I first “met” New York Jazz Guitarist Dave Kain on one of the more popular Jazz Guitar Facebook groups “Jazz Guitar Addiction”! I immediately liked his online persona as a wise cracking, take-no-s*** straight shooter and found that he could take it as well as dish it out with humor and good character. He also happens to be a wonderful modern player with influences ranging from a wide variety of musical genres, but steeped in the tradition – both past and present.
In this interview Dave shares with us his insights into playing and practicing along with the realities of being a working Jazz Guitar Player in this day and age. A very entertaining and insightful read.
“You have to be content with who you are and confident that you have something legitimate to say. I’m most certainly not Pat Metheny or Scofield or Kreisberg or countless other amazing guitar players but that shouldn’t mean to me or anyone that you shouldn’t or you’re not worthy of putting out your music. I’ve grown with each recording.”
JGL: Thank you Dave for taking the time to talk to Jazz Guitar Life. First off, if we can get into a little background about you that would be great. How old are you?
DK: I am 41 years old.
JGL: What geographical area do you reside in?
DK: I reside in Hartsdale, NY. I’m about 35 minutes north of Manhattan.
JGL: For those who may not know you, could you give us an elevator pitch of who Dave Kain is and then we’ll get into more detail as the interview unfolds.
DK: I’m Dave Kain. I play guitar. Jazz mostly. I compose. Jazz mostly. But, I’m into anything musically or guitar wise that moves me and is sincere.
JGL: At what age did you first start playing the guitar and were you interested in jazz from the beginning or were there other musical interests before jazz? How did you find your way to this particular music and instrument?
DK: I started playing guitar around 11 years old. I definitely did not start with jazz or anything close to it which I think is pretty common for my generation. A couple of older kids on my street played guitar or bass and were into metal and rock type stuff. I guess that was my first exposure to music and what must have been what started my path. My neighbor lent me his guitar and I just tried to make noise with it. I would learn some riffs from my neighbor and when my parents realized I was genuinely interested in taking this further and not just screwing around, they took notice and eventually got me my own guitar.
I think as far as finding my way to jazz, it was just sort of a natural thing and nothing forced. If you develop some ability or interest in something, be it art, science, architecture or whatever, you want to learn more and more. I had played plenty of blues, rock and metal and I guess I was getting bored with it and needed something to challenge me. I can’t recall any individual jazz artist, a local musician or famous, that bought jazz to my attention or inspired me to delve into it. I just knew it was harder to play than what I was doing and I never wanted to have any limitations on my instrument. I can recall that from my youth. Wanting to be as competent and capable on my instrument as I could be. So, I started looking into it. I remember Chick Corea’s Elektric band being one of the first cassettes I had gotten. I remember Frank Gambale’s playing on that tape really tweaking my interest. I wouldn’t say he was a major influence or somebody that I studied very in depth but he was definitely a bridge to lead me to a more traditional jazz focus. Allan Holdsworth as well. Mike Stern. I think once I got to Pat Metheny, I was fully infected and there was no turning back!
JGL: Did you know early on that music was something you wanted to do as a career choice and if so, what were some of the things you did to make this choice work for you?
DK: I can’t really say if I knew that early on. I knew it was something I was passionate about. But, I was just trying to get better at it and do just well enough in school so I could have as much time as I could playing guitar without completely failing out of high school! I finished high school and luckily for me, my parents were extremely supportive. I’ve always had a strong work ethic. So, my parents were supportive enough to actually send me to music school. I started at SUNY Purchase in NY and did a semester at Berklee. I finished my bachelors degree in Jazz Performance/guitar at Five Towns College of Music in Dix Hills, NY in 2000.
JGL: What was your first guitar and what are you playing now?
DK: My first guitar was “Memphis”. It wasn’t a full size guitar. I remember it very clearly but have never seen another one since! Currently, I mostly use a solid body Brian Moore C-90. More on that below in the following question.
JGL: What other gear are you using? Do you have a specific stage set-up that works best for you in a variety of musical situations?
