Quintin Zoto Interview with Jazz Guitar Life

I was first a student of Lenny’s while at NYU, so we were getting together once or twice a week playing and talking music. At that time I was also following him around like crazy. Basically at all his gigs, listening, observing, meeting people, sitting in. After a year or so he started asking me to play with his band which was really a turning point in recognizing myself and who I wanted to be.

Quintin Zoto

Sad to say I had not heard of Quintin Zoto until Philly Jazz Guitarist Larry Tamanini hipped me to Quintin. As I took to the Web to learn more about him I was quite impressed with how much he’s accomplished and the magnitude of the projects he was involved with. I immediatley knew that I needed to learn more about Quintin profesionnally and was very pleased when he graciously accepted my request for an interview 🙂 In this interview Quintin shares his background, his relationship to Lenny White, Wallace Roney and John Scofield and his personal thoughts on making art for art’s sake. An informative, insightful and entertaining read! Enjoy 🙂

JGL: Thank you Quintin 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?

QZ: Thanks so much having me! Right now I’m 26 years old.

JGL: What geographical area do you reside in?

QZ: I’ve been living in NYC for a while now. I’m currently in South Brooklyn.

JGL: For those who may not know you, could you give us an elevator pitch of who Quintin Zoto is and then we’ll get into more detail as this interview unfolds.

QZ: Professionally I am an artist, guitarist, producer, writer, and teacher. Unprofessionally I cook, take care of plants, take pictures, play basketball and ride my bicycle.

JGL: Nice. A renaissance man 🙂 At what age did you first start playing 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?

QZ: I started playing the guitar late in my childhood, about 11 or 12, and it kind of took off from there. Before playing an instrument I was really into hip hop being made at the time like Ludacris, 50 Cent, Common, The Roots etc. I started playing the guitar when I found one in the  basement of my moms home. It was a white acoustic/electric charvette that I later found out was a prototype given to Stevie Ray Vaughn who hated it, and subsequentially gave it to my father who was helping him with management stuff at the time. I started to teach myself on that guitar and got into different types of music like Ray Charles,  Jimi Hendrix, The Beatles, and other guitar oriented music which ultimately led me to hearing John Scofield’s A Go Go.

From there my interest in improvised music skyrocketed and was later put on by a teacher to Wes Montgomery, Grant Green, Pat Martino, George Benson, and all my other heroes. But my real first love of “jazz” music came from Miles Davis and John Coltrane.

JGL: When coming up as a young player, did you attend a formal educational institution or are you self taught? Was there one – or more – particular moments that opened the flood gates so to speak as you went about learning this music?

QZ: When first learning the instrument I was self taught. I was lucky in a way to be around for the internet era where you could find how to play things online. When my mom thought I was dedicated enough, she took me to a local music school for formal lessons. It was made clear to me early on that music, specifically creative music, exists outside of a classroom or institution. The moments that opened the gates for me were things like jam sessions, playing and creating with others who are better than me, watching masters play live, having mentors, playing gigs, and struggling a lot! The closest thing I had to a formal educational institution in the traditional sense was my time at New York University.

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 back then to make this choice work for you?

QZ: I knew at 14 years old that music is my medium of expression and that I was going to dedicate my life to it. Finding out how to make music a career is a never ending journey and I’m still in the beginning chapters of my life. I did realize if I wanted to sustain myself as an artist, I would have to make money. I started teaching at a local music school when I was 16, as well as gigging locally around the Philadelphia area, so I was familiar with that sort of hustle when I arrived in NYC.

JGL: Wow! So then 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)?

QZ: My earliest influences on the guitar were Wes Montgomery, Pat Martino, Grant Green, George Benson, John Scofield, Jimi Hendrix, and Wah Wah Watson. A little later I got into Jim Hall, Pat Metheny, Peter Bernstein, Ed Cherry, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Mike Stern and all the other guitarists who are still at the top of their craft. I would say in the past 2 years Toninho Horta and John Mclaughlin have been the guitarists who have been messing me up the most. The stuff John plays is so different! I also love Isaiah Sharkey, Nile Rodgers, and Curtis Mayfield.

