Are there any common issues or problems that you encounter regularly that happen when beginners first start out learning jazz guitar?

JB: Perseverance, consistency, and a sense of humor. Jazz guitar can become so “deep” that you can lose your perspective and get discouraged easily. You have to be relentless in your quest to keep learning but still have fun. In terms of starting out one thing I think helps is always try to look at anything on the guitar in more than one way. In other words if you find a voicing or phrase you like, learn to play it in a different position. It’s amazing how your knowledge of the guitar will increase just by “repeating yourself” in a less familiar area of the fingerboard. After a while you’ll do it automatically and the instrument can suddenly just “open up”.

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?

JB: Of course. Anyone can contact me at the underhilljazz website: http://underhilljazz.com. Most people come to me who already have some basic knowledge and I feel I can be most effective when they know basic harmony, scales etc. etc.

JGL: Apart from the instructional video with John Abercrombie you also have a new CD with you and Abercrombie in a duo setting. How did your association with Abercrombie come about and what is it about Abercrombie that made you want to work with him apart from other guitar players?

JB: John is one of my favorite players and people. He embodies all the elements of a truly great jazz player – deeply swinging, an original “point of view”, always listening with a big sense of humor and great technique. I thought that many people don’t know John’s playing in a “straight-ahead” context so it was great fun to do something with him kind of in that context – thus our CD Animations.

JGL: Speaking of guitar duos, you will be playing in a duo setting with NY jazz guitarist Joe Giglio in early September, 2005. What are your thoughts about the guitar duo and how do you go about playing in such a situation given the sonic similarities?

JB: As I mentioned before, the duo is where it all sort of began for me and is still the most challenging of contexts for exactly the reasons you mentioned – that “sonic sameness”. Thus, you need to think compositionally and always be listening. Perhaps switching from finger style to pick, walking bass lines, “Freddie Green” style comping, improvising single lines simultaneously, etc. etc. Obviously it all needs to make sense in a musical context within a particular tune say, and that’s the challenge. Duo playing can really represent a compilation of all you know and want to say as a guitarist but most importantly really delineating your total point of view as a jazz player. I hope that makes sense, as it can be a truly vast context to play in.

JGL: Many of the jazz guitarists I have interviewed and talk with have day jobs which allow them to do what they love, which is to play jazz guitar, but it also provides them and their families a steady pay check. What are your thoughts on this subject and will you be doing both the day gig and the jazz guitar gig or will you be focusing more on one than the other?

JB: That’s a really practical question for all musicians to answer individually and the answer can change dependant on your life’s demands at the moment. Years ago I totally bought in to my identity as a “jazz guitarist” almost to a fault in that I let no other force distract me from that goal – guitar, guitar, guitar. In doing so (while necessary to develop that individual point of view we spoke about) you block other areas of growth in your life. For me, now, my day gig is still offering up a huge potential for learning (both technically and personally) so I really feel that enhances the music and I’ll continue that at least for now.

JGL: Your technique is based on a finger-style approach where the guitar is approached more like a piano where comping chord fragments and melodies are played simultaneously. Was this how you have always approached the guitar?

JB: It really developed from listening to pianists and trying to emulate that concept/feel on the guitar. I also did a lot of solo gigs and found that roots and fifths were often times completely unnecessary to improvising in a solo context so I set out to systematically explore two/three note voicings that create the impression of fuller harmony with a much more swinging approach.

By the way in solo playing the “beat” rules so anything you can harmonically imply, keeping that swing priority really sounds great. It’s much easier to insert smaller voicings that punctuate the “groove” rather than big, fat, ponderous voicings that actually bog down the music. Less is always more here and this concept promotes playing a lot less notes (you technically can’t physically play as much) and we all need pointers as guitarists to do that.

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

JB: In the beginning like most people, hours, and hours – totally essential to master certain technique. I would do an hour or so of just sight-reading, then an hour of specific technical or harmonic idea I was working on, and then tunes – either new ones or applying new stuff to older material. Then, after many years, and as you play more gigs etc. practicing can be more of the experience of preparing yourself to play in performance. In other words it may not involve the guitar at all or often times less of it. Getting your mind clear is most important and whatever that takes for you individually is paramount.

JGL: In your bio it states that “John believes that the harmonic aspect of the guitar has not been explored to its fullest and strives to exploit this area in all live performances and teaching”. Could you expand on this statement?

JB: I’ve always been drawn to the chordal aspect of the guitar but in an improvised way – not in worked out “chord melody solos”. Much like learning scales I love to build vocabulary of voicings that can be used to represent a numbers of sounds and try to call on them freely during a tune – I call them “harmonic synonyms” and there’s lots on the guitar. Lenny Breau’s playing pointed to what was possible in this area and I really like Mick Goodricks book, “The Advancing Guitarist” as well.

JGL: Could you talk a bit about how you approach a tune improvisationally? Are there worked out patterns, or is it right off the top of your head?

