Jazz interview with jazz guitarist Jon Lundbom. An interview by email in writing.
JazzBluesNews.Space: – First let’s start with where you grew up, and what got you interested in music?
Jon Lundbom: – I grew up in Arlington Heights, IL, about an hour north of Chicago. I started playing guitar in the second grade, when I was eight, probably due to an interest in MTV and my parents’ love of music.
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?
JL: – The guitar was definitely an MTV/”classic rock”-oriented decision. Interestingly, though, my parents took me to a great teacher who I studied with from the ages of eight to 18. Once a week for ten years. His name was Craig Linenberger (he passed away a few years ago), and it was a really fortuitous first step.
JBN.S: – How did your sound evolve over time? What did you do to find and develop your sound?
JL: – I’ve always been interested in the “other,” in music that is weirder or more outré or more challenging than the norm. I had a very early interest in the music of Ornette Coleman, for instance. (Senior year of high school I did the school’s “morning announcements” for a quarter; one morning I played “Free Jazz” before starting and got in trouble as people thought it was a fire alarm.) In undergraduate, I got more and more interested in 20th Century classical music (especially John Cage and indeterminism) and started working with electronics and free improvisation. And then at grad school, something clicked and I started writing music for small ensembles that spoke to everything I had been processing thus far. Now, in adulthood, I find it really valuable to ingest any and everything I can (external) AND work to find things on the guitar or in the world that might be more specific to my vision (internal). The new Big Five Chord album (“Harder on the Outside”) and collaboration with Bryan Murray (“Beats by Balto! Vol. 1”) are a very direct result of Bryan’s phenomenal creative process pushing me into uncharted territory.
JBN.S: – What practice routine or exercise have you developed to maintain and improve your current musical ability especially pertaining to rhythm?
JL: – Interesting question! To be honest, I don’t practice guitar as much as I should. What I have been doing on-and-off for the past ten years is practicing the HELL out of the five-string banjo (three-finger/Scruggs/Reno/Keith style). Rhythm is, of course, king for Bluegrass banjo; my colleagues have told me that my time and “chops” have improved DRAMATICALLY for that. Not sure I see it, per se. But I’m spending a ton of time on the banjo.
JBN.S: – Which harmonies and harmonic patterns do you prefer now? You’re playing is very sensitive, deft, it’s smooth, and I’d say you drift more toward harmony than dissonance. There is some dissonance there, but you use it judiciously. Is that a conscious decision or again, is it just an output of what goes in?
JL: – Thank you so much! For Big Five Chord I’m composing music that is expressly atonal, that is music that does not have an explicit tonal center. It’s very tricky to do, I have to focus on withstanding the pull towards tonality while writing pieces with (God willing) strong melodic content. Jazz is, to me, the practice of improvisation as developed in early 20th Century America. And, as such, I attempt to write songs that give enough information to propel improvisation but not so much that it’s anywhere approaching a through-composed piece. If my improvisation sounds harmonic, that’s great. I want it to sound melodic and approachable while paying respects to an atonal environment.
JBN.S: – How to prevent disparate influences from coloring what you’re doing?
JL: – I love disparate influences! I try and eat ‘em all up, every last one. I listen to more hip-hop and country than anything else. And at one point I made a concerted effort to begin mimicking the time feels and polyrhythms of some of my favorite rappers. I’ve had any number of guiarists ask me about playing in five-over-four, my answer is to transcribe rappers. The new albums DEFINITELY show the influence hip-hop has had on me and Bryan.
JBN.S: – What’s the balance in music between intellect and soul?
JL: – For better or for worse, I tend to be a pretty intellectual musician. Most things that people chalk up to “soul” I view as a total and complete integration of learned skills (e.g. feel).
JBN.S: – There’s a two-way relationship between audience and artist; you’re okay with giving the people what they want?
JL: – Not really. There’s functional music, say at a wedding. I’m interested in music as art. I am astonished that anyone wants to listen to the music I make. It’s a damn miracle. I just focus on making music that feels true and meaningful to me, try to make it good enough that people will tune in.
JBN.S: – Please any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?
JL: – Hoo boy. OK let’s do two. There was one very early Big Five Chord gig at Galapagos in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The lead singer of Madness was there, he bought a CD because “it was so shit that nobody would believe him.” And I remember when we were gearing up to make the first Big Five Chord record, I asked Bob Palmieri, my undergraduate guitar instructor, if he had any advice. He said to “bring some comedy albums.” Good advice.
JBN.S: – How can we get young people interested in jazz when most of the standard tunes are half a century old?
JL: – I’m not sure that’s THE problem, but it certainly is A problem. I don’t play standards (unless I’m on someone else’s gig), I focus on writing my own music and transcribing the occasional cover (e.g. “North Star” from 2015’s “Liverevil”). I have started a series here in Austin with the bassist Ingebrigt Haker-Flaten where we are “covering” entire albums, that’s been fun. We’ve done “Ornette on Tenor” and “Juju” so far, Sonny Sharrock’s “Ask the Ages” is definitely on the to-do list. The sad fact is that jazz can be a TERRIBLE environment for the creation of art, and yeah hacking away at the same 150-year-old songs is a big part of that.
JBN.S: – John Coltrane said that music was his spirit. How do you understand the spirit and the meaning of life?
JL: – Oh man, I don’t understand any of it. Hit me up if you’ve got any secrets.
JBN.S: – If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?
JL: – It’s tough, obviously, but I’d love to get us back to a reasonable system for monetizing the creation of music. There’s an audience out there for creative music, but I’d love it to be bigger and better and more interested in buying tickets and CDs. Austin, BTW, is relatively great for this. The city understands its place in the artistic landscape and does a lot to support its musicians and artists. There’s a reason the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe produced the vast majority of monumental 20th Century composers.
JBN.S: – Who do you find yourself listening to these days?
JL: – Honestly? A lot of Becky Buller, the new Action Bronson album, the new Mitski album, this series of Bluegrass albums from the 90s featuring Scott Vestal (“Bluegrass ’95,” “Bluegrass ‘96”, etc), Willie Watson, the new Robyn album, etc…
JBN.S: – What is the message you choose to bring through your music?
JL: – I very consciously believe that music should stand on its own terms. It can have a message or some greater purpose or meaning, but I focus on music for the sake of said music.
JBN.S: – Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go?
JL: – If we’re focusing on the jazz thing, I’ll go with the 1970s NYC loft scene. Would buy some real estate, too.
Interview by Simon Sargsyan