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

QZ: On a personal level all of my mentors have been the most influential to me. From a young age they have all contributed to my journey and made sure I was ready and able! These are people like my original teachers, Larry Tamanini and Anthony Tidd from Philly. Then I moved to NYC to learn from Peter Bernstein and John Scofield, and both were huge figures in my life during my first years in NYC. Around that time I also linked up with Lenny White, who quickly became one of the biggest forces in my life. First being a student to joining his band, making records together, watching movies. Lenny is one of the greatest artists of modern music and to have him as a guide is something I still haven’t processed yet.

JGL: I can imagine and we’ll get to Lenny soon…but first…has there been a major influence in your life who was NOT a guitarist/musician and why?

QZ: All the great artists who are able to see things in unique ways! Picasso, Duke Ellington, Orson Welles, Van Gogh, Angela Davis, Kurasawa, Charlie Parker, Frida Kahlo, Wilt Chamberlain, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Julius Erving, Takashi Murakami, Noam Chomsky, Wes Anderson, Billie Holiday, Lenny White, Ozu, Wayne Shorter, etc. I could go on forever!

JGL: As a popular member of the Jazz Guitar community, what are you most grateful for and on the other side of the coin, what irks you?

QZ: I’m most grateful to learn from and interact with my heroes! The only side that irks me is that we codify people and box them in. There are so many artists who will never get the recognition they deserve so it’s our job to keep their messages, ideas, and hopes alive!

JGL: If you could pick any players – alive or dead – for your dream band, who would they be and why?

QZ: I guess it depended on the music but right now I’m playing with my dream band! Emilio Modeste on saxophones, Elé Howell on drums, Kayla Childs on keyboards, and Ollie Bomann on bass. I would have loved to play with Miles, Trane, Bird, Tony Williams, Dexter Gordon, Elvin Jones, Larry Young, Art Blakey, Monk, Jimi Hendrix… people like that.

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? When improvising – and given your proclivity for a good “rock-out” session – are you thinking chord/scale relationships or is there something else going on?

QZ: When I first started I don’t know if I necessarily had a practice routine, I was just addicted to the guitar so I was probably playing around 8-10 hours a day from when I was 13 to about 17 years old. By then I started playing gigs, going to sessions, teaching, and taking my time learning about art. Because of that my time with the guitar had to become more intentional. Then I was practicing things like transcribing, learning what the masters were getting at and where they were coming from.

I also loved learning tunes and messing with voicings. However when I improvise I hope I’m not thinking too much, I’d rather play what I’m hearing. But maybe I would say I think most about rhythm and creating melodies, lately I’ve been dissatisfied with things like patterns but it’s certainly a huge part of understanding the instrument on a mechanical level.

JGL: Do you give private lessons and if so, how does one go about studying with you? Is there a particular level of student you are looking for?

QZ: Teaching is something I’ve had a relationship with since I was 16, but I wouldn’t say it’s been my dedication. I’m still young and I feel like people who haven’t fully lived their lives yet shouldn’t act so qualified to be telling others how to approach music or an instrument. However, I teach lessons to people who seek me out and want me to show them something specific, or something definitive. Of course I could tell a student how to play a D chord. However, if someone asked me how to truly play bebop, I would tell them to see Kenny Burrell, Ed Cherry, or John Scofield. They are the closest left to that original source. But a lot of people my age or younger sure seem like they know a lot.

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

QZ: My first guitar that I purchased with my own money when I was 15 was an Ibanez Artcore hollowbody, which I love and I still play today. However when I was 19 or 20, Larry Tamanini gave me this beautiful Victor Baker hollowbody from 2001 that sounded so good it felt like Excalibur to me. That was my main guitar from about 2016-2020 no matter what the gig was. I even used it on the pop stuff. But after playing a lot in Lenny White’s band and Richie Good’s band, the guitar attitude they wanted really came from a pure electric guitar. It was then a mentor had sent me an Ibanez as200 which has turned into my main gigging guitar. I’m not worried about breaking it and the pickups are so hot the guitar cuts through in any room. Between those two and my strat it’s really all I need, but I also own a Gibson SG, Les Paul, and a 1952 classical guitar from Barcelona that I love.

JGL: You tend to shift from an overdriven tone to a clean tone depending on the musical context, do you have different gear for the variety of situations you find yourself in or can you get what you need out of “one box” so to speak?