DK: I’ve never been much of a gear junkie. I just don’t have the patience for experimenting with it. I’ve always felt when I’ve had problems with my “sound”, the problem was me and no piece of gear would fix that. So, make due with what you have and find a way to make it work. Also, gear is expensive! Most gigs I have are jazz and most times I’m just using a guitar and an amp. Literally. That’s it. I have a 1979 Gibson ES-175 I used for many years and a ES-335 I’ve used an awful lot. About 5 or 6 years ago, I started playing my Brian Moore C-90 more than the Gibson’s. Even on jazz gigs. It’s a solid body stratocaster style guitar that I’ve had since my college days. Not exactly your traditional jazz axe. But, it just feels so comfortable to me. I like the sound I get out of it so I use it. It’s reliable. More evenly balanced, in my opinion as opposed to my Gibson’s and handles overdrives better so I can wear a few hats gig wise with it so why not use it for all. It just works for me and I always tell students and peers that you have to use what you’re comfortable with and what works for you.
JGL: Who were your influences on jazz guitar when you were beginning and have they stayed the same or have they changed over the years? Who are you listening to today (guitarists or non-guitarists)?
DK: Early influences like I said earlier, Frank Gambale, Allan Holdsworth, Mike Stern and Pat Metheny. I eventually got into more traditional players. Joe Pass and Tal Farlow. Jimmy Raney was a BIG influence early on and to this day. Of the traditional guys, Raney is really the guy I connect with most. I think all of the previously mentioned stay with me today. I’ve just added to the list a lot. Lorne Lofsky is somebody I’ve really been enjoying lately. John Abercrombie has been a huge influence guitar and compositionally speaking. Kurt Rosenwinkel. Jonathan Kreisberg is always playing so much incredible stuff. He floors me EVERY time I hear him. There’s a lot of local guys here in NY that constantly inspire and motivate me. Tom Guarna, Rez Abbasi, Lage Lund, Jostein Gulbrandsen is a good friend and incredible guitarist. Vic Juris, Jack Wilkins. A jazz/fusion guitarist in England named Tom Quayle has been a real influence as of late. His articulation and phrasing is something I’ve been trying to get under my fingers for a long while now with almost NO success!!! There’s something in the water over there! Basically, I have no shortage of inspiration to pull from. I’m also leaving out so many. Good music and players are everywhere and I love finding new ones. It always inspires me to compose and get better at my instrument and I’m incredibly thankful I have that in my life.
JGL: In the same vein, who has been most influential in your life as a Jazz Guitarist and why?
DK: Mostly my teachers, Joe Carbone and Jack Wilkins because they really formed my base and set me on my path. But John Abercrombie, Pat Metheny and Kurt Rosenwinkel have probably had the most influence on me and that’s mostly because of their dedication to composition.
JGL: Is there anyone – alive or dead – who you’d love to play and/or record with and why?
DK: Brian Blade is the first person that comes to mind. That guy just exudes so much energy and positivity. He’s probably the most inspiring musician I’ve ever seen and I’m always glued to him whenever I see him no matter who’s playing guitar. One of those times it was John McLaughlin and I almost forgot he was there because I was so focused on Blade 😳
Bill Evans was also a tremendous influence. I would’ve loved to have just met him. I don’t think I’d have been able to play with him without completely shutting down. He was just so incredible. I wouldn’t want him to waste any of his notes on me!!!
JGL: I’ve really enjoyed your playing in all that I’ve heard you do, from straight-ahead to more modern fare. What was your practice routine like when you were beginning and what is it like now? Are there specific areas that you work on or do you just play through tunes?
DK: When I was beginning is kind of a blur. There’s so much to learn now let alone when I first started. As I said earlier, I never wanted any limitations on what I could do with my instrument. If I hear something in my head, I want to be able to play it and to me that meant I needed technique. So early on, I was extremely focused on my chops. I just practiced a lot of scales and arpeggios and stuff like that. Often times not even knowing what I was playing or when I should be playing it. My routine definitely changes daily. There is so much to learn and I find that the really frustrating part. I want to do so many things with guitar and music in general so my daily struggle is determining what to spend my time focusing on. Should I work on my chops, sight reading, ear training, composing, repertoire etc. All need attention and how do you address all of them? In my opinion, you can’t. There are only so many hours in the day and whether you’re a full time musician or part time, you have to work and make money so you can eat and not be homeless. If you have a gig coming up or something you need to work on for a student or countless other things you have to cover being a musician, they can all divert your time and focus from what you’d like to be working on. Such is life. I take it day by day and just try to cover as much ground as I can with the time I can give to it. Having a routine is nice but I’ve never been one who could stick to it as life just throws so much at you, it’s hard to predict what direction each day is going to take you so as long as I’ve gotten some time to spend with my instrument and be creative, I’m happy and content.
