Bruno in Blue Lake

Bruno in Blue Lake

interviewed by Lazaro Vega
copyright © 1999 Lazaro Vega

On Thursday, February 18, Philadelphia based guitarist Jimmy Bruno performed with fellow guitarist Jack Wilkins at The B.O.B., 20 Monroe Avenue N.E, in downtown Grand Rapids, Michigan. They were accompanied by local bassist Tom Lockwood, an employee of Yamaha Corporation of America's Band and Orchestral Division in Grand Rapids, and drummer Randy Marsh, the son of Woody Herman/Stan Kenton saxophonist Arno Marsh. The performance began at 9 p.m. and was free and open to the public.

On Thursday, February 11, 1999, Blue Lake Public Radio's Lazaro Vega caught up with Jimmy Bruno and what follows is a transcription of their phone interview, portions of which were aired on Blue Lake or used in a preview article for The Grand Rapids Press.

Lazaro Vega: To catch up, what have you been doing lately? People have been listening over the radio station to your "Live at Birdland" Concord CD. That's been out for a little while. What kind of musical activity you've been involved in lately?

Jimmy Bruno: Well, I tell you, I just got off the phone with Concord Records. To back up a second -- I'm preparing to do a new CD, a quartet with bassist Charles Fambrough. The other personnel hasn't been set, yet.

But it will be something different for me. It's kind of like a whacked out bebop. It's not the traditional kind of music that people are used to hearing me play. But some different kind of lines. I guess its a little more aggressive. The rhythm section is a little more free. We're even doing some funk things and mostly original music.

The project is taking longer than I thought, so in the meantime what Concord is doing, when we did that Live at Birdland CD there was a second night, and they recorded both nights. One night it was with saxophonist Scott Hamilton. That's going to be out at the end of April, early May.

They're going to put that out, in the meantime, while I get this new project together.

Vega: For you working that night, was it something that you really had to switch gears for? Or was Hamilton willing to meet you on your musical common ground?

Bruno: It was a switch gear thing. Scott has a different kind of style. I interacted with Scott a lot differently than with Bobby Watson.

It's different but it's along the same lines. I just listened to it the other day and it's better than I thought it was. Not that I didn't think it was good. There's actually some good stuff on there. There's some good trio stuff, and Scott plays some really good tunes. It's different than the Live at Birdland with Bobby Watson.

Vega: Live at Birdland with Bobby is more of your style?

Bruno: Yes. That's a little closer match.

Vega: It seems like Scott Hamilton's role as a saxophone player would demand a sort of Charlie Christian esthetic on the guitar, maybe.

Bruno: (Laughing) Maybe so. I don't think he got that. It's different.

Vega: So in this new project are you writing the music yourself or is Fambrough helping?

Bruno: There's some stuff by me, some by Charles and some together. You know, it's funny, I wanted it to be all original music. This is one of the things we go back and forth about. We've also taken some standard tunes and done some really strange things to them like 'All Blues' is a very loose interpretation of that; and the tune 'Cherokee.' It's not in the typical way you think you're going to hear 'Cherokee.' It kind of goes from funk to swing, and there's a lot of free style playing on it.

I haven't been playing in the bebop style now for about a year, believe it or not. And it's funny, you know, because there's such a time lag between the records and what I'm doing. By the time the record comes out, this is true with every CD I've made; by the time the CD comes out, I'm doing something different. Because there's always like a six month period there.

Vega: What was the inspiration to maybe go a little bit more free with this record, was there something you were hearing that was different, or?

Bruno: I'll always loved bebop, it's the style I learned how to play. But, I got stale within that style of music, I think. So it was time to change musical thinking with a different rhythm section, different feels. There's always going to be some bebop lines, of course, but you know I just wanted to play some different kind of stuff.

If there's anybody that's really interested in some of the technical stuff, it's a lot of superimposition of triads over different chords, and a lot of substitutions. More John Coltrane-ish kind of musical investigation.

