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Joe Diorio: Rehabilitation & Reinvention

Joe Diorio
Joe Diorio (photo: Andrea Schulz)

One of the great jazz guitarists since the 1960s, Joe Diorio has flown under the radar of the vast majority of jazz fans. But to the hordes of working guitarists today who studied with him at Hollywood’s Guitar Institute of Technology (GIT) from 1977-97 and later at the University of Southern California, Diorio is revered as a kind of six-string guru; his unconventional methods helped liberate them to cross over the line from the intellectual and the intuitive. As he put it in his 1989 REH instructional video, Creative Jazz Guitar: “The idea in improvising is to free yourself from left-brain thinking. The left side of the brain wants to know exactly what it’s doing through every step of the process, whereas the right brain is purely intuitive. It loves to take chances and be creative. And when that right brain starts to kick in, then you’ll start to come up with things you never thought of before.”

Admired throughout his career by fellow plectrists like Joe Pass, Howard Roberts, Jack Wilkins, Robben Ford, Pat Metheny and Mick Goodrick, the native of Waterbury, Conn., is a part of jazz history for his work on the first-ever gold-selling jazz record, saxophonist Eddie Harris’ Exodus to Jazz (Vee-Jay), which sold in unprecedented numbers in 1961 on the strength of the Top 40 hit single, a jazzy adaptation of the Exodus movie theme by Ernest Gold. Diorio is also highly regarded among guitar aficionados for his creative collaboration during the early ’70s with saxophonist/trumpeter Ira Sullivan and his string of eight brilliant recordings during the mid-’90s for the Italian RAM Records label.

But all of those examples of Diorio’s astounding six-string prowess seem like a distant memory now as he sits in his Waterbury home, struggling to regain the full use of his left hand following a stroke he suffered in April 2005 at his West Coast residence in San Clemente, Calif. “It took out my left side, all the way from the top of my head down to my toes,” says Diorio, who is thankful that his speech and memory were not diminished at all by the stroke. “I had to learn how to walk again, how to use my arm, my hand. And I’m still in the process of doing that. I just finished a three-year run of rehab so I’m on my own at this point. I have exercises to do that improve my arm and my fingers. But the most important thing I can do is to play every day. My power’s not there yet, so it’s a slow process. But I still try every day.”

Diorio had just returned from the gym when he felt the first symptoms of what turned out to be a stroke. “Believe it or not, I was trying to get in shape,” he says. “I’m always fighting this weight problem. That particular day I worked out and when I came home I noticed that I couldn’t walk so good. I thought maybe I had overdone it at the gym and just went on with my business. The next day I woke up and it was worse, so I told my wife, Christina, ‘I don’t know what the hell’s happening here.’ And as I was speaking to her, I went to sit down on the couch and my whole left arm went out on me. I was rushed to the hospital and it just continued to get worse overnight.”

The stroke that sidelined Diorio came just five months after he had completed a superbly swinging duet recording with former GIT guitar student David Becker. The Color of Sound (on the German Acoustic Music label) captures Diorio’s remarkable facility in full flight on wide-open renditions of jazz standards like “Beautiful Love,” “All the Things You Are” and “Stella by Starlight,” as well as some daring right-brained extrapolations like “Dance of the Inner Valley” and “Reflections of India.” As Becker wrote in the liner notes to that adventurous duet project: “I first met Joe in 1980 at GIT. I was about 18 and at the time was searching for some inspiration. After I heard Joe play for the first time, something touched me very deeply and I thought to myself, ‘I’ve got to get to know this guy.’ Joe strongly encouraged me to always follow the music I heard inside and never said to do this or that. He once told me, ‘I am sure you had your influences, but yet you were always David Becker, and that’s good.'”

Diorio may have provided similar encouragement for another young disciple, guitarist Robben Ford, on their joint project, 1989’s Minor Elegance (Inakustik), which featured Peter Erskine on drums and Gary Willis on bass. That rare encounter included a smoking rendition of Miles Davis’ “So What” along with a chops-busting intervallic workout titled “Blues for All Space Cadets.” On 1993’s Rare Birds (RAM), a freewheeling duet session with fellow guitarist and educator Mick Goodrick, the two forward-thinking players took great liberties with standards like “On Green Dolphin Street,” “My Funny Valentine” and “Out of Nowhere,” while also engaging in such spontaneous creations as “Sus(4)penders Blues,” “Space Walk” and the provocative title track.

