Joe Giglio is an exciting jazz guitarist from New York City who shares with us his musical background and insights into what makes a serious Jazz Guitarist. Plus he speaks about his many musical interactions with today’s most popular Jazz Guitarists. A definite must read.
Interview by Lyle Robinson via email 2004
“It was an obsession from the start. I come from a very musical background. Both my parents were professional musicians. My father became a lawyer, but my mother sang professionally until shortly before she passed away. One of the things I do to make it work for me is to teach, which I quite enjoy. Also over the years I have been very versatile in playing many different types of music. I also sing which has always widened my job opportunities.”
JGL: How old are you?
JG: Old enough to remember phonograph records.
JGL: What geographical area do you live in?
JG: I live in New York City, on the upper west side of Manhattan.
JGL: At what age did you first get into guitar playing and were you interested in jazz from the beginning or were there other musical interests before jazz? What was the motivating experience to get you involved in this particular music and instrument?
JG: I wanted to play guitar since the age of three, when I saw a re-run of “Ozzie & Harriet”. At the end of the show Ricky Nelson sang and played the guitar. I was hooked. Along the way I studied piano and french horn. At age ten I finally got a guitar and the rest as they say is history. At first I played rock, folk and blues. At age 12 or 13 an older cousin introduced me to jazz via John Coltrane’s album Ascension. It blew my mind. I didn’t however start to play jazz seriously until age 19.
JGL: What kind, if any, formal training do you have (ie: lessons, schooling, that sort of thing). And how did these experiences help you get where you are today?
JG: I studied guitar from age 10 with a jazz oriented teacher who taught me his chord melody arrangements, and introduced me to the great jazz guitarists. As I mentioned though, I didn’t actually start to play jazz seriously though until age 19. At age 19 I began to study jazz formally, first with guitarist Joe Puma, then with pianists Lou Stein and Sal Mosca. Along the way I participated in seminars with Jimmy Heath, Chuck Wayne, Barney Kessel and others. I also studied with Jack Wilkins, who helped with reading and comping. Sal was my most profound influence. He helped me become a musician. I minored in music in college, (my major was Political Science), and later received an MFA in “Jazz Performance”.
JGL: What was your first guitar? What are you playing now?
JG: My first guitar was a Spanish made classical. My first electric guitar was a Fender Telecaster. I have owned approximately 200 guitars over the years, the most at one time being about 20. I currently play a “Forshage Custom” electric guitar ( www.forshage.com ), a 1969 Gibson ES-330 “Longneck” that is extensively modified, Takamine nylon and steel string acoustic/electric guitars, and a “WD Custom” guitar. The Forshage, Takamine and WD instruments are endorsements.
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)?
JG: Jim Hall was my first major jazz guitar influence. Next came Wes Montgomery, Pat Martino, Tal Farlow, Jimmy Raney, Barney Kessel, Howard Roberts, John McLaughlin, Larry Coryell, Johnny Smith, George Van Epps, George Barnes, and so many others. I still listen to all these players and love their music. Over the years I have honed in on various players at certain times. I went through a Grant Green period a while back. I also listen to jazz played on other instruments perhaps more than guitarists. Some of my main influences are Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, Bill Evans, Warne Marsh, Lennie Tristano, Sal Mosca, the list could go on forever. Currently I am very involved in the music of master guitarist/composer James Emery. James plays the guitar like no one else. His command of the instrument is beyond that of anyone playing today, and his improvisational and compositional skills are of the same order. I wrote a composition in his honor which is being published in “Just Jazz Guitar” in November. We also plan to play some duo gigs in the near future.
JGL: When you were younger what were your band experiences like? Did you have friends who were involved in music as well or did you have to search for people to play with.
JG: I played in little rock bands from the minute I got my Telecaster. We used to play at local country club dances. After that I did a ‘singer-songwriter’ thing for quite a while. I almost got signed to RCA at age 17. Almost!
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?
JG: I don’t think I really had a choice. It was an obsession from the start. I come from a very musical background. Both my parents were professional musicians. My father became a lawyer, but my mother sang professionally until shortly before she passed away. One of the things I do to make it work for me is to teach, which I quite enjoy. Also over the years I have been very versatile in playing many different types of music. I also sing which has always widened my job opportunities.
JGL: Were your parent(s) and family members supportive of your musical career choice?
JG: Yes and no. They were proud of my abilities and accomplishments, but were aware firsthand how difficult a lifestyle it can be.
JGL: 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?
JG: When I began to play jazz I practiced incessantly, as I realized how much I had to learn. I was fortunate to hook up with Sal Mosca pretty early on. Sal taught me how to practice. He had a very structured approach. Once in a while I feel like going back for a refresher course in how to ‘get to it’. I have always had a technique routine that keeps me in shape, consisting of scales, arpeggios, picking exercises, modes, and chord studies. I work on tunes all the time-old and new. I also read through music by Bach, Paganinni, Mozart and other classical composers. This forces me to work on fingering, and gets me deeply involved in great music. My playing always moves forward from this endeavor. I also sing solos and transcribe directly to the instrument.
