“The music business can be a long dark hallway. Most players aren’t in a position to have the right representation so you have to do it yourself. If you can build up a strong social media base and get listeners out to the gigs and in the seats, I think it’s possible to stay in the game until an opportunity comes along to get you to the next level.”Mike DeMicco
Throughout the years I had heard of Mike DeMicco but never had the opportunity to check him out. Someone mentioned him on a Jazz Guitar Facebook group and so I started looking into the man a little more. I was very impressed with what I found and thought he would make a great Jazz Guitar Life interview if he was into it. Fortunately he was and my original assumption was not wrong 🙂 In this interview, Mike shares with us his background, his work with the Brubeck Brothers, Jimmy Cobb, Warren Bernhardt, Jack Dejohnette and others and so much more. An insightful, informative and entertaining read. Enjoy 🙂
JGL: Thank you Mike 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?
MD: I’ll turn 65 on May 21st 2022.
JGL: Now, for those who are unaware of you, could you give Jazz Guitar Life readers an elevator pitch of who Mike DeMicco is?
MD: I’m a touring Jazz Guitarist, composer and educator who’s been playing guitar for almost 48 years. (I can’t believe how that looks on paper lol!) I’ve been touring and recording with Dan and Chris Brubeck for over 30 years. I also tour and record with Keyboardist Pete Levin and with vocalist Lindsey Webster. I’ve also done quite a bit of studio work over the years so I’m well versed in other styles of guitar as well.
JGL: Whereabouts are you located?
MD: I’ve lived in Woodstock NY for many years and currently live about 12 miles from Woodstock, near Saugerties, NY.
JGL: 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?
MD: When I was in high school back in the 70’s we were all interested in Blues Guitar. Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, the 3 Kings (B.B., Albert and Freddie), Johnny Winter etc.
I played clarinet for several years in grade school but when I got to junior high in the early 70’s the music scene was exploding with great guitar music. My dad played a little guitar and my cousin Jack was a professional guitarist playing clubs and bars. I would go on occasional gigs with him, listen, watch and learn. I started playing guitar at 11 and by the time I was 16, I pretty much knew I wanted to be a professional musician.
I started gigging professionally at 17 (under age) playing bars and clubs in groups with older musicians. We were playing Top 40 tunes along with Chicago and Blood Sweat And Tears etc. All the horn players were into Jazz. They turned me on to Miles, Trane, Freddie Hubbard and guitarists Joe Pass and Herb Ellis. As soon as I heard these artists I got really excited about Jazz. Also, Fusion was just starting to take hold so Chick Corea and Return To Forever, The Mahavishnu Orchestra, and guitarists Lee Ritenour and Larry Carlton were influencing me as well. I found a really good Jazz Guitar teacher named Bobby Farris and he started me on the right path of study.
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)?
MD: There were so many great guitarists who influenced me and many of them still do. Larry Coryell, (I knew him very well. I actually gave Larry’s two incredibly talented sons Julian and Murali guitar lessons back in the late 80’s when they lived in Woodstock). Larry’s record “Spaces” along with the “Eleventh House” recordings blew me away. Vic Juris really influenced me. I knew Vic from his recordings with Barry Miles and we became close friends. Vic heard me playing with Dan Brubeck back in the early 90’s at an IAJE conference at Berklee College Of Music. Vic came up after our set and introduced himself, and said he really dug my playing (thank God I didn’t know he was there while we were playing lol!) I stayed close friends with Larry and Vic until their untimely passing and I wanted to mention them first.
Then there’s Wes Montgomery at the top of the list along with Joe Pass, Herb Ellis, Barney Kessel, Tal Farlow, Jim Hall, Grant Green and of course Pat Martino, George Benson and Pat Metheny, oh and let’s not forget Lenny Breau. I took a guitar seminar with Lenny Breau in ’78 when I was at Berklee. He played two- one hour sets of the most brilliant solo guitar playing I have ever seen or heard. I sat 3 feet in front of him, astounded and moved by each note, each brilliant chord voicing. He was warm, friendly and encouraging to all of us. I will never forget that.
JGL: In the same vein, who has been most influential in your life as a Jazz Guitarist and why?