JGL: You’ve studied with some amazing players/teachers. Guys like Joe Monk, Jack Wilkins and Joe Carbone to name but a few. What were those teachers like to study with and what – if any – take aways did you come away with?
DK: I had great experiences studying with all of them. Each in their own unique way. I think with Joe Carbone I learned how important it is to have the fundamentals down from the beginning before getting into anything over your head. That’s something I’ve kept with me and tried to instill in my students to this day. Joe Monk really had so many things worked out. I would say my take away from him was to just be prepared and have a game plan. I hope that makes sense. He was such an incredible man filled with so much knowledge and I miss him greatly. If you knew him, you loved him. One of the warmest human beings I’ve ever known.
Jack Wilkins is just such an incredible and naturally gifted musician. To be in his presence is truly inspiring. People often ask me about my studies with him. He’s such a supportive teacher. He really pushed and encouraged me to do what I do. To find my own path and to do what I wanted to do as an artist. I’m eternally grateful for the time he gave me.
All three are native New Yorker’s so we would swear and laugh a lot so that was fun too!!!
JGL: Speaking of teachers, you also taught for many years. Do you still teach now and if so, what kind of students are you looking for?
DK: I do still teach but not anywhere near where I used to. As far as students I’m looking for, I don’t really look for them anymore. If somebody wants to study with me and they are serious, let’s set something up. On multiple occasions, I’ve told parents of students that I probably shouldn’t be there. If I have a student who is just barely interested or being forced by their parents, I’ll pick up on it quickly and respectfully tell the student or student’s parent it’s not working out. Guitar is supposed to be fun and I want to teach people who want to learn. If I pick up anything that suggests you’re not really passionate about it, I’m out with no hard feelings. It’s not for everyone and I don’t expect to click or connect with every student.
JGL: What would you advise students of Jazz Guitar to work on if you could only choose two components?
DK: That is a tough question. I will say very few are getting rich playing jazz so the most important thing or point I try to make to students is to do what makes you happy and nothing but. I’m a very strong advocate of composing as well. Just blowing through standards is fun but I think if you want to grow as an artist, you absolutely have to compose and I think in composing, your true voice can truly be found. This is of course after the fundamentals of harmony and improvisation have been studied and a good repertoire developed.
JGL: Do you have any memorable moments – good or bad – to share with Jazz Guitar Life readers as a player and/or teacher?
DK: As a player, one most certainly stands out. I booked a gig in Philadelphia at Chris’ Jazz Cafe with what was at the time, my working band. I was super excited to get to play there. Knowing Jimmy Bruno was in the audience afterwards was crazy and I’ll get to that in a minute. Anyway, we were playing the late set at 11:00pm. A national act that will remain nameless was the main feature that night. There was a green room there and I was stepping in and out to catch some of that act. They were absolutely destroying the place and the crowd was eating it up. I go back to the green room and take a look at the set list I had put together and started to panic. I started to try and make adjustments to it to better match the group we were about to follow. Then I realized something that has stuck with me to this day. The only thing I can do every time I step out on a bandstand is to do what I do and that act before us was not what I do. Going out there trying to replicate it would not only be disingenuous, but it would fail miserably. So, I went ahead and played my set as planned and had a great gig. I can only give what I can give. Good or bad, I try my best and put it all out there. Sometimes it’s bad and I think sometimes it’s pretty damn good. If anything, it’s always sincere and the best I can do at that moment in time so I can’t make any apologies or beat myself up if it doesn’t go exactly the way I hoped. Just always try to do better next time.
After the set, I saw Jimmy Bruno in the audience and introduced myself as he was a big influence on me as well. He said he particularly liked a ballad of mine we played and that was pretty pretty pretty awesome for me!!!
JGL: From checking out your music page on your website, I see that you have played in a variety of group formats. What type of musical situation do you enjoy the most (ie: trio, quartet, duo, solo, etc.) and is there something that you’d still like to do?
DK: I really like all formats as long as all the band members are good, professional, and positive people looking to give their best and make great music. I think for the music I write, I enjoy quintet most with the instrumentation- guitar, saxophone, piano, bass and drums. As long as there is a solid drummer on the gig, I’m happy. Drummers are awesome and determine whether a gig is going to be awesome or really suck, in my opinion.