Diorio says this kind of open-minded attitude toward playing had its roots in his early ’60s Chicago experience. “Those years were the catalyst for sure. Chicago was a happening scene then, like the jazz equivalent of going to Yale. All the great sax players were there at the time—Sonny Stitt, Ira Sullivan, Von Freeman, Eddie Harris, Johnny Griffin. And then you had tons of amazing piano players like Willie Pickens and Jodie Christian that nobody outside of Chicago knew about. We’d play all night and get to a place where we went beyond the intellect and were just playing from that total zone, man. I was very young at the time and that whole experience in Chicago just opened my head and ears to so many new things.”

Diorio had come up in Connecticut idolizing guitarists like Django Reinhardt, Jimmy Raney and Tal Farlow, but during his tenure in Chicago he gravitated toward more modern players. “After Wes Montgomery came along, everybody started imitating him, me included,” he says. “Then I found Jim Hall, which really changed me a lot. He played this laidback kind of way that I really loved. He took his time and his comping was just incredible. I had my own way of comping at the time but I realized, after checking out Jim, that I might’ve been too busy. So I started to lay back a little bit. Then I went to see him play with Art Farmer in Chicago one night and I was looking at the voicings he was using and I thought, ‘I gotta start updating my whole harmonic sense.’ So I think he had a lot to do with the way I play.”

Following the success of Exodus to Jazz, Diorio played on several of Harris’ Vee-Jay label follow-up recordings, and later appeared on two sessions with Chicago-based sax burner Stitt (1963’s Move on Over and 1964’s My Main Man, both on Argo). Joe remained on the Chicago scene through the ’60s and eventually moved to Miami in 1972, which marked the beginning of an experimental phase with Sullivan. “That was the best period of my life,” he says. “We were doing everything from straight-ahead jazz to space-cadet stuff … total avant-garde. And we were so in tune with each other it was like telepathy, man.”

With drummer Steve Bagby and pianist Tony Castellano, Ira and Joe played a regular Friday-night workshop gig at a Unitarian Church in Miami that produced scintillating results. “There were nights over there that were some of the musical highlights of my life,” says Diorio. “It made me realize that there’s a place in music that you can rise to where there’s no concern about your technique, your hearing, the harmony or anything. Because it’s all there. It’s just like you’ve fallen into the magic pool of music. I mean, there’s no struggling for anything, it’s just spontaneous creation. And we did that collectively many times at that church. We just rose up to another level and when that happens, man … Oh, my God! It’s like being in heaven. I’m lucky that something like that happened in my life. Boy, oh boy, was it ever a special time.”

During his tenure with Sullivan, Diorio also encountered and began collaborating with a young, pre-Weather Report Jaco Pastorius. “We did some gigs together and we rehearsed a lot with Ira,” he says. (Diorio and Pastorius appear together on one track, “Portrait of Sal La Rosa,” from Sullivan’s self-titled 1975 A&M album, and they also recorded with Sullivan, drummer Bagby and Fender Rhodes player Alex Darqui on “Ballye de Niña,” a previously unreleased Pastorius original that appears on the 2006 Holiday Park compilation, Jaco Pastorius: The Early Years Recordings.)

While he presently faces a daunting challenge in terms of reclaiming his legendary command of his chosen instrument, Diorio maintains a daily writing regimen. “I don’t need my guitar to write,” he says. “I prefer to write with just pencil and paper. It’s actually faster for me to do that than to deal with computers and software and all that. I like having the pencil in my hand because I like to draw and paint too, so it’s kind of an extension of the whole deal.”

Diorio adds that his present physical limitations won’t stop him from making slow but sure progress on the guitar. “Just think of what Django was able to do after that fire. It was nothing less than a miracle. And I think about what Pat Martino overcame to be able to play again. Pat’s a big inspiration, man. Now I realize how hard he had to work to get it back. And it’s a slow road back. But I realize that I’m here to play music on this planet; that’s obvious to me. And to give it up for some bullshit thing like a stroke, man, it’s just crazy. So I’m just gonna play my music the best I can and write as much as I can until I check out. And that’s it.”

Now that he’s come full circle back to his hometown of Waterbury, it’s time to reinvent himself. And with Zen-like patience, Diorio is bound to make a comeback. “I know what I have to do,” he says. “You gotta bravely face whatever the gods send you and don’t loathe or get angry. You gotta try to find the peace within yourself. Hopefully, the music will help you to get to that peaceful place.”

Originally Published