Originally from Berkeley, CA, Charles Altura is a guitarist and composer. He now lives in Brooklyn and is fond of cats, keeping two of his own. Noted for his “quicksilver technique” by the New York Times, he is a consistent face among many groups and has collaborated with Chick Corea, Ambrose Akinmusire, Justin Brown, Terence Blanchard, Stanley Clarke, Tigran Hamasyan and Linda Oh among others.
With an album in the works, Altura returns to the Gallery this Saturday to further explore his compositions with long time bay area friends Akinmusire and Brown who he’s known since high school, in addition to friends and collaborators Fabian Almazan and Matt Brewer who he plays with regularly.
We sat down with him this week in Brooklyn to learn a bit more about his musical journey thus far:
The Jazz Gallery: You’re looking to put out your first record as a leader soon?
Charles Altura: Yeah we recorded a little while ago. Then I did another session with Justin and Harish Raghavan as a trio. The record includes Ambrose, Justin, Harish and Taylor Eigsti. This performance will feature material from the album and a few new ideas.
TJG: The timbral roles in your group mirror E-Collective. Is the confluence of piano, guitar and trumpet important to you?
CA: Yes. For some reason, that instrumentation seems to have clicked. I’ve listened to a lot of trumpet players. Ambrose and I played together quite a bit growing up too, so the combination of trumpet and guitar is very natural to me.
TJG: Can you discuss your musical upbringing?
CA: I started on piano, I was about nine. Then I worked on classical piano and started playing guitar. I taught myself guitar from piano when I was about 13 and got into jazz soon after that. My older brother is a guitarist. He introduced me to a lot of music, a lot of jazz music. I always heard him walking around playing these solos. I liked the idea that you could walk around and practice anywhere. I like how it crosses genres easily. You can go wherever you want with guitar. It’s a chordal instrument but you can also be lyrical like a singer. When I got into jazz, the guitar provided a way to be like a horn player or a piano player.
I kept the piano going and at certain points I even quit guitar for a while and just played piano. Two or three times in high school. I would always end up back on guitar because I felt like I could somehow do more. Most of my composition happens at the piano, and I still play classical piano.
TJG: Were your parents musical? What was playing in the house?
CA: Yeah, my mom is musical, she plays piano and accordion. My dad was a big music fan. He got me into classical music and my mom has a very good ear. She taught me how to learn things by ear. There was a lot of classical music in the house—Rachmaninoff, Beethoven, Mozart, Chopin. I was also into rock music, like Pink Floyd and Jimi Hendrix, so I always had that going too.
TJG: Who were some of your main musical influences on the guitar or in general? Any records in particular?
CA: Guitar players were Wes Montgomery, Jimi Hendrix, David Gilmour, and Django Reinhardt.
Overall, Coltrane and Chopin.
Smokin’ at the Half Note. I really like that one. When I first started, that was a record I was fairly obsessed with.
TJG: Were you transcribing all those guys?
CA: I was transcribing a lot. Everyday I would transcribe something. I had a routine where I would come home from school and transcribe before I practiced. I used them as études.
TJG: Were there any transcriptions that you can remember helping you cross a certain threshold of understanding?
CA: One of the first things I transcribed was “Blue Train” by John Coltrane. His solo on that. I was trying to figure out how to play it on guitar, trying to think about how to make the guitar sound like the horn.
TJG: How do non-musical influences play a role? Influence from other forms of art – painting, film etc? Anything in general?
CA: I’m trying to capture feelings from my non-music experiences. When I have strong feelings about certain experiences I’ve had, I try to keep them in mind when I’m playing. I draw from art in general—painting, film, particularly the visual arts. When I play I see geometric shapes. There are certain sounds that I associate with shapes. I think that’s why I like jazz—because it has so many shapes.
TJG: You studied anthropology in college, not music? Did you know you were going to play professionally in college?
CA: I like having something else to draw from. I was still playing music and was open to where it would take me. Anthropology allowed me to think about music in a broader context.
TJG: As you’ve played more gigs over the years, do you have any sort of routine in terms of listening back to yourself?
CA: I will listen back a little bit just to try to learn what’s working. I don’t do it very often. It’s good if some time has passed so that I can hear myself more clearly.
TJG: When you’re improvising is there a state of flow that you reach and can you measure that?
CA: That’s mostly what I’m practicing. I’m trying to get to that place and figure out what makes it happen. It’s kind of the whole point to me. There have been two or three periods along the way where I’ve had some epiphanies around that. It’s when I’m working intensely on something and I have a moment where I feel like the guitar isn’t there, like it’s a part of me. I think it’s just playing what you hear and not what you think.
The Charles Altura Quintet plays The Jazz Gallery on Saturday, September 24th, 2016. The group features Mr. Altura on guitar, Ambrose Akinmusire on trumpet, Fabian Almazan on piano, Matt Brewer on bass, and Justin Brown on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $22 general admission ($12 for members), $27 for reserved cabaret seating ($17 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.