May 28, 2024

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Interview with John Stein: If you truly love it, you’ll be very happy: Videos, new CD cover

Interview with jazz guitarist John Stein. An interview by email in writing. 

JazzBluesNews.com: – First, let’s start out with where you grew up, and what got you interested in music. How exactly did your adventure take off? When did you realize that this was a passion you could make a living out of?

John Stein: – I grew up in Kansas City and I was 7 years old when I started playing guitar. I was lucky enough to have an exceptional teacher as a youth, Charlene Kunitz. She initially taught me chords and right-hand accompaniment techniques for folk music. World music might be a better term, actually, because I learned songs from all over world, with lyrics in different languages. I had a good voice as a child and could sing very well then. Charlene also loved classical music and introduced me to that type of guitar playing as well. I received a strong musical foundation from her.  When I was about 12 years old, Charlene and her husband Don left Kansas City to reside in California.

After Charlene moved, I took a year of classical guitar lessons from a teacher at the Kansas City Conservatory of Music and then switched to taking my first jazz guitar lessons from a guitarist named Don Wenzel. My memory of Don is very positive and he exposed me to some things that would eventually take root in my musical life. I was entering my adolescence, however, and for a number of years my interest in music went into a kind of hibernation. As a young teenager I played only sporadically, but in high school I got interested in music again and joined a rock band. I got my first electric guitar at that time.

At the time I got my electric guitar, I took some more lessons. This time my teacher was Kansas City guitarist Tommy Davis, and Tommy definitely introduced me to jazz concepts – chords with major 7ths, for example. So, I brought those voicings with me to the rock band, which added some textures that many rock bands lack. Tommy also taught me to harmonize a couple of standard tunes, which is something I do all the time now.

In my twenties, I moved to Vermont. I was making a living as a carpenter, building houses for people, and I enjoyed it. It was meaningful work for me. It challenged me, which is something that I need, and I had to learn a lot of very specific skills. Also, the end product is something of great value to people, which is also meaningful for me.

But as I became more skillful and as I mastered the various techniques necessary to build structures, my interest in carpentry waned. At that point, I realized I really wanted to pursue the creative activity that had been a part of my life since childhood and I wanted music to be my career. So, I turned to the guitar, which I had loved since the age of 7.

Vermont is a rural state, but there is a lot of culture there, and I found many like-minded people actively pursuing creative paths. We formed bands, practiced music together, looked for gigs, and so forth. At some point, I outgrew musically the people in Vermont I was playing with. This is probably because I had been given all those lessons as a child. When I began to pursue music seriously in my twenties, I became ready for challenging stuff pretty quickly.

There was a man living in Vermont near me at that time named Peter Tavalin. Peter was about my age, and when he graduated from high school, he studied at Berklee College of Music. Peter got a gig at one of the venues in Brattleboro, VT, and he put together a jazz band for a weekly session at this club. I was still playing in rock bands at this point, but I was musically ready for the challenge of jazz so I asked Peter for some lessons. I could already begin to see a path for myself as a serious musician and I realized that jazz was a path I could pursue. My ambition at that time was simply to be good enough to play with Peter at his weekly gig. But the jazz bug really bit me, and I realized pretty quickly that I wanted to make jazz guitar my life pursuit. That ultimately led me to move to Boston and attend Berklee College myself.

JBN: – How has your sound evolved over time? What have you been doing to find and develop your own sound?

JS: – I have been making records for more than 20 years. It’s interesting to me that my sound is essentially the same on all my recordings, in spite of the fact that I used different instruments, different amplifiers, and recorded in different studios. I want to hear a certain sound and I find the best way I can to achieve it on whatever equipment I am using. My sound is something that I envision and then I work to achieve it with my hands and my equipment. It is a product of my personal taste, and I developed my conception from listening to the musicians I admired while I was coming up.

That said, I consistently work to refine my sound. My quest to produce the sound I strive for has led me to try many incredible guitars. I absolutely love Gibson guitars. My first electric guitar was a Gibson and I have played Gibson guitars since then. I’ve lost track of how many instruments I purchased, loved and used for a period of time, and then sold in order to try another.

It seems my ears are still evolving. My ideal guitar sound right now is a bit brighter and cleaner than previously. I used to prefer the sound of Gibson’s plywood jazz guitars. Now, the Gibson guitars I use are constructed of solid tone woods rather than laminated woods. Plywood guitars are warmer and fatter sounding. Real wood guitars tend to have a more pristine tone, more clarity, a bit more brightness, richer overtones, and a tone that is less thick through an amp. With the right amp, one can accomplish the clarity and brightness without sacrificing warmth. I must admit this is pretty subtle stuff. I’m deep enough into this to hear the nuanced tone distinctions I’ve been discussing, but my guitar sound still remains of a piece with all my earlier work.

JBN: – What routine practices or exercises have you developed to maintain and improve your current musical proficiency, in terms of both rhythm and harmony?

JS: – I spent 40 years at Berklee College of Music in Boston, first as a student and then as a Professor in the Harmony Department. I have also spent many years on the bandstand. Early on, I specifically practiced fundamentals on my instrument – scales, arpeggios, chord voicings, and so forth. These days I primarily spend my time playing tunes. I enjoy harmonizing tunes, finding ways to add colorful notes to my voicings and different rhythmic approaches to playing melodies.

Last year I was stricken with a rare autoimmune disease, Myasthenia Gravis, and spent several months in a hospital. At that point, I didn’t know if I would be able to play again. Once I finally returned home, it took some time for me to get my hands and fingers working again. Initially, I did not have much strength or flexibility and I had to use a lighter touch on the instrument. The lighter touch led me to some new technical discoveries and I am working on retaining them, even as my strength and flexibility return.

