“Surviving in New York is difficult no matter what you do. Being an artist with an indefinite income makes it all the more difficult. The stress level is high, which can make it hard to immerse yourself in art and ideas… but that is exactly what you must do when you’re learning. You have to find a way to make time and space for the art even under adverse conditions.”Dave Allen
Dave Allen is a very exciting and talented working Jazz Guitarist out of New York City who is creating a popular name for himself amongst players and the listening public alike. In this interview Dave shares with us his life as a New York musician, his love for the cultural arts like Poetry and Film and what it takes to live your life following a singular goal. A very inspiring read.
This interview was conducted via email October, 2006. Check out his website at www.daveallenjazz.com
JGL: How old are you?
JGL: What geographical area do you live in?
DA: New York City.
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?
DA: I started playing when I was about 13. Within a year or so I became pretty serious about it. At that time I wasn’t aware of jazz. As a teenager in the 80’s there were the usual influences of people like Eddie Van Halen and Randy Rhodes, rock players who were experimenting a bit.
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”!
DA: I went through a huge transition when I turned 17 and began discovering musicians who were straddling the line between jazz and rock, like Pat Metheny, Allan Holdsworth, even Chick Corea and his electric band. That was very inspiring for me and opened my ears up quite a bit. Then I began listening to the people who had influenced them, all of the greats of the 50’s and 60’s like Coltrane, Monk, and Miles.
JGL: What was your first guitar and what are you playing now?
DA: I can’t remember my first guitar exactly. It was an inexpensive beginner rock guitar. Then I played a Fender Strat for a little while. For the past decade I’ve played a Gibson 175 almost exclusively.
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?
DA: Early influences were John Abercrombie, Pat Metheny, and Jim Hall…all of whom are still among my favorite players.
JGL: Who are you listening to today (guitarists or non-guitarists)?
DA: I actually tend to listen more to other instrumentalists than to guitarists. I think I’ve always wanted to find a way to combine the elements of piano and saxophone on the guitar. So I’m constantly listening to players like Keith Jarrett, Wayne Shorter, Steve Coleman, and also to things outside of jazz like the work of Conlon Nancarrow, the string quartet music of Bartok and Shostakovich, the music of Ligeti. As far as guitarists go, I have tremendous respect for Ben Monder’s work. Most of the players I most admire are also great composers.
JGL: Who has been most influential in your life as a Jazz Guitarist and why?
DA: It would be difficult to name any one person. The influences I mentioned, such as Abercrombie, Metheny, Jim Hall, and Coltrane, all had a great impact, as well as all of the great musicians I’ve worked with and learned from over the years.
JGL: At the young age of 16 years you were recognized by Guitar Player Magazine as a “Talent to Watch”. That must have been a real high-point of your young life at the time. How did this recognition come about and what, if any, opportunities came your way because of it?
DA: I received many letters after that magazine came out asking about my playing. It came at a time when I was in the midst of a transition from rock to jazz, a sort of awkward stage. It was very nice to have the attention, but I was already on my way somewhere else. I had sent in a tape of things I’d recorded at home, all within a rock vein. Most of it was very fast and “tricky”, but lacked musical depth.
JGL: According to your bio you were born in Philadelphia but made your way to New York to study at the Manhattan School of Music. What was so special about the Manhattan School of Music that made you want to leave home. Whom did you study with and what was the overall experience at the Manhattan School of Music?
DA: The fact that the Manhattan School of Music was in New York City was a huge factor in my decision to go there. The city is the campus. The jazz tradition was (and is) there. Also, the school had many great players teaching there. But still, it is a conservatory. So after struggling with getting all the basics down I started to move in a more modern direction, and that can be problematic in a conservatory environment. I wasn’t very comfortable there in my third and fourth year. Overall it was a good experience. I studied with Jack Wilkins and Chris Rosenberg. I also studied privately with pianist Gary Dial and attended master classes with David Liebman.
JGL: While studying at the Manhattan School of Music how did you survive in New York? Did you find it difficult or were you prepared for the “adventure”?
DA: For that, I mostly have my parents to thank. Surviving in New York is difficult no matter what you do. Being an artist with an indefinite income makes it all the more difficult. The stress level is high, which can make it hard to immerse yourself in art and ideas… but that is exactly what you must do when you’re learning. You have to find a way to make time and space for the art even under adverse conditions. In New York, the access that one has to music and art is incomparable, but the cost of living is high and there are many potential distractions from staying focused on the music.
JGL: As an aside, what’s up with the gene pool in Philly? There are a lot of serious Jazz Guitar players that come out of that town.
DA: I’m not sure, but I did a few gigs there recently and, in talking with music students there, I got the impression that it is a fairly conservative place for jazz. So perhaps it’s a good place to come from, but you may have to go elsewhere to develop further.
JGL: When you arrived in NY were there any popular Jazz Guitarists that you wanted to meet and did you?
DA: I met Jim Hall and Mike Stern. Eventually, I met John Abercrombie and studied with him briefly. There are so many heavyweights here.
