JOHN STEIN
Bing Bang Boom!
(Whaling City Sound)

 

One of the top jazz guitarists in the U.S. today, John Stein released his fabulous Hi-Fly CD in early 2011 and in 2012 he followed up with another fine outing entitled Bing Bang Boom!. Essentially the same quartet that recorded Hi-Fly, the ten track Bing Bang Boom also features John’s solid quartet—John Stein (guitars), Jake Sherman (piano, keys), Zé Eduardo Nazario Drums) and John Lockwood (acoustic bass). There’s a good reason that, in addition to being a top recording guitarist, John Stein also teaches music theory at the famous Berklee school in Boston. Stein and his band just lives and breathes bebop guitar jazz. In the past, John has cited jazz guitar legend Jim Hall as one of his key influences and fans of Hall’s legendary jazz guitar prowess will appreciate the vital group interplay on Bing Bang Boom!. In addition to several new Stein originals, the Bing Bang Boom! CD features fresh quartet covers of jazz legends such as Charles Mingus, Billy Strayhorn, Victor Young and Cole Porter, as evidenced by the CD closing cover of Porter’s “You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To.” As with his other quartet recordings, the sound of Bing Bang Boom! is modern yet there’s some vintage sounding musical signposts that gives the CD a comfortable, relaxing vibe. When it comes to recording instrumental jazz guitar, few musicians have it so clearly in the pocket as John Stein. www.JohnStein.com


mwe3.com presents an interview with
JOHN STEIN



mwe3: Your new CD Bing Bang Boom! was recorded just after you released the Hi Fly album in 2011. How would you compare this new CD with your quartet compared with Hi Fly? The Bing Bang Boom! album sounds like a natural progression in a lot of ways. Is there a story behind the making of the CD and also the ongoing interplay between you and your group?

JOHN STEIN: I have enjoyed making a series of quartet recordings with essentially the same musicians. Bing Bang Boom! is the fourth in the series. We aren’t really a working band. My drummer lives in Brazil, the pianist on the first two CDs in the series lives in Japan, so we don’t play together unless we can get together for a special project. What seems to work is to first schedule a few gigs, so when we go into the studio we have some playing-in time together before we record. Since it takes quite a while to bring a CD project to completion, by the time a CD is ready for release I’m generally ready to record again. The timing is usually good to play release concerts for my previous recording, then go into the studio to record a new one.

The natural progression you mention must be what happens when musicians collaborate over time, get used to each other, and simply work together to create something interesting. I’m fortunate to play with brilliant musicians.

mwe3: How about the choice of covers on Bing Bang Boom! this time around? Because some of the covers are such standards they must have had a special meaning for you. The Rogers & Hart classic “Lover”, Cole Porter’s “You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To” and “Delilah” are standards. Can you say something about why you chose these songs as covers on the Bing Bang Boom! album this time? Although “Delilah” isn’t the same song most people think of when they hear the name “Delilah”, (the Tom Jones cover). Also what other songs are you considering as possible covers in the future?

JOHN STEIN: I play tunes that I love. I always work with music that appeals to me. I am a democratic band leader and encourage my collaborators to contribute ideas. Some of the standard tunes were suggested and arranged by others. I guess my primary partner has been Zé Eduardo Nazario, my Brazilian drummer. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of Latin grooves and rhythms, and he is also a deep student of North American jazz. What he likes to do is take standard tunes that are normally performed in a typical way, and transform them by treating them with various Brazilian grooves. “Delilah” and “Lover” are great examples of that. Zé arranged “Delilah” as a Brazilian Maracatu, and “Lover” alternates between an Afoché rhythm and swing. It also seems to happen that the conceptions we develop for tunes evolve once the others sink their teeth into them. “You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To” ended up a fast jazz waltz and that’s not where it started.

mwe3: The medley of “Duke Ellington’s Sound Of Love” written by Charles Mingus and the Billy Strayhorn composition “Chelsea Bridge” is great too. Can you say something about that medley, why you paired those tunes and the significance of those composers and their influence on your musicianship? Most of today’s younger fusion / rock fans don’t know much about Duke and Mingus and Billy Strayhorn yet they’re responsible for some of the great standards in jazz. What are your favorite albums by Duke and Mingus?

JOHN STEIN: The Mingus tune is a tribute from Mingus to Duke Ellington, one of his musical idols. It seems to me that Mingus borrows one of the strongest melodic and harmonic phrases from Billy Strayhorn’s most famous composition “Lush Life” and uses it in his tribute tune to Duke. Strayhorn and Ellington were joined at the hip, musically. So Mingus quoting Strayhorn suggested a good link between the two tunes. I don’t think people get to hear the Mingus tune enough. The melody notes are all color notes, not chord tones, so it’s very sophisticated. But at the same time, it is highly melodic – easy to hear and remember. I love all the music I have heard by Duke, Mingus, and Strayhorn.

mwe3: Your Bing Bang Boom! original tracks are really great. Do you prefer to record original music or classic covers and why? The title track has a bit of humor in it. How did you come up with the title track “Bing Bang Boom!” and why did you call the album Bing Bang Boom! to begin with? Can you say something about that track as well as the interplay between you and your band on the title track? Seems like the musical ESP is improving between you and your group and you can really feel that throughout the entire album.

