Jazz interview with jazz guitarist, composer Mark Wingfield. An interview by email in writing.
JazzBluesNews.Space: – First let’s start with where you grew up, and what got you interested in music?
Mark Wingfield: – I moved around quite a lot when I was a young child. I was born in the US and then as a baby moved to the UK where I spent me early childhood. We then moved back to the US to a suburb of Boston where I spent my teenage years before moving back to the UK where I’ve lived ever since. Though not musicians, my parents had a pretty eclectic music collection which included jazz, blues, rock and classical which was probably good for my ears growing up. Music always had a very strong effect on me a from a young age and by the time I was a teenager, listening to instrumental music was of major importance to me.
JBN.S: – What got you interested in picking up the guitar? What teacher or teachers helped you progress to the level of playing you have today? What made you choose the guitar?
MW: – One day when I was around 10 or 12 I heard an amazing sound in the distance that totally captivated me. I just had to know what it was, so my mother and I walked down the road from our house following the sound, and eventually into a path through the woods. Finally we came to a house which backed onto the woods where there was someone playing electric guitar solos in their garden. I thought it was the most amazing thing I’d ever heard. From that moment, I new I had to play guitar. For ages after that I tried to find that sound on records, eventually I heard a Jimi Hendrix album and that was it, that was the sound, only a hundred times better.
I never had lessons, I just taught myself from listening to albums and watching other players. When I got to the stage of wanting to play over chord changes, I realised I needed to understand theory. I read everything I could find on the subject until I had a good understanding of how scales and chords fit together. At that point I realised that in order to really be able to use this information in real time, I needed to find some way to make it all automatic to the point where I didn’t need to think at all when playing. So I spent a lot of time figuring out ways of applying the theory to the guitar so that it was natural enough to me, that I could make use of it without having to think intellectually while playing. At the same time I worked a lot on my ear, which I came to realise was what all the theory needed to revolve around.
JBN.S: – How did your sound evolve over time? What did you do to find and develop your sound?
MW: – A few things I think had a big effect on how my playing developed. I was always as interested in listening to other instruments as I was to the guitar. I loved people like Miles, Coltrane, Keith Jarrett, Jan Garbarek and Anthony Braxton. So I listened to as much of their music as I did guitar players. Later I got heavily into Indian classical music, Japanese Shakuhachi music and African tribal music. At the same time I got into the whole cannon of Western classical music, pretty much everything from Bach to modern composers like Elliot Carter. So I was as influenced by all this as I was by guitar players.
Eventually I got to a point where I realised that listening to my favourite guitar players was stopping me from finding my own sound. Sometimes I would start to hear my own sound in my head when I was away from the guitar, but as soon as I listened to my favour guitarists, I started hearing their ideas when I played instead of my own. So I stopped listening to guitar almost entirely, which was a difficult thing to do, because there were so many great guitarists who’s playing I loved. But I felt it was the only way I was going to really find my own voice. From then on I only listened to and tried to play like other instruments such as sax, trumpet, piano and voice.
There was another thing which was a turning point for me. I had a friend who listened to my playing on an album and said to me, “it’s good, but every note you play has the same tone, you should try varying it more”. I realised at that point that although I had been working on my phrasing, I hadn’t really worked enough on how I articulate the notes and on how I produce different tones with my fingers. So I worked very hard on that side of things, again mainly inspired mainly by other instruments and singers.
There was also a point where I started using software to extend what my guitar could do in terms of sound. Although my main guitar sound is analog, at certain times I add into that, other tones and colours using software. Software also allows me to create soundscapes using the guitar, such as harmonic back drops that sit behind what I play in an improvised setting.
JBN.S: – What practice routine or exercise have you developed to maintain and improve your current musical ability especially pertaining to rhythm?
MW: – I have spent a lot of time developing different ways of approaching notes as well as different things I can do once the note is sustaining. One problem I always had with guitar is that there is a tendency to just pluck each note more or less the same way and then just let the note die away without much attention to what happens during the sustain phase of the note. This results in the tone being the same for every note. One other hand vocalists and sax players for example, do all sorts of interesting things with the tone at start of a note and during the sustain of each note. What I tend to hear in my head are sounds where the tone and pitch are changing and moving all the time like this. So I work a lot on these sorts of things. It’s always a matter of trying to get closer to what I hear in my head and what I feel in the music.
