John Stowell Interview 09/30/2004
Interview by Pekka Rintala and Rob Timmons, B-Band, Inc.
B-Band: What are you currently working on?
John Stowell: I'm working on a number of recordings, one of which is a solo acoustic guitar project for Origin Records. This CD features the B-Band that I'm using. Mike Doolin, my luthier in Portland Oregon is working on a guitar for me that will be slightly larger than the one I'm using now. We will be using the new A2.2 system on the new one. The one that I'm using now has a solid top and it's a hollow nylon string. The new one will be more acoustic, larger body with a sound hole.
B-B: Who are your guitar influences?
J: I really like Jim Hall a lot for Jazz. I would say the sound wise on the nylon I really love some of the Brazilians like Toninho Horta. I love what Earl Klugh does sound wise, he really has a terrific sound. I like some of Pat Metheny's work on acoustic guitar. I don't think I really copy any of those people but I really like their sound. I just try to get pure, balanced sound when I play. I'm using a combination of pick and fingers so it's kind of a hybrid technique.
B-B: What kind of guitars do you currently play?
J: My luthier Mike Doolin (www.doolinguitars.com) built me a guitar that has a shorter scale with a spruce top and ebony fret board, mahogany neck and walnut back and sides. The new guitar that he is building for me now will have similar woods but we have not quite decided yet. I have played this guitar for five years now.
B-B: What do you like about the B-band sound?
J: It basically takes the best qualities of the acoustic sound and amplifies them. So it's a very accurate representation of the acoustic instrument, just louder. So it's extremely natural, balanced and it just has really warm, rich sound. All the overtones are there so it just gives you what the guitar has basically. It does not color the sound so I think it's ideal for an acoustic guitar.
B-B: How long have you been using B-Band?
J: It's been at least four years now, maybe five.
B-B: Do you use B-band for recording?
J: I do. I use a mixture of a mic to a board and the B-Band to an amp. It works well in the studio.
B-B: How do you use B-band live?
J: Just straight to the amp. My setup live is the Doolin guitar with the B-Band to AER amp and I have a bigger speaker below, just an EV speaker with a tweeter, so that's my setup live. If it's a really big room I just mic up the amp.
B-B: What inspires you to play guitar?
J: Boy, I just love the sound of the instrument. I've been in love with it for 35 years. It's like a mini orchestra. I play a lot of solo guitar these days, so I'm working on voice leading and interior voice movement. It's a wonderful and endless challenge. I like playing with groups too. But the fact that we can play alone is a whole other world to explore.
B-B: Do you tour a lot
J: I'm on the road between 6 and 7 months a year. I tour on the West and East Coasts, a bit in the Midwest and Canada, and I try to go to Europe once or twice a year. I was just in Indonesia and I did a little teaching in a friend's school there. I've been in Argentina three times and Russia. I've been to twelve to fifteen countries over the years.
B-B: Are there any musicians that you'd like to play with that you haven't had a chance to play with yet?
J: I played once with Jim Hall just at a clinic. As I mentioned earlier he was one of my main influences. I have never had a chance to do a gig with him since we travel in different circles. I'd love to play with Herbie Hancock sometime. Dave Carpenter is a friend of mine who I play with and Dave occasionally works with Herbie. There may be a chance to meet Herbie although playing with him is a bit of a dream but I'd love to get a chance.
B-B: What kind of a picking technique do you use?
J: It's a combination of pick and fingers. I use a little Fender tear drop pick, heavy, which goes in between my thumb and index finger. I am also using the three fingers in combination with it, flesh, not nails so it's kind of a hybrid technique. I can get it to sound pretty warm with a nylon string and it works pretty well.
B-B: How did you get started on a guitar?
J: I grew up in Connecticut and studied there with two people, guitarist Linc Chamberland and pianist John Mehegan. Both were local legends and great players and teachers. John had lived in New York and played with a lot of great jazz musicans there, and also taught at Juillard. I also had the opportunity to play little jobs with Linc and John in Connecticut, and that was great training for me. I moved down near New York in the mid '70's to be aroung a larger pool of good players. New York is still the jazz capital of the World, although there are good players everywhere. One night I was sitting in at a small club in Greenwich Village (in New York City), and bassist David Friesen came in to sit in as well. We became friends, and after playing some gigs together around New York I came out to Portland, Oregon, in July of 1976 with David for a visit. As soon as we arrived, Devid found us some work together, and we began a musical relationship that lasted for seven years that involved a lot of touring and some recording. I began going out on my own around 1983, and I've been doing it ever since. David and I are still friends, and we've talked about doing some more playing together on the road in 2005. He's still very active too.
B-B: Have you played any other instruments or has it always been guitar?
J: I started on the ukulele at age ten, but switched to guitar shortly thereafter.
B-B: Did you get most of your influences from guitar players or where there any sax or piano players that influenced your playing?
J: I've been influenced a lot by both pianists and horn players. I love the rich textures of the voicings of pianists Herbie Hancock and Bill Evans. I get some inspiration as well from horn players and singers, primarily in the sense of how to use space and where to begin and end phrases. Saxophonists Sonny Rollins and Wayne Shorter come to mind.
B-B: I can hear it in your playing. Many guitar players can shred all night long and not pause for a second.
J: Jim Hall talks a lot about the use of space. As jazz musicians we take the music for granted on some levels. But it really is a private language. Even a serious jazz fan can be overwhelmed if you play 8th notes and 16th notes. Jim has said that if he takes a "breath" after a phrase, it gives the listener a chance to absorb what he has just played. I think that "breathing" should be an integral part of soloing.
B-B: what do you think about when you play?
J: You think when you practice, not when you perform. Your preparation off of the bandstand enables you to create and react when you are in the moment in front of an audience. I may be using a melodic minor scale over a dominant chord but I'm just thinking about trying to play an interesting melody and reacting to the harmonies that are going on around me. The thinking part happens before you get on stage.
B-B: When you play live is most of it improvised?
J: I'd say 90 to 95 percent of it is improvised. Even the melodies are not played the same way each time. We have the ability as jazz musicians to interpret the melody in different ways so we are not duplicating the same identical rhythm and harmony each time. We can add a little to a melody each time or change the rhythm. When the improvisation occurs it is based on a form. In that sense your improvisation is the result of your own practice regimen. It's also important to cultivate the ability to have a dialogue and meaningful interaction with the other members of the group. When I'm soloing I'm also directing 30-50 percent of my energy to people around me and responding to what they are doing. Over time we cultivate the ability to have these exchanges, and we learn how to tap into each other's resources. As we become better players we also become better listeners.
Playing jazz is an endless challenge. I still feel very much like a student. I tell people at clincs that I share their frustrations. Create a stimulating environment for yourself by hearing as much good live music as possible, studying on your own with several teachers; practice and play with friends in an environment of sharing practice tips and constructive criticisms of each other. Try to be the worst guy in the group sometimes to push yourself. Put a B-Band pickup in your guitar and everything will be fine.