May 28, 2024

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Interview with Margaret Slovak: Ballad for Brad: Video, new CD cover, Photos

Jazz interview with guitarist Margaret Slovak. An interview by email in writing. – 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?

 When did you realize that this was a passion you could make a living out of? 

Margaret Slovak: – I grew up in Denver, Colorado. My father played guitar and harmonica and sang; he played folk and country music and could toot a mean polka on his Echo harp! My older brother Dan Slovak Is a wonderful guitarist; he plays country, rock and blues music. So, there was always a guitar lying around the house. I started playing when I was about 11 years old; I was hooked Immediately! I initially started with folk and soft rock music, then studied classical guitar and learned how to read music around the age of 13. Then, at age 14, my oldest brother Paul played me several jazz records that entranced me: Bright Size Life by Pat Metheny, Inner Mounting Flame by Mahavishnu Orchestra, and Kind of Blue by Miles Davis. Hearing these records led me onto the path of jazz. I started to compose at age 14 as well, blending elements of classical, folk and jazz harmony, which I still do today! Also, there was an incredible music teacher at my high school, Eugene Matsuura, who was a wonderful guitarist, pianist and composer; he taught me the basics of classical guitar, and also encouraged me to compose. At age 17, I also started to study with a local Denver jazz guitarist, Jim Wright, and took correspondence courses in jazz theory from The Berklee School of Music; I also took a great classical music theory class at my high school.  Since the age of 14, I have aspired to make my living as a musician and artist.

I was also very active in visual arts, painting and drawing throughout high school. For my first year of college, I went to the Kansas City Art Institute in Kansas City, MO; I also attended the University of Missouri Conservatory at the same time, which was located across the street. I loved art and music but felt that I couldn’t do them both justice simultaneously, as they both require so much time and practice. Thus, after a year of art school, I decided to devote myself to music, so I switched my major to music and attended the Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle; I graduated with a BFA in music in 1986. However, I started to paint again in 1984 while at Cornish; I realized that I would see images and colors and shapes while I composed, so I started to compose music and paint simultaneously in an integral creative process. My artwork appears on my CD covers, and I often do concerts in which my paintings are displayed on stage.

My first paying gig was at age 14; I also performed throughout college through a talent bank at Cornish. I was always doing gigs but was not able to fully make a living at music until about eight years after I graduated from college. I had side hustles for many years: waiting tables, cooking, cleaning, word processing and paralegal work. But since 1995, I have been able to make my living between performing, composing and teaching music; I’m very grateful for this!

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

MS: – Early on, I was deeply influenced by guitarists such as Pat Metheny, Ralph Towner, John Abercrombie, Kenny Burrell, Jim Hall, Steve Khan, Dale Bruning and John McLaughlin; I love the dark and mysterious electric guitar sound and the soft sound of the nylon string guitar. I was always drawn to music that had some space in it, as well as music that was deeply emotional.

I started to compose my own music before I began to learn jazz standards and other elements of the jazz repertoire, so I came to jazz in a backwards way. Since the age of 14, I was always hearing a combination of jazz, classical and folk styles. My teachers at The Cornish College of the Arts encouraged me to find and develop my own voice, as did the wonderful teachers I had at the Banff Center for the Arts summer workshop in 1986 and private instructors such as Dale Bruning, a wonderful guitarist, composer, arranger and teacher from Denver, Colorado.

During the last 40 years, I have moved back and forth between focusing on single line melodic playing on the electric guitar and more chordal and contrapuntal fingerstyle playing on the nylon string guitar; I’ve also gone back and forth between solo work and duo, trio and quartet playing. Presently I’m trying to embrace all of these different guitaristic paths and settings!

I think my work as a visual artist has also informed my study of music; I love viewing the work of visual art masters, just as I love listening to the work of jazz and classical masters. Thus, I am inspired by the work of so many great guitarists and musicians, but I have always tried to find my own way to express myself as a guitarist and composer, while still studying and absorbing the technique, harmonic and melodic ideas from the work of other musicians and composers.

