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Before & After with Guitarist Adam Rogers

Absorbing and avoiding influence

Adam Rogers

Acknowledged as one of the best jazz guitarists to emerge in the past 20 years, Adam Rogers has since 2002 released five superb recordings as a leader for the Criss Cross label, most recently 2009’s Sight, a potent trio session with bassist John Patitucci and drummer Clarence Penn. Originally a Hendrix-inspired Stratocaster player, Rogers created a stir during the early ’90s with the renegade fusion band Lost Tribe, which featured saxophonist David Binney, guitarist David Gilmore, bassist Fima Ephron and drummer Ben Perowsky. He subsequently toured and recorded with saxophonists Bill Evans and Michael Brecker and trumpeter Randy Brecker and worked with singers Norah Jones, Cassandra Wilson, Luciana Souza, Melissa Walker and Magos Herrera.

More recently, Rogers has been featured in Chris Potter’s Underground and Randy Brecker’s “Pop” project. (The latter group performs Kenny Werner’s “derangements” of noted pop, rock and R&B sides Brecker played on.) As a leader, Rogers currently fronts two separate projects: a jazz quartet featuring Penn, either Scott Colley or Matt Brewer on bass and either Craig Taborn or David Virelles on piano; and the Band of Gypsys-inspired power trio DICE, in which he’s joined by Ephron and drummer Nate Smith. In every setting, the New York City native exhibits exquisite control and taste as an accompanist and a scorching, postbop-meets-Hendrix single-note attack as a soloist.

This Before & After session took place at Rogers’ apartment in the East Village, just a stone’s throw away from the former site of the Fillmore East, where Hendrix’s Band of Gypsys was recorded live on New Year’s Day 1970.

1. Wes Montgomery

“Straight No Chaser” (from Echoes of Indiana Avenue, Resonance).

Wes Montgomery, guitar; Buddy Montgomery, piano; Monk Montgomery, bass. Recorded in 1957.

BEFORE: It’s “Straight No Chaser,” obviously. Sounds like someone’s playing with their thumb [laughs]. Is it early Wes? Maybe that recently released Wes album that I heard about? It’s interesting because his playing here is more active, there are more notes and it’s slightly more bebop inflected than how he played later. The earliest Wes I’ve heard was The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery, which is from 1960. But this is definitely busier than later Wes, and brighter-sounding. But you can still tell it’s Wes. There were a couple of telltale phrases that gave it away. Because it’s a slightly brighter sound and doubled with piano, I thought it was played with a pick. And then as soon as I heard the sound of the skin on the strings, I was pretty sure who this was.

Wes is probably my main and most important influence as a guitarist. As a young developing player, I had a cassette recording that was an important resource for me. I’d listen to the radio and press the “record” button when something interested me and then push “stop” when it stopped interesting me. So I’d have fragments of tunes, and I got this piece of Wes playing with a big band-just his solo and a bit of the big band playing the head out. I had one or two cassettes that I recorded this way. I didn’t know who any of these players were because they weren’t announced. It turned out that it was a lot of Wes and Wayne Shorter, Pat Martino, stuff from Joe Henderson’s Inner Urge, but I had no idea who anybody was. I was just starting my jazz studies, basically. And this one thing of Wes’ just blew me away.

It took me about 25 years to finally figure out what that recording was. I discovered it at [famed luthier] Flip Scipio’s house one day, when I was looking through a stack of his records. It’s a thing called “Sun Down” [off the 1967 Verve LP California Dreaming]. It’s Wes with a big band conducted by [Don Sebesky], with Herbie Hancock on piano and Grady Tate on drums. It’s an incredible solo and the first thing of Wes’ that I ever listened to. The next thing I heard was the Full House LP, which I borrowed from a friend and listened to constantly. That was my Rosetta Stone for what jazz guitar was.

It’s great to hear this early Wes from 1957. All his articulation and his phrasal language are already there, but he’s playing sort of more constant lines, which is different for him. I gotta get this immediately.

2. Mary Halvorson Trio

“April April May (No. 3)” (from Dragon’s Head, Firehouse 12). Halvorson, guitar; John Hébert, bass; Ches Smith, drums. Recorded in 2008.

BEFORE: The drummer sounds like Jim Black. [immediately after a DigiTech Whammy pedal effect] Mary Halvorson? It’s an interesting composition. I like the way they’re interacting. So that’s Ches Smith and John Hébert? It’s cool. I like the sound of the recording. It’s so dry and in your face. And his bass drum sound is similar to Jim’s.

She uses that Whammy pedal [pitch-shifting] effect kind of sparsely. And it’s interesting how she uses it with what is an almost acoustic sound. But I like the way she gets the combination of an almost acoustic and electric sound. Sounds like they have a real group dynamic. And the way she plays is very compositional, very much based on the original theme. Very cool.