It's really different. Also, I've been playing the solid body Benedetto guitar. So there's a little different sound there. It has a little more of a dirtier sound to it without being distorted. It's different.

You never know how people are going to react to that. So far I've played this music just about every Saturday night when I'm in town, in Philadelphia, with Charles Fambrough. When I'm not on the road I play at a place called "Chris's Cafe" in Center City, Philadelphia.

That's my base of operation. So all my new stuff you get to hear there if you're in Philly. So we've been doing this for maybe three months. Little by little. Most of the people that come out to hear me play there, all of them, really, have been fans since before I even recorded. They seem to accept it. Not all, but most, the majority. I'd say 99 per cent.

Vega: You're fortunate to have a core audience like that to try things out in front of to see what's working and what's not.

Bruno: They've been coming to see me so long that they're friends. Some are better friends than others. I've told them, 'I'm really curious about your opinion. If you don't like it, please tell me.' It's not going to make me change, but I want to know just out of curiosity.

Vega: In relation to what you'll be doing in Grand Rapids with Jack Wilkins, have you ever played a concert with him before?

Bruno: Oh, many times. Jack and I have been doing this for the last two years on and off. You know what's funny? We can't seem to get anybody -- well, we haven't really tried, either, because we're really terrible businessmen. But we've been trying to get to record a CD together. We always talk about it, but then we never seem to be able to do it. Like I said, we don't try very hard.

That is also different, kind of. That will be a little bit of some straight-ahead stuff which is what you'd expect two guitar players to do. Then some new stuff, actually. We may even try some of the newer type of playing. Because Jack's very well aware of what I've been doing. We'll see what happens. It will be interesting to say the least.

Vega: Do you have your routines developed, for example when you play a head he's going to go one way and you're going to go another? Do you have all that worked out?

Bruno: It's hard to know what we're going to do. That's kind of like with me and Bobby Watson, there's a sixth sense, an ESP. It's like that with me and Jack, too. We've never rehearsed, ever, in the last two years. Just from playing together, I guess that's our rehearsal. So things can happen.

People always come up and say, 'Man that was great! How long did it take you guys to rehearse that?' And a lot of times it was the first time we played it. That's the great thing about jazz: that could happen.

Vega: What would you say is the major stylistic difference between yourself and Jack?

Bruno: Humm. You know? I don't know. It's kind of in the same bag. Jack's lines are certainly different than mine. If there is a difference it's definitely the conception of the lines. His are way different than mine, and I like his better than mine. That's always the way. He says it's the same for him. We just get along musically and personally as well.

Vega: I know one aspect of your guitar playing that people will remark on is your speed and your cleanness. You can whip off some rapid playing. It seemed Joe Pass had pushed the envelope for that sort of thing. What is it about the role of speed in playing?

Bruno: Speed just for the sake of speed is not necessarily going to be music. I don't think about it from that standpoint.

At some point in my teens I stopped listening to guitar players. Not that I stopped listening to them, but I became a little more interested in what saxophone players were playing. I just tried to emulate that, and piano players. It just seems that if you try to emulate lines like that you need some kind of technique. So I started to hear lines like that and the technique actually followed.

Vega: And what saxophone and piano players would they have been?

Bruno: Of course, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Sonny Stitt, Art Pepper, even some really early Stan Getz, Oscar Peterson, Art Tatum. The hardest things they would be able to play I would try to emulate on the guitar. Of course it really needs a lot of technique to do it, I guess. You make music with whatever ability that you have. So, sometimes it comes out like that.

Vega: The guitar is an interesting instrument because it's used in so many different world cultures and it's the predominant instrument of our age, the guitar and the drum. How do you feel about being a guitarist on a level that you've reached obviously after years of practicing, playing out live, recording, and doing the grind of learning your instrument to the level you brought it to and then see people playing maybe three chord music making big bread?

Bruno: It used to bother me. It doesn't anymore. Jazz is only for a select group of people. I don't mean that in an elitist way at all. It has always been like that. There have been attempts to change it, but I only think that succeeds in dumbing down the music and dumbing down the culture.