In terms of rhythm, I have a lot of exercises I do. I work a lot with a metronome and a lot without one, for me both are important. One thing I work on a lot is feeling where the beat or bar is while I’m playing complicated single note passages which don’t have a set pattern to them. I try to stay away from practicing any specific sets of notes over and over again as I don’t find this helps for improvising. It’s generally easy to play riffs and small musical phrases and feel where you are in the beat and bar. But it’s more of a challenge when you play long improvised lines which in themselves contain different rhythmic patterns, especially when you’ve never played that particular line before. To have the freedom to let go and follow whatever you hear in the moment, means being able to feel the beat and bar not matter what you are doing. Obviously I’m not alone in this, many improvisors work on exactly this sort of thing, but it’s something I spend a lot of time with. For me one major component of improvising is playfulness and rhythmic permutation is at the heart of that.
JBN.S: – Which harmonies and harmonic patterns do you prefer now?
MW: – That’s hard to say because it varies a lot and depends on the piece of music. When I improvise I tend to hear melodies or melodic phrases as much as I hear chords, the two are usually connected for me. If I’m composing something and I hear a melody, there are usually chords implied for each part of it. When I say implied, I don’t mean that they are dictated by theory or convention. I rarely think in terms of keys when I compose. I mean when I say implied, is that there will be a particular chord which creates the right feeling or mood for the way I hear each part of the melody.
Another important aspect of it for me is how each note of a chord moves to form the notes of the next chord. How each note moves, is a big part of how I approach composing chords. So there is how the notes move, there is the voicing of each chord, and there is the feeling the chord gives the notes of the melody. Getting those three things to work together in the right way is one of the challenges of composing. For me it’s all in service of creating the mood or feeling I’m trying to convey in the piece. Chord voicing is often an essential part of the composition for me. Each voicing has a different mood, and creating the right mood for each part of a melody is the most important thing.
I don’t always start composing with a melody however, just as often I’ll start with the chords or move back and forth between the two approaches. Since chords and melodies are strongly linked for me, if I start composing with just chords, a melody starts to become implicit from the chords and how I’ve voiced them.
The main thing is that I am trying to translate an experience. Any piece I write is based on a feeling I have, a mood an atmosphere or an emotional story. When I write a piece, whether I start with the melody or the chords, I am always trying to render in sound, the feeling or atmosphere I have at the time. Then I will employ what ever harmonies I need to create that feeling, from writing purely with triad inversions to writing with huge richly voiced chords, I’ll use whatever serves the feeling I’m trying to render.
JBN.S: – What you are working on today.
MW: – I just recorded a duo album of guitar and piano with Gary Husband and I’m really pleased with how that turned out. Gary is such an amazing pianist as well as drummer, and he was really great to collaborate with. The album is a mixture of tunes which I wrote and completely improvised pieces. Gary has such a rich musical language under his finger tips and he’s a fearless improvisor, prepared to go where ever the music or the moment took us, so it was a very inspiring session. I also recorded another album with Gary on keyboards and Asaf Sirkis on drums, there are also a couple of extended tracks with both Gary and Asaf on drums playing together. I’m excited about the way this one turned out too. Both albums will be coming out on MoonJune Records sometime in 2019.
I’ve just come back from NYC where I did a couple of live shows, one with Markus Reuter and the other with Markus, Tim Motzer and Doug Hirlinger. Markus and I also did a couple of live radio concerts and then I did a final radio performance with Kevin Kastning before going into the studio with Kevin to record an new album. Then in May 2019 I have another session scheduled to record an album with Markus Reuter, Gary Husband and Asaf Sirkis.
JBN.S: – What’s the balance in music between intellect and soul?