3. Allan Holdsworth

“Countdown” (from None Too Soon, MoonJune). Holdsworth, guitar; Gordon Beck, keyboards; Gary Willis, bass; Kirk Covington, drums. Originally released in 1996.

BEFORE: That’s Allan Holdsworth. And that’s Trane’s “Countdown.” This must be the record he did of jazz standards. Pretty amazing. I’d really like to hear him make a record like this using Jack DeJohnette and Charlie Haden or Dave Holland. That, to me, would be even more interesting. This doesn’t sound like a super-traditional jazz backing. The band still sounds like more electric fusion players playing straight-ahead jazz. They’re great players for what they do, but I think it could be more effective using real jazz players. Not that I think of Holdsworth as a straight-ahead player at all, but a lot of his language comes from a very post-Coltrane harmonic thing. And with a rhythm section that was more really kind of swinging, I think it might pull him a little bit more into that zone.

I love listening to Holdsworth in any context. He’s such an amazing guitarist and musician. When I was younger and playing more electric-y jazz, Dave Binney loaned me an early ’90s Holdsworth album and I listened to it a whole bunch because I had never really checked him out before. I didn’t transcribe anything, but not long afterwards I found myself starting to try to play like that because it’s such a great way to play the guitar. I’ve always had an ability to mimic things, vocally or instrumentally. Especially in my formative years, if I listened to somebody and was enthusiastic about them, I would just start playing like them without consciously trying to copy them. When you’re trying to figure out what your style is, and when you listen to someone who has come up with a brilliant answer to the question of how do you do this in a personal way-like a Holdsworth or Wes or Hendrix or whatever-it pulls you almost gravitationally toward that style. But I caught myself and said, “I can’t listen to any more Holdsworth. It’s too close to what I’m trying to do.”

I wasn’t into the music that much because my primary influences as a jazz musician were Bird and Trane. But the way that Holdsworth internalized and expressed this Coltrane-ian aesthetic was very engaging to me. To play in that fluid way that a saxophone plays, evincing the overarching and extremely powerful influence of John Coltrane, was really thrilling to me. But I had to man up and put that aside, because that thing-playing with a more highly electrified sound that can express that sustain-vibrato lyrical thing-was something that he discovered for himself. I had to try and figure out my own way of evincing that Coltrane influence. And where I’ve come in the last 20 years as a guitarist is that I now play with a relatively unaffected acoustic sound, based on wanting to play the most basic version of my instrument, to be forced to deal with its acousticity and the possibility there. Even if sometimes I may think, “I wish I could get this thing to sustain more,” because that is such an enticing [sound].

4. Julian Lage Group

“Listening Walk” (from Gladwell, Emarcy). Lage, guitar; Dan Blake, tenor saxophone; Aristides Rivas, cello; Jorge Roeder, bass; Tupac Mantilla, percussion. Recorded in 2010.

BEFORE: Whew! Strong facility on the nylon string. Clear sound. Really clear articulation. Huh, maybe it’s not a nylon string. Is it Julian Lage?

We played duo a whole bunch. He’s a great musician. And this is with his band, his [most recent] record? He has an incredible ’30s Gibson L-5. Unbelievable. I don’t think he’s playing that here. This is probably his Manzer guitar. [Ed. note: Lage did indeed record this cut with his Blue Note electric archtop crafted by luthier Linda Manzer.] I met Julian at an ASCAP event. He was playing a tune of Eddie Lang’s and he had that vintage Gibson guitar and showed it to me. And it felt amazing.

Julian is a great player. We played duo two or three times here in my apartment, just playing tunes and messing around. He’s a very clear, very strong musician. I hear a Django influence in his playing. He’s obviously using it in a modern context, but that sort of phrasal language comes out and it’s a very, very guitaristic thing, which is great.

5. John Scofield

“Lawns” (from A Moment’s Peace, Emarcy). Scofield, guitar; Larry Goldings, organ; Brian Blade, drums. Recorded in 2011.

BEFORE: I’m pretty sure I know who it is but I think I’ll wait until I hear one improvising line. It’s John Scofield, with Larry, I would think, and Brian. This sounds great. Brian swings so hard and Larry is one of my favorite musicians. And what can I say about John? I studied with him before I really even knew his playing. I had lessons with him when I was about 17. I was really hard at work trying to learn bebop language, listening to Bird records all day long and playing a hollowbody. And I would go down to John’s studio at Westbeth [Artists Housing in Manhattan] and play duo with him. It was just fantastic. He is such a profound influence on me as a musician.

John exhibits the feeling of someone who just picked up the guitar for the first time but has the technique like they’ve been playing it for a hundred years. He has a really defined language but it’s always surprising and refreshing to hear. He’s a real improviser. John is another guy who figured out a brilliant way to express all of his various influences on the guitar. So I also had to block that out. As a guitarist who grew up listening to Hendrix and was dealing with that massive influence along with Trane and Ornette and Bird and everything, it was just incredible to hear someone who had very organically [combined those influences] on our instrument.

