Interview:Mixing MIDI and Jazz

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Jimmy Bruno:

Mixing MIDI and Jazz


Jazz guitarists don't often seem the types to talk Macs and MIDI, but for one of the hottest players on the national jazz scene, it's become second nature. Jimmy Bruno has the resume and the righteous riffs to make any developing jazz player envious. His seven previous discs as a leader on the Concord Jazz label attest to his enormous be-bop talent, and his past work with everyone from Buddy Rich to Doc Severinsen served notice that he could play with the best.


Now, with his eighth Concord release, Midnight Blue, Bruno emerges almost a jazz-funkster, and as interested in the songwriting as the shredding. And while he may wield a seven-string Benedetto or Guild archtop as well as anyone in the biz, he's also learned how to lay down his ideas to hard disk with the full accompaniment of virtual horn and string sections via the wonders of Musical Interface Digital Interfacing.


At the age of 35 and after securing regular work in the L.A. recording studios, Bruno gave up the more-than-virtual riches of session work to return home to his native Philadelphia, and to the full-time pursuit of jazz. talked to Bruno in depth about his music, his methods, and his MIDI madness. Let's talk about Midnight Blue. You've done quite a few records for Concord; this one is a little funkier than some of them.


Jimmy Bruno: It's real different. It's a lot of original music and it's also not in the standard jazz, bebop position. It's something I've been wanting to do for a long time and I'm really pleased with the way it turned out. I'm going to continue this - whatever it is, this task. I feel like this is just the tip of the iceberg of what I can imagine doing. When I was a kid, I was always interested in orchestration. Around 16, as I got interested in jazz, I got interested in classical music, more legit music. But I started out at the other end of the spectrum, like with Stravinsky's "Petrouchka" and "Rite Of Spring." I got interested in these sounds and I always had this dream of doing it with a jazz band somehow. This one's a small jazz band, but it gave me a lot of ideas and I know it could work 'cause none of the tunes have the usual ABA or AABA format, followed by a sax solo, and then the guitar solo, piano, bass, and then 4's with the drums. None of the tunes are like that. I really want to see where it goes and stretch it a lot further than I did the first time, but that all depends on how this one does. I'm sure if it does well, [Concord] will let me do it again. I thought it was pretty hip of them to let me even try this, especially after six albums under my own name of just pure, straight-ahead things and two collaboration records on Concord. Would you add horns next time?


Bruno: Yeah, and maybe a string quartet. We'll see. More MIDI sounds next time. You know, if I can't get the real instruments, I can do it with MIDI. Those sounds and the sampled stuff are so good now.


JAZZ MAN IN A DIGITAL WORLD Do you have a home recording studio?


Bruno: No. I'd never do that again. I did that at one time and I never left the house. I have a very limited setup at home. I can do MIDI stuff, and I can record the guitar and maybe a bass to hard disk. And that's about as big as I want to make it because I just don't want to go down that road. I did it when I lived in Las Vegas. It's very expensive and you can spend a lot of time messing around with that. It takes time away from writing. I don't have the time, really. You use your setup primarily to capture song ideas?


Bruno: If there's been an idea, yeah. Although, I did this record pretty much the old-fashioned way, in my head, and then called up musicians to play. I had planned to use MIDI stuff, but I just switched from PC to Mac and I have no chops for the Mac at all with MIDI. It's an interesting thing. I've been on PC's for years and I've always heard that you gotta do the Mac for music. Maybe I shouldn't say this, but the PC is a lot easier. I don't know if it's better, you know what I mean; the recording studios I see all have Macs and all that stuff, and they have very expensive outboard gear. All I know is with the PC, I can just plug the MIDI guitar into the joystick port and I'm there. It's not so with the Mac. Same thing with the audio. I have three PC's and three Mac's, so we'll see. Have there been any pros in switching to the Mac so far?


Bruno: The operating system seems to be more stable. It's pretty hard to screw it up, and if you don't like something, you just throw it away. It doesn't seem to bring the whole system down. But no, aside from that I really don't. I actually find it quite limiting for some other things that I like to do, like Web publishing and Internet stuff. It just seems to be a couple of years behind. I don't know what the extra expense is really for, to tell you the truth.


For example, sometimes I do these live chats on Tuesday nights. I have a chat room on my Website Sometimes I use that, but I also have a club at Yahoo where I can plug the guitar into the line-in on the back of the computer and everybody can hear me play. So somebody can ask a question and I can type the answer in and say, "This is what it sounds like." It works out really, really good. That sounds great. How do fans join in?


Bruno: If you go to my website there's something there that says "Join Yahoo Club." It'll take you there. I forget the exact address, but it's right there. I'd like to see where that goes. People have offered to take lessons that way. I haven't done it, though I do lessons over the phone sometimes.


