Monday, July 25, 2011

Music Interviews: John McGann, Trey Anastasio, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Bill Frisell, Gillian Welch

It's funny but you can learn a lot simply by reading the right interview with a musician.  For example, earlier today I found an interview with John McGann on Mandolin Cafe.  In the interview John mentions a quote by John LaPorta: "You should hear what music looks like, and see what music sounds like."  Meaning there is importance in both being able to read standard notation and play by ear.  This really stuck with me and brought to mind the fact that I need to work on both of these aspects, but really focus on developing my ear.  John also talks about the chord/melody relationship, saying "...knowing what notes are in a chord is a first step. Knowing where the notes are on your instrument, knowing what they look like on paper, knowing the different positions where those notes occur...Hearing the relationships is the crucial component. A true improviser (as opposed to a lick-reciter) really needs this kind of information".  I also found his list of common weaknesses and problems interesting, including "Time. Almost no one has as strong a sense of rhythm and time as they think they do. Work with a metronome is great here, as is playing along with recordings."  And also "A bunch of scales and arpeggios and licks does not create a player, but someone who can play (memorized!) 100 tunes (chords and melodies) well is automatically playing scale and arpeggio material in a musical fashion."  I also want to point out this quote by McGann (on using an Octave Mandolin in jazz):  "I don't think of jazz as being instrument-specific, and try to play the attitude as much as the jazz vocabulary when I am playing in that style."  This is particularly useful to me, as I play an unusual instrument - tenor banjo - but I don't like being mired in the styles or genres typically associated with that instrument.  I see it more as my instrument of choice for playing the folk tunes I enjoy playing.  I don't think of any  music or genre as being instrument specific.  I suggest reading the full interview with John McGann.

Another example of something you can learn from an interview/article is in this recent interview with Trey Anastasio of Phish in The Believer.  Referring to the New York Philharmonic, Trey says "And when the music started playing, I had this idea that the music was coming through this little channel—for lack of a better word—for years and years. Musicians come and go and they’re stewards of the music for a brief period of time. But once the music plays—it’s really between Beethoven and the listener at that point. The musicians are there to get their goddamn hands off of it. All that training! Thousands of hours! Sight-reading every day! All so they can get the hell out of the way because nobody gives a crap about them at all. The less you notice them, the better it sounds. I mean, it was the highest level of art in music that I’d ever seen, and it was performed by people who had spent countless hours of work just to be invisible."  I've read quotes like this before by Trey.  I also recently found an decade old interview with Trey from Guitar Player, where he discusses improvisation.  One notable quote from that interview is "In Phish, we’ve dropped the concept of musical style and accepted all music as a global mass of sound. We operate from two opposing philosophies: one is that you should lock yourself in a room from birth, and write music with zero influence from the outside world; the other is that you should listen to everything, to the point of being able to faithfully recreate the Beatles’ White Album, as we did before a show a while back. As odd as it sounds, we try to draw from both philosophies simultaneously."

Jimmie Dale Gilmore was recently interviewed on Fresh Air about his brilliant new album with The Wronglers called Heirloom Music.  There's a good chance that this album will end up on my best of the year list.  I love the folksy, everyman takes on stringband and bluegrass songs on the recording.  In the Fresh Air interview Jimmie Dale quotes Ezra Pound, saying "The poem fails when it strays too far from the song, and the song fails when it strays too far from the dance."  I had never heard this quote before and found it very meaningful.  A transcription of the interview as well as the audio can be found here

Just the other day I read an archived No Depression interview with Bill Frisell where he stresses the importance of being open minded when it comes to playing music.  The quote that stands out is where guitar player Frisell says " soon as I started to get more into jazz, the people that really influenced me the most were saxophone players and piano players, and later on, maybe orchestral music. It never was really guitar. I just happened to play the guitar, but then I’d listen to a string quartet or something, and I’d be hearing that sound in my head and trying to get it out on guitar somehow."  Frisell also remarks: "...the music that’s really real is something that’s been completely internalized. When you play, it’s not an intellectual thing that happens; it just sort of comes out. And it takes a long time for the stuff to sink down there. "

Finally, I also recently discovered an old Acoustic Guitar profile on Gillian Welch and David Rawlings.  In that article David Rawlings had some interesting things to say, such as "I can’t really play straight flat-picking. It just doesn’t feel right to me. I drone a lot, I keep stuff ringing a lot, but that’s mostly because there’s just two of us. I sort of cross-pick, and that developed because it seemed to line up with the strum that Gill does. It should sound like one calliope sort of thing."  And also by Dave, "I like to play something inside the key at the same time I play something outside, so it stays grounded. I try to play guitar like Bob Dylan plays harmonica. He picks up the wrong harp and it’s beautiful, because he’s got about three notes in there that are in the key and about five that aren’t. It’s like a big rubber band stretching."  In that same article Gillian said this about the banjo "The banjo songs tend to be more repetitive, because the rhythm is so incessant and also because I’m not really worrying about chord changes as much. It’s more modal, and I use the drone string a lot. I just play the melody and that’s it. It’s a little bit hypnotic."

In each of these interviews there are things to learn, and there are many, many more interviews that I could reference here.  But these are just examples of the ones I've noticed in the last week or so that made an impact. I try to make a mental note of anything like this, and even if it doesn't make a direct impact at least it maybe sticks with me subliminally or subtly.

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