Jazz interview with jazz guitarist Bruce Arnold. An interview by email in writing.
JazzBluesNews.Space: – First let’s start with where you grew up, and what got you interested in music?
Bruce Arnold: – I first got interested in playing the guitar when I heard the Beatles play on the Ed Sullivan show. I also had a cousin by the name of Dave Wood who was a couple of years older than me, and was also playing the guitar. He was mostly listening to early acoustic blues recordings of musicians like Washboard Sam and Howling Wolf. So he introduced these artists to me, which made me gravitate towards learning the blues and studying not only the early acoustic players but also electric blues players like Johnny Winters, Kim Simmons of Savoy Brown, and many others. In high school I was placed in the “Talented Students” program at Washington High School in my home town, Sioux Falls South Dakota. They had employed a jazz trombone player by the name of Gene White who turned me on to many aspects of jazz. This along with hearing some of the great local musicians in Sioux Falls –such as guitarist Mike Miller and drummer Mark Cranney and many others– made me decide to pursue music as a career.
JBN.S: – What got you interested in picking up the guitar?
BA: – My mother started me with music lessons on the accordion when I was in first grade. But then I heard the Beatles I was eight years old, and I quickly lost interest in the accordion and wanted a guitar. This was true for me and for many of my friends. We used to take tennis rackets, brooms and turn trash cans over to make drums so we could pretend to be the Beatles. After ruining many tennis rackets, brooms and trash cans my mother traded the accordion in, and bought me a guitar.
JBN.S: – What teacher or teachers helped you progress to the level of playing you have today? What made you choose the guitar?
BA: – It was very hard to find a guitar teacher in Sioux Falls South Dakota in the 60s, so I mostly learned from playing along with records and occasionally other guitar players would show me things. Unfortunately back in the 60s there was no Internet and very few books that were available to learn music. One book that I did get was “Johnny Smith’s Approach to the Guitar” which taught me many chord voicings that have been very useful throughout my career. I also come from a very poor family so even if there were teachers available, my parents really couldn’t afford to pay for lessons. But they very special in that they encouraged me – never ever stood on my way about playing the guitar, and throughout the beginning of my career their support is what allowed me to continue my music studies. When I moved to Boston I attended Berklee College of Music and also studied with Charlie Banacos, Jerry Bergonzi and Mick Goodrick. These master teachers totally transformed my understanding of music for which I will always be grateful.
JBN.S: – How did your sound evolve over time? What did you do to find and develop your sound?
BA: – I basically started as a blues guitar player from my studies at the University of South Dakota. When I attended the Berklee College of music in Boston I became more and more interested in playing jazz. I went to Berklee in the late 70s. At that time fusion was a very popular idiom. So I ended up playing with many bands in Boston playing this style of music. I was a total maniac when it came to practicing because I knew I had a lot to learn. Also some of the greatest guitar players in the world were honing their chops during this period in Boston; Pat Metheny, John Scofield, Bill Frizell, Mike Stern and many others were there. This raised the bar quite high and made me realize that I needed to improve drastically if I ever expected to continue with a career in music. When I moved to New York City in 1986 I decided to concentrate more on composing and finding an original sound in my playing. During this period I really got into playing hexatonic scales (Charlie Banacos had turned me on this sound when I studied with him in Boston) and learning solos by McCoy Tyner. When I first moved to New York City I also got a job teaching at Princeton University. From studying many books and scores I found in the Princeton Library, I realized that the “Second Viennese “ composers i.e. Schoenberg, Webern and Berg were also using hexatonic ideas in their music. I found their method of composing using pitch class sets to be a great sound and I also realized that you could divide hexatonic scales up into trichords (3 note groups) which made them easy to remember when improvising. So I started developing a technique of using trichords, hexatonics, and 12 tone aggregates as improvisational material. The sound was very unique and I also discovered that using this system allowed me to be much more compositional when I was improvising over any music. I could take the basic interval combinations used in a melody and pick a pitch class set that included these intervals to make my improvisation much more closely related to the music I was improvising over. I also did a series of recordings with John Gunther and our co-led “Spooky Actions” where we improvise over classical masterpieces by Webern, Schoenberg and Messiaen. These recordings seriously changed many of my perspectives about music and improvisation.
JBN.S: – What practice routine or exercise have you developed to maintain and improve your current musical ability especially pertaining to rhythm?
BA: – Throughout my career I’ve spent a lot of time developing rhythmic ideas. On my CD “The Art of The Blues” a trio recording with Tony Marino and Dean Johnson, we explored the use of superimposing time signatures or morphing from one time to another throughout the cd. I also practiced a lot with superimposing various time signatures over others because I could play through a laptop and use the program SuperCollider. This lets me put in loops and then superimpose various rhythmic patterns over these loops. That has helped me to develop the ability to play in all kinds of time signatures.
JBN.S: – Which harmonies and harmonic patterns do you prefer now?
BA: – For the last 30 years I’ve been working with the 12 possible Trichords found in pitch class set theory. Trichords is fancy name for playing three note chords derived from various interval combinations. On many of my CDs I concentrated on only using one type of Trichord for each tune and sometimes the whole CD. Some of my favorites would be 013, 014, 015, 016, and 027. With each of these Trichords I often spend many years honing my technique to both compose and improvise which each chosen group.
