|Acoustic Guitar, November/December 1992|
Words and Music: Leo Kottke's travels with guitar and voice
by Jim Ohlschmidt
While Kottke has explored new vocal territory, his instrumental writing has become increasingly sophisticated, gradually bringing distinct elements of jazz and world music to pieces such as "Great Big Boy," Carla Bley's "Jesus Maria" (arranged by Tim Sparks), "Czech Bounce" (That's What), and "Shortwave" (from Regards from Chuck Pink, inspired by West African "dry guitar").
Kottke says, "Overall, the big change for me is that I've been listening to a lot more jazz than I used to. I had to. I had to learn about it because it was one of my handicaps. There's more invention there than anywhere else. I'm tending now to write tunes that have holes in them, sections that aren't set in concrete. I tend to use improvisation more as a device than as a set of expressions. I do it if the set is going stale, one of those nights when I just can't get my ball rolling. I'll just start playing, and I'll force myself to do anything but what I think I'll do until I'm in so much trouble that I don't have a clue. That alone can revitalize a player. Terror is a great tonic, and audiences love risk."
Among his current listening choices are records by Joe Pass, pianist Bill Evans, and the bass-driven band Primus. Considering that Kottke played the trombone as an adolescent in Muskogee, Oklahoma (and took it seriously enough that, as he told one interviewer, he wanted to be a "jazzer" and play in clubs and hotel lounges), his affinity for jazz seems like a natural development in his maturation as a composer.
"What little knack I have [as a composer] I know I got from playing the trombone, from being exposed to rules and especially to the material -- seeing how those parts are laid out, what is subordinated to the whole and what is not," Kottke says. "A lot of players subordinate nothing. Even if all you do is improvise, you are composing. When I listen to Joe Pass, all his passages sound coherent, they say something, and you know what they've said. The mystery is all there, the surprise. It's all composition."
Another, more apparent sign of Kottke's musical maturity is the control and relaxation in his playing, combined with the broader range of dynamics and tone colors he's gained by abandoning fingerpicks (compare his rendering of "Ojo" from Regards from Chuck Pink to the original version on 6 and 12 String Guitar). These are qualities that, in retrospect, seem conspicuously absent from the performances captured on My Feet Are Smiling, a live album recorded at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis circa 1972. While this record capped the first major phase of Kottke's development as a composer and performer, there were times when, ripping through hyper-velocity versions of "Bean Time" and "Jack Fig," articulation and musicality were sacrificed.
"I've got to say that record is a great example of being ahead of the beat," he says. "I didn't just play things too fast; I rushed the shit out of them. It's also the biggest seller I had on Capitol. I missed the 'pocket' a lot early on. The enthusiasm was there, but the pocket wasn't. I used to love to just blow my stack, but I've learned that if you just sit on it properly, it really explodes. I think music, and especially performance, is about rest and delay."
Kottke creates much of his rhythmic effect on guitar by regulating precise note values with right- and left-hand muting techniques. Although these devices over the years have become mostly subliminal for Kottke, he offers his thoughts on how techniques develop.
"Early on, I think everybody notices what they have to modify if they want to get more life into their playing. The first thing I learned was the way the thumb can dictate the center of a tune and the pattern it's related to. So, from the beginning, I was trying to get away from patterns and an audible repetitive thumb. One of the ways you do that is by paying close attention to note values. Although I do some muting, it's more of a tacet that I'm up to , where each note has a certain value. The notes are not just bleeding into one another if you just have them ringing on, it's like drooling -- there's a beginning to everything, but no end. You can write a piece with that in mind, but even there you're going to want to mute or tacet a note occasionally. You can do it abruptly, you can do it slowly, you can make it disappear with a slide up or down, you can make it kind of swallow itself -- all of those things help to float the music and obscure what your hand is doing. You really don't want to know about that hand.
"The thing I think about all technique that was important for me to learn, and that I have to keep reminding myself of, is that the music will dictate the proper technique and also the proper interpretation , at least for you. You may have an argument with somebody else about interpretation, but the music will tell you exactly what to do. I think that's true with rhythm and melody and especially with the comping that's going on in the midst of all that. You can find ways to make that comping more supportive of distinct by studying how you're doing it and finding a better way. It's hard. You really have to break those habitual ways of forming chords and find something new."
Like many creative people, Kottke is habitually introspective -- a trait that, in meetings and conversations off stage, makes him seem pre-occupied and occasionally withdrawn, even befuddled. From the onset, his relationship with the guitar has been an inward-looking, almost cathartic experience. As he has recounted in past interviews, the guitar literally saved his life at age 12, when his sister (and only sibling) died of a brain tumor. As is often the case when close familial relationships are severed by death, Kottke's intense grief was manifested by illness. He succumbed to mononucleosis, and as his health declined, his mother tried to cheer him up with a dime-store-variety guitar with a cowboy stenciled on the front. Using his familiarity with music from the trombone, Kottke made up an E chord, and through some miracle of cerebral alchemy the new instrument made a deep connection. Within two weeks he was out of bed. He has often said that from that point on, the guitar gave him something to do for the rest of his life and imbued him with a distinct sense of place.
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