JOHN FIFIELD
It Is What It Is...
(TMB Records)

 

Based down in Hollywood, Florida, John Fifield is coming from a quite unique space in 21st century guitar based instrumental sounds. Combining white hot instrumental fusion, straight ahead jazz, funk and even rap/bass stylings, Fifield’s guitar approach is really eclectic and for a good taste of his unique guitar sounds take a spin inside the 2010 CD release of It Is What It Is... Besides DiMeola and Connors, there’s a definite Zappa like guitaristic influence here, with Fifield spinning out speedy runs and fluid fretboard concepts while getting ace backup from Ric Fierabracci (bass), Joe Locke (vibes, synth), Joel Rosenblatt (drums), violinist Christian Howes and others. The CD studio sound is great and the packaging is also first rate with its colorful psychedelic graffiti gatefold. For fans of daredevil fusion guitar pyrotechnics, John Fifield’s It Is What It Is... is a pick to click. Fans will note that hot on the heals of It Is What It Is... Fifield has also another CD out entitled All Shades Of Blues, recorded with his wife, singer Beverly Lewis-Fifield and a number of top session players. Commenting on the release to mwe3.com in June 2010, Fifield adds, ‘All Shades Of Blues was just released within the past few weeks. I produced and played on this one and, although it's totally different than my solo album, we shot for the same level of quality throughout.’ www.JohnFifield.com

mwe3.com presents an interview with
JOHN FIFIELD


mwe3.com: You've had a lot of experience as session musician and as a sideman. Why and when did you decide to make the move to producer and recording artist?

John Fifield: I don’t know that I’d really call it a move from one thing to another, but would describe the shift as just another way to express my musical being. Taking on the producer role was a very natural progression and a transition I think a lot of musicians make at some point or another. Session work for others has always been kind of hit and miss for me, but I loved recording from the very first time I got into a studio. The more opportunities I had to record, the more I saw an almost unlimited potential for creative expression and the more I wanted to learn about the whole process. It was exciting and fun and still is.

On the artist side of things, I have done a fair amount of writing through the years, so when I finally decided that it was time to make a really definitive statement of my own, all of the elements were already in place. Fortunately, everything came together at a time when digital technology had advanced to the point where I could afford a high-quality, recording setup in my home – something I had wanted for a very long time. Once the home studio was in place, I was able to really begin developing ideas and start moving towards creating quality product the way I wanted to make it. A great side benefit is that it has also allowed me a lot more flexibility in taking on session work from other sources.

An exciting development on the session front has been through my close musical compatriot and friend (session drummer and mixing engineer), Goran Rista. Goran and I have worked closely of the past few years on a variety of music projects: he mixed the It Is What It Is and All Shades Of Blues albums and I have played on a number of projects he's been involved with, including his 2008 solo release, Rista World. Goran has developed a unique online platform (see www.gorangrooves.com) that offers high-quality, affordable tracking, production and engineering services to musicians and recording professionals worldwide. I am part of the production team and also handle guitar chores along side several other very fine players.


mwe3.com: How did you evolve into writing, recording and performing in the jazz-rock instrumental guitar world and can you mention some of your big guitar and composing influences, rock, jazz and otherwise?

JF: The evolution was pretty organic and really began when I first started playing guitar. About two years after I started playing, I began taking lessons with a local legend on the Connecticut music scene - guitarist, Bob Thompson. Bob turned me on to a whole universe of instrumental music that I'd never heard or even conceived of before then and it was that introduction that really jump started my deep love affair with instrumental music of all kinds. Some of the most lasting influences have been Chick Corea, Norwegian guitarist Terje Rypdal, Wes Montgomery, Jeff Beck, the Mahavishnu Orchestra and a couple of post-Miles, pre-Mahavishnu John McLaughlin solo recordings - My Goals Beyond and Extrapolation. On top of that, Bob is still probably one of the hippest players I've ever heard and was as influential on my direction as anyone has been.

From a playing standpoint, a short list of guitar influences would go something like this - Jimi Hendrix, Wes Montgomery, Duane Allman, Allan Holdsworth, George Benson, Jeff Beck, Bill Nelson (of BeBop Deluxe), Joe Pass, Mike Stern, John McLaughlin, Robben Ford, Pat Metheny, Al DiMeola, Jimmy Page. A short list of non-guitar influences would include, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, David Grisman, Oscar Peterson, Miles Davis, Chick Corea, Bill Bruford, Jaco Pastorius, Joe Henderson, Jean Luc Ponty, Jimmy Smith, Billy Cobham.