JGL: Conversely, almost every musician, no matter their level and professional stature have their own insecurities to deal with when it comes to music and playing their instrument. What, if any, insecurities do you face on your instrument and how do you work at getting over them?
DK: I think I kind of touched on this in a previous answer but yes. I agree. Every musician that is trying to play/perform at a high level has insecurities. You should. If you didn’t, where would the motivation come from to be better? My insecurities change daily and really depend on what it is I’m trying to work on that day. Whatever I’m working on, it’s because I don’t have it down so I obviously need to work on it to make it better and make me feel less insecure about it. I think it’s often a mental thing that you have to to just convince yourself you’re getting better at it and you can only do your best. Once you can accept that, you’re insecurities can be much more manageable and less likely to consume you. If you look at someone and think to yourself, wow. That guy has it down. I guarantee you, that person has something going on that they’re insecure and self conscious about just like you and they’re finding a way to deal with it as well. You’re seriously not the only one dealing with it as much as it feels like you are. To put it simply, stay the course and enjoy the path. Don’t beat yourself up and just promise yourself you’re going to keep at it and you’re going to grow musically and artistically from the work you’re doing to improve upon your weaknesses.
JGL: Your latest CD offering – Raising Kain – is a trio format recording and sounds wonderful (a review to come). Did you find that the approach to this album was any different than your previous albums or were there logistical or creative challenges that surprised you?
DK: This was the first time I’ve recorded trio so I definitely wrote the music keeping in mind the instrumentation and tried to arrange in a way to highlight or feature those instruments. I always want to make things musical and interactive. I’m not really into just having a rhythm section there to accompany me while I solo chorus after chorus. I want to play music WITH them. I want to sound like a band where no single person is the most important. I took their input and very much encouraged them to speak up about anything they thought could help make the recording better. There are things about that recording that make me cringe every time I hear them. Everything I’ve recorded has moments I wish were not there or were done better. Really only on my parts. But, if everything I recorded had to be absolute perfection, I’d never release a single note. You have to be content with who you are and confident that you have something legitimate to say. I’m most certainly not Pat Metheny or Scofield or Kreisberg or countless other amazing guitar players but that shouldn’t mean to me or anyone that you shouldn’t or you’re not worthy of putting out your music. I’ve grown with each recording. They’re a documentation of my path. Good or bad. They’re a reflection of what I poured my heart and soul into. I have to be proud of that and of at least trying to do my best.
JGL: I understand that you’ve put your music career on the back shelf a bit to pursue a more “traditional” career path. How hard was that to do and has it worked out for you so far? Any regrets or does this move allow you to breathe a little better musically – as well as financially?
DK: This is a great question. To those unfamiliar with me, a few years ago, I stopped pursuing music full time and started a career in real estate. It was literally one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. There were definitely feelings of failure and humiliation. I’m extremely fortunate in that I have a loving and supportive wife and family that back me 100%. The decision was completely my own to make and I am glad I decided to do it. Life takes you places and sometimes you just have to roll with it and do what you think is best for you. I felt I had to step away and I don’t have any regrets.
Musically speaking, it has absolutely allowed me to breathe much easier. I still play everyday. I still do gigs from time to time. I actually feel as if I’ve never played better in my life. I don’t know what it is but ever since I’ve stepped out of it full time, my guitar playing has just felt much more natural and organic. I don’t feel like I have anything to prove. I just seem much much more focused and relaxed when I have time with my instrument now. I have at least two or three albums worth of material I still want to record and will hopefully be getting another one done within the next year or so.
JGL: I personally don’t know that much about you and have only heard your music via the WWW, but from what I heard, I can honestly say that you are a great player and composer. You have great tunes, four albums under your belt, have been around the block a few times – professionally – and yet, you have had to seek out other – less creative – employment opportunities to make a buck or two. If a cat like you can’t make it in this biz, or at the very least eke out a small living, what does that say about those young-uns trying to come up today? Should they even bother?