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?
DA: I did decide early on to pursue music, not so much as a conscious “career” choice, but as a labor of love. The idea of a career wasn’t much in my mind at that point. I took quickly to spending a lot of time with the instrument and was eager to keep improving and exploring. I was stubborn about not having a “back up plan”, which may have been foolish, but it kept me focused.
JGL: How difficult do you find it making a living as a jazz guitar player, or have you found it to be relatively easy?
DA: It is never the least bit easy. I don’t know any jazz musicians who would say they have it easy. (In fact, one of the pieces on my CD is titled “Uneasy”). Jazz is such a small market in the U.S. That market is even smaller if you are playing modern jazz. It’s a struggle. If you are willing to do gigs that are musicially undesireable, you might have an easier time making a living. I was never good at that, and so I’ve stuck more with creative gigs which usually don’t pay very well.
JGL: Given the remarkable talents that reside in New York, what is the competition like as a working Jazz Guitar Player? How do you know when you are ready to move to NY and would that be a game plan that you would recommend?
DA: I wouldn’t recommend it unless someone is sure that they HAVE TO try. There are so many great players here. It is great for the music, but it makes it very difficult to get by. New York City is like no other place, though. Everyone should experience it if they can.
JGL: Joe Pass once said that it is often times better to be a big fish in a small pond than to be a small fish in a big pond. What’s your take on that situation?
DA: I agree. But I would add that to be the biggest fish you can be (as in, the most developed musician), it may be necessary to spend time in a place where you are a small fish, like New York.
JGL: Were your parent(s) and family members supportive of your musical career choice?
DA: They were very supportive and still are. I don’t know if any of us realized just how hard it would be, but you don’t think so much about that when you are starting out.
JGL: I really enjoy your playing and find your technique to be quite envious, what was your practice routine like when you were beginning and how has it developed over the years?
DA: I spent quite a lot of time early on trying to achieve a fluidity on the instrument. The difficult part is not just developing technique, but also developing musicality. I remember reading an interview with the great bassist, Marc Johnson, where he said the music should dictate the technique, and not vice versa. I think a lot of guitarists fall into the trap of developing technique without developing a strong musical voice. There can be lots of technique but not enough expression. When I made the transition from rock to jazz, a lot of the technique I’d developed for rock did not translate. It was very difficult to start again, to develop new chops that were appropriate for the subtleties of a different kind of music.
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?
DA: I do teach privately. Anyone can just get in touch with me through my website if they are interested (Daveallenjazz.com). I’ve had students at various levels, but I guess I enjoy working with more advance students the most. I like to be able to get into the subtleties of rhythmic development and improvisation.
JGL: Could you describe some of your best musical situations or experiences and the worst?
DA: The best musical situations are when things are happening that I don’t quite understand, especially in my own playing. The moments I live for are when I’m playing beyond anything I’ve practiced, that’s when the music really becomes a thing in itself and has very little to do with me. The worst situations are when anyone in the band is rushing, as in pushing the time ahead, and it is impossible to find a comfortable place to be wthin the time feel. In that situation, anything else that is being played, no matter how advanced or impressive, is ruined if the time is not solid.
JGL: What type of musical situation do you enjoy the most (ie: trio, quartet, duo, solo, etc.)
DA: Trio playing is probably my favorite. I’ve done so much of it over the years, and it still remains challenging. It’s amazing how much territory you can cover with just three musicians. There’s also a lot of control you can have within a trio. Not control in a limiting or dominating sense, but control in the sense of being most true to the character of each piece. I also love playing quartet. Having another voice there has become important in some of the writing I’ve been doing. Having a saxophonist in the group allows me to experiment in a different way.
JGL: If you had your choice which would you prefer being, a leader or a sideman? And why?
DA: Lately, I am more often a leader than a sideman because I am a composer as well. I’ve been focused on my own music for many years now. However, I love to work with other musicians on their music. I think I’ll always need to do both.
JGL: Do you still play every Monday night at the Push Club?
DA: I played every Monday at Push for almost two years and it was a very good thing, like a workshop environment… but no, we stopped playing there a few months ago. I’m now playing semi-regularly at Bar Next Door and a few other New York clubs.
JGL: Your debut CD “Untold Stories” is a wonderful session that showcases your strong improvisational sense and melodic compositional approach. How did the album come about and did it come off like you had planned?
DA: I think everyone comes away from a recording thinking they want to do it again and do it better. But I was happy to document this music and to have such great musicians and friends to do it with. I’m looking forward to the next one because I think the music has grown quite a bit over this last year or so.
JGL: All the tunes on “Untold Stories” are original compositions. Was this a conscious decision to write only original comps for this CD or were there other factors involved?
DA: It was a conscious decision to have the CD be only originals because I had a lot of music ready and wanted to document as much as I could. We actually recorded 13 pieces, but I could only fit 9 on the final product.
JGL: “Untold Stories” is on The Fresh Sound label who feature a lot of gifted talent from New York and beyond. How did you hook up with the label and how are they treating the recording for you in terms of marketing, distribution and air-play?
