Cecil Alexander Interview with Jazz Guitar Life

“I didn’t necessarily know it right from the beginning. It wasn’t until I was 13 or 14 that I decided I wanted to stick with it and make a career out of music. Between teaching, gigging, recording, and getting to know musicians on the scene (wherever that may be), I’ve been able to make it work.”

Cecil Alexander

I “met” Cecil Alexander like the majority of us, through his various social media accounts and was taken right away by his technique and chilled vibe. It took me a while to get to him but I was very pleased when he agreed to do this interview. In it he shares his background, his influences, his foray into the competition scene and so much more. So sit back and enjoy what Cecil has to say. Thank you 🙂

JGL: Thank you Cecil for taking the time to talk to Jazz Guitar Life. First off, if we can get into a little background about you that would be great. How old are you?

CA: Thanks so much for having me! I just turned 27 at the end of October.

JGL: Now, for those who are unaware of you, could you give Jazz Guitar Life readers an elevator pitch of who Cecil Alexander is?

CA: Sure thing, I’m a guitarist and composer that loves bebop, blues, swing, and groove. I’m originally from a small town in Michigan called Muskegon. I went to Berklee College of Music and studied Jazz Composition, and I’m currently an Assistant Professor there in the guitar department.

JGL: Whereabouts are you located?

CA: I’m currently living in Boston. My wife is finishing her Master’s at New England Conservatory, and I started a teaching job here in September. We were living in New Jersey prior to the move here.

JGL: How old were you when you picked up the guitar and were you interested in jazz from the beginning or were there other musical interests before jazz? How did you find your way to this particular music and instrument and did you get any “weird looks” from your fellow Muskegons along the way…lol?

CA: I picked up guitar at 8 years old after seeing Marty Mcfly play Johnny B. Goode on a red 345 in Back to the future… I thought that was the coolest thing I had ever seen. After that I begged my parents for a guitar for my birthday. They were really big music fans, my dad especially, so I heard and absorbed a lot of the music they played around the house: Grover Washington, George Benson, Miles Davis, Boney James, Marvin Gaye, Hugh Masekela, and many others. The first artists that I discovered on my own were mainly blues artists: Albert King, BB King, Freddie King, Albert Collins, and Buddy Guy. Later I found Hendrix and listened to him exclusively for 2 or 3 years.

After playing for about 8 years, I attended the 5 week summer program at Berklee College of Music, and had a great teacher, Curt Shumate, who introduced me to Grant Green, Wes Montgomery, and Kenny Burrell, who quickly became my favorites (and still are to this day!) The way that he presented their material really resonated with me. Curt did a great job of meeting me where I was at musically, and he showed me how I could expand and study this music in an honest and organic way. After that summer, I went back home determined to practice my tail off for the whole school year and apply to Berklee for the following Fall semester. I was so locked into practicing that any weird looks I got from my friends or classmates went unnoticed!

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)?

CA: Grant Green, Charlie Christian, Wes Montgomery, Kenny Burrell, and George Benson were my top 5 favorite guitarists when I started learning jazz, and they still are today. Over the years, I’ve also spent a lot of time listening to and studying Bobby Broom, Russell Malone, Jimmy Ponder, Pat Martino, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Peter Bernstein, Dan Wilson, and Jesse Van Ruller. These days, I’ve been listening to a lot of John Coltrane, in particular the album Live in Seattle (released in 1971). This is my favorite John Coltrane album and it features some truly otherworldly sounding music. I’ve also been spending a lot of time with the recordings of Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, Horace Parlan (particularly the albums Happy Frame of Mind and Up and Down), Hampton Hawes, Booker Ervin, Jaki Byard, and Art Tatum. Grant Green is always on rotation as well.

JGL: In the same vein, who has been most influential in your life as a Jazz Guitarist and why?

CA: I’d have to say my parents. My dad was a huge music fan, but never learned an instrument. He had an incredible work ethic and a passion for music that made him feel something, both of which I would say influenced my approach to what I do. My mom is also a huge music fan and has always done everything she can to keep me encouraged and motivated. I thankfully never had to worry about my parents trying to dissuade me from pursuing music, they were always just happy to see me doing what makes me happy.

JGL: What was your first guitar and what are you playing now? As well, can you talk a bit about that gorgeous arch top I’ve seen you play?