Another new discovery is also a result of recovering from my illness. I have had to work hard to get my body’s physical breathing apparatus working properly again. I have a friend who is a trained singer and she has spent her working life as a vocal instructor. Her name is Jeanne Segal. Jeanne visited me when I was in the hospital and offered to give me some breathing exercises and lessons when I got home. Among the subjects I taught at Berklee was Ear Training, so I have spent many hours singing with my students. But I had never learned how vocalists and other musicians who use breath to produce sound learn how and when to breathe as they sing or play. Guitar is a finger instrument. Guitarists can wiggle their fingers without regard to breathing, and as a result it is very easy to play with poor and unmusical phrasing. When I apply the breathing and phrasing techniques I have learned from Jeanne to my guitar, my playing instantly becomes more musical, more vocal-like, and more relaxed. Both the lighter touch I mentioned earlier, and the vocal-like breathing and phrasing techniques are helping me improve my playing. But it is a task to break old habits, so every day I work hard to incorporate these new ideas into my playing.

JBN: – How do you prepare for your recordings and performances to help you maintain both spiritual and musical stamina?

JS: – Pretty simple, really. I practice the tunes I want to record and play in my concerts a lot. I practice them on my own, and then, if possible, with the musicians with whom I am collaborating. I try to have several programs of music ready to go – music I have already accomplished, and music that I am preparing for the next concert event or recording session. I am just now getting ready to resume more of my normal musical life outside of my home, but I have been pleased to discover, as I recover from my illness, that a number of my musical friends have been gracious and willing to come to my home to do sessions. It’s been a blessing for me, because I have been able to remain active without leaving my home.

Regarding my spiritual stamina, my family, friends, and musical colleagues have helped provide the inspiration and motivation to continue my physical and artistic activity. I am blessed by the support and love of all these people and my recovery has been hastened by them.

JBN: – What do you love most about your new album in 2022: Lifeline? How it was formed and what you are working on today?

JS: – Lifeline is a 2-Disk compilation of tunes selected from my 20+ years of recording. I was preparing to accomplish a new recording when I became ill. Since I could not produce the new project at that moment, my record label (Whaling City Sound) and I decided to gather a selection of tunes from previous releases. We didn’t know at that point if I would be able to play again and produce more music.

Selecting tunes from 16 previous releases, and choosing the order of the tunes for overall flow was a wonderful artistic challenge. All the various details that go into preparing a recording for release helped keep me occupied and happy during the many long hours I spent in a hospital bed. I am very proud of the music on Lifeline.  It is a wonderful sampling of my body of work, with a great variety of musical contexts and textures. This music has been my soundtrack for months.

Lifeline provides a window into my musical sensibilities – my guitar playing, my composing, and my arranging. It is also a wonderful feature for the many musicians I have had the honor and pleasure to play with in a lifetime of music making. My sidemen and women contributed their enthusiasm, their arranging ideas, and their superb skills to make this music possible.

Fortunately, for me, I am recovering from my illness, I am able to play, and I will be able to produce more music. In terms of what comes next, my illness last year interrupted the plans I had to record a new album and I would like to return to the program of music I was preparing when I became ill and accomplish it. I am also looking forward to resuming a concert schedule. My health is improving and I will soon be able to travel and present my music to the public again.

New CD – 2022 – Buy from here

JBN: – There’s a two-way relationship between audience and artist; are you okay with delivering people the emotion they long for?

JS: – Art is a form of human communication and without the expression of emotion it is shallow and superficial. Because I seek to express myself through my music, I hope to imbue it with it with honest feeling. My goal is to share myself with an audience, and hope they find something in my offering to enjoy. Jazz music is a bit esoteric, I guess. There’s not as much obvious drama in a jazz performance as there is at a sports event, for example. For years on my way to teach at Berklee College of Music, I passed Fenway Park where the Boston Red Sox baseball team plays. There is so much drama and possibility riding on every pitch at the end of a baseball game, and it will probably never be quite that dramatic on a bandstand. But music is something powerful and special. It reaches deep inside of people to touch their emotions. I do my best to offer a program of music that honestly showcases who I am as a person and also provides a platform for my fellow musicians to showcase themselves, and I always hope that the audience is able to receive and enjoy it.

JBN: – What is the message you choose to bring through your music?

JS: – I’ve spent my life engaged in music learning and music making. Like all artistic pursuits, it has been an unpredictable path, but I have loved it. I don’t know what I expected. I have just always loved making music. It’s my favorite thing in the whole world. I do it because I love it. I feel really lucky to be able to spend so much of my time doing something I enjoy so much.  If I have a message for anyone it would be to do it if you love it. If you truly love it, you’ll be very happy. Treat people with respect, and through the music you make, share yourself honestly.

JBN: – Let’s take a trip with a time machine: where and why would you really want to go?

JS: – Just more of the same for me, really . . . I’m going to keep practicing, keep studying, keep hanging out with other music fanatics like myself, keep trying to get better. I want to play more gigs. I want to get better at interactive playing, listening and reacting to the musical contributions of my partners, commenting on what I hear, reacting to their reactions. I love spontaneous interplay. I’ll always remember the incredible thrill it was to play live music with a friend for the first time after I had been ill and I was beginning to recover from my illness. Being entirely in the moment and interacting in real time with another musician is such an incredible thrill and pleasure. I want as much of that as I can get!

Simon, thank you for your questions and the opportunity to appear on your website. I can see that what you are doing is a labor of love.

Interview by Simon Sargsyan

Artist "John Stein" | HIGHRESAUDIO

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