MD: I have a huge place in my heart for Wes. Every note played with a beautiful spirit and no matter how hip the harmonic content is, he’s never far from the blues. I would sit for hours playing along with his records, trying to learn those beautifully crafted II V’s. I still transcribe stuff from his records. Larry and Vic along with Pat Martino are still huge influences. I also think that Pat Metheny’s guitar playing has stayed with me all these years. He’s an incredible guitarist and has written so much beautiful music. These days I really dig listening to guitarists Bobby Broom, Russell Malone, Dave Stryker, Kurt Rosenwinkle and Jonathan Kreisberg . They’re all saying something special. I’d also like to mention that I’ve listened to and have been influenced by, just as many horn players as guitarists. Miles, Trane, Johnny Griffin, Hank Mobley, Freddie Hubbard, Mike Brecker, Jerry Bergonzi, the list is so long that I know I’ve left some cats out.
JGL: What was your first guitar and what are you playing now?
MD: My first decent playable guitar was an early 60’s Gibson Melody Maker. My main guitar that I play when touring with the Brubeck Brothers Quartet and the Pete Levin Organ Trio is a 1970 Gibson ES 355. The humbucking pickups are custom wound by an amazing guitar tech named Dominick Ramos. He’s been working on all my instruments since the late 70’s. I also tour and record with vocalist Lindsey Webster and on her gigs I play a Gibson ES 339 and a modified Fender Strat with a humbucker in the neck position.
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?
MD: My set up is pretty simple. Most of the time I just travel with a Boss DD-6 delay pedal and a Boss RV-5 Reverb pedal and send a stereo signal to two amps. I use backline amps on the road so it’s always something different. If I’m touring with Lindsey Webster I add a TC Electronics Spark, a Boss Overdrive pedal and a Strymon DIG dual digital delay pedal. I use D’Addario strings on all my guitars.
JGL: Is there anyone – alive or dead – who you’d love to play and/or record with and why?
MD: Although I did get to play with Jimmy Cobb and Dave Brubeck, I would have loved to record with them. Jimmy’s groove was so smooth and that quarter note ride cymbal pocket was out of this world. I would have loved to record with Dave as he was somewhat of a mentor to me. His creativity and harmonic pallet was unparalleled. I would have liked to record with bassist Gary Peacock. We became good friends over the years as I had played many duo sessions with Gary at his house. I also played on his instructional DVD series on Homespun Tapes. He actually wanted me to record a Christmas Album with him about 8 years ago but I felt a little intimidated about it at the time. I’ll always regret that. I’d still like to record with Jack DeJohnette. He’s been a friend and mentor for many years now and a true inspiration.
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?
MD: Well even though I was gigging at an early age I really wasn’t that good at playing guitar and I was wasn’t that great at academics either but I just kept working hard at guitar, never really expecting anything from it other than trying to get better at it.
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?
MD: When I was young I would learn by ear, listening to records over and over until I could take the licks off. I was always fast at hearing chord qualities and voicings but would have to slow down fast tempo single line passages on a reel to reel tape deck in order to learn them. I didn’t understand much theory until I went to Berklee where I learned more in 4 semesters than I had learned in the previous 6 years. (I was touring and gigging when I graduated highschool at 17. I decided to go back to school when I was 21 after a band project playing original fusion went south).
I used to have a more organized practice routine with scales and arpeggios with the metronome thru all the keys. Now it’s a more organic approach where I’ll work on some new II V ideas thru the keys or I’ll take Cherokee and play it thru 12 keys. I also like to work on some stuff from the Bach Solo Violin Sonatas and Partitas book. That music seems really relevant to me for expanding my playing.
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?
MD: I really like the Quartet concept with piano, guitar, bass and drums. I also like the quartet with guitar, sax, bass and drums as well. I also enjoy a nice guitar trio with bass and drums as there’s a lot of freedom in that kind of setting as well as the duo setting with guitar and bass.
JGL: While you are quite skilled in the art of ensemble playing, you’re also a wonderful solo guitar player and kind of credit Drum legend Jimmy Cobb for your chordal/accompaniment skills:
“He also played a weekly jam session hosted by drummer Jimmy Cobb, where he played with guest artists such as J.R. Montrose, Arne Lawrence and Jeremy Steig. Another great opportunity to learn, this time Mike honed his distinctive chord melody approach. “I would show up each week, never assuming I would be asked to play . . . . after all, it was Jimmy Cobb. I was the only chord player so it was really challenging.’”
What were the challenges faced and what did you do to get over such challenges?
MD: Well at first it’s like who’s going to play chords behind my solos?! Then you get used to the sonic space and instead of trying to fill it up you just go with it and take your time and it actually lets you have a lot of harmonic freedom. Another challenge was knowing enough standard tunes. You can never know enough!