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

MS: – I have always been a big practicer! Music has never come easily for me; I have to work very hard on things. I still practice scales, arpeggios, voicings and right and left-hand exercises; I also constantly practice my original compositions and work on arrangements of standards and other music. I try to practice 4 hours a day; if I don’t play every day, I don’t function well in the world! Playing the guitar centers, calms and soothes me; it is almost a form of meditation for me.

JBN: – Have you changed through the years? Any changes or overall evolution? And if so, why?

MS: – My guitar playing really changed in 2003, when I injured my right hand, arm, shoulder and brachial plexus nerves in a car accident while living in Portland, Oregon. It’s long story, but up to this point I had primarily been a fingerstyle player, using the pick just for single line playing on the electric guitar. Due to my injuries from the car accident, I lost most of the function of my right-hand fingers and my arm and had to adapt to only using a special pick device (Strum-n-Comfort Picks by Greg Atkin) and moving my arm in larger motions to make up for with the lack of fine motor control In my right hand and fingers. I had to give up trying to play fingerstyle with my right-hand fingers between 2003 to 2020. I also withdrew from doing concerts and touring and recording, concentrating instead on playing music for patients in cancer centers, hospitals, hospice and elder care centers. I have just recently returned to performing concerts.

From 2006 to 2014, I underwent eight corrective surgeries to my right hand, arm and shoulder, including a big one in 2014 on the brachial plexus nerves under my collarbone; I also went through hundreds of PT and OT sessions. Finally, in just the last two years, I have miraculously regained more of the fine motor control of my right-hand fingers, and have returned to being mainly a fingerstyle player, while still using the special pick device on electric guitar. I am very grateful to my NYC surgeon, Dr. Steve K. Lee at HSS, who performed my last six surgeries. He is also a guitarist, so he understood the importance of the function of my right-hand fingers.

Even though my right hand still isn’t perfect functionally, it is amazing to be able to use my right-hand fingers again. The fingerstyle technique is a big part of my work as a guitarist and composer; I am able to intersperse harmonic and melodic elements much more organically.

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

MS: – I try to be as calm, rested and well prepared musically as possible; I also stretch my hands, arms, wrists and neck and use various devices to massage the muscles in my injured right hand and arm. I also pray in my own quiet and individual way, and I try to focus on conveying the emotional aspect of the music to the audience members or while in the studio. I have always experienced nervousness before performing and recording, especially after my car accident and all that I went through while recovering from my injuries and surgeries. Many times, stressful and difficult things have happened right before a recording session or a performance, which can throw me and make it difficult to focus; I’m still working on trying to be able to carry on and not let these challenging things keep me from expressing and playing the music in the fullest way.

JBN: – What do you love most about your new album 2022: The Margaret Slovak Trio – Ballad for Brad, how it was formed and what you are working on today.

MS: – I had not recorded a new CD since 2004 due to my car accident and the subsequent surgeries. I had already released solo, duo and quartet CDs, but had never done a trio CD. Ever since hearing Pat Metheny’s Bright Size Life record when I was 14, the sound of the guitar, bass and drums trio was always in my ears, so in early 2019, I started to make plans to record this CD. I decided to record some older original compositions that had appeared on some of my other recordings, along with some newer pieces that had not been recorded yet. I felt that it was a comeback effort for me after not recording for 15 years due to my MVA injuries and surgeries.

However, the entire inspiration for the CD changed when, the night before I was set to go into the recording studio for two days of recording in New Jersey, we found out that my husband Brad Buchholz’s cancer had returned. He had originally been treated in NYC in 2011 for an aggressive prostate cancer. He was cancer free for eight years, but the cancer came back in 2019 and 2021. Although I was very distraught emotionally after hearing the news of this first recurrence, my dear husband and the musicians on the project, the wonderful bassist Harvie S and the exquisite drummer Michael Sarin, encouraged me to go ahead and try to do the recording anyway. Thus, I did the two days of recording on Tuesday, Nov. 19 and Wednesday, Nov. 20; Brad’s PET scan was set for Thursday, Nov. 21. I tried my best to carry on, but it was difficult to focus and play, especially on the first day; I did a bit better the second day.

