Interview with John Carlini for Jazz Improv Magazine,
Tell us about your association with mandolinist Dave Grisman.
David and I first met “on the gig” in NYC in the mid ‘60’s. I had taken a banjo lesson from Bill Keith. Bill asked me if I played guitar. We played a few tunes, then he asked me if I was working that weekend! The next thing I knew, I was playing this great gig with Bill and David at Gerde’s Folk City in Greenwich Village during the 60’s music boom, a great time for acoustic music. I had been a David Grisman fan and admired his musical direction. We met again years later in San Francisco while I was touring with the show, “Grease”. He said he was working with a new acoustic form he called Dawg Music. (That’s David’s nickname.) We jammed together until the wee hours. David told me he was losing his guitar player and asked if I would be interested in replacing him. The guitar player turned out to be Jerry Garcia! So I quit “Grease” and became the guitarist in the Great American Music Band. I also got to do some writing and orchestrating for the band. That led to my coaching the first David Grisman Quintet featuring my good friend, the amazing guitarist, Tony Rice. A few years later David asked me to be the guitarist in the quintet. We recorded “Dawg ’90” which got a Grammy nomination. I’ve done a lot of writing/arranging for David over the years; “Dawg Jazz” featured David with the old Tonight Show Band, “Mondo Mando” featured the string quartet, Kronos, “Back to Back”, with Jethro Burns and Tiny Moore, and the DeLaurentiis film, “King of the Gypsies”. David created some wonderful opportunities for me. Don Stiernberg and I will be featured playing “Moonlight in Vermont” in David’s soon to be released CD, “Tone Poets”.
How did your tenure in the U.S. Navy Band rhythm section significantly impact your playing?
Actually, it was the Navy Show Band and it was a tremendous experience. I am proud of the four years I spent in the Navy. I learned a lot, personally and musically. It was the right choice at the right time. In boot camp they found out I was a guitar player, so I got a chance to play rhythm guitar once a week in a big band that played the “Color Company” dance. (That was the company that scored best during each week of training.) I had to wear “dress blues”. I was up till 3 AM every Friday night, scraping the bottoms of my dress shoes and refolding my uniform so it would pass inspection during the next week! Man!
After boot camp I was assigned to the Navy School of Music in Norfolk, VA. There we received daily training in playing big band charts. One of my instructors was a chief, a be-bop trumpet player named Duke Garrett. He would count-off a chart, and by the 4th or 5th measure, the rhythm section had lost me. They were somewhere “out there”! I couldn’t keep up! Duke would scream at me, “One! Two! Three! Four!”, clapping his hands in my face! It was a horrible experience. Then one day something clicked. I heard the ride cymbal and the bass string attack in sync with each other, and I locked into that. Duke stopped screaming at me! I never looked back. I thank Duke Garrett every day!
I auditioned for the Navy Show Band and got in, replacing a fabulous guitarist, Charlie Encinosa, from Florida. Charlie was such a great player it took two of us to replace him, guitarist, Jerry Boyd and myself. The Show Band had some wonderful instrumentalists and writers, among them Bruce Glover, a former student of Doc Severinson. We toured in the US and South America. I am grateful for that experience, especially knowing what the alternatives could have been during the late ‘60’s.
What styles and composers were you immersed in studying and emulating as you earned a degree in composing and arranging from Berklee College of Music?
Berklee was the realization of a long-term educational dream for me. I lived and breathed music every second for the entire four years. I practiced, studied, and wrote. (And I guess somewhere in there I ate and slept!) I was fortunate to “get in” with a group of Boston local musicians and ended up working 5 nights a week in “upscale” lounges with the freedom to try out the things I was learning at Berklee during the day!
I was studying all jazz styles of all the great jazz composers from the greatest teachers…Bill Leavitt, Mick Goodrick, Herb Pomeroy, Phil Wilson, Gary Burton, Charlie Marianno, Bob Chestnut, and many more. It was incredible!
Besides jazz, my other life-long musical love is that of classical composers. I will never forget the course in Beethoven String Quartets taught by John Biavicci.
