Interview Just Jazz Guitar
Q&A with Wolfgang Schalk
by Alexander Schmitz
AS: You call Wes the “father of contemporary jazz
guitar.” Isn’t this a bit too radical, too exclusive?
WS: Maybe, yes. It’s my very subjective view. But in
the same breath I say; George Benson is the king. I love
him more than anything, and I think that he owes us a
couple of “unpolished” recordings. Wouldn’t it be
beautiful if George would make some trio recordings?
Of course I admire Barney Kessel a lot, too. And there
are so many other great guitar players at that time. The
reasons for my seeing Wes as the father of contemporary
jazz guitar probably are his naturally ingenious
melodies and his progressive spirit, both of which are,
in fact, not anchored in a particular time or period.
Whenever it comes to Wes it’s usually about the thumb
and the octaves. But Wes has written the hippest tunes,
too: “Full House,” “Four on Six,” “The Trick Bag,”
“Far Wes” and all of these timeless burners that still
today sound more modern than many contemporary
releases with music that often lacks grounding and
seems to get lost in emptiness. That’s exactly why Pat
Metheny called “Smokin’ at the Halfnote” “the
absolutely greatest jazz guitar album ever made.” For
me it remains plainly beyond comprehension what
Montgomery accomplished during his short life.
AS: I liked your thought that you actually are not
sure if there still might be anything really unique in
jazz, but that this wouldn’t keep you from going on
to develop your own musical language.
WS: Yes, in my statement I really meant “unique,” not
“new.” At the time of Miles’s “Bitches Brew” and
Weather Report, jazz had reached its vortex, so that
nowadays “new” is really nothing more than merely a
word and has long ago lost its meaning of “benchmark”
or “standard.” So, what I wanted to say with this is a
twofold perception: that what fascinates me most in
jazz is – first - that anything is possible and – second -
the good old finding that “there is only good and bad
music.” That gets it to the point. The best example for
this is Keith Jarrett with his very specific way of making
his own music into standards and standards into his
own music. I simply believe that no composition can
ever exceed a good improvisation.
AS: Interestingly, all of your albums I know are in
quartet settings with piano. Sure, I know that guitarists
should stay linear when playing with a piano.
And I’m sure that the piano plays a very important
role for the timeless modernity of this music. You
are a linear player in the first place, but your lines
breathe. And the reason for my finding so much
communicative strength and power – I mean: the
power to touch – in your playing is that it is considerably
more governed by emotion. In such cases I
like to use the analogy of an “unpolished diamond”
or of a garden with natural finish. Or I mention the
late Cal Collins. What I mean is that there is something
purely natural in your playing, something that
comes straight out of your heart and gets equally
straight into the heart of the listener.
WS: I really appreciate the way you feel. Every musician
develops his identity in the course of time. And my
predisposition doesn’t seem reduced to one particular
direction. Of course, it’s great to find auditory canals,
although nobody can really explain what’s happening
then. And Cal Collins, no doubt, was one of those
exceptionally gifted individuals.
AS: Another interesting aspect is that you often play
nylonstring. I think of “Styrian Impressions” and
especially the last song on “Space Messengers,” in
which you max the nylonstring as a single-line
instrument. I’m not sure if this instrument has ever
been played this way in jazz before. Awesome.
WS: The classical guitar is so inspiring. For improvising
she opens up other channels and imposes her particular
timing and breathing on the arrangement. For
“Frame Up,” the piece you are referring to, I tried to
retain the timing of a jazz guitar, so that the song gets
its special drive. Incidentally, on “Wanted” I also play
two songs on a Gypsyjazz guitar, which challenges still
quite a different spectrum.
AS: What kind of nylonstring guitar is it?
WS: It’s a guitar built by an American luthier, Alan
Carruth [alcarruthluthier.com]. My colleague
Wolfgang Muthspiel had it custom made for himself,
and later I discovered it in a second-hand shop – a top
AS: “Wanted” and now to “Word of Ear” mean, to
me, modern mainstream jazz guitar without any ifs
and buts, and they own this timeless up-to-dateness
with enormous emotional intensity. And there is
your adorably beautiful sound on the new album. I
wonder how you get that!
WS: Well, I’ve got a second ES-175 from 1950, and in
that year of production this guitar had just one pickup.
