Interview with Chris Jentsch at Guitar Club


Patrizia Fanti / GuitarClub 

1) You've always been a band leader in big groups and ensembles. Have you ever had the idea of going solo in the studio or on stage? 

My work with large groups has been an interesting and rewarding development over the last ten years, but in jazz performance my roots are in small group combinations, particularly trio (with bass and drums) or quartet. If by solo you mean by myself with a guitar alone, I have thought about it and I probably have such a solo record in me, but I would have to really think about how to develop a set of material that was wide ranging enough to present; I don’t really consider myself to be a solo act. Spending the time for that is not a current priority since I have always been more interested in the give and take of being in a group, whether it is a trio or my jazz orchestra. Further, I am otherwise busy learning enough about audio and video software so that I can get deeper into mixing and editing my own projects. 

2) Fractured Pop is your fifth CD. Do you believe it is more mature than the previous ones? 

Fractured Pop is probably more refined than my first two CDs that were produced in the 1990s, but it is about as much so as the last two jazz orchestra records that date from the 2000s. 

3) How much pop music is there on the Fractured Pop CD? 

There is no straight pop music on the record, but just about all the tunes have that influence because my musical personality has always been a combination of jazz, rock, pop, blues, world, and classical. The pop and rock influences on the record can be traced when considering some of the grooves that are not standard to jazz (reggae, rock ballads, folky, etc.) and that very simple chords are often used (G, C, E minor, etc.). My use of the electric guitar (feedback, distortion and delay effects, overdubbing, etc.) is also an obvious connection to rock music. The ‘fractured’ idea comes in when there is a tune like the title track that has very simple pop strummy guitar chords but with changing time signatures, or when there is a pop type groove with a cutting edge sax improvisation on top. I have been told by those in the industry that “Meeting At Surratt’s” would be good film soundtrack music, so that may relate to your question. 

4) In the DVD available with this CD you included extras, slide show music videos, PDF lead sheets of the tunes...why did you include this material? 

Although jazz music and the NYC scene is healthy overall, the record business is in a sort of brutal transition period marked especially by declining CD sales…and downloads or streaming are not really filling that income gap for musicians. Producing a CD/DVD package with the live video tracks and all the extras was my way of trying to offer something unique beyond a straight audio CD to see if that might stimulate interest. Since there were a few extended production delays, it gave me a chance to develop extra material to make the package richer, such as the four remix mashups I did myself. And in general, multi-media seems to be the way things are going anyway and I like working in those areas. 

5) You recorded this CD with three other musicians with whom you collaborated a lot. How did you choose them for this particular CD? 

I have been playing with John Mettam and Jim Whitney since our days in Boston at New England Conservatory (late 1980s) and in particular they have been on most of my projects large and small over the last fifteen years. We have a well developed rapport and also a shorthand in the way we prepare the music. Matt Renzi I heard on a friend’s gig at the old Knitting Factory. I liked his sound and thought he would really fit with what I was trying to do with this record. I booked some gigs with this quartet around 2007, and felt strong enough about the results to document it with this major package. 

6) In some songs on Fractured Pop the distortions of your guitar are in good balance with the sax. Can you tell us about this particular style? 

Thanks. When the guitar uses a certain kind of distortion it allows you to play melodies that include long notes as well as short notes because the notes can sustain more with the overdrive. It is often said that this quality of melody allows a guitarist to play sax-like lines. More than using a regular guitar sound, you can change the note quite a lot even after it is attacked. While you sustain a note you can add vibrato or even make it louder or softer after you’ve plucked it. At some point you may also become comfortable initiating and controlling feedback, and this can give you the option of playing notes as long as, say, even a circular breathing sax player. Given all that, I like a lot of music that has more than one melody, or that has a melody with a harmonized line along with it. There is plenty of great music with just one melody and chordal accompaniment, to be sure, but often when I write a melody I like to write another to go along with it if I have more than one melody instrument. In my music the guitar can either handle a chord function or play melodies that include distortion inflected sustained notes that blend well with sax. 

