This week, NYC-based jazz guitarist Rick Stone answers some of my burning questions! Rick’s album Fractals with the Rick Stone Trio came out in 2011 and has been getting some great notice out on the interwebs, including a great review on AllAboutJazz.com. You can catch The Rick Stone Trio in at the Bar Next Door at La Lanterna in NYC on February 25th. More info at RickStone.com
In our brief Q&A, Rick tells us about discovering a passion for the guitar and the musical journey that led him to jazz, and gives us an in-depth look into the mind of a jazz composer. A warning for the uninitiated–there will be some musical terminology thrown into the mix. Cover your eyes & ears if they’re sensitive to such things.
Mark Sanderlin: What first inspired you to pick up the guitar?
Rick Stone: I got my first toy guitar when I was about 2 years old, and I think I got a toy banjo right after that. But when I was about 8, my friend Mitch Tabol across the street had been taking guitar lessons and his parents bought him a brand new Gretsch Anniversary Model guitar and a Gibson Falcon amp. His mom had him play a little bit for us at his birthday party and I was really impressed. I went home and told my mom that I wanted to play guitar. My parents took me up to the corner music store for lessons, but they wouldn’t buy me an instrument. At first they rented one of those really awful Harmony Stella guitars (you know, the ones with the really fat necks and the strings real high!) and I had to play every day and keep a log of my practicing for about a year before they bought me a guitar. My first was an Epiphone Granada, which was a thin-line plywood arch-top with no cutaway and a funny looking pick-guard on which was mounted the pickup. But it had (and still has!) a really great neck and is a great guitar to play (I still own it although I don’t really play it much anymore).
MS: How did you find your way to jazz?
RS: Well, I was born in 1955 and jazz music was still very prominent in American culture. My parents weren’t really “jazz” fans per se. My mom loved to listen to Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Perry Como and also big band music like Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman. R&B was really popular and rock & roll was very new. In 1958 my parents got me a little Columbia portable record player and I one of my first records was a 45rpm single of “Purple People Eater” by Sheb Wooley. Another one was a 12 bar blues from the late 40s called “Rag Mop” (I don’t remember whose version I had, but I think it was a cover that came out later). I also remember hearing a lot of jazz on television when I was growing up.
Back then they showed lots of Fleischer Brothers cartoons from the 20s and 30s, which had music by Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway and Fletcher Henderson on TV. Also most of the TV shows of the time had great themes written and performed by jazz musicians. “I Love Lucy,” “The Flintstones,” “Bewitched,” “The Odd Couple,” “Mission Impossible” and lets not forget those great Vince Guaraldi piano trios they used for all the Charlie Brown specials. We also used to watch the late night movies on a local Cleveland TV show hosted by Ernie Anderson who went under the name “Ghoulardi.” He had a goatee, wore funny glasses, spoke in a kind of beatnik lingo and played R&B and Jazz records including lots of Jimmy McGriff during his show. Jimmy McGriff even recorded a song called “Turn Blue” as a dedication to one of Ghoulardi’s catch phrases. The music was all around us and just crept into our consciousness subliminally. I think we just took it for granted.
When I was about 12 or 13 I started discovering blues. At first through rock artists like Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix, then Johnny Winter, and later B.B. King, Muddy Waters, etc. FM radio was just starting to come into play and there were stations down at the bottom of the dial that played a pretty free format, so we could listen to stations that might be playing Joni Mitchell one minute and John McLaughlin the next. It was a really interesting time musically. I think my first jazz albums were Jimmy Smith “Root Down,” Miles Davis “Bitches Brew” and Billy Cobham “Spectrum.”
My introduction to bebop and my passion for jazz didn’t really start until 1974. The West side of Cleveland had a great jazz club called the Smiling Dog Saloon. All the great bands including Cannonball Adderley, Mose Allison, Sun Ra and tons of others would play there when they came through and the gig lasted 6 nights (from Tuesday through Sunday). A local rock station WMMS would come in on the 2nd night and broadcast the gig LIVE from the club! I was hanging around in a friend’s basement in what must have looked like a scene from “That 70s Show” when the Smiling Dog broadcast came on and it was Sonny Stitt. The music was electrifying and I still remember that feeling!!!! We went to see him the next night and I started going there to hear others too; Dr. John, Milt Jackson, Miles Davis! It was really a very special time.
MS: Who were/are your musical idols?
RS: Jimmy Raney was a very important influence for me early on in my journey into playing straight-ahead jazz guitar. I came from a background of being a blues-rock player and there was just something so simple, elegant and unpretentious about Raney’s sound and approach. I still vividly remember when I brought that record of Stan Getz and Jimmy Raney home and the effect that music had on me. It seemed to speak to me in a very personal way, and I knew right away “that’s what an electric guitar is supposed to sound like.” Not a lot of effects and extraneous histrionics, just good solid melody and fluid phrasing.