JOHN STEIN: When I first began studying jazz music I was trying to learn standard tunes. The theory I studied gave me a growing understanding of how to analyze the great tunes: harmonic analysis, melodic analysis, the relationship between melodies and harmony. Eventually, I realized that I could not only understand what was going on in the tunes I loved, but I also had the tools to compose my own music that is equally sophisticated. So I began writing my own music to use on gigs and on recordings. Many of the great musicians I admired composed music in addition to playing standard repertoire, so it was a natural progression for me to do the same.

I’m very proud of my original compositions. I try to write music that has natural phrasing, is both sophisticated and accessible, music that I put in front of a good player and that person can do great things with it almost without effort. I like to include original compositions on my recordings. It’s part of my attempt to create a unique body of work.

Neal Weiss, the owner of Whaling City Sound, my record label, has told me that his favorite thing is when jazz musicians play rock influenced music. Years ago, I went through a phase playing in organ trios, and I’ve always loved the soul-jazz, boogaloo grooves. The tune Bing Bang Boom! falls into that category. The title of the tune is something I say, unconsciously, whenever I jump up to do something. I didn’t even know I was doing it. When we record, Zé Eduardo Nazario comes up from Brazil and we hang out together, playing and rehearsing the music for the new CD. We spend a lot of time together and he noticed me using that little phrase, “Bing Bang Boom!” It was an unconscious thing. I was totally unaware that I said it. But Zé noticed it and suggested it for the title of my bluesy tune. We thought it was catchy and it ended up becoming the album title.

In terms of musical ESP, let me just say that what interests me in music is the interaction between the participants. I love conversational music, when everyone really listens and reacts to each other. I don’t enjoy music that simply provides pads over which a soloists shows off chops. And I’ve been very fortunate to collaborate with virtuosic musicians who seem to enjoy the opportunity to play together in a conversational manner. Their contributions have allowed me to produce music I’m very proud of.

mwe3: Another interesting new original is “Belo Horizonte”. How did that track come about and can you say something about your guitar techniques on that song and do you tend to alter your guitar tones and sound on different tracks?

JOHN STEIN: The groove on that tune is typically Brazilian so I titled it for one of the cities in Brazil I’ve had occasion to visit. Belo Horizonte is located in Minas Gerais. It means “beautiful horizon” in English, and the town is in the mountains and is appropriately named. There is a jazz festival in Belo Horizonte each year, the Savassi Jazz Festival, and I’ve had the pleasure of playing there a couple of times.

I don’t know what to say about my playing on that track particularly. I simply try to play in a manner that evolves out of and compliments the harmony and has nice phrasing, which is something that I always try to achieve.

I only use one guitar sound. I dial in the warmest sound I can with my instrument and amp, and then don’t think about it again. Of course, I do think constantly about my touch on the instrument, which can vary from gentle and expressive to aggressive. The touch does affect tone considerably. And I use different volume levels, which I control with my hands and with the volume knob on my guitar.

mwe3: Is there news in the guitar world catching your eye and ears in 2013? What guitars are you featuring and playing on the Bing Bang Boom! album? Are there any recent or future guitar acquisitions to tell the readers about? Is the vintage guitar market growing these days or is the accent on new guitars, for instance guitars being built in other countries?

JOHN STEIN: I could talk about guitars for a long time. Where do I begin?

I played a 1962 Epiphone Broadway (made by Gibson in their Kalamazoo, Michigan factory) on the Bing Bang Boom! CD. Actually, I have used a different guitar on practically every one of my recordings, which goes to prove that most of the sound comes from the fingers and conception of the musician, not from the specific equipment. In spite of the differences in my equipment, I think my guitar sound is nearly the same on all my recordings.

The Broadway was my favorite guitar for a heartbeat. Since then, I’ve acquired a guitar that I probably like better than any that I have used: a 1939 Gibson L4. It’s similar to the early 16 inch L5’s but has fancy Nick Lucas-style inlays instead of the L5 dots or block inlays. The big difference for me, really, is that it is carved out of solid wood. Until recently, I preferred laminated jazz guitars, with a quiet even tone that amplified well. Many archtop guitars made from actual high-quality tone woods are too loud acoustically for my taste, since my sound comes from the amp. But real-wood guitars do have a purer tone than plywood guitars, with cleaner and more accurate overtones, and my newly-acquired but ancient L4 has that pure tone, and yet it is quiet enough acoustically not to interfere with my ability to get the sound I want from the amp.

The recent era seems to feature many unique independent builders of fine guitars. There are many options for someone wanting to use a handmade instrument, some of which are overseas, but most I think are American. I don’t know whether the interest in handmade guitars has dampened the interest in vintage. It seems there’s room for everyone who makes a good product, and vintage guitars still hold their value.

