|Guitar Extra!, Winter 1991|
Leo Kottke: A Sense of Place
By Doug Caldwell
Are you taking this stuff out of books?
No; that was suggested to me by the guy who arranged "Jesus Maria" [That's What], a guitar player named Tim Sparks, who is pretty much self- taught, but he's taken the time to learn the system behind jazz improvisation, which is largely harmonizing every scale on the planet.
Do you play other peoples' transcribed pieces more now that you are studying?
No. I did recently sit down with a transcription of "Moonlight in Vermont," which js a tune that I never noticed too much until I learned that it had been written on the guitar by Johnny Smith. And I couldn't play it. Unless I read it wrong -- which is certainly very possible -- he's got some chords I can't begin to reach. And I've heard that he did stuff like that.
Do you think that studying has changed your playing at all?
It's making some changes; it's making me a little more aware of what I'm doing. It's helping me to wait for the beat -- helping me to relax, because if you're just playing to sort of blow your stack, you get the idea that you're going from a point to a point. But if you really pay attention at any given moment, you're in the middle of a whole landscape. So once you start noticing, basically, what your left hand is doing, you have a lot more time within a tune to enjoy yourself.
It seems to me that the studying you're doing has maybe expanded your harmonies a little bit. You're sticking more jazz-style chords in there.
Yeah. Some people -- my wife for example -- think it's ruined my harmonies, at least momentarily. Those chords are commonly used by jazzers, but the they exist in all forms of music, ethnic as well as classical -- Bartok and people like that. They're all over there. They just really did get abused by a lot of bad lounge-lizard players.
Some of your music is quite angular, avant-garde, while a lot of the things you do are more traditionally "pretty." Where do these different approaches come from?
It all seems to be the same place to me. That's what I get out of playing, is a sense of place. It's a way for me to locate -- and it always has been. And none of the tunes are outside of that place, and they all seem to be the same thing to me. But the longer I go, the more detail I get to see in this place that the guitar has for me. Some of my worst stuff is clumsy. It kind of clanks along; and it's like a Frankenstein, you know? It just didn't work right. Some of my better stuff -- like "Mona Ray"-- manages to be a fairly happy sort of tune, but it's also -- for me, at Ieast -- it's very sad. It's just really sad. And I love that, when it can do both those things, 'cause that way it feels really true, 'cause there's a lot like that in life. "Mona Ray" is much more subjective, for example, than "The Great One." "The Great One" is a very cogitative sort of deal; it's a real deductive, Sherlock Holmes kind of trip, like in that spot where it resolves in two places at once. There's a lot of head trip in it. The charm of the thing is more mathematical than it is emotional, and "Mona Ray" is almost asleep. It's right in between asleep and awake, and anything can happen to you in that spot.
On your new album, you play a piece on 6-string bass, "Little Snoozer."
Yeah! Oh, that was a thrill. I loved that thing.
Do you play it just like a guitar?
Just like a guitar. It's a Jerry Jones 6-string bass, which is a copy of the Danelectro 6-string bass. And it evidently must have been designed to be played as a guitar rather than as a bass, because it has a very playable string scale, and the string scale was suggested to them by D'Angelico, who they consulted about how to design the guitar. So the string scale and spacing are both guitar; they're not bass- oriented. So you can play it just like a guitar -- or it is a guitar. But I don't know yet how it's gonna work live, because it's tuned like a bass; its low E is the same as a bass, so yo might end up exciting the sub so much in a given house that it wouldn't work.
When you're playing a 12-string, there's a real richness there for the player, as you hover over the guitar, but you don't get exactly that same quality out in the audience.
No, that's one of the drawbacks of the 12 -- it's got a lot of problems in terms of performance. And yo ucan get around it and almost take advantage of the problems, but it's a difficult instrument in some ways. The principle one is you cannot do much in terms of harmony on a 12-string. If you start moving around very much, the octave strings will make you sound like an idiot. In other words, you can't play very sophisticated stuff on a 12-string, but there's a whole world on a 12- that you cannot get on a 6-stirng. And it has to do with power and rhythm and excitement. It can be just a killer.
I know you just got finished collaborating on a piece for guitar and orchestra. How did that work out?
Well, we're gonna do more of it, because we liked it so much. We had hoped to do more from scratch, but we wound up, because of time constraints, doing quite a lot where I brought in intact pieces and we worked out orchestrations. We used a couple things that have already been recorded by me, and there are two things that we basically wrote together, out of a suite of five pieces.
Did Paulus act mainly as an orchestrator?
He did some composition on two, and then on other pieces he was largely just orchestrating, but there are a couple interludes where the orchestra takes off.
Were you pleased with it?
Yeah! I love it. We're going to be taking it to Australia to tour it there. With Steven Paulus the musc sounds really good; I mean, it doesn't lose anything. He's very good at leaving room for the guitar. And it's great stuff; I'm hoping to record it, because we had them on their feet in Fort Wayne, and this was an audience that didn't know what to expect. The only thing I wasn't pleased with was the way I played; I was so nervous, 'cause I had to remember every note. I get to play whatever I feel as a soloist, and the hardest part was knowing where the "one" is. I mean, it's a different world. The conductor kind of leads where it is; the orchestra doesn't really show you becasue it's so massive. So there's a kind of consensus that takes shape between the conductor and the orchestra that the soloist has to be able to catch. I need a few more exposures to that to get it straight.
You've said that you have this incredible appetite for the guitar, and still do. That's kind of amazing, that it's stayed so intense all this time.
Well, it surprised me. I expected, once this job became intense -- which was almost right away that things got really busy -- I thought it would slow down my development and maybe even kill my interest in the instrument. I thought, "This is gonna get stale." But the opposite happens, at least for me.
Maybe that has something to do with the way it entered your life.
Yeah, I think so, 'cause I really do depend on it. The job I could use, but the guitar? I'd have trouble if I lost it or couldn't play it. So, I really do depend on it. I'm still curious. I'm more curious about the guitar than I've ever been, and I don't think that'll change. I have to put in the work, though; I've gotten every bit of it that I can get for free by just sittin' around havin' fun. Now I'm at the point where I really do have to sit down and do some rudiments and scales and harmony and learn. And it's funny, if you learn just an inch, you get about a foot of results.
How do you see your career continuing?
I'm hoping to do more of this stuff with the orchestra, for one thing, because I learned that it doesn't sound like some guy trying to plug into the orchestra gig so that he gets better catering backstage, you know? It didn't work that way at all. The music sounds really good, so that's one thing. But, basically, I remember a couple of years ago I played in Kansas City, and I had an opening act who had just turned 92. He was a very tall guy, about 6'9" or something, and he had a turquoise leisure suit on, and a pair of white patent-leather boots and a hat. He played the ukelele, and he moved like he was 92 years old and they dragged him out of the nursing home to do this. For me it was one of those days that you get where you wonder how long you're gonna be doing this; sometimes the dressing rooms pile up and it feels a little stale. And I walked in and I saw that guy -- that's my future, you know? If I'm lucky, when I'm 90, they'll drag me out of my nursing home and let me play. [The End]
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