JGL: Speaking of drum legends, the great Jack DeJohnette took a liking to your playing and encouraged you to develop your own voice on the instrument. Generally speaking – and of course there are always exceptions – this is what all musicians strive for. How have you been able to accomplish this and do you feel that you have succeeded, or is it a work in progress?
MD: Well I’m seldom happy with my playing and hope that I can get it right before my time is up but I think what Jack helped me clarify is what I can personally do the best as a guitarist. He helped me define my strengths and as a result I think it helped me to define my voice on the instrument. Also, as a studio musician you can compartmentalize styles of guitar playing, I’ll play funk here and in this tune I have to sound like a blues rock guy etc. Now I just play music. My sound is my sound. Most of the time I use a clean warm tone but if a tune calls for a more aggressive sound I may use an overdrive sound but I’m not going to shift a gear to change my “style.” I just play the way I play. At this point it’s just best for me to concentrate on refining my voice, try to play more lyrically, work at becoming a better musician and hope that in the huge sea of guitarists out there someone can recognise my playing and connect with it in a meaningful way.
I also wanted to mention my mentorship with pianist Warren Bernhardt which had an incredible impact on me and helped to shape me as a musician. I had seen Warren play many times at the Joyous Lake, Woodstock’s premier music venue during the 70’s. Warren heard about me around 1986 and came over to my place to play a session. The next thing I know I’m in the studio with Peter Erskine and Jay Anderson recording some tracks on Warren’s “Heat Of The Moment” cd for DMP. We hit it off really well and it started an incredible musical relationship that challenged me and really helped me to become a better musician. I played many duo gigs and quartet gigs with Warren and even played a concert with him, Jack DeJohnette and Gary Peacock. I spent hours just playing and rehearsing at his house learning really difficult piano and guitar arrangements for our duo gigs. It was another serious growing period for me where I found myself immersed in music at a level I hadn’t experienced before. I spent many holidays with Warren and his family and learned so much about his close relationship will Bill Evans. I even spent a Christmas at Warren’s with Francis Paudras (he was a very close friend of Bud Powell and a huge fan of Warren’s) who was visiting from France. I was really inspired by this mentorship and composed most of the music for my CD ‘As The Sun Sets” which features Warren and bassist Jay Anderson. I was very fortunate to have had these experiences. They were priceless.
JGL: You have played and or recorded with a bevy of top-shelf musicians like Dave Brubeck, The Brubeck Brothers Quartet, Jack DeJohnette, Nick Brignola, Warren Bernhardt, Gary Peacock, Lee Shaw, Rory Block, James & Livingston Taylor, Professor “Louie”, The Crowmatix with The Band members Garth Hudson and Rick Danko, and I’m sure I’m a missing a bunch more! What were/are the challenges in garnering a reputation to get to play with such heavy-hitters and are there any take-aways you’d like to share with Jazz Guitar Life readers?
MD: Well first off I would say be humble, be positive, always be respectful and be ready to work hard. When you’re in the studio as a sideman, try not to get too attached to your musical ideas. If the artist hears something another way you need to be able to adapt quickly and come up with something else musical that they dig. Also pay attention to the different ways people work in a studio situation. You can learn a lot. Once when I was recording with Garth Hudson he overdubbed a really technical solo with a barrage of sixteenth notes. It was really interesting but super busy sounding. Then Garth sat down next to the engineer and proceeded to carefully subtract certain notes (erase them) until he finally sculpted this incredible solo! I had only witnessed players adding riffs to their solos to make them more interesting but had never seen anyone take the complete opposite approach. One other thing that I’d like to mention is there have been a few guitarists I really tried to emulate over the years but the reality is when the phone rings they want you to play like you play. That’s why they’re calling you.
JGL: How did your relationship with Dave Brubeck come about? Did you play with him long and was it just for touring or also recording? That must have been a thrill?
MD: I had been working with his son Dan, an incredible drummer, in a fusion band back in the mid 80’s. Dave brought us on an extensive tour of Europe to open up for him and the Dave Brubeck Quartet. We would close the show each night playing as a double quartet. Dave loved my playing and that started a long musical and personal relationship that led to many gigs with him over the years. I played with Dave in quartet settings with Dan and his brother Chris on bass on many gigs. I was also a featured guest soloist with Dave and his quartet on many festivals over the years. It was a thrill, an amazing experience and once again, a chance to learn from a great artist.
JGL: As you’re responding to these questions, I believe you are out on the road with the Brubeck Brothers? I read that you started with The Brubeck Brothers back in 1997 and have been with them ever since. I am assuming that you and the BBQ are still going strong these days (COVID pandemic notwithstanding)? What is your role in this particular group?