Other players who had a profound effect on me were Kenny Burrell (the album Midnight Blue), Jim Hall (Concierto), Wes Montgomery, and later Grant Green and Pat Martino. I was also deeply influenced by saxophonists; Sonny Stitt, Stan Getz, Dexter Gordon, John Coltrane, Hank Mobley, and of course Charlie Parker, and pianists Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, McCoy Tyner, Bill Evans and Barry Harris (who I studied with from 1982-1991).
MS: What is your approach to composing?
RS: It changes depending on what I’m writing for. Sometimes I’ll just come up with ideas and jot them down, but that doesn’t always amount to anything. Usually I seem to go into composition mode for a specific project, and those are the fastest and most productive writing sessions. If I know what it is that I’m trying to write, the ideas seem to coalesce pretty quickly.
I have a few different modes of writing:
One is to write a melody first, with no preconceptions of what the harmonization is going to be. Then I’ll go through it measure by measure (or even note by note) and try to find a few interesting and appealing choices, usually I gravitate towards the ones that aren’t obvious (I mean if the melody is in C, do you really need to play a C chord?). This leads me towards writing tunes like “Duck Duck Blues” (which is clearly an F minor blues, but doesn’t contain a single F minor chord during the head). “Places Left Behind” is another example of a tune I wrote this way.
Another is to write a contrafact on an existing set of chord changes. You can make this more interesting by re-harmonizing the original first, and then writing the new melody based on your re-harm. For instance my tune “Far East” is based on “East of the Sun” with a lydian color substitution on the I chord and some tri-tone substitutions in key points of the phrase. On my latest CD, the title tune “Fractals” is based on Jerome Kern’s “All the Things You Are”, but set in 5/4 time. For the intro chorus I was playing around with this intervallic arpeggio idea I’d been practicing like an etude. To give the chord progression a more modern feeling, I started to “stretch” certain intervals of the chord/scales; for instance all of the Minor 7th chords became Minor/Major 7ths (as in Jazz Melodic Minor), many of the Dominant 7ths were played as “Altered” Dominants using the Melodic Minor a half-step above, and most of the Major chords became Lydian Augmented (the 3rd mode of Melodic Minor) so that the whole thing had a feeling of consistency while stretching the listeners ear a bit.
Some tunes, like “Steppin’ Back” and “Veronica’s Waltz” were conceived from a harmonic concept I was thinking about and practicing at the time. For instance “Steppin’ Back” was based on the idea of taking a Multi-Tonic system like John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” but running it the other way through the keys (hence the title). “Veronica’s Waltz” came from practicing a cycle of Minor 11th chords through a downward cycle of Minor 3rd intervals.
And every once in a while, I’ll just sit down at either the guitar or piano and the whole tune; melody and harmony, will come out full-blown; “Scoby” (see a live recording below) is a good example of that, and also “Lullaby for Alex.” Interesting because these are both very different kids of tunes, but both just kind of came to me. I think those are the most dangerous kinds of tunes to write though. Tunes that just “come to you” may well actually be some tune you’ve heard before that’s deep in your subconscious. I remember coming into Jimmy Heath’s composition class with a tune I wrote that way once and Jimmy immediately pointed out that it was Tadd Dameron’s “The Cup Bearers” (really embarrassing!) And we ALL know the story of how George Harrison accidentally plagiarized the Chiffons’ 1962 hit “He’s So Fine.”
MS: Any performance high points in your career so far?
RS: I came here in 1982 and only knew Arnie Lawrence (a great saxophonist who I met in Cleveland when he played at Tri-C Jazzfest the year before). Arnie introduced me to a few musicians and I started going to all the jam sessions and meeting many more. I pretty quickly found about about Barry Harris classes (which where being held at Mark Morganelli’s loft Jazz Forum at that time) and started going to Barry’s classes. Later that year, Barry opened his own place Jazz Cultural Theatre and that became like my second home for the next 5 years. I learned so much from Barry and the whole experience. There were regular jam sessions there and I got to sit in with amazing musicians like Tommy Flanagan, Lionel Hampton, Art Blakey and so many others.