JB: Both, in that we all have a working knowledge of what we know on the fingerboard and no one play 100% of totally inspired content all the time. Like great cooking – you take some ingredients that you know as “yours” and try some different combinations in putting them together in a new creative combination. Then, if you get moments of real inspiration and you find yourself playing somewhere on the instrument or something previously unknown – great! That’s what it’s all about. Years of practicing the essentials – chords, scales (vertically and horizontally), tunes etc. still rules however before you can experience the freedom of basically forgetting about all that and just playing.

JGL: You have played live and or recorded with some top name jazz singers such as Peggy Lee, Sylvia Syms, Rosemary Clooney, Mark Murphy and Tony Bennett and have also performed with jazz legends George Mraz, Tom Harrell, John Abercrombie, Red Mitchell, Grady Tate and the Great Basie Eight including Clark Terry, Buddy Tate and “Sweets” Edison. How did these associations come about and what helped you get the gigs? Was there lots of competition?

JB: Although I felt really ready for each of these opportunities there was a certain random chance to each setting as well. That’s why it’s essential to always be musically ready – ready for whatever may come up because often we are not in control of when opportunities will present. Just being around NY was/is a huge help as well. You never know….

JGL: Your debut CD as a leader, “Very Early” was a favorite of mine (and still is) when I first began exploring jazz guitar back in the very early 80’s and I’m pleased to see that your catalogue of recorded material has grown to nine CD’s as a leader. Is “Very Early” still available? I’ve worn my copy out, and how has your recording career helped in establishing your presence in the jazz guitar community?

JB: Thanks for the kind comments and unfortunately “Very Early” has been out of print for years but I certainly have fond memories of doing it. Recording (especially your own music) is somewhat of a crapshoot. I’ve never really had a “record deal” in the traditional sense but always managed to put out projects after completion in some form or another. The problem with giving up your project is most jazz labels will get sold/swallowed up by a larger conglomerate etc. and the project goes out of print and you don’t own the master any more. With the internet and lower costs of digital production today I find it much more enticing to release, nurture, develop, your own projects that will last remain yours – for better or for worse. I would caution though don’t necessarily expect to make money at least initially. Sometimes the reality is a recording project can be just an additional calling card to your overall musical “package” that you bring to the table, and today that’s essential.

JGL: You now have your own record label “Underhill Jazz”, and have released two records on this label so far “It Was A Very Good Year” and the Abercrombie/Basile duo album “Animations“. What was the impetus to start your own record label and how is it working out for you so far? What are your future plans for Underhill Jazz? Are you looking for talent or is it more of a personal venture?

JB: Underhill Jazz will definitely continue in that we’ll probably do one project a year for now. I have some DVD ideas from an educational standpoint as well that I hope to put together on the next project. Initially a home for my own projects I do hope to release others on Underhill in the future.

JGL: You have recorded a theme album for King Records in Japan that is all Sinatra tunes where you play alongside jazz greats Michael Brecker, Grady Tate, and once again John Abercrombie. How did this album come to pass and has it made it stateside? What was the response both publicly and critically?

JB: I’ve always been a huge Sinatra fan and his “great American songbook” has been a constant source of new tunes, interesting phrasing etc. etc. for years. I always wanted to put together a project of “today’s” jazz players interpreting that material and thought it to be a good commercial idea as well (this was prior to Sinatra’s passing and before any of the subsequent tributes). Unfortunately after almost a year of trying I could not get it released here in the States but King Records in Japan put it out. Since that time I think Musical Heritage still has it available as a mail order item. I’d love to approach a Volume II of that with a real budget – Mmmm…. maybe a future Underhill project.

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

JB: I’d love to be in Las Vegas in 1966 playing Freddie Green’s chair during the recording of “Sinatra at The Sands” w/ Count Basie’s Band. What an ass-kicking groove all around with a real joyous vibe. And stunning, live, one take, Sinatra performances as well…. just a crazy thought after recently hearing “Fly Me To The Moon” and “You Make Me Feel So Young” again recently…

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?

JB: I think so. I certainly have no regrets as my experiences and travels here have changed my perspectives on lots of things in my life. I spend lots of time around non-musicians lately and I can see a huge gapping hole in people’s experience’s that deeply affect their views on the life and the world in general. Guitarists and jazz musicians in general have a very unique “take” on things that I appreciate more and more as I get older.

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

JB: I recently heard Wayne Kranz play (after many years) and love what he is doing. Sort of combining a fingerstyle, open, funk feel with lots of chordal input in a trio setting.

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

JB: By all means go for it. Whether professionally or just as a hobby. It will change your life in ways you can’t possibly see initially – all for the better.

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

JB: I’d love to study film. What an incredible medium to communicate to people ideas, emotions etc. etc. Also I’m a big boxing fan and want to get involved with being a professional boxing judge. I’ve had that on the burner for a few years and look forward to pursuing it in the next few years.

JGL: Thank you John for participating on Jazz Guitar Life. It is most appreciated.

JB: My pleasure Lyle.

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