Compositionally, I'm kind of all over the place and really just absorbed ideas from the music that I thought was cool and was listening to at any particular time. The range is from straight-ahead jazz to commercial pop vocal stuff and all points in between. Whatever got in through osmosis, rattled around, fused together and comes out however it comes out. Most musicians can hear the JLP and Chick Corea influences right off the bat. Every now and then someone will pick up on the Gentle Giant, Yes and Prince influences. The main thing I wanted to achieve with the material on this album was to have strong, defined melodies and arrangements on every track, no matter how different each might be from another. One of the many qualities that I've admired about the compositions of JLP and Chick Corea is their ability to take the listener on a series of little musical trips throughout an album and sometimes even within a single track. This was definitely the approach I had in mind when I was writing, recording and producing It Is What It Is...


mwe3.com: What were your early studies like and can you remember your first guitar?

JF: I remember my first guitar vividly - a cheap Yamaha steel string acoustic that was bequeathed by one of my older brothers. The strings were about a half inch off the neck and it was so difficult to play, it's amazing I didn't give up or suffer permanent digital deformities. My earliest studies consisted of a turntable and my Hendrix and Led Zeppelin albums. My first teacher, Kevin Moran, taught me some blues and funk things, and began to broaden my horizons by teaching me a few tunes that had harmonic structures and progressions that leaned a little closer to the jazz world. My first major 9th chord was love at first strum.

The next milestone in my development was hooking up with Bob Thompson for lessons. From theory to technique, Bob opened up a whole new world for me.

Next up was about a year of private study with Reggie Wooten (eldest brother of the legendary Wooten clan) while I was living in Norfolk, VA. My mom would shuttle me over to the Wooten family home in Newport News on Sunday mornings so I could learn about chord substitutions and chord melody playing and otherwise sit in awe just watching this guy.

The next major step in my musical development was when I started studying privately with Dave Santoro (Jerry Bergonzi's longtime bassist and musical compatriot) at the Hartford Conservatory. After a few months of private study, I attended classes full-time during the 1979-1980 school year. Although straight-ahead jazz was clearly not the path I wanted to take, the theory and exposure to people who could not only teach, but were also monster players in that style, was invaluable.


mwe3.com: What guitars did you feature on the It Is What It Is album? How about amps and strings and what pedal effects were used on the CD?

JF: I ended up changing out almost every piece of gear during the course of the project, but instrument-wise, the one constant in the electric arsenal was my Fender Strat. It's been modified over the years and has EMG pickups, I think, that can be used in single or dual coil mode with a pull (dual coil) or push (single coil) of the volume pot. This guitar is also outfitted with a Roland GK-2A MIDI converter which connects to a GR-33 sound module/pedal board. I really need to update that end of things, but for now it continues to serve the limited purpose for which it's most often used - sequencing parts for tunes I'm recording and demoing and occasionally for tracking simple, live, synth-like parts.

Along the way, I bought a Carvin AE-185 which has a pretty awesome tonal range. I used that on quite a few parts and because of the action and shape of the fingerboard, found it to be especially good for playing slide.

The most recent addition was my Mason custom, the guitar I'm holding on the insert photo of the album. It was hand made by Ft. Lauderdale luthier, Bob Mason. Bob has been setting up and maintaining my guitars for years and I'd played some of the instruments he'd built, but when I picked up this particular guitar, I knew it was made for me from note one. I had never experienced that before with any other instrument, so needless to say, I HAD to have that guitar.

The only acoustic I used throughout the album was a Seagull steel string with a cutaway. Not a Martin or Taylor in terms of sound quality, but it mic-ed up quite nicely and did the job.

I've been using Elixir strings on all of my instruments for the past few years since they last so friggin' long and maintain a much more consistent sound quality throughout the life of the strings. They're a bit duller-sounding than non-coated strings fresh out of the package, but that tonal difference really only became an issue on some acoustic guitar parts. There were a few tracks that I had to re-record because I needed to hear the brightness that the Elixir strings just don't have.

As far as guitar sounds, amps and processing, I used anything and everything at my disposal at any given time, so there were no sacred cows - mic-ed amp, direct out, digital, analog, in the box, out of the box, whatever worked is what I went with. Amps included a Line 6 Flextone III, a borrowed Mesa Boogie and a borrowed Fender Twin. I was actually really happy with the results from the Flextone by taking a direct line from the amp to my tube preamp (an Audio Technologies TMA-2) and into my DAW. I also used a Tech 21 Sansamp PSA-1 direct to my DAW and did the same thing with a Boss GT-6 processor/pedal board. With the GT-6, once I found a patch I wanted to work with, I'd strip all the effects out and tweak the raw patch until I got what I wanted, record dry and add effects afterwards as needed.


mwe3.com: Regarding keyboards and guitar synth, how does performing guitar synth and keyboards compare or contrast with your guitar playing?

