Adam Rogers: Rhythm, Guitar

With his trio DICE, guitarist Adam Rogers celebrates groove and six-string history

DICE trio: (l to r) Nate Smith, Adam Rogers and Fima Ephron (photo by Kyra Kverno)

On a Thursday in early September, at the 55 Bar in Greenwich Village, guitarist Adam Rogers and the trio DICE did what they have done countless times in the same place over the past decade, though never the same way twice. Rogers hung on a repeating rhythmic motif until bassist Fima Ephron and drummer Nate Smith seamlessly recalibrated the tempo, fashioning the syncopated riff into a new beat.

This “polyrhythmic language of improvisation,” as Rogers describes it, a parallax effect in tempo, characterizes Rogers’ experimentation with the power-trio format, which culminated in the summer release of DICE’s eponymous debut. The album is a paean to the dynamic strengths of groove and to the limitless possibilities of the electric guitar, from Rogers’ former teachers John Scofield and Barry Galbraith to Charlie Christian and Jimi Hendrix.

DICE charts variations in Rogers’ voice on a 1965 Fender Stratocaster, a 1956 Telecaster and a relatively new Gibson Les Paul, focusing more on rhythm and the particular grain of each instrument’s sound than on harmony. It consists primarily of Rogers’ genre-bending original compositions, including the discordant skronk of the title track, the Delta blues-inspired “The Mystic (for Fred McDowell)” and the countrified distortion of his rendition of Willie Nelson’s “Crazy.” Much of the album’s inspiration stems from marathon sessions during the 1980s on the streets of New York, where the 52-year-old New York native cut his teeth and absorbed the collage aesthetic of hip-hop. Continuing that tradition, DICE explores the polyphonic space where Public Enemy and musique concrète meet.

“Adam is a very rhythmic player; he has great time and he has great feel,” Smith says. “I kind of just watch and try to see where he’s feeling it, and I try to find a place where we can land together.”

Ephron was there for many of those early street sessions, and has held on to that raw sound across decades of collaborations, among them Lost Tribe, their quintet with alto saxophonist David Binney, guitarist David Gilmore and drummer Ben Perowsky, and Chris Potter’s Underground, where the members of DICE initially performed together. “There are sections in the music that are open, and every time we play it can be a different groove, a different idea,” Ephron says of DICE. “It’s always an adventure.”

Rogers and Ephron got their break in 1993, when the late Steely Dan co-founder Walter Becker produced Lost Tribe’s self-titled debut album. According to Rogers, Perowsky managed to slip Becker their demo, and Becker was so enthusiastic that he went directly to Windham Hill Records, then a subsidiary of BMG, and got them a deal. Soon, they were in Maui recording Lost Tribe at Becker’s home studio, 2,500 feet up on the dormant volcano Haleakalā, overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

“You had to walk out and behold this vista that words really can’t describe to go to the control room and listen [to playback],” Rogers recalls recently, sitting down at a café in Manhattan’s East Village. “Sometimes it was a little hard to stay focused on the music, because you’d open up the door from the [windowless] recording room and just kind of stop and look at this thing, fall onto the grass and stare at the butterflies.” A few months later, Rogers, Ephron and Perowsky were invited back to Hawaii to collaborate on Becker’s solo debut, the underrated fusion album 11 Tracks of Whack, co-produced by Donald Fagen. “That was an extraordinary experience,” Rogers says. “What a great loss. He was a really amazing individual, musician, composer and lyricist. Brilliant is an overused word, but incredibly smart, insightful.” In October 2016, DICE opened for Steely Dan at the Beacon Theatre.

In addition to three albums with Lost Tribe, Rogers has released seven albums as a leader and collaborated with Ravi Coltrane, John Patitucci, James Carter, saxophonist Bill Evans, Norah Jones and the Brecker Brothers (both together and solo). In addition to performing with DICE at 55 Bar and at Los Angeles’ Blue Whale, Rogers recently played a tribute to John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme with Ravi, Nicholas Payton, Matthew Garrison and Marcus Gilmore at SFJAZZ. Through these associations, Rogers has spent decades developing a distinctive sound on the electric guitar: a coiled, often vibrato-less tone, legato phrasing and a penchant for polyrhythmic, conversational lines. His sound was inspired equally by John Coltrane and guitarists like Jim Hall, Pat Martino and Wes Montgomery; he even studied saxophone for a time, and contributes clarinet and bass clarinet to DICE.

Much of the aesthetic vision for the DICE guitar sound emerges from experimentation with amp pairings, which Rogers compares to a woodwind player’s choice of mouthpiece and reed. For this project, Rogers’ amps are a 1971 50-watt Marshall bass head, a Divided by 13 FTR 37 and a 1966 Fender Vibrolux Reverb; he switches among them to alter the tone. Part throwback, part creative limitation, Rogers eschews any pedals on DICE. “Before there were guitar pedals, guys would just crank the amps and you’d get the power tubes and circuitry to overdrive, and it’s a very natural sound,” he says. “When you’re putting that much gain out of an amp, it kind of does different things every time you turn it on. … [T]here are elements of ‘Well, what’s it going to do tonight?’ But also it’s another chain in the improvisation process.”

DICE marks the maiden voyage of Rogers’ Adraj Records imprint. He had no wide ambitions to launch a record label, but self-releasing this album—including editing and interpolating all the auxiliary parts on synthesizers, Mellotron, Fender Rhodes, clarinet and percussion himself—was always part of the plan.

“You have all the control, which is in a way a double-edged sword in terms of the force that needs to propel it forward,” Rogers says. “If you relent for even a second, it just stops. It’s like blowing a note into a saxophone. You stop blowing, it stops.” The self-release also allowed Rogers to control distribution and access via streaming platforms. Though Rogers says that streaming “precludes physical sales,” he ultimately decided to make DICE available on Apple Music, Spotify and Bandcamp. But beyond the questions of royalties, streaming platforms degrade the sound quality, Rogers explains. “For people like myself and my colleagues, who have spent a lifetime developing the sound of one note, and spending a lot of time and resources to document that in a way that is accurate to be able to convey to the listener, it’s … problematic.”

This was yet another reason for Rogers’ insistence on analog approaches whenever possible; the glut of modern recording technology can constrain more than it liberates. “Everybody’s using the same exact software to do everything. I’m looking for things that are going to help me create something that surprises me,” Rogers says. “If that means hanging a bell 10 feet from the ceiling and having to hit it with a slingshot, whatever. Let’s try this guitar through this amp and see what’ll happen. It might be a disaster, but maybe it’ll pull something out.”

Read the Before & After listening session with Adam Rogers from the July/August 2012 issue of JazzTimes.

Preview, buy or download songs from the album DICE by Adam Rogers and DICE on iTunes.