Interview with Paul Bollenback – 10.30.10

Paul Bollenback

Ed Note: This interview was first published in Bebopified on November 11, 2010, before I started this blog.  Since Paul is coming back to play at the Artists’ Quarter on June 15 and 16, I thought this would be a good time to re-publish the interview here:

Like every young guitarist of the 60s and 70s, Paul Bollenback was enamored with rock and roll. Then he heard Miles Davis and delved into fusion.

While living in Washington, DC, he was exposed to more traditional jazz, as well as organ jazz, and studied composition and performance. He made his first record with Gary Thomas in 1987 and met Joey DeFrancesco in 1990, establishing a relationship that lasts to this day.

After being named Musician of the Year for the Washington Area in 1997, he moved to New York City, where he now resides.

Paul dropped by KFAI on Saturday morning, October 30. This is a slightly edited version of the on-air discussion we had.

LE: How are you? 
PB: I’m great. It’s great to be here in the Twin Cities.

LE: You’re kind of a regular visitor.
PB: The gentleman who’s responsible for first bringing me here brought me to the studio today. John McCauley was Jack McDuff’s manager, and he’s responsible for first bringing me here. We calculated that I first came here, I think it was 18 years ago last night, to play a show with Jack and Joey DeFrancesco. I was in Joey’s band. It was a two-organ show. I met John and he was kind enough to bring me back to play at the Hotel Luxeford, for those of you who remember when they had jazz in there. I’ve been coming back ever since. I love it here. Great people and wonderful audiences, and there’s some really great musicians playing here. Tonight I’m playing at the Artists’ Quarter with Billy Peterson on bass and Kenny Horst on drums. You’ve got the Peterson family dynasty – it’s great.

LE: Tell us a little bit about how, as a guitar player, you decided to get into jazz.
PB: I was basically a rocker. I really liked Carlos Santana, and at a certain point I was listening to Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, all those early heavy metal groups. I really liked the groove and power and the energy of it. A friend turned me on to the Mahavishnu Orchestra with John McLaughlin. That was a thrill because I’d never really heard anybody play guitar like that. I’d heard all these soulful, really good guitar players, but John was a different scene. That kind of led me to Big Fun, which is an electric Miles Davis record which had John McLaughlin on it, if I’m not mistaken, which led me to Bitches Brew, which kind of at the same time got me into fusion – Return to Forever with Chick Corea, Larry Coryell’s Eleventh House.

At some point in this, my family moved from New York to Washington, DC, and that’s where I really got turned on to more traditional jazz. The first person I met when I got to DC is a great bass player named Edward Howard. Probably the thing he’s most well known for is playing bass with Roy Haynes for about 15 years, through the 80s up into the 90s. We had a friend who had a room full of records, a 10×12 room, three sides of which were covered in vinyl – all kinds. We’d go there and play and hang out and listen to music all day. That was really my first exposure to jazz other than the fusion stuff.

LE: How did that appeal to you as a guitar player who grew up in rock? What was it about jazz that appealed to you?
PB: Well, it intrigued me. When I was in high school, must have been 9th grade, there was a jazz band in the school I went to in Tarrytown, New York. It always amazed me that these young guys would come in, and they’d have music in front of them and play this stuff. I didn’t know what it was. “What is this that they’re doing?” I couldn’t do it. I was playing blues licks and trying to make my way through it. But I think that was one of the things.

Another was that my dad was a huge fan of the big bands. He really liked Benny Goodman in particular. He liked Stan Kenton a lot, and we had Harry James records and Benny Goodman records lying around the house. I’d put them on now and again, just out of curiosity. I’d be listening to one of my Beatles record and see one of these records and think, “What is this thing?” and put it on. I’d hear this “du did-it dee” and think wow, that’s interesting. But, I didn’t really like it when I was nine [laughs]. So it’s been kind of a progression.

LE: And you seem to have spent a lot of time in B-3 organ groups.
PB: Some people plot their path, and for other people it just happens. When I was 18 and living in DC, my friend Ed introduced me to a great piano player and composer named Lawrence Wheatley, who turned out to be a great mentor for me. Once I actually got a place of my own, I lived a couple of blocks from him. I used to go and play with him all the time. He was quite a bit older than I was. But he was one of those guys in DC who had played with everybody when they came through town. I wouldn’t have been surprised if he had played with Charlie Parker. He was of that era.

Anyway, the summer I was 18, he had this regular three-nights-a-week gig. It was an organ gig – organ, saxophone, drums. And he’d say, “Why don’t you come down and play?” Of course, I was thrilled. I wasn’t getting paid, but these guys were top-notch players in DC. So I learned a lot playing with them. And I got my first taste of an organ group. I also really liked that record George Benson had done, Willow Weep for Me. I think it might have been Lonnie Smith on the organ. [LE: It was.]  It’s funny because it was on vinyl and I don’t even remember the cover. But that was the first jazz guitar that I heard and I thought, “That’s what I really like, what is that?” And the organ, too, the way it was in there. Needless to say, a few years later, when I met Joey DeFrancesco and he was looking for a guitar player, it worked out.

