MIKE NEER
Steelonious
(Mike Neer Music)

 

In late 2016, Lap steel guitar ace Mike Neer released his tribute to jazz legend Thelonious Monk, Steelonious. Playing lap steel guitar, ukulele, bass and percussion, Neer is joined by a top flight band. On the 12 track Steelonious, Neer sounds inspired by greats like Les Paul and beyond, well into the legendary jazz / country music steel guitar pioneers of the postwar era. There’s an almost Wes Montgomery-like depth to Neer’s guitar-centric, noir-like approach to Monk’s linear and lean melodic concepts. His band’s take of Monk's originals sounds very jazzy at times but Neer is also a master of 21st century, eclectic Americana and that Nashville twangy type sound that’s so popular now and forever. Speaking about the genesis of his Monk instrumental guitar album, Mike tells mwe3.com, “Truthfully, the first time I became aware of Monk's music was on a record called That's The Way I Feel Now, which was a collection of artists from rock and jazz backgrounds playing Monk. It taught me early on that Monk could be open to interpretation. In my case, I wanted to highlight the steel guitar, so I brought Monk into my world.” Further enabled by an excellent studio sound, Neer and company find the Monk jazz groove, featuring Neer embellishing Monk’s acoustic piano melodies with his incredible lap steel guitar wizardry. Jazz purists and guitar fans even from the Surf-rock spectrum will be impressed at how tastefully Neer and company turns Thelonious Monk’s patented piano jazz sound into a veritable lap steel guitar revival. www.steelonious.com



mwe3.com presents an interview with
MIKE NEER
The “Steelonious” interview


mwe3
: Can you tell us where you’re from originally where you live now and what you like about it?

Mike Neer: I was born and raised in New Jersey, in a small town nestled between Newark and Jersey City, just a few miles west of NYC. As much as I've wanted to leave, New York City has its hold on me, so I like to stay within driving distance. Coming up as a musician in the 1980s, the exposure I had to so much great jazz and funk in New York was invaluable. I would go and see John Scofield, Mike Stern, Bob Berg, Bill Frisell, Wayne Krantz and many more on a weekly basis. Things have changed since then, but there is still always something to do or somewhere to be.

mwe3: Tell us the events leading up to Steelonious and how you became interested in the lap steel guitar.

Mike Neer: I picked up a lap steel out of curiosity at a flea market sometime around 1990 after hearing David Lindley. I really didn't have a clue about the instrument, so my development was tortoise-like. Eventually, I put it back in the case and went on with my guitar playing. Later on, I got the bug again when I heard Gabby Pahinui with Ry Cooder, and on a trip to Hawaii, I grabbed every recording I could and actually met a steel player at a luau, who coincidentally was an Italian guy from my hometown.

I didn't get serious about the instrument until around 2002, when I saw an opportunity to join a really cool band in NYC that was playing acoustic Hawaiian swing-style music from the 1920s. I found an old National Tricone and shedded my butt off for about two months until I had the chops to get an audition. I was checking out Sol H'oopii a lot and his influence has never left.

mwe3: What made you want to create a lap steel instrumental album of Thelonious Monk covers? It’s amazing how well the music sounds in the steel guitar setting? Tell us the key players you recorded the album with and who engineered the Steelonious album?

Mike Neer: Fast forward a bunch of years, and I had gotten to a point where I felt comfortable with my own ideas and my ability to pull them off. I have been playing music professionally since I was a teen, so there are many influences and ideas floating around in my head. I made a recording of “Giant Steps” a few years ago as if recorded by Sol Hoopii in the 1930s. In some ways, Steelonious was an extension of that, where I could pay tribute to not only Thelonious Monk, but also many of my steel guitar heroes. Speedy West is a big hero of mine… his sense of humor appeals to me, but he wrote great tunes, too. Buddy Emmons, Tommy Morrell, Joaquin Murphey… they were on my mind.

Jazz is the music that I enjoy the most, and just as broad of a genre as it is, I felt comfortable with bringing the compositions into styles not normally associated with Monk. The musicians I chose to record with are all players that I have a history with, though none had ever played together. All are very good jazz players, but excel in other styles, too. Andrew Hall (bass) and I had played Hawaiian swing together. Matt King (piano, organ) and I played a thousand gigs together, especially playing New Orleans R&B, and Diego Voglino (drums) and I have played country and Latin stuff together. The chemistry between the musicians was great and we recorded the takes live at Paul Wickliffe's studio in two days. Tom Beckham came in and just killed on vibraphones. Paul is a great engineer and he also mixed and mastered, too.

mwe3: What guitars did you record Steelonious with? What are some of your other guitars, ukes and basses and what amp do you record with in the studio and for live work on stage? Do you play other types of steel guitars or ever pedal steel? And who are your favorite lap steel and other steel players and your favorite steel / pedal steel albums?

Mike Neer: I used one lap steel on Steelonious, and that is a Clinesmith cast aluminum 8 string tuned to C13. I play Clinesmiths exclusively. They are based on the designs of Paul Bigsby, but Todd has really taken it to another level and he has a very creative mind and has the skills to match.

For amps, I used a Fender 100 watt Twin Reverb with JBLs and a small transistor Fender Bronco on the one track I recorded at home, “Ask Me Now”. For live gigs, I use a Roland Jazz Chorus, JC-45. A Digitech RP1000 helps me dial in some nice tube simulations and effects.

I think it is inevitable that my guitar playing would manifest in my steel playing, since I played for most of my life. I studied some with Mike Stern, Steve Khan, Peter Leitch and Ray Gomez. John Scofield and Allan Holdsworth are heroes of mine. But I decided to stop playing guitar and focus on steel, and I just assimilated a lot of my thinking and approach to it. Gotta be yourself!

mwe3: What’s been the reaction from the jazz community about Steelonious and how the “purists” feel he’s being covered in the lap steel setting? What Monk albums do you think defines his essence? Did Monk have a progressive period or dark period?

Mike Neer: The reaction to the record has been overwhelmingly positive. Early on, I consulted with a long time friend who is an arranger and sax player, and he was very supportive and quick to point out that it was refreshing to hear these ideas. Truthfully, the first time I became aware of Monk's music was on a record called That's The Way I Feel Now, which was a collection of artists from rock and jazz backgrounds playing Monk. It taught me early on that Monk could be open to interpretation. In my case, I wanted to highlight the steel guitar, so I brought Monk into my world.

One of the really cool things is that I will be profiled in the June issue of DownBeat magazine by Bill Milkowski, who I am a fan of. Only one other steel player has ever been featured in over 80 years, and that's Robert Randolph.

mwe3: What are some other plans you’re this coming year as far as any live performances, writing, producing and recording? Is Steelonious II under way?

Mike Neer: I love to play this music live, so most of my energy is going into booking shows and festivals, especially with this being the year of Monk's centennial.

I do have plans to begin another record this year and I've been working on arrangements of not only Monk, but Mingus, Ellington and Horace Silver. At some point, though, Son Of Steelonious will be recorded. I hope to find a label to release it on. My first record was funded in part with the support of a Kickstarter campaign, and I am thankful for that. But next time I'm hoping to get the record made on the merits of Steelonious.



 

 
   
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