DK: Thank you for the kind words. My choice to step away really shouldn’t have any influence on anyone including younger players. Every single person is different and should have their own goals. I most certainly have to be held accountable for my failures at this business. It’s easy to blame the state of the industry or any other reasons for where I’ve come up short but at the end of the day I’m really the only one responsible for how things play out. I could’ve worked harder. Been more persistent and pushy but I am very self aware. I know I’ve let my ego get in the way of achieving my goals. I know I’ve been lazy at times and not gone out to network or hustle gigs or students. That’s 100% on me. I’m not saying it’s easy and anyone who wants to make a go of it can “make it”. I’m saying life is hard and achieving your goals is supposed to be hard. You have to fight for it because it’s not going to just be handed to you. I think young-uns have to be aware of how difficult it can be but like most things in life, if you want something, you’ll have to work for it but that doesn’t mean it’s unattainable. If you want it, go for it. Be aware of what it will take and prepare yourself or be open to the possibility your pursuit might take you in another direction.
JGL: Do you find the business side of being a Jazz musician something that should be taught in music schools or should the playing be left to the player and the business side of things be left to managers and agents?
DK: I think the idea of someone just being a “jazz” musician doesn’t really exist much anymore. I know very few solely playing jazz. Almost everyone I know has to take gigs or teaching work that is going to take you places that don’t have much, if anything to do with jazz. I enjoy doing work that’s not jazz because I enjoy all kinds of music. So that’s good for me but it’s also very hard because you have to be competent and/or literate in so many aspects of music. You have to have such a strong grasp on repertoire for multiple styles or genres of music.
I guess that got a little away from the question. Back to the question, I think it’s imperative that music schools provide education and preparation for the business side of not only being a jazz musician but a musician in general. When you finish music school, you’re automatically your own business/independent contractor. It’s up to YOU to find and maintain work. You can’t expect a music school to just put you into a job after graduation. Being a musician is basically like having a job interview every single day for various jobs in all kinds of places that will not necessarily be life long. Usually only a couple hours at a time!!! You’re constantly trying to find work. You have to be prepared to do that and if music schools aren’t preparing you, they’re really doing you a disservice and setting you up for failure.
Having glanced ahead to the questions, I think I should add something here. Life is not lived in a practice room. To go out and get work, you need to be sociable and outgoing. I’ve seen numerous people who are great players but are just socially awkward and have a hard time hustling work. You’re going to have to go out and ask for opportunities that you’ll get sometimes and a lot of times, you’ll get completely rejected. You have to be prepared and able to handle that consistent rejection and to have the confidence/drive to move forward and press on. A very thick skin is required in this business.
JGL: What – if any – technology – social or otherwise (ie: Internet, Face Book, YouTube, Instagram etc…) do you incorporate into your looking to find gigs?
DK: I can’t say I really have anything valuable to answer this question with. I usually just try to support the venues I want to play at and try to get to know the owners/people who book the music. I don’t know if this is something you would want to add to the interview. I would probably not include it.
JGL: Any advice for the younger guy or gal who is thinking about playing jazz guitar? What would you have liked to have been told “back in the day”?
DK: Don’t just work on your jazz standard repertoire. Learn blues and funk tunes. Learn R&B, pop, rock tunes etc. You’re DEFINITELY going to get a wedding/corporate gig at some point and most people at those functions don’t care if you can play through Giant Steps in 7/4 at 4,000 BPM’s!!!
Also, familiarize yourself with how to get different sounds from your guitar and gear that are appropriate for the type of work you’ll eventually have to do that I mentioned above. A nice warm sound through a Gibson and a polytone is not going to get you through every situation you’ll find yourself in as a guitar player/musician.
JGL: Have you ever had second thoughts about your choice to have music as a career and if so, what other career path do you think you would have followed had you not been a guitar player.
DK: No. I’ve met a lot of wonderful people and had many great experiences as a professional musician. I’ve never had any second thoughts.
Can’t say I had ever thought much of another career path until I stepped into the one I’m currently in. Whatever I’m in, that’s my focus and I try not to let anything distract or deter me while I’m trying to reach that goal.
JGL: If you had to do one thing over again, what would it be and why?
DK: Every guitar solo I’ve ever recorded because they’re painful to listen to!!!
JGL: What does the future hold for Dave Kain?
DK: A couple recordings of new music I’ve written. Maybe some gigs here and there and definitely some craft beer!!!
JGL: Thanks Dave for taking the time to hang out with Jazz Guitar Life.
DK: Thanks for having me Lyle.
For more info on Dave Kain, check out his website at http://www.davekain.com/