MD: The Covid Pandemic shook us up pretty badly early on in 2020. The Brubeck Brothers Quartet did the Jazz Cruise in January and in March 2020 Dan Brubeck got Covid and ended up on a vent for almost 3 weeks. He almost died but made a slow and miraculous recovery. Like so many other groups, our gigs for the rest of 2020 were cancelled. Dan’s been doing fine for quite some time now, playing his ass off. We’ve been incredibly lucky as we’ve been out touring constantly since June 2021. We’re all triple vaxed, have flown at least 70 flights thru many airports, played many venues across the U.S., ate at countless restaurants and have managed to stay healthy thru it all. I feel my role in the Brubeck Brothers Quartet is to honor Dave’s incredible legacy, and at the same time breath new life into the vast repertoire of Brubeck compositions.
The group features me along with the incredible pianist Chuck Lamb, with Chris Brubeck on bass and trombone and Dan Brubeck on drums. It’s not a quartet with alto saxophone. We’re not trying to recreate the classic Brubeck Quartet. I don’t think Dave would want us to approach it that way. We’re simply honouring his music with our own arrangements of his wonderful compositions. I think the guitar is a great vehicle for expressing his beautiful melodies. We have 5 Cd’s out as the Brubeck Brothers Quartet. We round out each cd with our own original compositions as well. I usually contribute two of my own tunes to each recording project.
JGL: While I consider you to be a Jazz Guitarist – and correct me if I am wrong – you seem to have more than your foot in the door with the Blues having had Paul Butterfield endorse you and your music when you were the tender age of 18. This brings to mind a similar journey taken by the great Jazz/Blues Guitarist Robben Ford. Have you ever considered going in a more Blues oriented direction like he has or is the Jazz world enough for you?
MD: I do an occasional gig where I get to revisit my more ‘Blues/Fusion’ roots and that’s fine for me as I still really enjoy it but my phone usually rings for me to play gigs in more of a “Jazz vein.” I’m happy playing any creative music as long as the players are great and the groove has a deep pocket. I’m a huge Robben Ford fan BTW!
JGL: You have obviously found your stride in this business and have done quite well and I assume will you face on your instrument and how do you/ did you work at getting over them?
MD: That’s a hard question to answer because I’ve struggled with different self esteem issues over the years that were so bad at times they caused substance abuse and addiction. The only thing that worked for me was getting straight and doing therapy with a professional to try to work at having a better understanding of my self. It’s an on going project of awareness and self improvement. As far as the actual music part is concerned, there are so many great guitarists out there its daunting. I just feel lucky that my life unfolded the way it did. I’m grateful to all the musicians who took the time to encourage me and help me along the way. However, I can only play the way I play. I try to be true to each note I play, put my all into each one and hope it connects in a meaningful way.
JGL: How do you handle the other side of being a working musician – the business side? Do you find the business side of being a Jazz musician something that should be taught in music schools or should the playing be left to the player and the business side of things be left to managers and agents?
MD: The music business can be a long dark hallway….(see Hunter S Thompson) or not. Most players aren’t in a position to have the right representation so you have to do it yourself. If you can build up a strong social media base and get listeners out to the gigs and in the seats, I think it’s possible to stay in the game until an opportunity comes along to get you to the next level. As a sideman, I have the luxury of just showing up and playing the gig (which affords me extra time to practice and be really prepared) but when I book a gig doing my own project it takes a lot of time dealing with non musical stuff but that’s just the way it is.
JGL: Where would you like to see jazz guitar go in the coming years?
MD: I can’t really say but there are enough incredible up and coming players out there who are steeped in the tradition who also have the vision and imagination to keep it fresh and engaging!
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.
MD: I was also very interested in being a graphic artist and also interested in archaeology.
JGL: What you’re not on the band-stand or in the recording studio, what do you like to do to unwind?
MD: I love riding rail trails on my mountain bike! I can’t wait until the weather gets warm!
JGL: What does the future hold for Mike DeMicco?
MD: I just want to keep working at becoming a better guitarist. I’d like to get closer to playing the music that I hear in my head.
JGL: Thank you Mike for taking the time to chat with Jazz Guitar Life. I wish you much success in all your endeavors!
MD: And thank you Lyle, for your interest and concern! It was a pleasure!
Please consider spreading the word about Mike 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 🙂
If you would like to support all the work I do on Jazz Guitar Life, please consider buying me a coffee or visiting the Jazz Guitar Life sponsors. Thank you and your patronage is greatly appreciated regardless if you buy me a coffee or not 🙂