JGL: This is not a question so much as an observation: In one of your excellent jazz commentaries on your website, you mention that you used to sing the solos of various artists and that it was an invaluable exercise in really getting to know the solo through and through. I have done this myself in the past and I too have found it to be a great way to actually hear the shape and direction of a solo as it takes shape on the recording. Great advice Joe!
JG: I still sing with the greats, and it is a part of my teaching with all my students. I love doing it!
JGL: How difficult do you find it making a living as a jazz guitar player? Or have you found it to be relatively easy?
JG: Easy it’s not. I teach during the week, and for many years did the wedding band thing. I no longer have the patience for that, but I do a fair number of ‘corporate jazz gigs’. I only play jazz now. It may occasionally be at a cocktail hour, or private party, or for a big corporation. I love doing them, as the music is fun, and the money is great. I do these gigs solo, and with groups. When it’s a group the players are always the finest in New York City.
JGL: How do you go about searching for gigs and what have you found in your experiences that make looking for gigs easier?
JG: I do very little searching as it depresses me to put myself at the mercy of those who know very little about my art form. As a result I don’t work clubs as much as I might, but I work quality gigs. I do however believe in marketing and use my intelligence and upbringing to present myself in the most favorable light. My education has taught me to write a good letter and bio, and have good vocabulary and grammar. It may seem inconsequential, but displaying one’s intelligence can make the difference when speaking with a potential client.
JGL: Could you describe some of your best musical situations or experiences and the worst?
JG: My best musical experiences happen every day, as music is always present. On the other hand, I have played thousands of gigs some I remember, some I choose to forget. For me if the musicians I am playing with are there for the music, it will be a good gig.
JGL: You have played and recorded in many different group configurations. What type of musical situation do you enjoy the most?
JG: Guitar, bass and drums is my favorite configuration. I feel that the ‘trio’ setting offers the most freedom, and the responsibility that comes with that freedom. Kind of like real life, I guess.
JGL: Do you like performing more as a sideman or as a leader? And if you can, comment on the pros and cons of both.
JG: I enjoy both greatly. As a leader I tend to shape the direction of the music, chose the tunes, and set the tone for the level of ‘in’ or ‘out’ playing by my improvisational approach on that particular gig or recording session. I am very loose as a leader though, and really want my colleagues to play themselves. As a sideman the responsibilities are with the leader, and though he or she will shape the direction of the music, it can be a very liberating experience. Not being the leader allows me to direct all my energy towards making music, and not think of all the other incidentals.
JGL: Your CD Inside Out has gotten some great reviews from some top publications. How did the idea come about to make this CD and do you have plans for another?
JG: It was time for me to document my playing, and there was a willing record label. I had been working with bassist Mike Gold and drummer Tim Pleasant quite a bit, and we had a great improvisational rapport, which I think is evident on the CD. Really improvising is what it is all about for me. To create, communicate and groove is my musical goal.
I am currently working on another CD.
JGL: You have a weekly gig with some of the greatest jazz guitarists in the business today. Guitarists like Jack Wilkins, Howard Alden, Randy Johnston, John Stowell, Paul Bollenback and other greats. How did this dream gig come about and how did you get so many wonderful and high profile players to commit to this gig.
JG: I started doing the gig at 107WEST here in Manhattan in January of 2001. At first it was me and a bassist. Through my friends sitting in on occasion, it turned into a guitar duo situation. I still occasionally do the gig with great bassists like Ron McClure and Murray Wall. As far as my guitarist colleagues who join me at 107WEST, that began with Jack Wilkins, a longtime friend and playing partner sitting in. That evolved into the two of us playing the gig. From there it snowballed into a scene where many players from here in NYC, and all over the country call and ask to do the gig.
JGL: Are there any plans to record these duo meetings?
JG: Almost every gig has been recorded over the course of the last 3 ½ years. The quality of the recording is generally excellent. As far as whether they will be issued as CD’s, that remains to be seen. It would be a bit of a bear to sort out all the releases necessary from all the record labels involved.
JGL: How is it working and playing in a duo situation with another guitar player? What, if any, are the issues or concerns that come up with having two distinct voices on the same instrument and how do you handle them musically?
JG: I have been playing in guitar duos from the very beginning of my jazz career. I love doing it if it is with the right player. As a result of having done it for so long, it feels very natural, and it doesn’t usually take long to find a rapport and a musical direction for a particular situation. To make it work one must as in all musical situations, listen to the other player and to oneself. In a duo as they say, ‘there is nowhere to hide’. Comping, as there is no bassist or pianist, takes on an expanded meaning and role. There is a lot of harmonic and sonic space to cover, but one must not overplay. Walking bass lines, a bass line-chord approach, as well as ‘4 to the bar’ comping are all important devices. Regarding simultaneous improvising-both guitarists playing improvised lines at the same time, this is one of my favorite endeavors. When I studied with Sal Mosca, most of my practicing involved improvising with no harmonic backdrop, as a result soloing with another improvised line is not a problem.
