Avi Rothbard Interview With Jazz Guitar Life

I had a strong Interest In the music of the fifties and sixties. Kenny Burrell was my first pure Jazz Guitar hero – all the others came later on: Barney Kessel, Jim Hal, Joe Pass, Wes Montgomery, Benson, Pat Martino etc. Thanks to these masters, I realized that the best way for me to learn the language of jazz, is by listening to horn players and pianists – I am still following that path today, just like most of today’s favourite guitarists.

Avi Rothbard

Avi Rothbard is a gifted Jazz Guitarist based out of New York City who shares with us his musical background both in Isreal and the U.S., his playing style and influences, and how the “Real Book” made an impact on his playing. A truly inspiring read.

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

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JGL: What geographical area do you live in?

AR: I live in New York City.

JGL: How long have you been playing guitar for?

AR: I have been playing professionally for about eighteen years.

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

AR: My first electric guitar was a Ibanez Artist AM-50 which was a right handed semi hollow body guitar. At present, I use a lefty costume Heritage H -550(17″) and H-575(16″) and I do like switching between them from time to time, depends on the situation. I also started to use the Ibanez AF-85 for most of my organ gigs.

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? How did you find your way to this particular music and instrument?

AR: I got into guitar playing when I was in my early teens. I had a nylon string guitar long time before I took my first lesson. My first teacher, Giora Rosen dedicated my first three years of guitar studying to intermediate level of classical pieces by Sor, Carruli, Jullianni, easy pieces by Baden Powell and Jack Marshall’s arrangements of Brazilian classics by Jobim/ Bonfa. My interest in jazz guitar came as a direct result of that experience. I fell in love with the Brazilian chordal concepts and therefore, tried to enhance my ear- training and technique within this music.

My parents bought me my first electric when I was sixteen years old. My first electric heroes were Carlos Santana, Peter Green and David Gilmore (Pink Floyd); but I also loved seventies R&B and Disco records – I was constantly trying to play their bass lines on my classical guitar. I never took any formal bass lessons until the time after my service in the army, but it influenced my musical taste a lot.

I started listening to a lot of Jazz Rock, and had many records by George Duke, Billy Cobham , Weather Report, Bill Bruford and Frank Zappa. It is quite surprising that I got into Be Bop only later. At that stage, I had a strong Interest In the music of the fifties and sixties. Kenny Burrell was my first pure Jazz Guitar hero – all the others came later on: Barney Kessel, Jim Hal, Joe Pass, Wes Montgomery, Benson, Pat Martino etc. Thanks to these masters, I realized that the best way for me to learn the language of jazz, is by listening to horn players and pianists – I am still following that path today, just like most of today’s favourite guitarists.

JGL: You now live in New York but you were originally born in Israel and you had what seems to be a very promising career going on there with teaching at the University level and giging in high profile settings. Could you please talk a bit about the experiences of being a working musician in Israel and why did you finally settle down in New York?

AR: I admit that I was pretty comfortable in Israel; I was making a good living teaching privately, playing, performing and recording . But after a while, I felt that I needed to extend my knowledge and learn more music. Most importantly, I wanted to play with more people. The opportunity came with a scholarship from Berklee College in Boston, Mass. As soon as I graduated, it was a natural thing for me to move to New York City.

JGL: Did New York live up to your expectations?

AR: When it comes to art, New York City is a great inspiration, and it has been this way for many years- long before I was even born… it is true that Jazz looks and sounds different from decade to decade, and personally, I believe that this city has such a tremendous mass of talent of all styles; there is almost too much to choose from- and I feel very blessed to be able to have a taste of it.

JGL: How popular is Jazz in Israel and are there any Jazz Guitarists from that area of the world that deserve international recognition?

AR: There is an audience for Jazz in Israel, though I wish this music would have more airplay in the public media. It is not main stream music, but it is on the rise. After all, Jazz is an American art form. There is a growing demand for it among young music students who are motivated to listen to the right stuff from an early age. These students love Be Bop and they realize that by mastering this kind of music, they can prove proficiency on their instrument and their musicality.