LE: As a teacher, you talk about the importance of musicians knowing how to sing the melody. Can you explain that a bit?
PB: There are a couple of things. Certainly, if you can’t sing, and I don’t sing well [coughs], you can still hear. The idea is that you can’t really play a song unless you know the entire song, which includes the melody. I think that educationally, in the 1970s and early 80s, I feel that what was being taught in schools was a lot of harmonic knowledge. Here’s the chord that you’re playing and the scale that you play over it, and that’s how you make it work. But, in actuality, if you take that approach every time, all of your music is going to sound exactly the same. And you really don’t want that.

If you know the melody, you know what the tune is about, and if you know the lyric –  especially if it’s a standard, you’re obliged to know the lyric – you know at least what the song is about. And if there’s a backstory on the song, that’s even better, because it informs how you would play it and what the song means to you when you play it. If you have a choice in what you play, and if you’re a leader you do, then you make your choice based on how you relate to the tune, and if it says something to you then you can actually create something with the audience in terms of the ambience of the tune. If you don’t know the melody and you don’t know the lyric, then there’s no way you can play the tune. So being able to sing it helps to solidify it in your mind.

LE: I’ve heard or read similar statements before, but mostly from older saxophone players, so you’re the first guitarist I’ve heard say that. It certainly makes perfect sense, even if a musician can’t sing.
PB: Absolutely, I’ve got this whole thing that I learned from a guy I studied with in Baltimore when I lived in DC. His name was Asher Zlotnik. When I studied with him, he must have been in his late sixties. He was pretty brilliant in terms of ear training. His whole thing was, if you can’t sing it, you shouldn’t be trying to play it. So he had me working on all these basic things in terms of being able to outline chords, outline harmony, being able to sing bass lines, and it helped my understanding of music as a language, and so I try to teach that to my students.

It takes a while to really have the whole thing come into play. I’ve found that most of the people I work with as a sideman have incredible ears. They have great pitch. The only way to develop that, if you don’t have that naturally, is to work on singing these different things.

LE: So when you hear someone playing something, you can think, “That’s an A-flat and I can play this with an A-flat.”
PB: Yeah, in a general sense.

LE: You’re a pretty busy guy.
PB: Fortunately, yes.

LE: That’s always a good thing for musicians. Is the Tuesday night gig at Smoke [in New York City] a regular thing?
PB: Well, it’s not really my gig. Organ player Mike LeDonne has been doing it for quite a while. He’s got a regular band that he uses, with Pete Bernstein, but Pete, of course, is very busy playing guitar with everyone, including Sonny Rollins, and a lot of time he can’t make it, so Mike will call me to come in. Since it’s about eight short blocks from where I live, I can walk to the gig. And I’ve been doing that a lot lately. That’s been nice. He’s had Vincent Herring playing alto saxophone, and a variety of drummers. McClinty Hunter, Rodney Greene, sometimes Joe Farnsworth will be there. It’s always fun to play with Mike. He’s another great organ player.

Paul Bollenback and Chris McNulty

LE: I’ve been aware of him for a number of years. He put out an album some years back that I believe was recorded live at Smoke. You also do gigs on your own and with Chris McNulty.
PB: Yes, we’ve had a…    Well, I should say, we’re married. I usually don’t put it out there just because, “Oh, it’s his wife,” or “That’s her husband.” We do quite a bit of work together. Chris just got done with a month-long tour of Australia, then went directly to ten days in Russia. I did a portion of the Australian trip with her and then we were doing a trio with Andrei Kardokov, a great piano player, all over the Eastern part of Russia, the Finnish area.

LE: For those folks who travel to New York, or elsewhere, where can they find out about your schedule?
PB: Best thing is to check my website, which just my name, Paul Bollenback, dot com.

LE: And if they can’t find your CDs in the local record shop, they can go there.
PB: Chris and I actually started our own small label. It’s not signing anybody, for all those hungry musicians out there looking for a label. We did it for us because we wanted some control over our product, and to be able to move it in the way we wanted. It’s called Elefant Dreams and you can link to Elefant Dreams Records from my website. You can order both of our CDs through that.

LE: Well, you’re at the Artists Quarter tonight. Starts at nine. Two sets?
PB: Nine and elevenish. The music is not ish, it’s very strong.

LE: It’s with Billy Peterson on bass and Kenny Horst on drums.
PB: We’re having a ball. Lots of interaction. I mean we’re really stretching it out, playing a variety of tunes. Lots of standards. Makes the idea of rehearsing easier. We’re taking different treatments to them, different styles.

LE: And are you doing some of your originals?
PB: We may do some tonight. I brought some with me. Really, as a leader, I don’t plan a set. I know a lot of guys prepare a set list. Joey DeFrancesco never had a set list. We’d never know what he was gonna play – he’d just start playing and you better know the tune.

LE: That’s where that ear training comes in.
PB: That’s right. Gary Bartz was the same way, and Gary Thomas as well. We’d rehearse five or six hard tunes that he had written, and then he would never tell you what he was going to play. He’d just start and you jump on [chuckles]. I like it because it keeps it fresh.

LE: Let’s close off with something from your albumDouble Gemini.
PB: That’s my second album. It came out in 1997. This particular tune, “Open Hand,” was written here in the Twin Cities when I was playing at the Hotel Luxeford, it was probably 1996. I had such a nice time. People were so nice that I just wrote this tune. So this has a relation to your town. It features Joey De Francesco and Jeff “Tain” Watts on drums.

LE: Thank you so very much for stopping by. I understand you’re off to do some recording now.
PB: Yes, something having to do with the Peterson dynasty, but first, breakfast. More coffee.

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