The previous owner has changed that pickup and added
a second. I bought this 175 about a year ago on eBay in
blind flight mode, so to say, for $2,500. That same day
I had another 175 from the Fifties in my hand – in the
Hollywood Guitar Center store for an enormous price.
Anyway, I fell in love with the feel and the sound, went
home, looked around in the web just for fun and came
across this ad on eBay with a phone number in it, so I
called immediately. The fellow was in Florida, and he
actually had uploaded his ad the very moment I found
it with Buy Now for $2,500! He said: “I played in
churches with her and she is great and you will love
her,” and I just believed him and bought it without any
second thoughts. I had to change the frets, and that was
all. He was right. My other 175, from 1979, is easier to
play in terms of the action, so it took me some time to
get comfortable with the 1950s 175, and now I hardly
ever play the 1979. I used to be frustrated, because the
175 doesn’t sound great if played unamped; she’s
almost lifeless, while she sounds first-rate when
amped. At home I never plug in, because I don’t much
like the amp sound anyway, and that’s why I rather play
on an acoustic or my old Harmony Broadway (with
which I’ve also written the “Broadway Song” [on
“Word of Ear”] back in Hoboken. I had just arrived in
New York from L. A. and actually walked down
Broadway, and somehow this song started to take shape
in my head, and when I was back at home in Hoboken,
I wrote this song with my old Harmony (totally
cracked, but nevertheless good intonation and beautiful
sound). Well, and as to the 1950s 175 with the aged
wood and, above all, the heart. She’s got a wonderful,
natural sound, which is beautiful even when played
unplugged. So, for the time being, I play the new one
exclusively, and of course on “Word of Ear.”
AS: My impression is that the sound is more clearly
WS: For a good part I owe that to my engineer and old
friend from Vienna days, Reinhard Buchta, who had
the idea to aim a second mike--the room mike--directly
onto the pickups. And that makes for this spacious
acoustic sound, which is fifty-fifty from the amp and
from the guitar. This wouldn’t have worked on the
other 175, because she doesn’t have that much sound.
AS: Do you listen to guitar players only or do you
prefer to listen to other instrumentalists? And
where within the jazz guitar scene do you see yourself?
WS: Generally speaking I don’t listen to much music
anymore, although I naturally keep tuned in to the
scene. The list of excellent instrumentalists is enormous,
and of course, I principally like to listen to guitar
players. To allocate myself to this or that fraction
isn’t my biz. I simply try to learn from everybody.
David Kikoski is an ingenious pianist, and I had the
luck to play with him for a couple of years. We had a
Europe tour, which took off in the A-Trane in Berlin.
We had first met in the hotel lobby, and Dave had a saxophone case with him, and I thought, wow, that’s one
crazy travel bag, but matter-of-factly, it contained a
sax, and he asked me if he could play a couple of songs
on sax. At first I thought he was kidding, but then he
said: “I can play an audition.” Actually he played very
well and thus came to play some of the songs on this
tour on the saxophone, and that was a lot of fun.
Because of the nature of their instruments, brass players,
notably sax players, can establish an immediate
connection with the listener, and that’s something that
has fascinated me all my life and that keeps inspiring
me to translate that exactly onto the guitar.
AS: How do you look at the European jazz guitar
scene from your American angle? Do you keep an
eye on what’s going on here at all?
WS: For me, Europe is just around the corner, and I
have neither become “Americanized” in any way, nor
have I ever really been “Europeanized,” and that’s why
I don’t pay much attention to any boundaries.
Moreover I haven’t really pulled up my stakes in
Austria since I’ve gone to New York and come back
about once a year for concerts and so on, but also as a
private person. Even now I have many friends in
Austria, colleagues, and my family. And to get back to
your question: The jazz guitar scene in Europe is generally
strong, and especially for guitar players, it’s
common knowledge that Django Reinhardt and most of
his heirs came and come from Europe. Talents sprout in
all corners. In Austria there also are some real giants,
for instance my friend Harri Stojka. And – Karl Ratzer,
simply “Karl Ratzer.” He was the idol of my youth.
That was about the time when he had just returned
from America, or shortly before. Do you know that
these records he had recorded in the States, “Street
Talk” and “Finger Prints” [both 1979], still sell as vinyl
longplays exclusively? Karl Ratzer – I just adore him
[Read the complete 6 page interview in Just Jazz Guitar, August 2012 issue: http://justjazzguitar.com/index.ph]