QZ: It may seem so, but I really don’t have that much gear. I’ve owned the same amp since I was 14 and it still is my favorite sound. The pedals I mainly use to add some colour to my sound is a touch of modulated delay and maybe an overdrive for melodies or lead stuff. When I play with my archtop and doing standards I still love to play straight into the amp. I think you can’t beat that clarity. I do like to use a volume pedal for swells and wah wah which can make stuff sing.

JGL: Similarly, how important – if at all – do you think tech is in getting one’s own voice happening?

QZ: I think getting one’s own voice happens before a guitar is even touched. Pedals are considered “tech” but so is the guitar itself. All in my opinion are tools and vessels to express ourselves and what we’re about. In terms of the guitar as mechanical device, the tone comes from the hands. Guitar players also need to practice long tones just like horn players.  

JGL: You record and perform in a variety of musical situations (ie: trio, quartet, duo, etc.) is there one that you prefer over the other and is there a particular situation you have yet to play in but would like to?

QZ: I love all musical situations equally as long as there is an honest exchange of ideas and language. A setting I would like to explore that I haven’t done yet might be something with a full orchestral project.

JGL: You seem to have your fingers in many creative pies exploring a variety of genres from the traditional to funk to trip-hop and seemingly everything in between but with a deep Jazz sensibility. Is there a particular style of music that touches your heart more than others? And if so, what is about that particular style that resonates with you?

QZ: It sounds corny… but really when Duke Ellington said that thing about there only being “good music and bad music”, that is how I try and live. Music that was made honestly and creatively was always my favorite style. I think American music will always resonate with me most because that’s what I was raised on. Blues, jazz, funk, rnb, hip hop, and all that. But since being in NYC, I’ve been checking out whatever I could that people either hipped me too or I found myself. Classical music, a lot of Debussy and Ravel. Lately I’ve been listening to Brazilian music like Jorge Ben, Toninho Horta, Milton and tons of Indian music as well.

JGL: Speaking of “creative pies”, you collaborated on Stanley Nelson’s Documentary soundtrack “Miles Davis: The Birth of Cool”: “Finally the album documents his triumphant mid 1980s comeback (1986’s Tutu), while premiering a brand-new track, Hail To The Real Chief. The new track features unreleased Miles Davis studio trumpet performances combined with music written by Lenny White, produced by White and Vince Wilburn, Jr and featuring an all-star collection of Miles band alumni and acolytes including White, Wilburn, Marcus Miller, Emilio Modeste, Jeremy Pelt, Antoine Roney, John Scofield, Bernard Wright, and Quintin Zoto.” – Wow! What was that like and I how did you get involved in such a project?

QZ: That was a special session and special moment in my life! Lenny White and Vince Wilburn Jr. are my music family and at the time the documentary was being made, they were working with these old recordings of Miles and reworking them to fit in a 21st century context. It was such an honor to be a part of the project and to be in the studio with so many of my heroes.

JGL: Was your association and friendship with the Lenny White a result of this project or were you friends before this? You stated on a Facebook post that not only is Lenny your friends but also a mentor. What has this relationship meant to you personally?

QZ: I was first a student of Lenny’s while at NYU, so we were getting together once or twice a week playing and talking music. At that time I was also following him around like crazy. Basically at all his gigs, listening, observing, meeting people, sitting in. After a year or so he started asking me to play with his band which was really a turning point in recognizing myself and who I wanted to be. My first gig with Lenny I played double guitar with David Gilmore, I thought I was in heaven. My relationship with Lenny means the world to me, not just musically, but he is an innovator and artist in the way he lives his life.

JGL: The renowned John Scofield was also on this tune if I am correct. Did you get to meet and hang with him and if so, what was that like? Were you a Sco fan? Any take-aways from this experience?

QZ: Sco has been one of my heroes sine I was probably 12 or 13. I had known Sco for a while before that and he was also a teacher of mine. When I found out he was doing the session I geeked out like anyone else my age would. My take away was just watching all these different legends in the studio. Seeing their creative process, how they treat “parts”, how they get a sound in the studio. Lenny is also a genius producer and hearing him put the pieces together was incredible. I also remember Sco taking the most badass solo in one take. The lines he played made me fall out of my chair.

JGL: You also had the great opportunity to record with the wonderful and legendary trumpeter Wallace Roney on his “Blue Dawn-Blue Nights” album. How did your involvement on this project come about?