Bill Leavitt was the greatest guitar educator I’ve ever known. And Herb Pomeroy? Every day of my musical life is impacted by what he taught. And believe me, there are a lot of other musicians out there who would toast to that!
What challenges did you experience and what research and activities did your composing and orchestration of music entail for the Federico DeLaurentiis film, King of the Gypsies?
Imagine that the phone rings, you answer, and a voice says, “This is Federico DeLaurentiis. David Grisman tells me that you might be interested in orchestrating my Gypsy movie?” (!) Wow!
I was in NYC during the entire production period. If we were to watch that film, I could tell you a story for every frame! Federico wanted live music to be filmed during some of the scenes. Part of my job was to research and find appropriate musicians in NYC to audition for those scenes. I dined in Hungarian restaurants and heard some incredible Gypsy musicians! Ultimately, David convinced Federico that the perfect man for the job was the legendary jazz violinist, Stephane Grappelli, who was, of course, Django’s partner! After that, a Gypsy band formed around Stephane. I arranged and orchestrated themes that David composed for the scenes. They sent me to wardrobe, issued me a suit and hat, grayed up my beard a little, and Federico leased a blond DeAngelico arch-top guitar for me to use! And we were filmed in about 7 or 8 scenes.
The post-production took place in LA. There I arranged and orchestrated for Hollywood film orchestra! The musical requirements were daunting. I also got to do some composing for some very intense scenes. Every thing I learned at Berklee kicked into gear.
Federico DeLaurentiis was a unique and gifted individual. Working with him was an enriching experience. His untimely death was a huge loss to the film industry.
Could you share some of the ideas about composition that have impacted your approach to improvisation? What are your perspectives about developing corresponding or divergent ideas in relation to thematic material of compositions you might play?
My mother, Phyllis Carlini, was a brilliant concert pianist. My earliest musical memories are undoubtedly pre-natal. I grew up with the music of the great composers. That provided me with an essential respect for melody, phrasing, and use of space. I have carried that respect into improvisational music. You know, sometimes you just feel like “blowing” through the changes. It’s like an exercise. But when I want to get to the heart of the music, I find some thematic material and try to play lyrically. Then it becomes a spiritual exercise. For inspiration, I listen to Casals play the Bach Cello Suites, or to Coltrane play “A Love Supreme”. Or I listen to Keith Jarrett play the piano, or Gary Burton play the vibes. I mean, does music get any better than that?
Could you tell us about your collaborations with Don
Don and I met at the IBMA trade show in Louisville in 2001. We got into a jam session and played until dawn. We became instant soul brothers. We’ve been jamming ever since! A third member of that jam was Pat Cloud, a jazz musician who happens to play 3-finger Scruggs-style 5-string banjo! (Did I mention that the third musical love of my life is Bluegrass Music?!) The three of us recorded my CD called “The Game’s Afoot!”, with Brian Glassman on acoustic bass, and Steve Holloway on drums. Since then, Don and I have recorded 2 CD’s for Blue Night Records and we have discussed plans for lots more. Don has a jazz soul and he brings the experience and maturity of a seasoned working musician to our collective table. He understands chord changes, he understands melody and he phrases like a horn player. We are even working on the Bach 2-part Inventions, and some of the Chopin Waltzes. He also has a terrific sense of humor and has immersed me in Chicago lore. Because of Don I now have a Cubs coffee mug. It’s right up there next to my Yankees mug! He made me wear a Yankees cap at Wrigley. But that’s another story!
Don and I are just getting started. I look forward to a long and fruitful association with Don Stiernberg!
How does your activity as an educator—teaching guitar and jazz—impact your artistry?
Teaching gives me an opportunity to slow down and develop ideas, and write them out for my students. It creates a system for my own practicing. I got this “key of the week” idea from DC-based pianist/composer, Michael Maher. I focus on a particular key for a week. Each Sunday I shift that focus up a 5th. It keeps the learning process fresh and challenging and less overwhelming.