There's nothing; really, I can do about it. The answer is education and schools. That's the answer. If people don't know the difference between some guy playing three chords as opposed to Joe Pass, well, I think they're missing out a lot. And the only way somebody gets to appreciate that is through education.

It's the same thing with art, painting and sculpture; it's the same thing. It is such a subjective medium. But the more education a person has, or the more understanding of art just in general, not even just in music but in any type of art, that will increase the audience.

Unfortunately our culture doesn't support that kind of stuff. Our culture in this country is a Pop culture. Look at our movies or our t.v. shows. The music in our t.v. shows. If you watch "Nick at Nite" playing the old shows you'll hear better music. Some people take issue with me about what is better. That's what I think is better. If I had the time I could actually prove it to somebody, why it's better.

Music's funny. If a guy wants to be an architect, he can have radical ideas; he can be way outside the lines. But if there's not some basic stuff there, the building's going to fall down. Not so with music. Anybody that has an idea or a desire, with minimal talent, if he gets lucky enough the media will pick it up and jump on it. That's what people get exposed to. If you feed somebody hamburger everyday, after awhile they don't want to eat steaks. Bad analogy, but that's the best I can do.

I don't think our culture helps very much. It really annoys me sometimes when you see how they refer to different pop people as artists. I thought that term always meant that there was some kind of ability or craft that was behind it. I just don't get it.

I think that the powers that be, that are pushing music based on production values, they are ignorant to begin with. I think that you can market anything.

It's just as easy to sell good music as bad. I think it's just as easy to sell music that's a little more harmonically interesting than to sell music that doesn't have any harmony at all. If you look at some of the popular music that's out today -- not all of it, some of it. Some of it is very, very good.

My daughter likes the Spice Girls and she plays that a lot. I don't think it's any great art, but whoever that band is playing behind them, I think they're wonderful. There's really good musicianship there. And the tunes: they have a melody, they have some harmonies. I mean, there's something there.

Some of the other pop music that's around, the harmony is buried, if there is a chord. Sometimes there isn't, it's just root/fifth/root and a beat. That's getting down lower and lower to the point where we're almost responding to prehistoric instincts, beating on drums in a real primitive way. I wish I had the answer.

In response to your original question, 'Do I think about it a lot?' Not really, it does not bother me that much. It used to, but I don't have to think about it.

What's almost as annoying as all that is to see certain guitar players or just certain jazz musicians in general trying to get a bigger audience and sacrificing the music in the process. That does not help either. Everybody's trying to cash in, going for the dollar. You can't blame them. That's pretty sick.

Vega: What about the scene there in Philly? You mentioned you play at a place called Chris's. Who are some of the people that you would play with regularly besides Charles Fambrough?

Bruno: A bunch of people comes in from time to time. Bobby Watson's been there many times. Chris Potter. This weekend I'm playing with Eric Alexander. Paul Bollenbach has been around to play. He's coming in. Howard Alden, Frank Vignola, Randy Johnston. I'm kind of friends with all these guys and if they get this way there's always a spot for them at Chris's. The owner, he's open to all kind of this stuff and makes it possible. So it works out pretty good.

People really like it. We've had very interesting combinations. Coming up is going to be, I don't know if you know this guy, John Blake, the jazz violinist?

Vega: He used to play with McCoy Tyner, right?

Bruno: Exactly. Well, it's going to be him and Charles Fambrough one weekend in March. So, a lot of good stuff is going on. We're going to do something with Kim Nezarian who's one of the New York Voices singers.

Right now the Philadelphia jazz scene is pretty healthy for me and I can go on the road when I need to. I don't like to travel that much, but in the right doses it's fine.

Lazaro Vega is a radio program host with Blue Lake Public Radio and The Grand Rapids Press in Michigan. The JJA hopes to post several of his transcribed interviews with artists including Ken Vandermark, Lester Bowie, and Kahil El'Zabar, among others.

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