7) The song “Radio Silence” has got some overdubs. In your opinion what do they add in particular to the music? 

Well, there are two kinds of overdubs on that song. One involves snippets captured from randomly spinning a radio dial, and this has a narrative function given the song title. The other type of overdub involves extra guitar parts. There are chord swells with volume pedal and delay which gives the accompaniment the feeling of an orchestral string section, and then there are overdubs of some distorted melody lines like you mentioned before. The guitar solo in the middle was played live, as are almost all of everyone’s improvisations on the record. The reason for this is that I wanted to make a record with a quartet mostly using the live improvisation sections just like you would with a mainstream jazz recording, but then I wanted to orchestrate the thematic material and overdub extra parts like you would track onto a rock record. 

8) “Meeting at Surratt’s” has an amazing crescendo. How did you compose this song and the crescendo? 

The form of the song and most of the melody was improvised in a spontaneous guitar/drums duo session between myself and John Mettam, sort of straight through in one jam. I like a lot of volume changes in my music so the crescendo part came naturally more out of the way we played it and shaped it as a quartet in preparation for the recording session. 

9) One of your skills is to mix traditional music with new techniques. How traditional would you say Fractured Pop is? 

Not very traditional. The most traditional things about the record are the recognizable song forms and the improvisation sections that use clear chord progressions, again, sometimes using very simple chords. “Are You Bye?” is a tune I wrote based on the chord progression for the standard “Bye, Bye, Blackbird”, which is a common compositional move in jazz. So that track has an extra underlying traditional element. 

10) You have often been commissioned for pieces of music. Is your approach different when writing and playing for your personal projects? 

Good question. Not really. Almost all of the commissions I have received were from programs I applied to with specific proposals for music I had the idea to create. When people ask me about being selected for these commissions I sometimes tell them to be careful what ideas they propose…in case they are selected. Know something about the organization before you apply, but present an idea you really would like to produce and don’t worry about what the organization or the committee may be inclined to fund. Your actual enthusiasm will help you with the application process and if you are awarded the grant, you don’t want to be stuck with a project your heart wasn’t in. It might be different if some organization came to me specifically with an offer to do something. Having said all that, sometimes it is liberating just to be able to go forward on an independent project without being tied to the letter of an initial proposal. 

11) What was the most difficult song on Fractured Pop to record and why? 

None of the tunes were super difficult; we did all the basic tracks in two days. Maybe “Outside Line” was challenging because it’s long and there are the various sections that keep cycling through. Many of the basics for the project were recorded in one or two takes, but with “Outside Line” it might have taken us five or six to get the best pass all the way through the thing so that later I could add the extra guitar parts. 

12) Is the influence of jazz musicians very strong on Fractured Pop

Sure. Some of my biggest jazz influences have been Miles, Trane, Ornette, Monk, Ellington, Lacy, Bird, Gil and Bill Evans, and Louis…as well as a lot of the ECM music over the years: Garbarek, Towner, Rypdal, Abercrombie, etc. I guess most obviously, “Follow That Cab” is Ornette inspired, the theme at both ends with free improvisations in the middle. 

13) Your trilogy started with Miami Suite and its urban environment. Cycles Suite, for example, has got a strong jazz flavor. Which of the two CDs took you more time and energy? 

Hard to compare. Miami… was part of my final doctoral project in 1999 so it was composed and recorded in an academic context. Brooklyn… and Cycles… were both commissions I received between 2005 and 2008 for my NYC-based jazz orchestra Jentsch Group Large. So I guess Cycles… took more time and energy because I had to do everything myself (grant proposal, booking musicians, renting a premiere space, publicity, producing the recording, supervising the artwork, music preparation, practicing guitar, etc., etc.) 

14) Years ago you covered “Shut Up and Play Yer Guitar” by Frank Zappa. What elements of Zappa music did you try to emphasize? 