Discuss the temptation to focus on or be drawn to technique over the music itself that some artists experience. How have you (or had you initially, earlier in your career) thought or worked to balance the two?
I think it’s a right brain/left brain thing. The time for working on technique is when you are teaching or practicing. That’s left brain. The time for music is when you are playing or creating. That’s right brain. You don’t want to be thinking when you are playing. I studied with Mick Goodrick for four years! More than anyone else, it was Mick who showed me the difference between technique and music and how one helps the other.
What artists or recordings initially sparked your interest in jazz?
My first memory of something that sounded like jazz was of staring at a test pattern on a TV station. They were playing some kind of improvisational music. I was hypnotized. I must have been about 6 years old. My Mom also performed Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue”. We had recordings of Louis, Ella, Dixieland, and The Great American Songbook. I listened to them constantly. During my teen years I had an artist friend, Carroll Jones, who had a great jazz collection. We’d listen to the old trio recordings of Oscar Peterson, Ramsey Lewis, and many others. At that time NYC discovered bluegrass music, so I was listening to that influence as well…David Grisman, Bill Keith, Clarence White. Those were my improv parameters!
What role, if any, do the following guitarists play in your own development and style? Charlie Christian? Wes Montgomery? George Benson? Joe Pass? Others? How have you assimilated or avoided their ideas in the development of your own approach?
How can I single out any of our treasured jazz guitarists? Each one brings something special to the table. I was influenced a lot by Wes, Django, Johnny Smith, Segovia, and later on by Pat Martino and John McLaughlin (I wore out “My Goal’s Beyond”!)
I had an opportunity to actually meet and talk with Wes when I was about 17! We went to see him play at the old “Half Note” in NYC. During a break he came over to our table and talked with us for about 10 minutes! He had a cup of tea and answered all our questions. I was like Ralph Kramden, “Homina homina”! His graciousness and musicianship are etched in my memory.
I tend to listen more to pianists then guitarists…Keith Jarrett, Bill Evans. The great guitar master, George VanEps referred to the guitar as a “lap piano”! Gary Burton has been an on-going influence through the years. Being able to study with him at Berklee was yet another awesome experience. What clarity of concept he conveyed in his teaching!
What is the most challenging aspect of playing for you?
I want to get to that space that Mick Goodrick showed me years ago, that Zen place, whatever you want to call it. Sometimes I visualize a blank canvas and throw a few notes up there. See where they want to go. For me, it is a spiritual exercise. Coltrane was there. Miles showed us how to get there with one note! It’s the direction I strive for every time I play. It doesn’t always work out that way, but more than it used to! My Mom did it naturally. She had the ability to complete the communication from note to listener every time! I have to work hard for it!
Buckminster Fuller suggested that the trouble with this world is that the foolish are cock sure and the intelligent are full of doubt. Could you comment on how this applies to this musical art we perform?
Music is an art. It isn’t a competitive sport. We are on a path that deserves to be approached with reverence, integrity, and humility. Bill Evans said it, “If we don’t approach it as art, then what are we doing?” (paraphrased). Too much talk. Too much analysis. Listen to Casals play the Bach cello suites. Listen to John Coltrane and Kenny Burrell play “Why Was I Born”. That neutralizes both the foolish and the intellectual.
Could you cite an author, artists, philosophers or philosophies have significantly impacted your awareness and sensitivity and how?
I love to read. Books are “friends”. Not to duck the question, but whatever I happen to be reading at the time is going to have impact.
Recently I read Stephen King’s book, “On Writing”, about the writing process from his perspective. It changed my life! It caused me to examine and adjust my daily routine and my goals. And I learned that “the road to hell is paved with adverbs!” Musical translation; could I convey the same message with less notes? The answer is always…yes! I think Buckminster Fuller called that “ephemeralization”, the doing of more with less.
I read Tommy Franks’ book, “An American Soldier”. It made me feel humbled that he and all of our brave service men and women would put themselves “in harm’s way” so that I can play the guitar.