MW: – I would interpret soul in this context to mean emotion and a deeper meaning to music. For me these, along with imagination, are the most important aspects of music. As far as I’m concerned the intellect is only a tool to help make the music happen, it’s not what the music is about. From my point of view, music is a language, more specifically it is the language of emotion. You can describe an emotion with music in a very direct and specific way. Music is a way of encoding emotion, mood and atmosphere as well as the feeling of the moment in to sound.
That doesn’t mean every listener will have the same experience or will necessarily feel the emotion the player or composer puts into the music. Some listeners will get pretty much exactly what the composer or player felt or experienced themselves from the music. Other listeners will get something quite different, yet their emotions will still be affected. I think both things are equally important. The fact that it is possible to communicate emotions directly through music and also that there is a subjective element which stimulates the listener’s own imagination to generate other feelings and images are both important aspects of music to me. Of course both things can often happen at once. Music’s ability to convey and stimulate emotion, mood and atmosphere are the primary things I value in music as a listener, and as a player and composer.
Music which is primarily intellectual holds little or no interest for me. Yes I have to understand harmony and scales to create the music I make and to improvise over the chords. I guess you could say that understanding harmony is quite an intellectual process. However, in order to use it to improvise or compose effectively, I have to know it so automatically that I don’t think about it, I just hear it. As soon as you start thinking, you are no longer in the moment of the music. My feeling is that you need to be fully in the moment, in the music, and be able to let go, before improvising really happens. For me it’s the same with composing.
JBN.S: – How can we get young people interested in jazz when most of the standard tunes are half a century old?
MW: – That’s a good question and I think in a way the answer is contained in the question.
As much as players love the standards, I think we need to move beyond those if we are going to attract young audiences. There has been a lot of jazz which has done that. Miles had already started moving away from standards by the mid 60’s. Most of the ECM catalog is not based on standards and contains a sizeable proportion of the best improvised music of the last 40 years. So I don’t really see why we need to keep returning to the standards. Yes there are some beautiful tunes in the old standards, but there are many beautiful modern tunes as well.
I’m not sure why so many jazz players stick with playing standards. The history of jazz if you look at it and listen to it, is a history of change, musical revolution, innovation and risk taking with musical form. Think about the change between dixyland jazz and bebop. That’s a revolutionary change. Or the difference between bebop and free jazz. Same thing, a huge change and innovation. Fusion was another innovation. Think of the music the Art Ensemble of Chicago or Anthony Braxton started playing in the 70’s and 80’s. That music was really pushing forward. Then think of the whole ECM catalog of that time and beyond. Again a revolution in the approach to improvised music. The history of jazz is a history of these kinds of changes and innovations. Continual change and evolution is arguably one of the defining aspects of the jazz art form. I think this is also what has kept it relevant to new generations. From this perspective, playing standards today, is a departure from the tradition of jazz, which is to change and innovate.
I don’t know why so many jazz players today have abandoned that risk taking and innovative aspect of the art form. It’s like one of the core tenants the history of jazz, innovation and change, is has been abandoned. If I were a young person today, I can’t see why standards jazz would be of interest to me. However beautifully played a standard was, it wouldn’t sound like something new and vital and different. It wouldn’t sound like it was part of the present, let alone the future. So in answer to your question, I think the key is to stop playing standards and get back to the tradition of jazz which is: moving forward, breaking moulds and innovating.
JBN.S: – John Coltrane said that music was his spirit. How do you understand the spirit and the meaning of life?
MW: – John Coltrane is a hero of mine and his music continues to be an inspiration. I can very strongly relate to his statement of music being his spirit. I feel very much the same way. For me the meaning of life is about the here and now, how we live our lives, our family, our friends and the times we have. But it’s also about the bigger picture, of thinking about other people’s lives, now in the past or even in the future. Music can be about the lives, times and feelings, both good and bad, that people, as a collective and individually have experienced or will experience. All these things affect me in a deep way. Music is a way of expressing these things.
JBN.S: – If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?