There are some great active guitarists in Israel and some of them do play in and around Europe. Gil Dor was my first Israeli jazz guitar hero. He currently performs all over the world with the singer Noa. He’s a true complete jazz guitarist. Yossi Levi is a guitarist/composer who has a strong identity and his style has influences beyond Jazz. Amos Hadani is another good example of that. In Jerusalem, there are veterans like Steve Peskoff and Elon Torgeman who had a positive impact on me while I was a young freshman in the Rubin Academy. Meir Ben Michael is another great straight ahead guitarist based around the Tel Aviv area. Jazz guitarists in general should check out the website of Danny Adler, who’s one of the first Israeli Be Bop guitar players.

JGL: According to your bio, you received a scholarship from The Berklee College Of Music in 1995 and “…while attending college…won the Jimmy Hendrix Award, William Leavitt Award and the Boston Jazz society Competition. He also [had] been selected to play with the 1997 Monk Institute Band at the Aspen Jazz Festival”. Those are some wonderful accomplishments and no doubt well deserved. How focused were you on achieving these goals and what kind of impact have these experiences had on your musical and professional life?

AR: Honestly, I never really had any hopes regarding these awards, since there were so many other talented and great guitarists around me. I believe that when you are well focused, motivated and goal oriented – and you work really hard towards your goals in life – you may achieve whatever you wish. Yes, the road may be too long and quite bumpy at times, but when you have passion and a strong will, you can overcome difficult obstacles. These awards were very helpful and rewarding towards achieving the goal of graduating the academic course work and I got a great exposure and recognition throughout the College and Boston. I would like to thank Berklee Guitar Department and the Monk Institute for this opportunity.

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 out?

AR: I always knew that music was what I wanted to do, and that this is an essential part in my life. All I was thinking about was to take care of my music enough so that it will take care of me! And what I did was follow my instincts and live my own truth. I tried to be around musicians that I liked to play and hang out with whenever I could. From then and on, things just happened by themselves, kind of taking place at the right time and moments.

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

AR: My parents are the greatest! They always believed in me and my music.
Both of my sisters were also very supportive throughout my life. My parents, sisters and my wife are people who love and appreciate art highly. With the love and the support that they provide, it’s always interesting to hear their productive and honest critics about my music.

JGL: What was your practice routine like when you were beginning and what is it like now? Are there specific areas that you work on or do you just play through tunes?

AR: In the first years, I would divide my practicing time between playing easy classical pieces and scale exercises from flute and violin books. I have practiced at least two hours a day. I also played Beatles songs and that was more like the fun part for me. I had all kind of songbooks by many different artists, but everything changed when one of my teachers introduced me to the “Book” – The Real Book. Since then, and practically until now, I love practicing tunes, and all the exercises that I choose to do are derived from that. When it comes to improvising, it changes for me all the time. One can spend his life just practicing different devices of improvising on 12 bar Blues or any tune that can dictate its own exercises. All you have to ask yourself is: What Tempo? What key? And what kind of sound/timber and then you find out that you cannot play F# scale as good as you thought.

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

AR: It depends. My personal experience is that I always had to play a lot of gigs as an accompanist in order to make a living playing Jazz or any other music. Right now I teach and play guitar and I try to balance between the two. Music is the best job that I could hope for myself. It gets hard only if you are not having fun playing or teaching.

JGL: How do you go about searching for gigs or do they come to you now that you have a reputation as a jazz guitarist? And what have you found in your experience that makes looking for gigs easier?

AR: As years go by, my reputation as a leader and an accompanist is growing slowly but surely. So it does get easier. At times, it is difficult to book gigs for my band in certain clubs because the decisions of the club owners, unfortunately, are not based on the music. It can get really political sometimes so one must have a self endurance and make sure he does not get too personal about it. My suggestion is just move on to the next one.