CA: I believe my first guitar was a First Act acoustic that my parents got from Walmart for $30 or so. I practiced on that for a year or two until I got my first electric- a Squier Strat that unfortunately had to be put out of commission after a botched setup. After that I went through several other Strats, Les Pauls and a PRS that I played all through college until I bought the parts for my telecaster. That was my dream guitar at the time: A Thinline tele with a thick neck and a humbucker instead of the regular tele neck pickup. For a while that was the only electric guitar I owned and I used it for everything. In 2020 I bought an L5 style archtop on Reverb from a Russian builder named Alexander Polyakov. It’s the first nice archtop I’ve owned and I’d say that the bulk of my playing time is spent on this axe. It caught my eye because of the L5 specs coupled with the split-block Super 400 inlays and the handmade Charlie Christian pickup. It plays like a dream and is currently set up with 16-56 gauge flat wound strings and low action.

Alexander is currently building me a Super 400 style archtop w/ a Florentine cutaway, very much inspired by the Super 400s I’ve seen Kenny Burrell play, as well as the one that George Benson played in a video of “Benson’s Rider” from Newport Jazz Festival in 1966. I’ve always had a soft spot for big archtops (17” or 18”) and this one will have a thick neck (1” no taper) just like my tele, which is something I always miss on archtops. The thick profile fits my hand perfectly and makes it relax when I play faster passages.

JGL: What other gear are you using? Do you have a specific stage set-up that works best for you in a variety of musical situations?

CA: Other than my tele and archtop, I have a Harmony Juno that I use mostly for recording. It has really light strings and a very tight, focused sound that’s great for blues/rock stuff. I have a Boss GT-1000 that I also use mostly for recording. It has a lot of great amp models/sims on it and lots of pedal options. When I play live, I prefer to just go straight into the amp- either a Fender Princeton or a DV Mark Little Jazz. For me, it just keeps me centered on the music and it matches the sound that I hear in my head.

JGL: Is there anyone – alive or dead – who you’d love to play and/or record with and why?

CA: I would have loved to have played with Larry Young and Elvin Jones. Since my favorite guitarist is Grant Green and my favorite album by him is Talkin’ About, getting a chance to play in that configuration with two of my favorite musicians ever would be a dream come true. Both Young and Jones are a perfect combination of what I like to call “grease & math”- they can hold down a groove and swing, but they can also engage with complex rhythms and harmony. Of living musicians, I’d love to play with Christian McBride and Greg Hutchinson, for similar reasons.

JGL: Did you know early on that music was something you wanted to do as a career choice and if so, what have you done to make this choice work for you?

CA: I didn’t necessarily know it right from the beginning. It wasn’t until I was 13 or 14 that I decided I wanted to stick with it and make a career out of music. Between teaching, gigging, recording, and getting to know musicians on the scene (wherever that may be), I’ve been able to make it work. I haven’t at all regretted the decision to be a musician.

JGL: You’re technique is definitely “off da hook” –  do the kids still say that – lol…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?

CA: Thank you! When I was starting to practice improvisation, I was overwhelmed by theory. I practiced scales, arpeggios, and triads all over the neck, and wondered why it wasn’t helping me improvise more musically. Over time, my practice routine expanded to include time for transcribing and learning the language, which immediately helped all areas of my playing: technique, ears, time, you name it. I’d say that my practice routine now is almost completely application-focused— I just work on things that I know I’m going to use. I transcribe a solo every other week, learn how to apply the vocabulary in context, and I also spend a lot of time arranging for guitar and trying to work out approaches for specific tunes.

JGL: In a similar vein – and apart from your Berklee (2016 with a B.M. in Jazz Composition) and William Paterson University (2019 M.M. in Jazz Performance) years – did you study privately when you were coming up and if so, with whom?

CA: Yes, I was in and out of lessons quite a bit growing up. I started when I was 8 with a guy in my hometown named Rich Martin, who was a great Blues and Rock guitarist and introduced me to some of my favorite Blues guitarists. I stopped lessons with Rich once the studio I was at closed down and the new one he was teaching at was too far of a commute.

I took a break from guitar for 3 years or so, then started learning again from Youtube videos. I got back into lessons shortly thereafter, studying with a guy named Yoshi Fukagawa, who was getting a degree in Jazz performance from one of the local colleges. He was great, and challenged me a lot, which was exactly what I needed at the time.

One of the first assignments he gave me was to learn the head to Donna Lee, and at the time I didn’t even know what a II-V-I was! I stuck with Yoshi for 2 years, until he had to leave the music studio to finish up his degree. After I attended the summer program at Berklee, I signed up for lessons at the local community college with a fantastic guitarist named Greg Miller. I remember being stunned by how fluently Greg played over changes, but I didn’t really know the right questions to ask him at the time. I stuck with Greg for a year, then went to Berklee.

JGL: I know that you have a tutorial about this on your website and without giving away any “trade secrets”, can you talk a little about your picking technique? Is it close to the Benson style of picking or more personal?