CONCEPTS & TEACHING What do you teach people over the phone?


Bruno: Well, usually, I ask them a bunch of questions before they take the lessons to see if it's going to work, because it's not like, "Put your third finger here." It's more in terms of concept. I have a different approach than the usual scale-chord relationship concept, the way jazz has been taught for years. I'm not saying that it's wrong but I don't think that approach is for everybody. I think a lot of it is very theoretical when in reality it isn't that way: It isn't "Bmin7, use B Dorian. "G7, use G Mixolydian." That's a real elementary place to start and I never had any luck with it. Some students would come back to me with a Charlie Parker [improvisation] or a Michael Becker thing and say, "Well how did he get this? Is he super-inverting this scale or that?" And I even get it now with some of my own solos, you know, so I can see how erroneous it could be. So I don't do it that way.


Basically, what I do is concentrate on how to make a melody from a major scale or a minor scale. If you're in a minor tonality, that gives you seven notes to work with. For instance, if the changes are C-Am- Dm-G7, you know there are four chords that come from the key of C, so I can make melodies from the seven notes of the C scale. What the scale tells me is that these seven notes are inside the tonality. And it tells me, more importantly, which five are outside, so you can make melodies that go through the chords rather than over the top of them. That's the approach in a nutshell. I have a new video coming out on Hot Licks called Pitch Collections, and that's what it's about. People can learn these kinds of concepts from you in phone lessons, on your video, or in your books?


Bruno: Phone lessons, mainly. I'm trying to put a book together about this. The upcoming video is the non-scalar approach, where no matter what key or chords you're in or playing over, you're just trying to make use of all twelve notes. The tonality then separates or organizes it, in a way. It's twelve notes but the colors change as the keys and the chords change. I developed this little system of how you can keep it going in your head.


The most important thing is what it sounds like, to learn the sounds. You know, I don't know any other instrument that generates so much discussion on the Internet about this chord and playing this scale over this chord. People can o.d. on the theory part of it to the point where they can't play. It's a real disease for guitarists, I think. I find it in jazz all the time, with jazz guitar players who get so hung up in the theory that they can't play. They forget that music is sound. It's not theory.


SCHOOL DAYS You also teach at the University of the Arts in Philly, right?


Bruno: I run the Jazz Guitar Department. Yeah, it's hard to do. It's hard to be there every time that I need to be, so it's subbed out a lot. But it works. How many guitar students do you have through the school?


Bruno: This year looks like it'll be about 30. I think I took over the department three or four years ago and we've raised the requirements, so not everybody makes it out of the school. The ones who do really can play. I mean, there are just so many kids that come out of music schools that it makes you wonder. The people that you played with on Midnight Blue are all from the University, aren't they?


Bruno: Every one, everybody. Some of them I've known a long, long time, like [drummer] Mark Dicianni I've known since he was 16 years old. We started to learn how to play music together, and then I went on the road and Mark stayed in Philly, and he's done tons and tons of stuff. He's really busy. He's the director of a school, he's really busy as a Philadelphia studio drummer, and he has conducted for a lot of people. Ron Kerber [saxophone, co-writer], I've known for ages from Pieces of a Dream. He was in that band for a while. And Gerald [Veasley, bass] I met through Grover Washington. Dave Wallace is a real good piano player who's been around Philly for a long time. When I play locally, sometimes he would just come by and sit in, and that's how it all came about. These guys each contributed songs as well?


Bruno: Yeah, and Dave Harte wrote some, because of time. You know, with projects like this we always wind up with too much stuff. A couple of mine and a couple of Ron's didn't get on. You gotta edit it somewhere, so rather than it be all my stuff I thought it would be nice. I liked Ron's tunes and I liked Gerald's tunes a lot, so that's what we wound up doing. And we just threw a couple of standards in for the vibe because they were twisted, you know, so it was a lot of fun to do.


IMPRESSIONISM You did do a few standards, like "Stella by Starlight," "Perdido" and "Impressions."


Bruno: Yeah. I wanted to record some modal tunes - something different than bebop changes - so that's why I picked "Impressions." But I didn't want to just do it the way it has always been done. "Secret Love" also was made into a modal tune. It's just a Bb- anything for the A section and then the bridge has been re-harmonized with poly-chords. All of the tunes are poly-rhythmic and poly-chordal, or at least a lot of it is. Can you explain what you mean by that?


Bruno: Sometimes we're playing off of two different chords at the same time like, G over B major, so we've got two tonalities going. That's a common relationship we did a lot. Do you mean the keyboards will be playing a G and you'll be playing a B major?