JGL: Among the many great guitar players you have played with, Bucky Pizzarelli stands out as a possible dream come true playing situation. How did you two get together and what was the context?
JG: I met Bucky at the Classic American Guitar Show in 1992. A few years later when I first became interested in playing 7-string, (which I now only play occasionally, the last time was on a gig with Howard Alden where we traded guitars for a few tunes), I asked Bucky for some pointers which he graciously bestowed upon me. A few years after that a promoter contacted me about a “Guitar Summit” type of concert. He asked who else I wanted on the program and my first choice was Bucky. We reprised the concert the next season. Both concerts were wildly successful.
JGL: You are considered to be a prolific composer as well as a jazz guitar player. How did you get into composing and how important is it to be able to compose? Would you be content just to be able to play guitar without the compositional facility?
JG: I have always composed music, even before I played an instrument. I seriously began writing songs in high-school, and as I became more involved with jazz my composing became more focused, and more harmonically involved. If I had my druthers I would compose for two or three hours a day, every day. With my schedule it is more like five hours twice a month-for which I am grateful. Composing and playing are the same thing for me-one does not exist without the other. When I am improvising I am composing spontaneously, for the air around me. Many of my recent pieces are approaching the genre of “New Music”, which is another word for ‘modern classical music’, which term is of course an oxymoron.
JGL: Do you compose with guitar in hand or do you compose away from the guitar?
JG: I compose mostly with the guitar in hand, but occasionally from my thoughts. I use “Sibelius” which is a notation software. I can instantly hear what I have written, so that lessens the need for the guitar. All that said, I prefer to use the guitar in that context.
JGL: On the bio page of your site, you are introduced as Jazz Guitarist/Vocalist Joe Giglio. For those who do not know you, what role does Vocalist play in your professional life?
JG: I have always sung, and have been blessed with a good voice and keen ears. I grew up in a house where music was always present in one form or other. I learned many standards by ear from hearing them in the background. This helped immeasurably when I began to play jazz. I sing on some gigs, and will record a CD of all or mostly vocal tunes. It will of course have lots of guitar improvising as well.
JGL: You obviously take teaching very seriously, teaching both privately and in a number of higher learning institutions. How important do you feel it is for those beginning the art of Jazz Guitar to learn in a formal setting (ie: with a teacher or in a university or conservatory setting)? Or is it still possible to get all you need from wearing the grooves out of records or CD’s?
JG: I think the most important thing is to learn the instrument correctly. One should learn through reading. This is a conclusion I have come to slowly and painfully, as it is not the way I learned. Guitarists are missing out on the deepest way of learning if they avoid reading. There is something about seeing a written note, mentally processing it, playing it and hearing it, that makes an indelible stamp on the brain. My playing grew exponentially as I became a better and better reader. As far as ‘ear’ learning is concerned it is a must and cannot be avoided. If one wants to play jazz, one must hear jazz!
JGL: Your site also mentions that you are working on some instructional material. How is it developing and what type of instructional material will it be?
JG: I am compiling a volume of ‘Jazz Etudes’ that I have composed over the years. Basically they are composed solos based on standard tunes. Each one has an analysis of the musical content. I will also include a section on the harmonic and improvisational concepts inherent in the compositions.
JGL: Have your impressions and experiences of being a Jazz Guitar player been what you had expected when you first decided to become a musician?
JG: No, I’m still waiting to be discovered and made wealthy! Seriously, like most things in life you never know how or what they will be until you experience them. I love playing, composing, listening, teaching, hanging out with the players, and living in the cultural capital of the world. As one of my more colorful students put it-“It’s all good”!
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.
JG: As a thinking person I’d be a fool if I never questioned or analyzed my choices. I could have chosen and succeeded at many professions. I just think this one fit the best. I was pre-law in college, and majored in Political Science. At this point I could almost see myself becoming a stock analyst or trader, but value my sanity-such that it is.
JGL: Where would you like to see Jazz guitar go in the coming years?
JG: Switzerland or Alaska! Seriously though, I would like to see it cease to be thought of as ‘Jazz Guitar’, and just be ‘Jazz’. The compartmentalizing of ‘Jazz Guitar’ has hurt us all. Many of the greatest jazz guitarists are unknown to the jazz public, yet we all know who Sonny Rollins is (Thank God!). Also I would like to see there being more employment opportunities. Jazz musicians need money too.
JGL: Any advice for the younger guy or gal who is thinking about playing jazz guitar?
JG: Study with a good teacher, listen, listen, listen, and have a plan regarding how you will make a living. And thank God you were blessed with music!
JGL: Thank you Joe for participating on Jazz Guitar Life. It is most appreciated.
JG: My pleasure Lyle. A great site for us all.
For more info on Joe, check out his website at www.joegiglio.com