CA: I initially tried to model my technique after Benson’s as much as I could, but I later found ways of morphing it to fit more of what I’m hearing. After hearing Hampton Hawes (who has my favorite time feel/rhythmic phrasing of any instrumentalist) and transcribing a lot of his work, I naturally started to swing and articulate in a way that pushed me out of strict “Benson picking.” The common thread between the two approaches is the use of the “rest stroke,” especially for faster phrases. My “picking masterclass” on my site focuses primarily on the use of the rest stroke to gain speed and stay relaxed.

JGL: Speaking of Benson and technique, I read an interview with him once where he stated that the “secret” to playing fast is to know exactly where you are going on the fingerboard from point A to point B…of course I am paraphrasing but it seems that there is a lot of truth in that statement. How did you get to play with the articulation and speed that you demonstrate so effortlessly on nearly all your videos?

CA: I think what he’s speaking to is having a vocabulary when you play fast – not just random stuff/muscle memory. When you play faster phrases, you still have to hear what you’re doing and where you’re going. I noticed through transcription that with most of the prominent instrumentalists, a lot of the faster stuff that they play is the same as the slower stuff. You just have to think of working it through a different rhythmic “grid.”

JGL: When improvising, are you thinking of chord-scale relationships or is it deeper than that?

CA: I’m just trying to play what I hear. I definitely spent time understanding chord scale theory, but ultimately, that wasn’t what I heard when I listened to the records. When I hear Grant Green or Wes Montgomery, I hear them play melodies through changes rather than playing scales or any theoretical concept. I practice licks and practical phrases that mirror what I might do in an improvisational context.

JGL: You have been featured in a variety of music settings from solo guitar to large ensembles. Is there a musical situation that you enjoy the most and if so, why?

CA: I enjoy playing in an Organ trio the most. I think that there’s a lot of freedom for guitarists in that setting. You don’t have to worry about stepping on anyone’s toes because the timbres of organ and guitar blend so nicely, so it’s like two instruments working together as one. Also, when I compose, I usually hear my ideas arranged for that setting, probably from having listened to a lot of organ trio records!

JGL: You have won the Wilson Center Jazz Guitar Competition along with the Lee Ritenour Six String Theory Competition and recently (2019) were a finalist in the prestigious Herbie Hancock Institute of Jazz International Guitar Competition (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZH_pJU8a2sw) going up against cats like Max Light and the winner Evgeny Pobozhiy. First off, congrats in being a finalist – not an easy thing to do I can imagine. And secondly, do you find such competitive events helpful in establishing oneself as an artist? I am aware of the status shaping that one finds in the Classical Guitar world, but wonder if it has the same impact in the Jazz world. Case in point, and no offence to Max and Evgeny, but I’ve never heard of them. Although I will certainly check them out J (ed. Note: You can watch the full concert here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IzU8uGG8S9Q)

CA: I think my experiences in competitions solidified my concept as an artist. When I did the Wilson Center competition, I compared myself to the other competitors a lot. I watched their submission videos and learned their licks… not realizing that I just had to be myself and play with honesty. I do believe that my career has benefited from those competitions, but the greatest benefits are the realizations I’ve made about myself and my artistry.

JGL: What – if anything – did you do to prepare yourself for these competitions?

CA: I worked out an approach to the tunes I was going to play. This meant a lot of editing- stopping myself while practicing in order to refine a specific idea, or it means working out something that I’m hearing. I find that when I work out different options, I feel freer while playing a tune. This process was particularly exhaustive for the competitions where I performed a lot of solo guitar. Solo guitar is not a setting that I feel particularly comfortable in. So, when I was working out my approach to the tunes, a lot of my work consisted of looking for ways to fill things out more, play more movement, or get a fuller sound out of the instrument.

JGL: And lastly, what did you hope to get out of entering those above-mentioned competitions and have they lived up to your expectations? (Cecil…I realize that this may be too personal a question so please feel free to not answer it)

CA: With the Wilson Center Competition and the Lee Ritenour Six String Theory Competition, I was hoping to have something nice to add to my resume. I also thought it would be a great way to get my name out there and meet people in the jazz guitar world. With the Hancock competition, I was really motivated to apply because of the career prospects. People in the jazz world really put that competition on a pedestal, and it’s generally recognized as something that can take your career to the next level. I’d say that they all lived up to my expectations and provided me with a better idea of my artistic identity.

JGL: Speaking of expectations, you recently became an Assistant Professor of Guitar at the Berklee College of Music this Fall. Congratulations! How did this come about and how are you enjoying the experience so far? Are there any young cats we need to look out for?