I recently discovered a man named John Thomas, who has extensively researched and written a book on Gibson guitars during the World War II years. The title of the book is Kalamazoo Gals, A Story of Extraordinary Women & Gibson’s “Banner” Guitars of WWII. He discovered that, although the Gibson factory was largely converted to making war materials, and although the men who worked at Gibson before the war nearly all left to fight the war, Gibson did actually produce many guitars in that era, and the workers were nearly all female, as the men were off in the military. Interestingly enough, Gibson guitars from that era are some of the finest ever produced by Gibson. They are known as “banner” guitars, because from 1942 until the end of the war, all the guitars had a banner on the headstock that said: “Only A Gibson Is Good Enough.” So, Banner Gibsons were largely made by women working in the factory while the men were away. John and I have become friends and it has reawakened my interest in acoustic flat top guitars. We’ll see where that leads me...

mwe3: Another one of your music related projects getting some acclaim is your Berklee Jazz Standards For Solo Guitar. That book also features a CD. What did you set out to achieve with that book and how did it come about? I saw a bunch of kudos on the book from big names including Jim Hall and Kenny Burrell. Is the book for the beginner or more savvy student of the guitar and are you planning a volume 2?

JOHN STEIN: I’m proud of the book and CD, and very grateful to Berklee Press for publishing it. It features solo guitar arrangements for ten standard tunes, and due to the expense of obtaining the publishing rights I needed someone with the ability to license the tunes to make it available.

The book is compiled from columns I wrote for Just Jazz Guitar Magazine over a period of years. I tried to include educational information about the song forms, the harmony, the arranging concepts, sometimes even anecdotal stories about the tunes to add value to the book. It includes standard notation as well as guitar tab, and a recording of all the arrangements on a CD. It is not a book of graded solos, nor is it aimed at a particular skill level. I could have made the arrangements more or less complicated, but instead decided to present the tunes in an artistic way and hope that approach would be useful for guitarists at different skill levels. I was fortunate to receive wonderful compliments from the great guitarists you mentioned, plus others, to use on the back cover, and I’ve enjoyed the reviews I’ve received on Amazon.com from customers who purchased the book. They seem to feel the book is easier to use and gain benefit from than similar books, and yet the arrangements are beautiful. I would love to publish more arrangements. I have almost enough now for a Volume 2, but it depends upon being able to obtain and pay for the publishing rights.

mwe3: How’s things up in the Berklee School Of Music in 2013? What courses are you teaching there these days and I noticed there are some great teachers from Berklee who are also recording artists these days including Giovanni Moltoni who just released a fine new album too. It seems that Berklee has a long history of amazing music teachers and instructors who are also excellent recording artists. What’s your take on that observation?

JOHN STEIN: I’ve been at Berklee a long time. I was educated there, and then offered a job when I graduated. After all these years, I still love the school and I love teaching music to Berklee students. I teach theory classes. It’s the same stuff that I encountered when I got to Berklee and I was a wannabe jazz guitarist. It’s the information that helped me learn to play the tunes I wanted to play, and gave me the skills to compose my own music. The Berklee curriculum has been incredibly meaningful to me and I love passing it along to aspiring musicians. There have been many Berklee faculty members who have been been recording artists, producers, and music business professionals over the years. Giovanni Moltoni is one of many wonderful Berklee-affiliated musicians. Berklee remains a major destination for musicians from all over the world and it is an exciting place.

mwe3: What are your upcoming plans as far as new music including upcoming plans for new recordings and performances and also your work up at the Berklee school and how about other things you’re looking forward to? Can you say something about the John Stein & The Mingotan Project and is that a Berklee related project?

JOHN STEIN: My collaboration with Matias Mingote German is my latest artistic project. It is a personal project, not affiliated with Berklee. Mingo is an Argentinian drummer (living currently in Spain), and we are concocting a fusion of jazz with tango and other Afro-Argentinian grooves. We will be doing what I described earlier in response to your questions – playing a couple of CD release concerts for my recent recording (Bing Bang Boom!), then going into the studio to record a new CD. I’m excited about this collaboration, and I have composed some tango music for the first time. I’m counting on Mingo to help me give it an authentic flavor. The recording will also feature a variety of other jazz styles that are conducive to musical interaction. We have scheduled a nice concert tour in May and June this year, including dates in Boston, New York, the Bay Area and Sonoma County in California, and Southern Oregon.

mwe3: How about other activities outside of music? What do you like to do to relax? I know it’s hard for music people to relax, when they’re not performing or recording, they’re writing music, teaching music and/or listening to music. What would you recommend to people in music as far as changing their perspective or getting a new perspective on life in music and outside of music too?

JOHN STEIN: You’re right. I spend most of my time practicing, teaching, performing, composing. Otherwise, I do value my family life and my friends. Spending social time with them is what balances the musical activities. I also appreciate and need exercise, and I am fortunate that I am able to bicycle to Berklee when I teach. I live the perfect commuting distance by bicycle from Berklee, and most of my ride is within a lovely park area.

Thanks for the questions, Robert, I appreciate your interest and it’s been a pleasure to speak with you.


Thanks to John Stein @ www.JohnStein.com and Neal Weiss @ www.WhalingCitySound.com

 

 
   
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