JF: Looks like I'll have to 'fess up about the keyboard playing. I am not a keyboard player by any stretch of the imagination and only ended up playing some simple keyboard parts when I couldn't cover the parts using the guitar synth. I would take things in short sections, run through the progressions until I could play the parts comfortably at tempo, track one section and then move on to the next.

I played as many of the single note synth lines as I could using the guitar synth, but in more than a few instances had to play a part into the system as a MIDI track, clean up all of the extraneous MIDI goop and then set about assigning a patch or two. This actually worked out much better from a production standpoint since I had the flexibility of demoing a variety of sounds before committing to anything.


mwe3.com: What was it like working with violinist Christian Howes on It Is What It Is as the CD features your guitar in tandem with Christian on some very intricate lines. How did you meet up with and just how amazing was it to work with all the other great musicians on the CD? Speaking about Joe Locke, he just released an album a year or two ago and Ric Fierabracci is a legend of the bass.

JF: Let's go in reverse order and start with Ric. Not only is Ric a legend of the bass, but he's also been a great friend and was an integral part of helping me get this album made. Ric was part DAW and remote session mentor, project motivator, mix and production reality-checker, musician matchmaker and bass player. After tracking bass on “Mulata”, Ric introduced me to Christian Howes and Joel Rosenblatt, whom I'd heard of before, but never met or worked with. Because of tour schedules and other professional commitments, all of the sessions with Chris, Joel and Ric were done remotely. The process was the same for each of them: I would send a detailed audio demo, a chart and the actual working files they could load into their systems - a stereo drum track, mono click, mono bass, and a stereo track of the rest of the harmonic and melodic instruments - and we would talk by phone before they started tracking. This process worked really well because each of these guys are stellar players and because I made sure I was as together on my end as possible. I wanted everyone to be able to spend their time focused on making music instead of trying to figure things out.

I had originally met and worked with Joe Locke in 1987 when I was working with tenor sax legend, John "Spider" Martin. I hadn't worked with or had any contact with Joe in years, but while I was in the process of writing "Sophie", knew that he was the guy I wanted to play on it. I got in touch with him and after hearing the rough demo of the tune, he agreed to do it. It's not the most complex set of changes he's ever played over, but I think his playing on that one contains some of most tasteful soloing I've ever heard on vibes.

Christian is truly a master musician in all respects and navigated through the most intricate of lines without breaking a sweat. When it comes to recording, he keeps things very spontaneous and typically wouldn't look at a chart or listen to a demo until shortly before session time. More often than not, we would talk while he was en route to the session and he would sight read/sing certain sections over the phone to make sure he knew what I was looking for, and that was that. He came up with the string arrangements for The Music Box and Acting completely off-the-cuff. We finally got a chance to meet in person this past January when he was in the area for a gig. The state of modern recording - you get to meet the musicians after the album is done!


mwe3.com: How would you compare the guitar styles on your album with your playing and production on the Beverly Lewis' solo album All Shades Of Blues, which was released very quickly after your album came out.


JF: The way I look at it is that both albums are just different facets of a musical whole. I've never been a blues player per se, but I grew up listening to all of the great blues/rock stuff from the late '60s and early '70s, and played enough in the style over the years, so I know what sounds right within the genre.

The overall production approach was the same as on It Is What It Is - start with the best possible material, come up with interesting arrangements that work within the context of what you're doing and use the absolute best players you can find. It was a lot of fun to develop parts and arrangements, especially some of the horn arrangements, that fit the tunes and Bev's vocal style and sound. I am really pleased with how the album turned out and it's been getting pretty consistent airplay on a number of NPR affiliate stations around the country.


mwe3.com: Can you say something about plans moving forward including new recordings and composing and what direction you'd like to take your music in the future?

JF: I have been thinking about a number of projects that all cover very different stylistic ground. I will definitely be doing an instrumental project that's more jazz/blues oriented and decidedly less production-heavy than It Is What It Is. I've also been formulating a concept piece that combines audio and visual elements. Bev and I will be continuing her mission with some live gigs and continued recording in the jazz/blues/swing vein, so there is definitely more good stuff coming down the pipeline.

Thanks to John Fifield @ www.JohnFifield.com

 

 
   
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