Guitarist and lifelong New Yorker Adam Rogers returns to The Jazz Gallery this week with DICE, his band featuring Fima Ephron on bass and Nate Smith on drums. If you’re not familiar with Rogers’ guitar playing, you’ve surely heard him alongside artists such as Michael Brecker, Norah Jones, Paul Simon, Regina Carter, John Zorn, Marcus Miller, The Mingus Orchestra, Chris Potter, and Ravi Coltrane, among others.
Known as a guitar virtuoso of eclectic taste and unimpeachable technique, Rogers cultivates a sound on DICE that at once elicits comparisons to guitarists Jimi Hendrix, Allan Holdsworth, Mississippi Fred McDowell, and Roy Buchanan. Released last summer, DICE has both raw and immersive, spacious qualities, with tracks contrasting blistering trio jams with dense, swirling sonic layers. Rogers himself plays a wide range of instruments on the album, including clarinets, synthesizers, organs, and different loops and samples. We spoke at length with Rogers about the recording process, the role of compositional limitations, and the importance of mic’ing the room.
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The Jazz Gallery: Thanks for sharing the DICE record in anticipation of the show. I really enjoyed listening to it, and it sounded like it was a fun record to make.
Adam Rogers: The actual recording part was fun, yeah. When you’re making a record, there’s a certain part of your brain that doesn’t allow for as much fun as you’d like to be having. It was very rewarding, but it was a lot of work.
TJG: Is there a part of the process that necessitates the ‘fun’ being shut off?
AR: That’s hard to articulate. For this record, we recorded for a couple days, then I worked on it for a long time before releasing it. Recording was as fun as could be. And I’ve played with Fima and Nate for a long time, so as far as their parts are concerned, there’s not much I had to worry about. But when you’re only in the studio for a couple of days, there are a lot of concerns on your mind. When self-producing, there are a lot of ‘i’s and ‘t’s that need to be dotted and crossed, in terms of getting the takes you need, the sound you want, being in the music while also taking care of things. Doing that while also having fun can be a tricky combination.
TJG: Was it helpful that your sound was ‘limited’ in a way? In your Guitar Player Magazine interview, you talked a bit about a limited gear setup, which gave you some boundaries.
AR: Not really. That’s my setup. If I had twenty years to make the record I’d use the same setup. I don’t really use pedals. I use three guitars on the record, mostly the Strat, the Telecaster, the Les Paul, plus the amps. That’s my desert island setup. There’s no overarching principle that says I shouldn’t play with pedals, but I like the idea of having one sound or one thing that doesn’t give you 25,000 choices at the click of a mouse. Working within sonic and compositional limitations forces you to explore, to go deeper.
TJG: Regarding musical limitations, you’ve said that “With DICE, I wanted to explore mostly one sound. That limits things, but through limitations you can discover things.” Could you talk a bit about those discoveries?
AR: With DICE, when I conceptualized the band, I was thinking about the sound of an electric bass, specifically Fender Precision, drums, and a Fender Stratocaster. With this instrumentation, there are things I don’t hear where I might hear them with a “jazz trio.” As broad a swath of musics as I’m interested in, I like to explore one concept, even if it’s very broad, when working with one specific band. I like to create a framework that, without explicitly limiting me, informs what the music can be, and provides compositional ideas. So as a composer, you can choose to break out of those limitations, or explore within those limits.
TJG: I interviewed Dan Tepfer about his album Eleven Cages, we spoke about limitations too. The concept of his album is basically that each tune, each composition, gives his trio an opportunity to break different compositional constraints or limitations. Were your limitations on your mind as you were composing, or is it more like you enjoy the restraints in real time?
AR: It’s nothing so conceptual, cerebral, or external. Everything, to me, is informed by sound. In writing for this trio and thinking about the sound I wanted, the sound just lays out certain principles intuitively. There are things I would play in a different setting that I wouldn’t necessarily play here, because the parameters of the music dictate what I play. The figures, the sound, the overall concept, a big fat funk groove, the sound of my guitar. It all informs in a basically intuitive way, which I can only describe intellectually after the fact.
