A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Photo by Monica Garcia, courtesy of the artist.

Photo by Monica Garcia, courtesy of the artist.

There are high school buddies…and then there’s Robert Glasper, Kendrick Scott, and Jamire Williams. When guitarist Mike Moreno attended High School for the Performing and Visual Arts in Houston, the school was flush with talent, and these musicians hung out, listened to records, rehearsed and gigged together, and pushed each other creatively to new heights. “It was just a really influential time,” says Moreno.

Those high school bonds remain strong, as Moreno still tours with Kendrick Scott’s Oracle band. But Moreno’s also built up his own distinct crew and sound, namely with pianists Aaron Parks and Jon Cowherd. After playing at The Gallery with Cowherd just a couple months ago, he’ll be returning this Friday, May 15, with a quartet that includes Parks, Doug Weiss, and Adam Cruz. In anticipation of the gig, we caught up with Moreno by phone to discuss his high school days, molding his sound, and his future projects.

The Jazz Gallery: How does your role change from being in a sideman, with Kendrick Scott or Will Vinson, to performing your own work?

Mike Moreno: In Kendrick’s band, my role is more of a color. My band, that’s like being on vacation. I’m not struggling to remember any changes, and it’s much more of a free feeling. Also, the way I function in my band, the tunes are written in a way that the guitar and piano should sound like one instrument.

Really, the reason why I have piano is not because I’m not comfortable playing without piano—it’s because the music, the sound of it, is the sound of guitar and piano playing melodies together and comping together. In the last few years, I don’t hear any other way of bringing my tunes across except for piano and guitar. That’s the way me and Parks or Cowherd play together. There are only a few guys I can do that with, where the piano and guitar sounds like one instrument.

TJG: How did you develop that chemistry with Aaron Parks?

MM: It’s not very difficult. It’s the way that he plays and I play just work together. The way we played together has always been really natural.  We talk about some things here and there, but for the most part they just happen naturally. It’s not like we sat there rehearsing tunes a lot. They sound the way they sounded the first time we ever played them together.

Jon Cowherd is another one. When I put a chart in front of him, the very first time he plays it, it’s almost like he wrote it. I feel a really strong kinship with those guys.

TJG: What did you listen to growing up?

MM: Straight up metal, like Metallica and Iron Maiden. That’s what I was into when I was a kid, when I got my first guitar. I was learning everything by ear without music theory or taking lessons. That was a really good start: I kind of learned to play the guitar playing with records, and I always attribute my rhythmic strengths to that.

A drummer I was playing with started going to college and studied jazz. He got me into Tony Williams and Miles Davis, I started looking into jazz and crossover stuff like Steely Dan and Larry Carlton. There was kind of a segue from rock slowly morphing into jazz, where I felt like I had a better chance of saying something original.

TJG: Tell me about your time in high school.

MM: That’s where everything just took off. There were people there that were very focused and knew what they wanted to do—Robert Glasper, Kendrick Scott, Mark Kelly, Jamire Williams. These guys, we joined together and just influenced each other. I was bringing in tons of music for us to play in school.

It was a time when people were still buying records—you would go out, buy records, bring them to school, sit in the practice room and listen to records together. The Young Lions movement was at its height at that period: Brad Mehldau, Josh Redman, Roy Hargrove, Nic Payton, were all at their height. That was super inspirational for us.

TJG: How much do you attribute to the teachers, and how much to your classmates?

MM: The students at any school are what makes the school special. You can have all the same teachers and a group of kids that’s not inspired, and nothing’s going to happen. There’s only so much a teacher can do.

But what our director did for us was give us opportunities to play and play and play. And we were getting paid. Some of those gigs paid as well as anything we would get in NY today. It’s kind of sad that no one is making any more money than they were 20 years ago playing music.

But anyway, we were playing all the time: rehearsing at school, but also playing sessions for fun. And I gigged way more than say, Robert Glasper, just because a lot of the gigs we did didn’t have pianos there. I got all the gigs because I had a guitar, an amplifier that would connect anywhere. I went very quickly from a kid at a jam session in Houston to being one of the first call guitar players in Houston. And that’s when I was 17, 18. I was working just as much as I am today.

TJG: You’ve developed a very clean, lucid sound on your guitar. Do you still play around with pedals and effects?

MM: I’m doing it more now than I ever was before. I was very cheap with amps. Now, it’s like, fuck it, you gotta spend the money. Especially on recordings. I’ve never once been happy with the guitar sound on any record I’ve done. I’ve heard live recordings of myself where I’m just like, ‘I wish I could get this sound on record.’ But it just never happens. Especially the way records are done today, the bass is just so amped up, and the drums are so clear, every drum is in your face. Everything is just too loud and clear and bassy. Somehow a jazz guitar sound just doesn’t come across in records.

Just last week I bought a new amp, got some new pedals. I’m just trying to get the sound that I have already to be more consistent, but stronger, more clear, more tone. With the records I’m going to make this year, my new record and [Stefon] Harris’ record, I can’t let the sound I’ve been getting in the past keep coming.

TJG: What can we expect from your new record?

MM: I have the tunes, and it’s gonna be with the quartet. I’m hoping to record June or July, and then release it soon after….I’m trying to do everything within two months.

The Mike Moreno Quartet plays The Jazz Gallery on Friday, May 15th, 2015. The group features Mr. Moreno on guitar, Aaron Parks on piano, Doug Weiss on bass, and Adam Cruz on drums. Sets are at 8 and 10 p.m. $22 general admission ($12 for members). Purchase tickets here.