Jazz interview with jazz guitarist Phil Keaggy. An interview by email in writing.
JazzBluesNews.Space: – First let’s start with where you grew up, and what got you interested in music?
Phil Keaggy: – Before I even answer that question, I have to say (This is a disclaimer) I’m not a jazz guitarist. I wouldn’t ever ever claim to be. I’m kind of Heinz 57 variety. I love some jazz, I love some rock, I love some classical and I’m kind of a sponge and I kind of glean from all these wonderful influences and I play by ear. I’m just kind of a melody vibey guitar player that hopefully gets the vibes right over the years. Ok that’s my disclaimer… So where did I grow up? I grew up in Youngstown Ohio, Hubbard Ohio specifically for the first 5 or 6 years of my life. I was born in 1951 and lost my middle finger on my right hand when I was age 5 on a water pump next to the barn. My Mom and Dad had some acres and some animals and land and there was this water pump that you crank and it comes up. I climbed up on it and was on my knees and the weight of my little body against the old rotted foundation just caused the whole thing to go through the shaft and cut my hand. That was very traumatic for me and made going to school a little hard for me as a kid, but I got over it eventually. I got into loving music and records. I had older brothers who brought home records of every genre imaginable from classical to R&B, rock, rockabilly to the standards, to Jazz, everything. I just enjoyed absorbing all of this music around me and my older sister was a singer and my brother Dave liked to plunk on the guitar. So there was always music in the home. Everybody loved to sing so I grew up in an atmosphere of music, but not all of them became professional music people. My sister was an actress and a singer, but she was the only other professional person in music. I grew up with a guitar at the age of 10. I got my first guitar in Boardman Ohio, a Sears Silvertone that my Dad got me for my 10th birthday. My brother Dave bought me my first electric guitar after we moved to California for a few years. We lived in La Habra and he got me a small electric three quarter size guitar and by the end of that year I was playing for my fifth grade class. Then we moved back to Ohio and in eighth grade I joined a band called The Squires. I was in eighth grade and the other three members were juniors and Seniors in High School and as an eighth grader and ninth grader I was playing in clubs and bars and all kinds of places. The bass player was the guy that was always looking after me. He was a big guy and we’re still great friends today. He watched over me. That was the deal my Mom and Dad said” Ok, you can have our son in your band as long as you keep an eye on him, don’t let him get hurt or get in trouble.” So I was in this band The Squires in 65’, 66’,and in 67’ I joined a band called Volume IV and then we changed our name to New Hudson Exit. We did a record for Date Records and we were locally popular. We went out to California for 10th grade and that’s when I got into really digging deep into Michael Bloomfield style. I was an avid Beatles fan, of course, at this time. I might say going back to the early days before I was 10 years old I was into Elvis Presley big time. Collecting his records as a kid and I was always fascinated by guitar players, Dick Dale, Surfaris, The Ventures. Anything that has guitar, especially electric guitar at that time, I was fascinated and really dug it. So you could see I was going back from Ohio to California and then in 1968 I started a band with my good friend John Sferra and we called ourselves Glass Harp and then in 1970, two years later we got signed to Decca Records and we were just three piece, bass, guitar and drums.
JBN.S: – How did your sound evolve over time? What did you do to find and develop your sound?
PK: – Well, I was just primarily mimicking my guitar heroes as a kid, you know Jeff Beck or George Harrison, guitar players like that. Pop songs mainly. Steve Cropper, I liked his stuff with Booker T. & the MG’s, but I think my sound began to really become personalized and have my own signature developed after I realized I wasn’t going to be Mike Bloomfield on the guitar and I started to develop my own thing. The things is when I switched from Strats exclusively , then to Tele, then 335 and then when I got my Les Paul I really felt like that was the guitar that really helped me develop my sound and my style. The volume thing with the pinky, I was doing that and developing that. Because I loved classical and I love violin, I was trying to emulate the sense of the violin. So you couldn’t hear the picking of it, but you could hear the swell that occurs after the pick occurs and I was listening to a lot of soundtrack music at that time and violin playing. Henryk Szeryng and people like that. I was starting to incorporate these things in my own style while at the same time being a rock guitarist and I think what really happened at this transitional point in my life where faith became more important to me, faith in god, I began to really develop who I am today and that thread has been woven throughout the decades. I can comfortably play what I was doing back in 1970. Glass Harp would occasionally get together and do a date and we’ll do our songs and I feel pretty much at home with the way I played back then. In fact, it’s interesting, when I play with them I have a tendency to play more like I did when I was 19 and 20 than I do when I’m not playing with those guys. So my guitar style evolved and then I started getting into playing classical guitar by ear and acoustic guitar and then learning alternate tunings, creating some alternate tunings along the way. I did my first solo album in 1973 called What A Day nand I played all the instruments to all the vocals and that was a very special experience for me, it was never an acknowledged “hit album”, but it was a great learning experience for me to learn how to be a musician on my own in the studio. It was just me and Gary Hedden, the engineer and so that really gave me confidence to go further into the future with my own music. Second album I did in 1976, Buck Herring produced, we got Jim Gordon on drums, Leland Sklar on Bass, Larry Nnechtel on Keys, Mike Omartian doing string arrangements, Mylon LeFevre on vocals and Anne Herring and Matthew Ward. That was another milestone for me. Then I would say my next milestone is my The Master and the Musician album in 1978 which was my first instrumental album where I played all the guitars and good part of the bass. Brought in other players, woodwinds and flutes and other stuff like that. 30 years after I recorded the album we went out and did a whole 7 piece band completely doing the whole album live, all the parts, all the movements, everything. So the 70’s were a real developing time for me. Five of those years, I was up in a Christian community and I felt it was kind of a time of restraining, not on my part necessarily, but it also gave me a greater appreciation for other places in the country and other people to play with and make music with. So even though there was some limitations on my creative life there at that time, it gave me a greater appreciation by the time , my wife and I, moved on to Kansas City. The 80’s were just wide open for all kinds of new experiences and music.
