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A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Photo by David Korchin.

Photo by David Korchin.

Guitarist Adam Rogers needs little introduction to Jazz Gallery fans. A longtime regular here, Rogers has become one of the most prominent voices on the electric guitar today, able to both attack the thorniest line with aplomb and give a song a lush atmosphere. He’s worked with a huge range of artists, from saxophonists Michael Brecker and Chris Potter, to vocalists Norah Jones and Cassandra Wilson, and trumpeters Randy Brecker and Terrence Blanchard. Rogers has recorded five albums as a leader, and three with the collaborative electro-jazz outfit Lost Tribe.

With such varied experiences and a wide-open musical personality, we at The Jazz Gallery felt Adam would be an ideal mentor for this program. We caught up with recently by phone for a thoughtful and discursive conversation about the qualities of good bandleaders and the importance of the jazz standard repertoire to Adam’s improvisational practice.

The Jazz Gallery: Let’s start out big picture here: what in your mind makes a good bandleader?

Adam Rogers: There are a number of things. I think good bandleaders hire people whose playing they love, and the leaders want those players to imprint their musical personalities on the music at hand. Also, good bandleaders balance that idea of letting people do what they do while also at times interjecting with their own concept of a particular composition—like if you’re the composer and have an insight into the piece that the other players may not have. I’ve spent about as much time as a leader and co-leader as I have as a sideman, and these two ideas have occurred to me a lot.

As a sideman, I’ve loved working with leaders who will step out and share thoughts about music that don’t only apply to the tunes at hand, but about playing and improvising more generally. I worked with saxophonist Michael Brecker for a long time and I loved the way he led bands. He would just let things happen, and then once in a while would say something really savvy and profound.

Like any musician, I hear my playing all day long, so I’m really looking for outside information to influence the information that I already have. I’m looking for a lot of input so I have things to use that aren’t just coming from my own head. If someone I really respect says something that may at first just pertain to the music at hand, but then have greater ramifications, I find that really, really valuable. I think in the long line of great bandleaders in jazz—from Miles to Blakey to Duke to Basie, any number of people—there are musicians whose paths as players have been tremendously influenced by the bandleaders they’ve worked with. I know some people say with Miles that the band wouldn’t sound any different if he were in the audience, but I feel he shared his thoughts about music somewhat regularly, and in doing so, really influenced the paths of some of the most important musicians of the 20th century.

Sometime those lessons imparted from a bandleader to a sideman aren’t necessarily explicitly stated. You can work with someone for a long time and through osmosis just get a lot of information. I’ve gotten to work with many great musicians, and even if they’ve said very little to me specifically, being in proximity to them every night and hearing their playing and playing with them has been hugely educational and gratifying.

TJG: I feel like a good bandleader in your mind has to have a lot of patience. The music may not sound exactly the way he or she wants it to be at first, but the leader will take a step and let everything take its course.

AR: Absolutely. I think it has a psychological series of ramifications as well. From my experience, I feel that learning a piece of music in the privacy of my own home and figuring out all the technical things necessary to play it is one thing, and figuring out what to do in a performance is another thing. Things happen over a period of time that are natural. People are going to have a path of their own in learning and processing a piece of music. As a bandleader, I think being able to step back and letting people find their place in music is really important, more so than saying, “No this is how it should go, no this is how it should go.”

For me, one of the key factors in jazz and improvised music is that it isn’t one thing. Even a tune that I’ve written and thought of—where a lot of the parts are written out, the bass lines, the chord voicings—it’s not clear to me what it’s going to be once people start playing it, and I try to leave as much of that open as possible. There are tunes that I write in the privacy of my own mind where I feel that there are things in it that I like, but I’m not sure if it’s going to work. And I’ve played those tunes with a group live, and they really come to life because of the others’ input.

Psychologically, I feel that musicians might feel more relaxed initially when you don’t say “This is how it’s going to be,” from the word go. A huge part of music has nothing to do with the technical requirements of playing an instrument, but how you feel while you’re playing, and different psychological states breed different kinds of musical responses. There have been times when I’ve been playing and was struggling and tired and pissed off, and something came from that that wouldn’t have come out if I was thinking, “Oh, this is great!” I just don’t think that having a preemptive concept jammed down your throat before you get a chance to find your place in a piece is necessarily a positive thing.