And in terms of some really dirty guitar shit-playing an instrument that has a real acoustic sound with a little bit of overdrive which helps it sustain a little bit more-[Scofield’s style is] just a great thing. One thing I learned just through osmosis from Sco is that when you hear a sound clearly enough in your head there’s nothing that can possibly stop you from realizing it in physical reality: If your intent is strong enough, you can get a ukulele to sound like an orchestra. I was really struck by that when I heard a small piece from his Quiet record. I had never heard John play a classical guitar before, but I heard just a few notes and was like, “That’s Scofield playing nylon-string guitar.” I got it in a millisecond. It’s all in the inner ear and the hands, how you express your vision of music. And with John, it’s very organic. It’s very visceral and natural. He’s always asking the guitar a lot of questions-“What are we gonna do tonight?”-which is really inspiring to me.

6. Lenny Breau & Dave Young

“If You Could See Me Now” (Live at Bourbon St., Guitarchives). Breau, seven-string guitar; Young, bass. Recorded in 1983.

BEFORE: That’s beautiful. What do they call it? Artificial harmonics? I just started messing around with that pretty recently. Beautiful guitar sound, nice reharmonization of the tune. I’m not sure about who it is but it’s something that he’s developed a lot, all of the artificial harmonics. And I’m wondering if the guitar is tuned a little differently than a normal guitar. It’s not Phil deGruy, is it?

AFTER: I was gonna say Lenny Breau! But then I thought the recording was too modern-sounding. That’s beautiful. Is it a seven-string? It’s great to hear a guitarist play so chordally and not blast off into a lot of single-note lines. I guess George Van Eps was the forefather of that. Another guy like that is Ted Greene, who plays a lot of artificial harmonics and actually plays a Telecaster. I knew about Ted Greene from his book Chord Chemistry but never really checked out his playing. And I inadvertently discovered some things of his on YouTube, and it really reminds me of Bill Evans. It’s sort of a genre of jazz playing that I hadn’t checked out so much.

7. Bill Frisell

“Give Peace a Chance” (from All We Are Saying…, Savoy Jazz). Frisell, guitar; Greg Leisz, steel guitar; Jenny Scheinman, violin; Tony Scherr, bass; Kenny Wollesen, drums. Recorded in 2011.

BEFORE: Hmm … let me listen to this a bit more before I make a guess. [after hearing a sped-up loop] OK, that’s Bill Frisell.

Back when we were playing in Lost Tribe, Binney played me the opening track from Frisell’s Before We Were Born and it just knocked me out. It was this really searing, beautiful, intense solo, but very sparse over a programmed groove with [drummer] Joey Baron playing along with it. Frisell’s solo was made up of these quite distorted and long-held notes, and it was just so incredibly evocative that it knocked me out.

Given where I was at in my own playing at the time and what I was doing, hearing this was like, “Man, that is a fantastic way to play!” I had been aware of Frisell before then, but this made me much more aware of him and I became a huge, huge fan. I used to see him play all the time with Joey, Hank Roberts and Kermit Driscoll. They were one of my favorite groups, and I continued to listen to Bill consistently. All those great records like Where in the World?, Have a Little Faith and This Land showed me that you can play the guitar in this very unusual way that is totally guitaristic and also not at all obviously idiosyncratic. It’s total guitar playing, but like all great instrumental approaches, it transcends the instrument somehow.

8. Pat Martino

“‘Round Midnight” (from Undeniable, HighNote). Martino, guitar; Eric Alexander, tenor saxophone; Tony Monaco, organ; Jeff “Tain” Watts, drums. Recorded in 2009.

BEFORE: Beautiful interpretation of the melody. It’s hard for me to say who it is without hearing him blow a little bit, so I’ll wait. I have some thoughts-that phrase right there with those 16th notes is very familiar to me. I’d have to say Pat Martino. It’s that articulation that is the giveaway. It’s like-bang!

He was a big influence on me. He was one of the guys on those cassette tapes that I made as a kid. It might’ve been him playing “Impressions” and “I Remember Clifford” and I just thought, “Man, that is unbelievable!” But that phrasing, that pristine and incredibly funky and precise articulation was just a big influence on me. Is this more recent? I’m more familiar with the earlier stuff that Pat did. But there are some of the same signatures, like that fantastic crescendo and decrescendo in a line-really natural but really expressive. That’s bad, man.

Every line he plays has that dynamic quality. I was such a huge fan of the way he’d play eighth notes so precise, but not in a way that avoids the necessary swing and funk. And he always had that incredibly solid, big-ass sound, and never any of that unpleasant guitar-string sound that I never really dug that much. The way how every note just pops right out when he’s soloing was a big influence on me. I’ve always gone after that in my own playing.

Originally Published