When Brad’s scan revealed that his cancer had metastasized, a treatment plan was made. In late 2019 and early 2020, Brad underwent six weeks of radiation treatment with Dr. Stock at Mount Sinai in NYC. He finished treatment on January 30, 2020; we flew home to Austin on February 1, 2020, just before the outbreak of COVID-19 in NYC. It was a very difficult time.

I put the CD project on hold as Brad recovered and the world reeled from the pandemic. In March 2020, I finally started to listen to the NJ trio tracks. Although Harvie and Michael played beautifully both days, I was not happy with my own playing on the first day of recording; I had been shaken by the news of Brad’s cancer recurrence. But because of COVID-19, it was not safe to travel back to NJ to record. So, in the summer and fall of 2020, at a studio in Austin, using Harvie and Michael’s tracks, I redid my nylon-string guitar work from the first day of the NJ sessions. I kept my playing from the second day of recording, on which I played electric guitar.

The music was mixed and mastered in the spring of 2021; I finished the CD artwork and cover painting in the summer of 2021. However, Brad had a second recurrence of his cancer; we returned to NYC in October 2021, where Brad underwent another month of radiation treatment. We don’t know what the future holds, but this music is a reflection of the love, the life and the hope that Brad and I share. His support throughout my many years of surgeries has sustained me; his faith in my music inspired me to persevere; his love buoys me. Thus, I dedicated this new CD to my beloved husband, Brad Buchholz; the title track is named for him…

New CD – 2022 – Buy from here

JBN: – How did you select the musicians who play on the album?

MS: – I have played with drummer Michael Sarin since my college days in Seattle at the Cornish College of the Arts; he was in my quartet there from 1984-1986, and he performed on my senior recital! Michael also played on my first recording in 1989, a quartet album with Fred Hersch on piano and Michael Formanek on bass; that recording was not released until 2007. I love Michael’s sensitive, imaginative and orchestral-like playing; he adds so much color and soul to the music. Michael and I have also been great friends for many years.

I had heard Harvie S play many times when I lived in New York the first time from 1989 to 1993; when I moved back to New York the second time in 2008, I finally met Harvie personally and often heard him perform with the great guitarists Jack Wilkins and Gene Bertoncini. I love Harvie’s beautiful lyrical and melodic sensitivity, and his enthusiasm for music and life! We’re also great friends. I was honored to have Harvie and Michael play on this recording; they were also very supportive during Brad’s cancer recurrences and subsequent treatment in NYC.

JBN: – In your opinion, what’s the balance in music between intellect and soul?

MS: – Both of these elements are necessary; the intellect is needed to study, learn and assimilate musical elements and instrumental technique. Likewise, the expression of one’s soul through playing and composing is the most important element of music, in my opinion. Music that touches me the most is that in which I can feel the soul and emotions of the composers and musicians. I strive to be able to express my soul and heart to listeners through my own music.

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

MS: – That is actually the most important thing to me when performing; I try to be open so that I can feel people’s hearts while they’re listening, and they can feel my heart while I’m playing. One of the most profound ways that I have experienced this has been when I play for patients in hospice, cancer centers, hospitals and elder care centers, something I have done since 1994.

JBN: – Can you share any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions over the years?

MS: – One of my most beloved memories is the first time that I played in Europe in 1991. I was living in NYC and traveled to Germany to perform with a quartet of German musicians. My plane was late, my luggage got lost, we did an 8-hour rehearsal to prepare for the first concert, and I was very sleep deprived. We went to the first gig, which was in a sweet little tavern in Bavaria. Unfortunately, the electrical adapter I had brought along to convert my guitar amplifier to the proper current did not work, and I was playing only electric guitar on that gig. Magically, an electrician was in the audience, and was able to make some adaptations to make it work.