JBN.S: – What practice routine or exercise have you developed to maintain and improve your current musical ability especially pertaining to rhythm?
PK: – I’ve never been a really disciplined rehearsal guitarist. I pick it up when I’m lonely to feel my fingers on the strings. Or if I’m working in the studio, I will work and work and work until I develop what I’m looking for. I also feel led to play the guitar and dig deeper into it when I feel inspired, or hungry, or thirsty for something new. I also find myself, when presented with a creative challenge, I like to hit it head on. Bucket List is a perfect example. Coming up and playing with these giants, Jerry and Tony, it put me in a situation where I can’t just sit here and get intimidated. I better jump in with both feet and see what happens. And what happens is something that occurs naturally. It’s like the law of gravity, it just happens. It didn’t seem to be forced and that was kind of neat. In terms of a practicing routine, when I’m home, I like to find a quiet time in my studio just to play without being plugged into anything. So it’s just me and the instrument and usually that’s my acoustic guitar, my Olson guitar. As a result of those kind of times, I’ve come up with about 24 different alternate tunings where I created songs out of that specific tuning. Some of those have been recorded over the years too.
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?
PK: – I think it’s an output of what I’ve absorbed, of what I’ve taken in. I appreciate minor seconds and I appreciate the dissonance of when it’s joined with other notes that give it a fuller picture. When you have a G sharp next to a G it’s obviously dissonant, but when you blend it with the 1’s and the 5’s and the other 2’s in the chord spectrum it gives beauty to dissonance. There’s dissonance in other cultures of music and I like to take those in and listen to and feed off it. I only really dabble in these other things whether its Indian, or Middle Eastern, or Spanish. I think my mind is very open to other expressions of melody and chords. One time a guy said to me back in 1974 or 1975, He said “Phil, just from a musical, educational point of view, from a technical point of view, what you are doing is wrong, but it’s beautiful.” And that had to do with one of my alternate tuning pieces that has dissonance in it, but it’s also blended with some beauty and many of the great composers have done that post the Classical era. When you get into Delius and Vaughn Williams and Moran and Debussy and Ravel. You hear that in classical music. That rub that takes place in the ideas of harmonies and melodies it gives tension, but it’s released. It’s tension that’s released in music. But I’m not an educated musician, I’m just an experienced musician rather than such an educated musician.
JBN.S: – What’s the balance in music between intellect and soul?
PK: – That is an interesting question. Well, God gives us all the capacity for intelligence. The mind is an amazing thing. I think what comes out that’s soulful is something that really grabs you deep, deep, deep down and then the intelligence to be able to translate it through and into an instrument. Just purely intelligent music may not have soul, but you need intelligence for soul to be communicated through your instrument. In other words, how to play, where to play, when to play, when not to play. In fact last night when I was playing, I had to check myself and I told myself to relax and I think I enjoy playing more when I can do that.
JBN.S: – There’s a two-way relationship between audience and artist; you’re okay with giving the people what they want?
PK: – Yes. I have different kinds of audiences for instance at my acoustic shows a lot of people come because they grew up with my music. They were my age when I was making this music 30/40 years ago and we all grew up together and they have those memories and so I really enjoy making people happy, taking them back in time. I’ll have someone come up to me and say “I met my wife for the first time at a concert of yours and here we are 35 years later.” The songs that I was creating in those days were special to them and so it makes it special to me. Often someone would tell me songs like “What a wonder you are”, “Let everything else go”, or “Spend My life with you”, are really special to them, and so when I do one of those songs, after someone has told me that, I know that there is somebody out there that really wants to hear that song. I’ve never been a top 10 artist, I’ve gotten some music awards for my instrumental stuff, never for my vocal stuff. So I have no place to think that I’m something special in the area of vocal music, but I think that it’s special to some people and that makes it special to me. There is a real special relationship between an audience that wants to hear the music they love and that’s a small fraction of the country, very small fraction, but it’s enough to put a good decent amount of people in an auditorium and I’ve been doing that for a long long time.
JBN.S: – Please any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?