While saying that, compositionally, there are things that you can impart to people performing your music that can really open it up for them. I know from my vantage point as a sideperson that one’s ability to put one’s self into the music and internalize it comes from hearing how it’s supposed to sound like. It could be something extraordinarily difficult to realized on a technical level, but if you can sort of hear it, it makes it easier for you to insert yourself into the piece. There are things a bandleader can say that can elucidate what’s going on in a piece and help that process along, like, “This tune sounds like Philly Joe Jones playing a country tune.” Just something that can help a musician grasp the overall concept of a piece and get away from the notes on the paper.

TJG: On your last few albums—Time and the Infinite, Sight and R&B (with David Binney—you perform a number of jazz standards. How is the jazz songbook important to your practice as a guitarist and improviser?

AR: I grew up hearing songbook standards even before I began playing jazz music. Both of my parents were, among other things, Broadway singer-dancers. They probably know more tunes than I do. That music was the pop music of its day—in the ‘40s and ‘50s, the tunes that were popular and were played on the radio were showtunes and songs from movies, which at that time became standard tunes for jazz musicians to play over. I love those tunes and really feel that they’re a part of my blood because I grew up hearing them before I ever thought about playing an instrument seriously. And this is probably a no-brainer for most people, but it’s really amazing how you can just get together with a group of musicians and to some extent have this shared repertoire that you can just start playing.

I’ve always felt the learning of tunes was a great thing for me just in terms of my musicianship. Learning songs, memorizing songs regularly helps keep a certain part of my brain active. I think these songbook standards are just incredibly strong pieces of music. I like playing them, totally subjectively, and I think it allows you focus on improvising without having to think about the form as much. It’s easier to play over a standard technically than it is to play over a tune that you don’t know and could be complicated and in a mixed meter, but you definitely get a different side to someone’s playing when they’re playing over a standard. When you’re not playing something that starts in 7/8 time and has a metric modulation of 15 over 49… thousand, there’s just less to hide behind, and what you’re left with is your melodic sense, your feel, and your sense of invention.

And the great ones are such strong pieces of music melodically and harmonically, that whatever style you play in, you get to play something in relief to the strength of these tunes. Like say I’m playing over “It Could Happen to You.” I’m hearing that melody while I’m improvising and it’s an incredibly strong melody, so it influences the way I play, whether I’m trying to play something complementary to it, or push against it. I just think it helps to play strong melodies and have that melodic sense filter in to what you improvise. I think it’s really special when someone plays a standard and doesn’t just sound like he or she is quoting some older musician, but is able to find something of his or her self in the moment of playing this particular tune that is somehow relevant.

TJG: What drew you to working on this mentorship project with Jimmy MacBride? What do you hope that the both of you get out of this experience?

AR: I love The Jazz Gallery—I love Rio, I loved Dale very much. What the Gallery has done and continues to do is really special. It has been an important place for my development as a musician. So something like this, when Rio mentioned to me, was an automatic.

I grew up in New York, and when I started going out to hear music was sort of the tail end of the “Loft Era,” when there were a lot of places that were run by musicians and enthusiasts and there was very little commercial intent. I’ve always felt that The Jazz Gallery has captured part of that vibe—music for music’s sake and helping musicians develop in a place where there aren’t the same kind of commercial concerns like when playing in some other kinds of venues. Beyond that, just being able to work closely with a young musician was exciting to me. Upon listening to Jimmy, I thought he really sounded great and I was just excited to play with a really great drummer. And beyond that, I was able to get two of my favorite musicians to work with—Scott Colley and David Virelles—to participate. Just from my standpoint as an enthusiastic musician, it just sounded like an opportunity to play with some great people.

In terms of this relating to this mentorship position, I don’t really know exactly how it will all go. If the occasion arises to communicate my (and Scott’s and David’s) experiences to Jimmy, if we feel it’s necessary or relevant to him, we’ll be happy to impart that, but I don’t have any predetermined concepts going into this. My first instrument was the drums actually, because my father was a drummer, and I have ideas of what I like from the drums—I’ve luckily had the opportunity to work with some of the great drummers around. I have these ideas, but I always like, as I was saying before, I love to be surprised and get information that I don’t already have. I’m really looking forward to playing with Jimmy and seeing what I can learn from him.

Adam Rogers play their final Mentorship Series set on Tuesday, September 22nd, 2015. The performance will take place at 9 p.m. at SEEDS (617 Vanderbilt Ave, Brooklyn NY). The group will feature Mr. Rogers on guitar, Jimmy MacBride on drums, David Virelles on piano, and Matt Brewer on bass. $10 general admission. Purchase tickets here.