Guitarist and composer Miles Okazaki has been a regular presence at The Jazz Gallery for years; he even recorded his most recent album, Figurations (Sunnyside), live on our stage. We spoke with Miles last summer when he last presented his quartet here, which features Donny McCaslin on saxophone, Francois Moutin on bass, and Dan Weiss on drums. The band will be returning to the Gallery this Friday, February 27th, 2015, so we caught up with him and listened to some tracks that have influenced his approach to the guitar and music in general. His new book, Fundamentals of Guitar: A Workbook for Beginning, Intermediate, or Advanced Students, will be published in March 2015 by Mel Bay Publications. Here’s what Miles had to share with us:
I ended up having a theme that I didn’t realize at the time: a lot of these are live records with guitar players in situations where they’re with another really strong player. In terms of the guitar, I’m interested in how they’re listening to and blending with other instruments, and how certain players hang in situations.
1. “Good Morning Blues,” Charlie Christian with Lester Young (recorded 1939)
[approximately 2:44] This one spot, there’s this weird double-time thing that feels like he’s playing backwards or something.
Usually with Charlie Christian, the things that people have probably heard most are with Benny Goodman or the live stuff at Minton’s, which are amazing, but this is an interesting situation because it’s at Carnegie Hall on Christmas Eve with these incredible other musicians: Lester Young, Buck Clayton, and Freddie Green. And he’s following Lester Young, which is a crazy thing to think about.
It’s a very measured kind of solo. You can hear him moving from one idea to another in a very deliberate way. It’s very clear, but there are several spots where he almost goes into some futuristic kind of stuff—like the lick at the end. There are different kinds of feels: the triplet feel, the double time thing that sounds like he’s backpedaling.
2. “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” Grant Green with Sonny Clark (recorded 1962)
This is a situation where Grant Green is with Art Blakey, and it’s a real, real heavy beat. This is one of my favorite Grant Green solos because he’s trying to go toe to toe with Blakey in terms of the feel. He does some stuff that’s extremely repetitive in this solo—like, if you didn’t have the proper intent behind it, it would sound kind of mechanical—but the way that he does it is like he’s trying to match the intensity of Blakey’s drumming.
Grant Green was a master of making a lot out of a little bit. There’s one moment where he’s laying behind the beat really far, to the point where he creates a lot of tension and has to bring it back, and there’s another part where he repeats this one phrase… I don’t know why, but there’s something about it—it’s like he ran out of ideas. I can’t imagine doing it myself, but it works.
3. “Jumpin’ the Blues,” Kenny Burrell with Stanley Turrentine and Jimmy Smith (recorded 1960)
I’ve always been interested in how guitar players phrase the melody when they’re playing with horn players. It’s something I do a lot, and I write music that does that. Stanley Turrentine is paired with Kenny Burrell on a lot of records, like Hustlin’ and Jubilee Shout!. I listened to those a lot, especially during a period when I got to play with Stanley Turrentine a little bit. I was pretty green at that point, so I was just trying to hang on and get the right feel. It was not about being technical on the guitar—it was about getting the vibe right. Every player has a certain feel, how they phrase in subtle ways.
So much of the language of phrasing comes from singers and horn players, so learning solos not only from guitarists, but also from other instruments has been a way for me to learn. The guitar has its own challenges as an instrument, so you also have to check out how people have dealt with that in the past, rather than reinvent the wheel, seeing how these players fit into different kinds of contexts—not just solo guitar or guitar trio, but guitar with Coltrane, guitar with Stanley Turrentine, guitar with Sonny Rollins.
4. “Without a Song,” Jim Hall with Sonny Rollins (recorded 1962)
I love the way Jim plays on this record because, like, you’re never going to match the technical prowess of Sonny Rollins on guitar—it’s just not going to happen! Maybe there are some guys now who can do the stuff Sonny Rollins was doing 50 years ago, but at that time you had to come up with other solutions and strategies. It was a revelation when I heard it. It was like, “Oh, you can just do your thing, and if it fits, it fits.” It’s about personalities being different.
You can imagine how nerve-wracking it must have been to play with Sonny Rollins, but Jim Hall just sounds relaxed (there’s a video of the band where you can see that). Most people know this record and it’s sort of obvious to put this on a list, but I had to do it because it was a big record for me, in terms of that idea of sounding relaxed in the context of some really heavy music. He just starts off with a melody, and it sounds like a different tune, almost like “Slow Boat to China” or something like that.