QZ: Wallace Roney was someone I had listened to for a while, being a Philadelphia icon and playing with the amazing bands he had or was in. Before the record I had been following Wallace around hearing him with Lenny, and that’s also when I first met Emilio Modeste, who was playing tenor in Wallace’s band. My involvement happened in the classic way.

On a Thursday night I got a call at about 1:30am, it was Wallace asking what I was up to. We started talking about music, Philly, and he was sharing some great stories. Finally he asked me if I was free on Saturday and if I could make a studio session at Rudy Van Gelder’s, and I said yes faster then I ever had before. He asked me if I could listen to this one song Miles did with Toto, and asked me to think about what Wes Montgomery would say on it.

It was Lenny and Emilio who recommended me for the session and I couldn’t thank them enough for that. I was only supposed to be on one track, but Wallace kept asking me to stay and I wound up being on half the record.

JGL: Roney – when talking about this session – was quoted as saying : “‘My music is uncompromising, so I look for musicians who have an expansive understanding of what’s possible and who have the ability to play above that, but who are always cognizant of what’s going on around them. I tell them ‘be true to who you are. Go all the way in, learn every part of what the masters have done, but let it come out of you’.’ That statement was taken to heart by these players”. How did he convey this awareness to you and did it add extra pressure? 

QZ: Wallace was a genius because he could hear things in players that they couldn’t even yet hear in themselves. He always made sure whatever situation a musician would be in, that they had space to be create and be themselves.

JGL: On the same topic and from a post you made on Facebook: “Being able to record at Rudy Van Gelder’s was a religious experience. My favorite records have been made in that sacred room…” Wow! That must have been a blast. Were there any magic moments that happened in the studio that you would like to share with us all?

QZ: Just being in the room where all that music was made… I can’t really describe it but it was like visiting the hidden temple.

JGL: Have you released any albums as a leader and if so, do you write your own tunes?

QZ: I haven’t released anything as a leader yet. I’ve been playing with a lot of bands and artists making a ton of music I am proud of! I am writing music all the time. It’s a way of exploring ourselves and believing in what we have to say.

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?

QZ: I think insecurities will always exist when we try to be vulnerable in a society that doesn’t support each other. To me it’s how I’ve treated them. These days I don’t let my insecurities defeat me or my spirit like they used to. I turn them into more of a competitive spirit with myself to better. Whether it’s practicing more, trying new ideas, or allowing myself to throw away the feeling altogether.

JGL: How do you handle the business side of being a working musician? Do you have a manager/agent or is it all a one-man operation?

QZ: Like any artist we all do what we need to do to survive. The challenge is being able to do that without sacrificing too much, if not all one’s time. I am lucky to have people help me out with the business side but a lot of it is still myself. I book shows, send invoices, book sessions, whatever.

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

QZ: My advice would be to listen to all types of music and have fun. Play what you hear and what you like, not what you think someone would grade you for.

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.

QZ: I never doubted my calling to music. I am lucky that I’ve been able to support myself and my people financially. But who knows that may not be possible. I make music for music’s sake. I guess I would have loved to been a small forward for the Sixers, or maybe a film maker!

JGL: If you had to do one thing over again professionally, what would it be and why?

QZ: My only do over would be to have started sooner. To have those extra 5 or so years would have been amazing. But whatever maybe I’ll live an extra 5 than I was supposed to.

JGL: From the little that I have read, you seem to have quite the social awareness. As an example I saw a Twitter post where you did an online discussion concerning “Artists actually talking about art not money!!!” I love this sentiment and could you expand a bit about this idea/ideal?

QZ: To be a great artist I truly believe there is need to be involved in what’s happening in the universe around them, so social awareness is a funny concept to me because we should all be that way. What that discussion was about is close to what I said earlier. Making art for arts sake, not for commerce, fame, or whatever ideas we still hold onto.

JGL: What does the future hold for Quintin Zoto?

QZ: Working on music, being with my people, watching films, watering my plants, traveling. Hopefully making the world a brighter place!

JGL: Thank you Quintin for taking the time to chat with Jazz Guitar Life. All the best in all that you do!

QZ: Thank You Lyle!

Please consider spreading the word about Quintin 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 265 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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