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

AR: There were so many great musical moments in my life, with so many settings and so much fun… I guess the best musical situation that I had recently been was with my band in “Fat Cat”. We had a great supportive crowd and the music was swinging. My most recent worst situation was few years ago, when I had an audition for a really great band. Unfortunately, I was real sick with a BAD flu. I could not even tune my guitar since I could not hear anything; Reading music was out of the question. Lesson learned: Never take an important audition when you are not 100% healthy.

JGL: You are a major exponent of jazz education and along with teaching at Berklee and other fine institutions you also teach privately. How does one go about studying with you? Is there a particular level of student you are looking for?

AR: I love teaching Jazz Guitar and jazz improv and I also teach beginners as well. Anyone who wishes to study with me can always contact me through my website.

JGL: Are there any common issues or problems that you encounter regularly when beginners first start out learning jazz guitar, and how do you go about resolving such issues?

AR: There are several common issues that occur: First, most of the students do not have a sufficient history of listening to jazz music. I try to guide them to listen to certain examples of tunes that we deal with. Another common problem is time and tempos. Most of beginner students have a tendency to rush tempos, so I combine some work with a metronome or a drum machine. That fixes most of problems. Many beginner students are interested in the soloing aspect of Jazz improv, but not enough in the chordal and the comping aspect. All I tell them is that the golden rule is: “If you can’t comp for it, you can’t solo on it. How would you “hear” the changes if you can’t play them?”

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?

AR: Transcribing and analyzing Be Bop solos, especially the music of Charlie Parker. It has all the “goods” in it and it is the foundation of the modern jazz language. Through Bird’s music, it’s easier to make the connection between any modern music that came later on, with the swing aspect of it. In my opinion, that’s what gives the conviction.

JGL: Apart from the obvious, which is gaining knowledge and facility on one’s instrument, is there anything else you hope that the student of Jazz guitar gets from studying with you?

AR: I would like them to have an attitude for groove and time keeping. When they master that, they will be able to make any band sound good. Eventually, they will work .

JGL: Who were your influences on jazz guitar when you were beginning, and have they stayed the same or have they changed over the years? Who are you listening to today (guitarists or non-guitarists)?

AR: As I mentioned, I started with fusion so I would listen to Mahavishnu, Pat Metheny, Scofield, Stern, Abercrombie. However, I never transcribed any Jazz guitarist before hearing Kenny Burrell , Wes, Benson and Martino. I really wanted to do research on that style for myself. I needed to figure it out as much as I could. The Jazz music that I like listening to is CDs of Monk, Coltrane, Joe Henderson, Woody Shaw, McCoy Tyner , Mobley… too many. But I am also trying to listen to other styles of music as much as I can.

JGL: You also play bass and teach it as well. Has being able to double on bass increased your musical worth in terms of getting gigs and would you recommend others pick up the bass or another instrument to add to their “job” skills?

AR: I did work a lot and still do work with an electric bass, and since moving to New York I have been working mostly as a guitarist. I never really tried to market myself as a bass player but I still use it when I record or teach, so that keeps me in a good shape. I also think that it is beneficial to double on an instrument-musically and financially.

JGL: Let’s talk a bit about your latest CD “Twin Song”. First off, how did this record come to be and was it your original intent to feature all original compositions or did that just happen?

AR: Midlantic Records had a pretty good radio airplay for my first release “Going Somewhere”. It stayed on the “Jazz Week” charts for quite a while. It was a nice surprise considering that most Jazz DJs have not heard of me before. So I think that was one of the main reasons that David Eyges and Doug Metz decided to make another CD with me a year later. It was one of my ideas to make an all original album. I tried to compose tunes that contains a slightly challenging harmony but with relatively memorably melodies, so the music can be approachable to more listeners beyond Jazz. I was very pleased that David Eyges approved that idea. He also thought we should do another organ album and it was much more doable to take the same unit of the previous CD within the time frame we worked with.

JGL: How different is “Twin Song” from your first CD as a leader and did you find that there was some growth as an artist from the first CD to the second?