As we were setting up onstage, it was very noisy as the patrons were talking and enthusiastically drinking large steins of beer. I was a little worried, as my music is on the gentle side, and I thought that it would be hard to get people to listen to it. However, as soon as we started to tune up and prepare to play, the entire room stop talking in mid-sentence, and you could hear a pin drop. They listened so closely and purely with their hearts throughout the show, which really inspired me. At the end of the night, the mayor of the town gave me a beautiful bouquet of flowers on stage. It was such a special night in that little village!

JBN: – How can we get young people interested in jazz when most of standard tunes are half a century old?

MS: – I think if we share a little bit of the history behind the standards, such as the time and era in which each song was written and the life of the composers and lyricists, it might help them to see how special these songs were, and how they were in many ways the pop music of that time. Standards reflected the feelings and experiences of the creators and listeners during the times they were written, just as the modern music of young people today illuminates their lives, passions and hearts. Also, even if young musicians are working on instrumental versions of the standards, I think it’s still good for them to read and know the lyrics behind the melodies; I try to think of the lyrics as I’m playing the melodies of standards instrumentally on my guitar.

JBN: – John Coltrane once said that music was his spirit. How do you perceive the spirit and the meaning of life?

MS: – I agree with John Coltrane; music is a very spiritual experience for me, both composing and playing. I think music has the ability to heal, soothe and unify people. It reaches across physical, spiritual and emotional barriers in the world and touches people deeply. For me one of the most important things in life is to touch people with my music and to create a special place in which we can let go of the fears, challenges and stresses of daily life, and connect to our inner selves. The “meaning of life” is a vast subject for me, but I think being able to connect with people all over the world through music is a very profound element of human spirituality.

JBN: – If you could change one single thing in the musical world and that would become reality, what would that be?

MS: – It would be great if more musicians had access to better health care and support for medical services. There are many wonderful organizations that do exist in the US, including Austin’s own Health Alliance for Austin Musicians (HAAM) and the national MusicCares program, both of which helped me immensely when I was undergoing and recovering from my surgeries.

JBN: – Whom do you find yourself listening to these days?

MS: – There is so much beautiful music out there; it’s hard to listen it all, but in rotation recently are beautiful CDs and LPs by Fred Hersch, Gene Bertoncini, Gary Versace, Ralph Towner, John Abercrombie, Jack Wilkins, Steve Khan, Wes Montgomery, Jim Hall, Dale Bruning and Bill Frisell!

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

MS: – My main musical message is to bring comfort, joy, healing and peace to people in the midst of these trying times, and to touch their hearts through the music I compose and perform.

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

MS: – Perhaps back to this spring of 1966: I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall in the studios in New York City and Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, when Bill Evans and Jim Hall recorded one of my all-time favorite records, the great piano/guitar duet Intermodulation.

JBN: – Do You like our questions? So far, it’s been me asking you questions, now may I have a question from yourself…

MS: – Your questions have been great, Simon! I’ve never been asked by a reviewer and writer to ask them a question, but I guess I would ask: What is your all-time favorite jazz recording?

JBN: – From guitarists: Wes Montgomery – Bumpin’ 1965!

JBN: – Have you ever given a free concert during your entire concert career? At the bottom line, what are your expectations from our interview?

MS: – Yes, I have probably given hundreds of free concerts over the years; most of them have been for patients in hospice, hospital and cancer center settings, but I have also sometimes performed free concerts for nonprofit groups, food pantries and community gatherings.

This interview was wonderful; you gave me very thoughtful questions that really went beyond the technical aspects of playing, recording and performing music. You delved deeply into the emotional and spiritual connection between the musician and the listener, which I really appreciated. You also asked great questions about my new CD, Ballad for Brad, which helped me to express the inspiration behind the creation of the music. Thank you very much, Simon!

Interview by Simon Sargsyan

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