|Acoustic Guitar, July/August 1994|
Guitar Summit: A Class With the Masters
by Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers
"My name is Joe Pass," said Pepe Romero at the beginning of a Guitar Summit workshop for a group of students at San Francisco's Community Music Center. In quick succession, Joe Pass identified himself as Gene Autry, Leo Kottke added, "I'm Tammy Wynette," and Pass introduced Paco Peña as Roy Clark. Clearly, this session was getting off to a good start.
The four guitarists took turns offering glimpses behind the scenes of their music. Peña went first, saying that within this group, "Flamenco is the odd one out, really. Classical guitar, of course, is the established form, the most traditional, the most universal." He went on to demonstrate a simple and dramatic soleares, explaining how he improvises variations on the 12-beat rhythm, or compas, and embellishes the harmony as he goes along. As a professor of flamenco at the University of Rotterdam, Peña has become adept at breaking down and illustrating flamenco's complex structures. But any sort of academic formality was washed away by the power and majesty of his guitar.
Kottke was next. "One of the things that I'm doing differently," he said, "is that instead of my thumb attacking here [on the tip], I'm coming off the side, and my wrist tips in more -- which means my career will be shorter."
He played a bubbling blues in E on his 12-string and then offered a few thoughts on how he creates the rhythmic pop that instantly identifies his playing. "I do a lot of damping within the stuff I write, " he said. "It has something to do with rhythm and trying to find the right kind of note value as well as a sort of percussive quality."
The 12-string is "something I got hooked on after I'd been playing for about six or seven years," Kottke said, "and there are lots of times I wish I had never seen one. They are very cranky. You can't play a lot of harmony on them, because the bottom four pairs are tuned in octaves, and they interfere with a lot of harmony you might try to develop. But there's still a lot of appeal in them." He added that he tunes the guitar down two steps, which hampers projection, but "lets you play around a lot in the bottom, which is a place I really like to be."
Pass began his segment by saying, "I'm what's known as a jazz guitar player, but I'm not really a jazz guitar player; I'm must a guitar player who happens to play music influenced by jazz. I play songs mostly from our American heritage." And then he offered the understatement of the year: "And I improvise, sort of."
Pass played a beautiful rendition of George Gershwin's "Summertime" with some commentary interspersed. "This is improvising," he said in the middle of a single-note run, and he went on to point out when he changed the harmony, the tempo and the key. "That's a trick," he said after a blindingly fast run; he hit a dissonant note, quickly slid up a fret and back into the key, and then said, "That was a mistake corrected." To wrap things up, he modulated back to the original key.
Such are the freedoms of playing solo, Pass said. "It's important to know the form, and then to have a lot of alternatives. If you have an ear, you can improvise. If you don't, " he said with a grin, "forget it." To which Pepe Romero replied, "I think if you don't have an ear for improvisation, you don't quite have to forget it; you can go to a conservatory and become a classical player."
When the laughter died down, Romero continued. "What we think of as a classical musician is actually a modern invention. Not so long ago, a musician was just a musician." Romero played a piece by Spanish Renaissance composer Luis Milan that he said "sounds like a Joe Pass of the Renaissance." After a fast run, he added, "It's a written-down improvisation."
Before launching into "Leyenda" by Isaac Albeniz, Romero said, "What I like about classical music is that it triggers your inspiration to go to different centuries, and through the music that these men left us written out, to get to really know them. At the moment when I am playing a piece by Bach, I am playing a piece by my friend John. You have to unite with the composers as they did with the people that they heard playing. Music is really something to unite the composers, the players, and the audience. It's a most beautiful union. I feel that that is the purpose of music."
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