5. “S.O.S.,” Wes Montgomery with Johnny Griffin (recorded 1962)
I’m a big fan of Johnny Griffin. He’s on a lot of my favorite records, like Monk at the Five Spot. He has a really fluid sound, which is something I was always looking for on guitar. Guitarists can sometimes get into ultra-legato playing in an effort to get a really fluid sound, or ultra articulated playing with the pick. I try to get a legato feel while still attacking most of the notes, in order to be able to control accents and dynamics within the line.
There aren’t a lot of recordings of Wes Montgomery playing long melodies like this and phrasing with a horn player. Wes has a really fluid sound by the nature of his technique, but in order to make those kinds of long lines, he had to really push that technique, I’d imagine.
There’s a quartet record with the same band, Smokin’ at the Half Note, which is a really amazing record, but he always sounds comfortable. I kind of like when people sound uncomfortable, like they’re contending with something that’s a little bit outside, which gives some feeling of grit.
6. “Paraphernalia,” George Benson with Miles Davis (recorded 1968)
At this point, this Miles Davis Quintet had been playing for about three and a half or four years, so you can imagine being George Benson and trying to jump in here with this kind of a band. Before that, Benson had put out records like Uptown and Cookbook, which are with organ and blues in a certain vein: very technically impressive, very blues-based, and very much all tunes. His situation here is that there are no changes and it’s pretty abstract. It’s great because you can hear him trying to figure it out, like, “What the hell am I supposed to do in this kind of context?”
During his solo, you hear him trying to go for some tonalities—he kind of turns it into a minor thing for a minute—and then he goes into getting the vibe of what’s happening rhythmically, playing the little bumps and things like that. He’s basically fitting into the texture. It’s not like the band needed anything else to be in there besides them, so you have to be really careful not to step on what’s going on.
Benson is an important figure for me. He’s the basis of the way that I pick, which is nerdy stuff to be talking about, but it has to do with hand position. There’re different schools of picking that have to do with the way your right hand looks, open or closed; it’s like how drummers have match grip and traditional grip.
7. “Soul Power ’92,” Rodney Jones with Maceo Parker (recorded 1992)
Rodney Jones was my teacher when I came to New York. At that point, I was playing standards, which was basically my language. I’d been playing gigs for about eight years or so, mostly just playing straight ahead, and I wanted to get into learning more modern stuff, like doing some Coltrane on guitar, all sorts of things, and he was like, “Well, that’s cool, but can you do this?”
A lot of his gigs, like this one with Maceo Parker, were groove-oriented, funk-oriented, and blues-oriented. I was like, “Yeah, I can kind of do that,” and he’d say, “No, that’s super sad. It’s not happening.” Like that “Soul Power” riff. I was like, “Oh, that’s simple, it’s just one chord,” and he’d say, “No, it’s not so simple.” He spent a long time schooling me on the power of playing strong rhythm, on having a strong right hand on the guitar, and on playing really clear, precise rhythmic material, in the pocket.
8. “Pi,” David Gilmore with Steve Coleman (recorded 1997)
David is one of the guys I’ve always looked up to as a player, and he’s one generation older than me. This particular tune is one of my all-time favorites because the first time I saw Steve, they played this tune, and it freaked me out—I had to go figure it out—and now I’ve been playing it with him, this same tune, which is kind of a trip. David is a rhythmically focused player. I don’t know, I feel like there’s a stronger emphasis on harmony in the current crop of guys, more than rhythm. That’s just me; it’s too general—maybe I just don’t know what’s going on right now—but I’ve always felt that people focus a lot more on harmony than on rhythm.
There’s a tradition of players who focus on rhythms, and that’s kind of where I’m coming from. Then there are players… like I remember when I first heard Ben Monder and was like, “Oh, my god, there’s really nothing for me to do then in that direction,” in terms of just killing every harmonic angle on the guitar. Of course, Ben can play all kinds of rhythms, too, but I remember I did get together with him and he gave me the score to this record, Oceania, that I was checking it out, and it was like, “Well, that’s cool, but even if I sat here and practiced this, I still wouldn’t be able to play it.” It’s so personal, the sound and everything. It’s not just the notes; it’s like the whole approach.
I’m a big fan of anybody who’s able to go in their own direction no matter what, but Gilmore is for me a model of the rhythmic type of playing—the tradition that I see myself coming from. You can hear him laying in the pocket in that tune really hard while mixing it up melodically and getting the vibe of that group. As you know, with this group it can sometimes be hard to keep your balance!
Check out the full playlist here.
The Miles Okazaki Quartet performs this Friday, February 27th, 2015, at The Jazz Gallery. The band features Okazaki on guitar, Donny McCaslin on saxophone, Francois Moutin on bass, and Dan Weiss on drums. Sets are at 8 and 10 p.m. $22 general admission ($12 for Members). Purchase tickets here.