Bruno: Actually, it's a little more complicated. The harmony is those two chords and then the soloist can play off of a G, or a B, or both, or yet another set. On "Secret Love," I'm soloing over a different set of changes than the piano player is playing. There were poly-chords in the harmony, and with the solos there are different chords. With "Hypertension" it's that way, but they're not quite poly-chords: it's altered plus-nine chords and I'm soloing over two different minor triads on top of it.


BEEN BOPPED To avoid getting too theoretical, can you tell me what's driving your playing these days? I'm curious about the choices you make and the direction you chose with this album.


Bruno: Well, that's a question I can answer on two levels. When I'm playing, I'm not thinking about what's driving me. The best way I can answer is that I'm not thinking about anything. I'm listening to what the notes are saying. I'm listening to myself, I'm listening to what's around me. I figure things out when I'm practicing, but not when I'm playing.

The other level is that I'm bored playing bebop. I don't mean that I can play all that and I've reached the end - no, that's not the case at all. I don't think anybody will ever get to that point. But I'm just bored. I want to see what else there is. People know me as a bebop guitarist but that's because that's all they've got to hear. I want to see what else is out there harmonically, rhythmically, and also soundwise. The guitar can make a lot of different sounds, colors and textures, and I want to see where that goes. As I said, I was interested in orchestration and things like that when I was a kid and I could never figure out a way to do it with the guitar, but now I can. I don't know how everybody is gonna react, to tell you the truth. Well, do you have thoughts about a next record and a record after that?


Bruno: Yes, absolutely. I'm already writing the second one. It's more of the same but it sets the boundaries a little more broader: the tunes are a little longer, a little more complex in form.


SO LONG, SHOW BIZ Will you go out on the road with the sidemen from the album?


Bruno: We're hoping to get that together. Most of the road stuff that I do, 90% of it is on weekends. It's not like the old days where you go out for months at a time. You go out and come back, so everybody's schedule is usually flexible enough to do it. The best thing about it is, since I'm in control of it, I can say yes or no and do it the way I want! That's the best part of it, because I don't want to be a road rat anymore. You know, I did that, too. When I was just a sideman for people, I went on the road with a lot of acts and I don't want to do that anymore. So far I'm juggling things very well. Who knows, maybe there'll come a point where I'll have to go out longer. What did you learn from the gigs you did as a sideman?


Bruno: I learned that I wanted to play jazz guitar and that I didn't want to be a sideman. I didn't want to play other people's music. For example, I moved to Las Vegas, so I played "show biz" music; a little bit of this style, a little bit of that style, country tunes for Wayne Newton. Then I was able to play a little bit more sophisticated kind of music, and went to L.A. and I did a little bit of studio work. It was more of the same. There was never any me in there. I could play for Doc Severinsen, The Buddy Rich Band, Lena Horne, Liberace, Wayne Newton, Lola Falonna,. People always say, "Well, that helped you be a good musician," but my answer is no, it hurt. I don't think that's the way for people to do it. Really?


Bruno: No, that's bullshit. I don't know why people think that. When I decided to give it all up and decided to just play jazz guitar, I had to start over again with a whole different mental process, so I don't think that really taught me anything. The only thing it taught me was to stop doing it. It showed me that I didn't like it. I'll put it that way because I know a lot of really fine guitarists and fine musicians on the instruments who are really good at doing that thing. They're great in the studio, that's what gives them their musical buzz, and I really admire those guys because they do it so well and that's a whole other knack. It just wasn't for me. I just had to stop and figure out what I wanted to do. Certainly you must have learned things from a business standpoint.


Bruno: Actually, I didn't. Musicians are usually dumb when it comes to that. The way that it typically works for a successful sideman is like this. It's very hard to get a chance to do something in the "big time," as they say - Vegas, or for a movie, or whatever. What usually happens is somebody can't make a gig so somebody else gets the call. And that's rare, but if you finally do get that chance, the other musicians tell other musicians and the next thing you know there's a buzz about you. People start to call you for things, and you really don't get your business chops together because you just rely on the phone to keep ringing.


But what I do now is invent things for myself and find different ways to make money. I don't sit at home and wait for the phone to ring. It'd be easier now that I have a reputation, and I do get a lot of offers to play, but I don't say yes to all of them for various reasons. But I do create projects myself. What sorts of things?


Bruno: Well, I'm doing this self-publishing and picking book that's going to be in paper and on CD-ROM, and there will be little movies on there showing the right-hand picking technique on the guitar. I'm trying to develop these online lessons. I'm working with Guild to develop a Jimmy Bruno model. I'm talking to a couple amp companies about designing amps. I'm writing for a few magazines. There's more ways to make money than just playing the guitar.


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