PK: – Opening for the Kings at Carnegie Hall in 1971 was pretty, pretty sweet. Especially the reaction from the audience because we were nobody. Nobody knew who we were and we had a 40 minute set or so and the response was just fantastic. Another good experience was opening for Traffic, Steve Winwood and those guys and we had a great night that night. So those early days were special. I also remember a special time when I played at Paul McCartney’s wife Linda’s sisters wedding and then the conversations I had with Paul after that and we sat on a bed at his brother in law’s house and just played guitars for about 20 minutes. That was kind of surreal. It was something I will never forget and how he corrected me on how I pronounced a word in one of my songs and he said “You should sing it this way”. He was already producing me in a sense. Let’s see what else. The first time I sang a song called “Little Ones” in March of 1980 right after I just wrote the song. After each verse a crowd of 8000 people would stand to their feet, sit down and after I got done with the second verse they would stand up again and applauded. That was very memorable. I would say the first time I heard the mastered version of Bucket List really put a huge smile on my face, I couldn’t believe I was on an album with Tony Levin and Jerry Marotta. That just blew me away. But, there were other great memories along the way, the various musicians I played with and the great bandmates I’ve had over the years. The long lasting friendship with the guys in Glass Harp after all these years. We’re still like brothers. I want to say that I’m also glad Mike Pachelli has joined us on these dates because we’ve been friends since 1967, back from the Ohio days and I wouldn’t be doing these dates as a 3 piece because of the guitar parts that are on the album. It really helped fill out the whole presentation of the songs. It would have felt empty to me, so I’m very grateful for that.
JBN.S: – How can we get young people interested in jazz when most of the standard tunes are half a century old?
PK: – I don’t think you have to try to get anybody interested in Jazz, it’s just something that you’re going to happen to come upon, because it’s all out there anyway. You can’t travel too far and too much in this world without being exposed to incredible music anywhere you go. Someone will say, well gosh that resonates with me, what is that. It might be in a coffee shop, it might be in a restaurant. You might be walking down the street and hearing something coming out of somebody’s car and you say, I gotta know what that is. That’s how it was with me. No one said, Hey, let me introduce you to Jazz or let me introduce you to Julian Bream on the classical guitar or Vaughn Williams and it just was somehow there. Although maybe it’s because my ears were always open to all kinds of music since I was a little kid, and maybe some people do need to be led by the hand and told Hey, come here I’m going to take you to hear this or you got to be exposed to this or you need to hear this and find out what it might do to you. So, I don’t know. I really don’t know how to answer that question perfectly.
JBN.S: – John Coltrane said that music was his spirit. How do you understand the spirit and the meaning of life?
PK: – I think we are spiritual beings who happen to live in a body, not the other way around and that our spirituality is eternal and I think music is integral to who we are as human beings as creatures created in the image of God. I like to believe that God sang the stars into existence. I think music means a lot to God. I think music has a way of resonating with who we are that keeps us alive. There’s a great movie that I saw called Alive inside and it’s about the impact and the power of music to keep the brain functioning and working and the cognitive abilities of a human being to be able to continue to live and have memories and relationships and feel that they are a part of something and not just stuck in a black hole. I take my spirituality to a very personal place because I believe that God has a son and John Coltrane had his way of thinking of spirituality and I have mine too.
JBN.S: – If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?
PK: – I’d get in trouble if I was actually honest enough. [laughs]
JBN.S: – Who do you find yourself listening to these days?
PK: – Well probably for the most part I listen a lot to the sessions I do for other people. I like to hear how that all works out. I’m very involved with the music of others, but what keeps me occupied when I’m not doing concerts is studio work. I like to listen to the contribution I make on other people’s music. I like to listen to that. It makes me feel like I’m being an objective listener at the same time I’m hearing my participation in it. On the other hand, I like to listen and discover music by other artists and are not so known, because there are so many artists out there that are not top 40 and aren’t being celebrated, but who should be. I like to discover music made by other people that, like myself, aren’t top shelf or acknowledged as reputable, but I also like to go back and listen to the music that inspired me to begin with. It’s like feeding a plant the proper amount of water and nutrition. It helps keep that alive inside of me.
JBN.S: – What is the message you choose to bring through your music?
PK: – That God loves the people that he has created in his image. He cares that there’s a personal God, it’s not just a Cosmos and it’s not just an impersonal thing that happened and I believe with all my heart that we all have significance. Every human being has significance. Every human being is fearfully and wonderfully made and I believe in the sanctity of life.
JBN.S: – Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go?
PK: – Hmmm … I’d find it really interesting to be in that world where all of a sudden this music was emerging that caused this amazing sense of new melodic expression that came through the times of early Vaughn Williams music and Debussy and music like that. And also the music that seemed to be the influence that went into Jazz, even though I’m not a student of Jazz. You can hear a foretaste of it through Delius and Holst and Composers like that. That’d be an interesting time to just visit. It was pre WWI and that must have been an amazing time when electricity was harnessed, the light bulb, the phonograph. When these new things came into being. I think that would be an interesting time to look at, but besides that I would never have met my wife Bernadette, so I think I’m pretty content where I am. I really don’t want to go anywhere.
Interview by Simon Sargsyan