Not sure…unless you’re referring to my so far unreleased thirty minute compilation of guitar solos called Strings in Motion, Vol. 1. Zappa has been a big influence but I’ve never really covered any of his music, but I will admit to stealing his idea for presenting a collection of guitar solo fragments, and his Shut Up… series is an example of that. 

15) Talking about pop and rock music, which are the musicians who influenced you the most? 

The Beatles were the most formative; I bought all of their original records as they came out. Later on I was greatly influenced by Zappa, Jeff Beck, Yes, the Ramones, Dylan, Led Zep, Bob Marley, Tom Waits, Sinatra…many, many others. With pop music, I think it is important to mention many of the top radio hits because I was listening a lot between, say, 1966 and 1977 (Eagles, Elton John, Carpenters, 10cc, James Taylor, Bread, etc.). 

16) What was your equipment to record Fractured Pop (please name models, cords, amps…)? 

My basic set up for years has included a Strat-looking Zion guitar with a Jeff Beck replacement pick up in the neck position (it doesn’t feel like a Strat, though). I use an Ernie Ball volume pedal, a Rat distortion, a old Boss digital delay pedal, a Strobostomp for tuning, DiMarzio cables, and then a Lexicon LXP-5 and an LXP-1 for more effects and reverb at the end of the chain. From there I go out in stereo to two Music Man RD-50s (the stock speakers in those have been swapped out for EVs). I guess one of the five or six guitar parts on “Imagining the Mirror” was my Yamaha SA-2000 so I could tune the low E string down to D. So with the acoustic on there, that tune has three different guitars on it. The acoustic on the record is my Guild D-25 Mahogany that I bought in the late 1970s. 

17) When did you discover your passion for acoustic guitar and how much is that part of Fractured Pop

My first couple of guitars were acoustic, so we’re going back to the late 1970s. I have preferred electric over the last decades, but I still like both, although I feel the electric is more like my voice. I included acoustic guitar sounds on FP because I especially wanted variety in the kinds of guitar things I was going to overdub. Acoustic is good for the jangly moments like on the title track and “Imagining the Mirror”. Almost half of the tunes on the record have acoustic guitar textures blended in, which helps to invoke the pop and folk components of the concept. 

18) You are also very famous for your didactic work. What is the approach of the young generation to guitar? 

Many of my younger guitar students are interested in learning classic rock tunes, which is curious to me…that that music still remains popular with young people fifty years on. Another interesting bright spot is the increasing number of young girls wanting to learn the instrument. 

19) What is the most important thing that a young guitarist should learn before starting studying the instrument? 

Maybe learning to nurture their own self-directed interest in music. This is important so that their enthusiasm helps give them the motivation to put in the time necessary to become proficient. I also think it is helpful to start out on acoustic in order for them to develop a sense of producing an acoustic sound, and at the same time an acoustic is less complicated with no amps or cables, etc., because the electronics can be distracting…as we are ever learning more so. 

20) What are your future musical projects and what are you working on now? 

My most pressing projects involve audio and video media captured at recent performances of Jentsch Group No Net, my nine piece chamber jazz group commissioned by Chamber Music America. So since I’m doing everything myself more than ever, I need to continue learning enough about the software to get the music to sound and look the way I’d like. I intend to release the music on a variety of platforms, CD, audio download, and some kind of DVD or video distribution. Given the trends in the marketplace, I’ll have to think about what makes the best sense. Beyond that, I have a lot of ideas…one being a small group recording of standard tunes that are less often heard that I’ll call Life on the C List. As much as I’ve played standards over the years, I haven’t recorded many. Another idea involves a couple of works of literature I’m looking at; this would feature singers or maybe a narrator. Funding is always an issue, so I’ll have to see about other opportunities as they come up. 

21) Are you planning to present Fractured Pop live? 

The release date is April 7, 2017, but I am working on confirming an event for June 9 in Brooklyn when all the principals expect to be in town. 

22) What is the CD that you're listening to these days? 

Miles Davis: Freedom Jazz Dance: The Bootleg Series Vol. 5. This whole series…but Vol. 5 most recently.