I pretty quickly found out that without a record (back then that meant a 12″ 33rpm LP), you couldn’t get gigs. I remember having this conversation with a guy who used to book the Blue Note called himself “Flash” Canello. So in 1984 I went into Fred Hersch’s studio Classic Sound with Hal Galper, Brian Hurley, Billy Hart and Marc Bernstein and recorded my first album “Blues For Nobody” which I put out on my own label in 1985. I started learning the ropes of the “business” pretty quickly and started getting a lot more gigs, mostly at small places at first. The record started getting some good reviews and attention, but about the same time as this, my first marriage started to fall apart. It was a bit of a setback, but it also moved me in a different direction. The jazz gigs weren’t paying very well and if I wanted to stay in NYC, I’d need to find a way to earn more. So I got my first computer in 1986 and started teaching myself. In a very short time I was getting temp work during the day and then landed a part-time job as a “Computer Systems Analyst” of all things (remember, aside from a few friends who I could ask for help, I was TOTALLY self-taught). This actually turned out to be a blessing in disguise because it helped me to improve my business skills by leaps and bounds.
From 1986-87 I played every Sunday at the University of the Streets with Jimmy Robinson’s All-Stars which included musicians like underground legend saxophonist Clarence “C” Sharpe, trumpeter Tommy Turrentine.
Around 1988 I led a group with trumpeter Brian Lynch, saxophonist Dave Glasser and trombonist John Mosca at Pace University, but I think my first really major gig as a leader was in 1990 at the Blue Note. It was billed as the Rick Stone All-Stars with saxophonist Junior Cook, pianist Richard Wyands, bassist Michael Formanek and drummer Leroy Williams. Ira Gitler gave that concert a really nice review in JazzTimes.
Meanwhile I had recorded another CD with pianist Kenny Barron which I was shopping to record labels, and had gone back back to school to earn my Masters Degree at Queens College where I got to study with saxophonist Jimmy Heath, trumpeter Donald Byrd and Tony Purrone (then the guitarist in Jimmy’s band). I also studied privately with guitarist Ted Dunbar whom I had attended a workshop with a few years earlier and who was very pivotal in my career as an educator. Toward the end of my studies with Ted, he started sending me to sub for him at the Jazzmobile Saturday Workshop Program and the following year when he left that gig, he told them to call me. I’ve been teaching there ever since (21 years now!).
The 1990s were a very busy time for me. In 1991 I finally decided to release “Far East” on my own label Jazzand Records. By now I had my business chops much more together. I was getting better bookings and starting to tour a bit (although I had a young son at home and still had the day job so I couldn’t go for too long at a time). I played at Tri-C JazzFest in Cleveland (my hometown), Birdland and Visiones in NYC, The One-Step Down and Blues Alley in D.C., and got an NEA grant to present my program “A Tribute to the Masters of Modern Jazz Guitar” at Carnegie Hall’s Weill Recital Hall. That program was very successful and we were funded again to present it in Cleveland in 1993 and in Washington D.C. at the Smithsonian in 1996. I also took my trio to South America in 1996.
In 1994 the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (where I’d been working in computers) moved to Baltimore. I had no interest in leaving NY, so I started teaching at the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music and Hofstra University. I also started working some regular gigs in town. One of them was as the house guitarist at the Swing Street Cafe where I played duos a couple times a week with Mark Elf, Peter Bernstein, Freddie Bryant, Roni Ben-Hur, Michael Howell and Peter Leitch. I also led a trio regularly at Sette MoMA (in the Museum of Modern Art).
In 2000 I recorded my 4th album “Samba de Novembro” with Tardo Hammer, Yosuke Inoue and Matt Wilson. There was some delay getting it out due to other projects but it was finally released in 2004. I finally got back into the studio in 2011 and recorded “Fractals” with Marco Panascia and Tom Pollard. I think these probably represent my best recorded work.
More recently, I’ve done two tours of Italy in 2010 and 2011, and have enjoyed playing gigs with many local musicians there.
MS: How has the jazz scene changed in NYC since you began playing out?
I’m not sure that it has. I mean the venues have changed a lot. Old ones close, new ones spring up. The major clubs like Birdland and and the Blue Note have gotten prohibitively expensive for all but tourists and non-musicians, but there are always places where the musicians can go that don’t cost an arm and a leg. Back in the 80s we had Barry Harris’ Jazz Cultural Theatre with late night jam sessions, now we have Smalls (which is an amazing little scene if you’re not familiar with it). I think there used to be more non-jazz places that would hire solo or duo jazz musicians mostly for background music and that seems to have dried up as the older generation of customers who appreciated that have been replaced by a younger crowd that doesn’t really value live music and that’s kind of sad. But that may be changing again too. I do notice a younger crowd now at Smalls and some other venues, so maybe there’s a renewed interest in the music.
MS: What’s on your agenda for 2012?
RS: Currently, I’m doing a lot of work creating content for my educational website jazzguitarlessons.com. I’m playing regularly with my trio at the Garage Restaurant and the Bar Next Door in the Village, and am going to play at some festivals in Italy this summer. I’d really like to write and record some more music if I can just find some time.