JBN.S: – Many aspiring musicians are always looking for advice when navigating thru the music business. Is there any piece of advice you can offer to aspiring students or even your peers that you believe will help them succeed and stay positive in this business?
BA: – First, I think it’s important that a musician relocate to a place where there are enough musical activities that they stand a chance to make a living. In the United States most people go to New York City, Los Angeles or Nashville. I find there’s three ways that you can go as a musician. One would be to master as many styles of playing so that you can become more employable to more people. 2nd would be to master one style while at the same time not injecting too much originality into your playing because then you don’t sound idiomatic. Third, You could go in another direction and develop a unique style wherein people want to use you in their band because of the uniqueness of your playing. I’ve actually gone down all three of these paths starting with the “jack of all trades” blues and jazz guitarist, but finally decided to follow my own voice. I believe I found this through organizing via pitch class sets and my deep interest in creating new sounds and textures through the use of SuperCollider with my guitar. From this combination I’ve carved out my own little niche. Lately I’ve been working with the inspiring singer Judi Silvano, creating free-improv pieces using effects generated by SuperCollider. Many bands that I’ve worked with over the years have hired me because of the wide palette of sounds that I get by using a series of foot pedals made by the company Jam Pedals, but also by creating my own sounds via SuperCollider.
JBN.S: – Аnd furthermore, can jazz be a business today or someday?
BA: – OK – ask yourself what is success? You certainly can be successful in the jazz idiom today, but it’s lots of work. New, original Jazz itself is struggling. It’s not an easy way to make a living but most musicians who play jazz –or really any music and do it professionally– just really love music and want to express themselves. Playing music well is just an amazing feeling, and I think that’s what keeps musicians going. A lot of musicians also teach. I currently teach at Princeton University and I’ve also taught at many other universities throughout my career. This is a great way to get supplemental income because it keeps you in touch with aspiring young musicians and you’d be surprised how much you can learn from them, even while you are teaching them. I also created a music publishing company (which can be found at muse-eek.com) where I’ve published many unique courses of music education. I’ve written books that cover guitar technique, music theory and many other subjects to help students learn in the proper way. A combination of all these things has helped me to remain a professional musician.
JBN.S: – How can we get young people interested in jazz when most of the standard tunes are half a century old?
BA: – Jazz standards can actually be made to sound very modern by employing pitch class sets as a replacement for the chords and using them in single-line improvisation. Many standards were composed by musicians who also studied classical music so you will find a lot of internal structure within these jazz standards. For instance if you take “Stella by Starlight” or “Alone Together” both tunes have a preponderance of 013’s in the melody so one way to create a modern approach to these standards is to replace all the tertial-based chords with 013 chords. You will find that you can still hear the tune yet it will sound very modern. You can hear many of these types of approaches in my book “Tools for Modern Improvisation” where such techniques as 23rd chords and other trichord, hexachord and 12 tone techniques are applied to traditional blues progressions and other traditional jazz repertoire progressions such as “Rhythm Changes” to create a very modern sound.
JBN.S: – John Coltrane said that music was his spirit. How do you understand the spirit and the meaning of life?
BA: – I think the best musicians play from their heart not their head. Understanding contemporary jazz can take a lot of mental thought to develop which is OK, but ultimately you want to internalize this information so that you can play from the heart. John Coltrane was one of these people who explored many of the highly technical aspects of music but was able over time to play from his heart. I strive to meet this goal in my playing.
JBN.S: – What are your expectations of the future? What brings you fear or anxiety?
BA: – Currently I think the biggest anxiety people in United States have is the current political situation. As far as my expectations for the future in music there are so many new sounds I want to explore via SuperCollider and also using pitch class. Music is such a rich resource and I always look forward to exploring new things. You can hear a good representation of this on my new CD with Judi Silvano called “Listen to This.”
JBN.S: – What’s the next musical frontier for you?
BA: – I was recently asked to create a 64 channel piece of music for a local venue here in New York City so I’m currently exploring ways to create guitar sounds that are morphing across 64 channels of audio. I will be joined in this endeavor by Judy Silvano who uses the Eventide plug-ins to create effects with her voice. We will also be joined by Melissa Kassel a singer from the Boston area who will add in some additional tracks. Personally I will continue to develop my application of pitch class sets in this new piece but also in the compositions I write for mostly a guitar trio.
JBN.S: – What’s your current setup?
BA: – I currently use SuperCollider and a bunch of floor pedals made by the company “Jam Pedals.” All of this is routed into a 1957 fender deluxe. “Jam Pedals” makes some very intriguing products because they have “expression” control of various parameters. This lets me create a whole bunch of new sounds with a sonic clarity that I have only found with “Jam Pedals.” I also use SuperCollider which provides a wide palette of sounds; everything from to traditional to the most bizarre. I program all of these sounds myself so they are all original and unique. The 1957 Fender Deluxe gives me a nice warm sound so it’s really a combination of the very new and very old that I use in my setup. I top this off with many different “Music Man” Guitars which are a super high quality instrument that makes it a joy to play the guitar. I also use a Lehle audio splitter so I can send a dry direct sound to the Deluxe and have the other channel be the processed sound. This helps to maintain a great “tone” even when the guitar is highly processed.