AR: I thought my style had changed a lot in a year and there was a lot of growth. it has been more than a year since I recorded Twin Song and I think I sound much better now because I know even more than before, what NOT to play.

JGL: On “Twin Song” you play in the classic organ trio format. Is this your favorite group setting or is there others that you prefer (i.e.: trio, quartet, duo, solo, etc.)?

AR: I love playing in a trio situation, whether if it is an organ or bass trio with drums. it is little different sound wise but I love both settings. I also like playing in a Horn quartet with bass and drums. In this kind of setting, I have a lot of room for creativity and freedom in my comping .

JGL: Your playing style on “Twin Song” reminds me of early Benson and Wes, with a nice helping of Pat Martino. How much of an influence have these guitarists had your playing if any?

AR: Lots of influences! These are the masters of line building. Their influence on the Jazz guitar world is enormous. I still have a reference of their styles in my playing but I feel I am getting more towards finding my own identity. The objectives are still the same, which is blending Be Bop and modern improve approaches with R&B influences.

JGL: What goes through your head when you are blowing over the changes to a tune and where does the inspiration come from?

AR: What I am trying to do is compose on the spot. It is always a matter of balance and space and it varies from situation to situation. The devices are always there to practice with: Lines vs. motif developing form division…. and the list goes on and on. So I try not to think about all that. I just let my ears and instincts take me to where ever I go and make sure it comes from my heart as well. I believe that if the groove is happening, and people are listening to each other, everything just happens by itself. I basically look for the groove first.

JGL: The great Jazz writer Bill Milkowski wrote that you have “…an unerring sense of time and a natural gift for syncopation which allows him to navigate the changes in a manner that can only be described as hip.” Was this “unerring sense of time and a natural gift for syncopation” something you had to work on or does it come naturally? And if it is something that you have had to work on, what kind of exercises or techniques did you utilize to get to this point?

AR: It is true that certain people have the a natural gifts of time keeping more or less than the others, but any musician has to develop it on his own. One has to keep coming back and maintain this all the time. Rhythm is confidence. Therefore, I always keep coming back to it and record my self playing different tempos. It gives me the real picture about my playing. I would suggest anybody to practice with and without a metronome and record it. Although it’s hard to listen to yourself in the beginning, analyzing your own playing is most rewarding.

JGL: What do you feel is the most difficult obstacle to overcome when wanting to be a working Jazz Guitarist?

AR: I think music is very similar to any other types of jobs in the sense that we deal with people. Sometimes you find yourself on the bandstand with individuals that do not really appreciate your playing and energy. Some people have great energy but they lack the tools to respond and interact musically. This could be a very discouraging experience if you have to endure it for three or four hours. Fortunately enough, this does not occur too often, but it is good to be prepared in case it does.

JGL: Almost every musician, no matter their level and professional stature, has their own insecurities to deal with when it comes to music and playing their instrument. What, if any, insecurities do you face on your instrument and how do you work at getting over them?

AR: I consider myself a fairly secure musician because I think I know my limits pretty well. When I do meet a point of insecurity in my playing, I try to fix it right away by focusing my practicing time on the problem. It usually deals with sight reading (Yes. me too), new charts or playing different style of groove patterns which are not as common.

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

AR: It’s in pretty good shape now. Jazz guitarists know a lot more harmony and there are a lot of great players out there. I think I would like to see more jazz guitarists combining these harmonic concepts with some more genuine sense of swing.

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

AR: Practice as much as you can, listen to as many records, enjoy the process and be patient.

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

AR: I love science, history, nature, electronics, basketball and reading.

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.

AR: I would probably choose electronics or car repair. I use to play Basketball but I was not tall enough for that anyway.

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

AR: Thanks for having me Lyle. You have a most wonderful site for all us Jazz Guitar Players!

Please consider spreading the word about Avi and Jazz Guitar Life by sharing this interview amongst your social media pals and please feel free to leave a comment. We’d love to hear from you 🙂

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