DA: I knew a few people who had recorded with Fresh Sound and I sent the label a recording of a live performance of my quartet. Then I started to talk with Jordi Pujol, and things took off from there. They are based in Barcelona, so I’ve handled a lot of the business on this end.
JGL: Given that we live in an age of almost immediate electronic information and product, what other areas of marketing are you covering in getting your CD out to as many people as possible?
DA: Well, the internet is very useful for networking and getting the word out. I’m still learning as I go. I’ve gotten messages from people in distant places like Poland and Thailand asking for CD’s. Sometimes it’s mysterious how that happens.
JGL: The supporting players on “Untold Stories”, Seamus Blake on tenor, Carlo DeRosa on bass and one of my favorite drummers Mark Ferber, are a remarkable group of well versed and dedicated musicians who play their asses off. How did you hook up with them and do you play live with them often?
DA: I’ve been playing with Mark and Carlo for years. They are dedicated to the process of making, and constantly improving, original music, whether there is money involved or not. Seamus came into the group only a couple of years ago, but was so quick to learn the music and expand on it. As soon as we started playing together, it felt like a band right away. As these guys have become more well known it has been harder for me to get them on gigs because of their busy schedules. But that can be a good thing since it’s allowed me too discover many other great players.
JGL: Getting back to a bit of self-promotion, you are currently working on a new CD. Would you talk a bit about this new project and anything else that you may be working on?
DA: I’m working on some brand new music, some pieces that might be a little ambitious, that I’d like to try to get on this next recording. Many of the ideas I’ve been having are complicated, not complicated for the sake of being clever and abstruse, but ideas that come out that way naturally. The challenge is to figure out how to play what I write. Sometimes the idea itself is beyond anything I’m familiar with, which goes back to what I said about living for those moments when the work is greater than you are. That’s when you are really evolving. I also have a back-log of music that’s never been recorded. The next CD will probably be similar to the last one, in that it may be half trio, half quartet. I’m also hoping to start a project in which I have my group play written and improvised music to some of the short films of the brilliant filmmaker Stan Brakhage. Then there’s an idea I have to put some of Adrienne Rich’s poetry to music. As usual, time and money are the issues.
JGL: Glad you mentioned that because amongst your stellar talents as a guitar player and composer you are also a lover and, I think, writer of poetry as well as having passions for Film and Painting. Could you talk about this side of your creative spirit and how closely are all related in your musical output?
DA: Poetry has been a big influence and a big part of my life. It’s what I turn to when I’m not busy with music. The qualities of rhythm, timbre, dynamics, form, expression are very similar in both poetry and music. Film has always been an obsession of mine. Besides the usual reasons of just loving great cinematic storytelling, there is the rhythm and texture of film-making and editing and it’s correlations to music. The paintings of Kandinsky, Dekooning, and many others have been a great inspiration as well. There is a lot of music to be found in their work.
JGL: If you could only pick one individual or group to play with (alive or dead), who would that be and why?
DA: That would be Keith Jarrett’s group with Charlie Haden, Paul Motion and Dewey Redman. That is still some of the most exciting music I’ve ever heard.
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?
DA: No, it’s been much harder than I expected. But like I said earlier, there’s no way to look too far ahead and also immerse yourself in learning an art form. You have to push ahead no matter what the obstacles, or your work will not be heard. It’s both difficult and rewarding. There’s a great letter from Martha Graham to Agnes DeMille that I often give to people looking for inspiration. In it she talks about how, as artists, we are responsible for keeping ourselves open and letting the work come out without judging it too harshly or doubting ourselves too much.
JGL: How would you like to see your life unfold in the coming years and what do you think would be needed to get you there?
DA: Honestly, I need a grant or some other kind of funding to achieve what I’d like to do. The projects I have in mind are not commercial, and so, they have to be created out of a labor of love, much like writing poetry. No one has ever become a poet in order to make money. I’m looking for ways to fund these projects while not having to make too many compromises, artistically. Soon, I’ll be recording another CD of original music. I’ll see where it goes from there.
JGL: Where would you like to see jazz guitar be in the coming years?
DA: I’d like to see some of my friends become better known and appreciated, like Ben Monder, Bruce Saunders, Steve Cardenas, Liberty Ellman. These are very creative players who are also writing great original music.
JGL: Any advice for the younger guy or gal who is thinking about playing jazz guitar?
DA: I would say definitely try, because no matter where you go with it, it is such a valuable art. In the same way that everyone should learn a second verbal language, it is a very good thing to learn an art form. In a culture where it is so easy to slip into a quick fix mentality, it’s important to nurture our creativity. The process of creating jazz is the process of being your best here and now, and that can be applied to so many aspects of life.
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.
DA: If I wasn’t doing this I’m sure I would be doing something else that is equally challenging, such as being a writer, a painter, or a social worker.
JGL: Thank you Dave for participating in jazzguitarlife.com. It is most appreciated.
DA: My pleasure Lyle