CA: Thank you! A friend of mine, who’s currently at Berklee as well, recommended me for a spot that he saw open up, and it ended up working out really smoothly. It’s been a really great experience so far. The guitar department at Berklee is really well-run and a lot of really talented students come through there. This semester, I had the pleasure of working with a couple of incredible young players (who I’m sure you’ll hear a lot from in the future) such as Joshua Achiron, Josh Ting, Kai Burns, Mwanzi Harriott, Isaac Romagosa, Diego Santana, Amaury Cabral Jorge, Nate Arnstein, Ricky High, Chris Hanford, Isaiah Burke, Gabriel Jonas, Noah Solomon, Eric Xie, Isaiah Gardham, and Daniel Germano. They all work really hard and have unique approaches to this music.

JGL: Your website reveals that you are currently working on your first album as leader. How is it going and can you talk a little about what we can expect?

CA: It’s been at a bit of a stand-still since the pandemic. A lot of the players that I had in mind have moved to different parts of the country since their wasn’t much work in NY/NJ at the height of COVID. We tried to record some of the tracks remotely— specifically the songs that didn’t require much group interplay, but the result just wasn’t the same as being in the same room together. I’m now planning on stripping things down a bit and just doing an organ trio date (plus tenor/trumpet on a few tracks). This is the most comfortable setting for me to play in, and I have a few friends that I trust to handle the material well. It’ll be mostly original tunes, maybe with a Bobby Womack cover and some standards mixed in.

JGL: Can you talk a bit about your co-led group Visen which I believe is a duo with your wife Ari Alexander? This project seems to be more than a tad different from what I’ve heard from you in the recent past.

CA: Sure, Visen is a folk-rock group that my wife and I co-founded when we were students at Berklee. A lot of the first tunes we wrote ended up being on my senior recital! In addition to all the great jazz artists I mentioned, we’re both big fans of Joni Mitchell, Cat Stevens, Jimi Hendrix, as well as some more current artists like Phoebe Bridgers, Gabriel Kahane, and Animals as Leaders. Visen is kind of a mash-up of all of those influences. We’re going to be releasing a 6 song EP in the coming months and are hoping to get some shows together in Boston, New York, and LA to promote the material.

JGL: You have obviously found your stride in this business and seem to be doing quite well and I assume will continue to do so. How difficult do you find it making a living as a jazz guitar player and are there any “tips or tricks” you can lay on those interested in doing the same?

CA: It’s definitely very difficult, but I think the best thing to do is stay visible. In this day and age, it’s important for young musicians to take advantage of social media because it puts you out into the world. You can connect with musicians you admire, and it can lead to some really great opportunities for your career. Additionally, I’d encourage people to check out their local scene. Go to gigs, jam sessions, be nice and make friends!

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

CA: A lot of the insecurities that I’ve faced on my instrument are mainly technical— Not being able to execute an idea because it doesn’t fit under my fingers well, or I can’t play it cleanly. I just had to learn  to make my strengths work for me. This led to me reworking a lot of vocabulary/ideas that I was practicing so that they would feel comfortable with my technique and I wouldn’t stumble when trying to play them. Guitar is such a personal instrument when it comes to that stuff because there isn’t really a set pedagogy for technique. Everyone has their own approach and has to learn to make that work in their favor.

JGL: How do you handle the other side of being a working musician – the business side?

CA: Honestly, I don’t! It’s something I have to get better at. I usually just hope that the pieces fall in place. If they don’t, then I get technical, but I just try to focus on the music as much as I can.

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.

CA: I haven’t had any second thoughts about my career choice. I love to do all things music related, and I’m thankful that I’m able to make a living doing what I love.

JGL: What you’re not on the band-stand or in the recording studio, what do you like to do to unwind?

CA: I love to read! Some of my favorite works are by Fred Moten, Robin D.G. Kelley, and Cedric J. Robinson. I also love to read biographies/autobiographies of my favorite musicians, my favorites being Raise Up Off Me by Hampton Hawes and the Miles Davis autobiography. I also watch a lot of TV: mostly NBA games, Seinfield, and Curb Your Enthusiasm.

JGL: What does the future hold for Cecil Alexander?

CA: I’m hoping to finish up my debut album as a leader. I really want to record and release as much material as I can, I have a lot of ideas in the vault, and I’m excited to get them out there. I’m also planning on release some more educational materials, both on my website and on Youtube.

JGL: Thank you Cecil for taking the time to chat with Jazz Guitar Life. I wish you much success in all your endeavors!

CA: Thanks so much for having me!

Please consider spreading the word about Cecil 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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About Lyle Robinson 266 Articles
Lyle Robinson is the owner/creator/publisher and editor of Jazz Guitar Life, an online magazine dedicated to the Jazz Guitar and its community of fine players worldwide.

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