TJG: You studied classical guitar at Mannes, and as Andres Segovia famously said, “The guitar is an orchestra.” Is there anything in your classical guitar training that extends to the type of Strat playing you’re doing with DICE?
AR: I think so. Everything I’ve done influences everything else I’ve done. They’re very different techniques for playing the guitar. I’ve spent so much time playing classical guitar, going really deep into the sound of the instrument, which has a much more limited dynamic range, in which to discover this tremendous amount of potential nuance and detail. I spent a lot of time exploring different tonal colors that one can produce with your fingernails on a nylon string guitar. That has had a huge influence on everything I’ve done. So on the opposite end of the dynamic spectrum, with Fender Stratocaster through a Marshall amp turned up to “9,” it’s still influenced me to parse through the different sounds one can get with that guitar and amplifier.
TJG: Speaking of sonic world, you also mentioned in Guitar Player that “There’s no reverb, compression, or EQ on this record.” It’s so dry and present; you can really tell on tracks like “Flava,” with all those off-kilter hits. How did you decide to make such a ‘live’ sounding record?
AR: I should say that I did a bunch of post-production, played clarinet, layered loops. There’s reverb on the post production. But the basic tracking had no reverb or EQ or compression. I didn’t start out with that concept, though I never planned to do much processing to the recording. I had the engineer set up a lot of room mics during the session, set up with some distance from the instruments in the room. They picked up the ambience, the reverberation of the space. There were a bunch of mics on my amplifiers, and then five to eight mics in the space, and the same deal in the drum room. When I started to edit the record and create rough mixes, I just turned up those mics as I saw fit. In a way, that organically represented the sound I was seeking. When I went to mix it, I tried different things, and we sort of realized that sound was the best representation of the band.
TJG: So it happened naturally, because you set up the extra mics?
AR: It did. I didn’t plan to use them as much as I did. There were a couple of tunes, like “Crazy” and “The Mystic” that I had a definite concept for an open, roomy sound. The other ones I wasn’t sure how I was going to go about it. More reverb didn’t feel necessary, aside from on the post-production ambient things.
TJG: Is it true that your musical relationship with Fima Ephron goes back all the way to playing shows on the street in Times Square? Was that your first musical experience together?
AR: I probably met Fima in the mid-eighties. We did some gigs with local bands and became musical colleagues, then started playing in the streets, me and Fima and a great drummer named Zack Alford. I’m not sure what our first shared experience was, but those were among them. I played in the street constantly for four or five years in the eighties, and we played a lot together.
TJG: How has the musical energy between you two changed over the years?
AR: I don’t know exactly, but we’re not playing on the street anymore [laughs]! He has a great electric bass sound. His phrasing and his feel, he’s rock solid. He grooves his ass off. He knows the power of playing a bassline over and over and over again, the force that that creates. He knows how to imbue a bass line with tremendous feeling and intent. It makes it possible to play very freely. When a figure is repeated, it builds steam. As an improviser playing over a repeated figure, it makes it possible to build ideas, to create long phrases. So for this music, Fima’s a really integral part of what makes it convincing. Both Nate and Fima understand the power of a repetitive groove, and it makes it possible for me to improvise with them in what feels like a deep way.
TJG: Thanks for your time—we can’t wait to hear DICE live at The Gallery.
AR: Thank you! We’re going to play a few things that aren’t on the record, music we’ve been developing since the recording. This group hasn’t played at the Gallery since it moved to the new location. I’m looking forward to seeing how the sonic space of the new Gallery influences what we do. Some of the harmonic and melodic information in this band is very stationary, so we use that as an opportunity to explore the sonic parts in the live space. It’s a very live band.
Adam Rogers and DICE play The Jazz Gallery on Saturday, November 18th, 2017. The group features Mr. Rogers on guitar, Fima Ephron on bass, and Nate Smith on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $25 general admission ($10 for members), $35 reserved cabaret seating ($20 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.