MW: – I guess it would be that more music listeners understood that the only way their favourite musicians get paid is when they buy a download, CD or vinyl. Perhaps most people don’t understand that musicians get paid almost nothing when you stream music or watch it on youtube. If people supported the music the way they did before streaming came in, by going to a download service like Bandcamp or buying the CD, it would transform the lives of musicians and the labels that support them, who are now really struggling to make ends meet.
There is a myth going around that musicians don’t need to make money from recorded music because they make money by playing live. This is simply not true for the majority of jazz musicians. Most jazz gigs don’t pay enough to make a living without the addition recorded music sales. Also keep in mind that recording an album costs a lot of money: studio time, mixing, mastering, session fees, cover art and more. If that money isn’t recouped from music sales, musicians and labels make a loss.
Cuneiform Records closed their doors this year, they were one of the mainstays of jazz along with ECM and a handful of other labels. The reason they closed down is that despite the many big names on the label, they were simply no longer selling enough CDs or downloads to pay the bills. Many other labels, recording studios, and mastering houses have gone under same way. Streaming and youtube are not the only problems, there is also the fact that there is now so much music available that the market is overloaded and at the same time a lot of young people don’t seem as interested in music as they have been in the past. So it’s not like jazz and progressive music listeners buying downloads or CDs for the music they stream would solve everything, but it would make a vital difference to the artists.
I think many people would be willing to buy music if they knew what the situation was. Once you’ve bought the music, you can of course stream it to your hearts content, knowing that the musician has been paid something. Personally I would say that if paying for music is difficult for you because you are really struggling financially, then don’t worry about it. However if you’re not struggling and buying an album is like buying a cup of coffee and a cake for you, then I encourage you to support the artists you listen to. For many jazz musicians that is the vital income that helps them pay the bills and do what they do. So in answer to your question, if I were to change one thing it would be that music lovers understood this and chose to support the artists they like by buying the music.
JBN.S: – Who do you find yourself listening to these days?
MW: – I never stop listening to Miles and Coltrane, there is just a richness there that always seems to have more to offer. I listen to a lot of singers, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan is a favourite, K.D. Lang is another, I love Indian classical vocal music. Jan Garbarek and Kenny Wheeler are another two favourites both for their playing and their composition. In terms of classical music, I continually return to Elliot Carter and Bach along with a host of other composers. But there is a multitude of other great music I listen to in different genres. I think Kevin Kastning’s solo guitar albums are amazing.
JBN.S: – Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go?
MW: – I’ve love to sit in on some of the great recording sessions that took place on the ECM label in the 1970’s and 80’s. Or go back to the late 1960’s to watch Miles or Coltrane play. But actually I’d love to travel to the future to hear what improvised music will sound like in 50 or 100 years time, that would be amazing, especially if I could steal some ideas and bring them back to the present day with me!
JBN.S: – I have been asking you so far, now may I have a question from yourself…
MW: – What do you think is the most important thing to a jazz musician or to jazz as an art form in the 21st century?
JBN.S: – Thank you for answers. So as not to shift such debris as rap and why not and pop …
MW: – I would say it’s the importance record labels to jazz musicians and to the continuance of the art form in general. Without record labels the music wouldn’t exist as we know it. This is another reason why it’s important to support the music by buying it in one form or another if you can afford it. It takes a lot of skill, time and money to release an album and promote an artist. Even if a musician had the skills necessary to market and promote their own music effectively (and very few do), the time it takes to do that would effectively mean they no longer had the time to practice, compose and perform.
Also artistically labels can be very important. Some of the best labels have spearheaded new directions in the genre and helped musicians reach their potential as artists. The key aspect of a good jazz label is the vision and influence of the head. A great record label head and producer can play a pivotal creative role in how new music happens. Leonardo Pavkovic the head of MoonJune Records, a label I’m lucky enough to be on, is a great example of this. He plays a pivotal role in many of the best recordings on the label. This includes many things, from ideas for interesting collaborations to suggestions on directions an artist might take during the composing phase, to making real time suggestions during a recording sessions. Importantly while doing this he always remains open and sensitive to the artist’s own vision and what they feel is going to work for them. These are some of the things that make Leonardo so great to work with.
Interview by Simon Sargsyan