Interview with Chris Jentsch: Everyone must come up with their own “intellect to intuition” asset allocation: Video

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Jazz interview with jazz guitarist and composer Chris Jentsch. An interview by email in writing. 

JazzBluesNews.Space: – First let’s start with where you grew up, and what got you interested in music?

Chris Jentsch: – I grew up in Cherry Hill, New Jersey in the 1960s … a suburb of Philadelphia, actually. There was music around the house. My Father played piano and I heard a lot of Count Basie and Sinatra records. Popular culture and my brother probably got me into The Beatles, and I followed along through the decade with their entire growth spurt.

JBN.S: – How did your sound evolve over time? What did you do to find and develop your sound?

CHJ: – I don’t remember ever trying to find my sound; it was just always there. At the start I certainly had less chops and less knowledge, etc., but the idea and even the presence of a sound was always there. I think one just has to stubbornly follow the sound one hears inside their own head. I know I did. Some people get there by copying others and then merging the ideas, and I did a decent amount of that coming up – transcribing (content, solos, chords, articulations, rhythms, harmonic progressions, different genres, etc.) and replicating others’ sounds. Trying them on like new clothes until things start to fit. Some musicians seem to come out fine by saying they have avoided direct copying, but if you are listening, there is no way to evade being influenced by the history of your field. There are technical things that evolve too, of course…like different kinds of guitars, amp settings, and effects, but the basic sound wasn’t anything I felt like I ever “worked” on.

JBN.S: – What practice routine or exercise have you developed to maintain and improve your current musical ability especially pertaining to rhythm?

CHJ: – In terms of serious work on the guitar, there were a few points in my development when I was practicing several hours a day: in the late 1980s and early ‘90s when I was studying with Dave Holland at the New England Conservatory (one didn’t want Dave to feel like he was wasting his time) and the late 1990s when I was preparing for the instrumental component of my jazz composition degree at the University of Miami. I think those were two major growth spurts. During my Eastman years from the early ‘90s to the mid 90s I had some tendonitis problems that held me back…but I got through it some how and I don’t have any residual issues. Of course practicing several hours a day at my peaks is nothing compared to what the heavy instrumentalists put in, but I wound up diversifying into composition, orchestration, music history, and also music technology (learning software for notation, digital editing, and video editing). All of that to say that my practicing has fallen off in recent years as I continue to expand into different aspects of production: Web site management, publicity, CD manufacturing, applying for grants, teaching, etc. These days my practicing usually consists of working on what ever I have coming up that I have to perform. This usually consists of making sure I have the written lines under my fingers and/or making sure I’m familiar with the improvisational environments I have prepared for myself. Time spent on the instrument also comes from when I use the instrument to write music … which either happens that way or also at the piano, in my head, or on the computer. In terms of rhythm, I made strides with Holland on groove, and being able to move in and out of spontaneous cross rhythms…and also with Bob Moses, working with him on his 8 point resolution studies (practicing resolving your lines on each of the 8 eighth notes in a measure of 4/4). Other than that, over the years and still, I enjoy working on Bach violin Sonatas and Partitas for the guitar. I use that repertoire for exercising rhythm as well as everything else…I feel like with those I’ve barely scratched the surface.

JBN.S: – Which harmonies and harmonic patterns do you prefer now? You’re playing is very sensitive, deft, it’s smooth, and I’d say you drift more toward harmony than dissonance. There is some dissonance there, but you use it judiciously. Is that a conscious decision or again, is it just an output of what goes in?

CHJ: – My concept of dissonance versus consonance has evolved now to the point where it isn’t just thinking something like G7 is dissonant that needs to be resolved by playing something on C. Now I think of it like this: there are standard consonant notes on different chords and standard scales that can be applied in certain situations that are considered consonant … and something ANYTHING other than the standard grammar of the musical language could be considered dissonant, to greater or lesser degrees. My flavor of presenting tension and release is to go back and forth between those two ideas because I’d rather go in and out. I find I get bored with music that is too continuously consonant or too dissonant. However, it is important and interesting to realize that one’s idea of what is consonant or dissonant is always changing … for me usually in my expanding tolerance for dissonance … or call it finding new contexts in which to understand something that used to feel dissonant as now consonant. When I hear a player that sticks to the standard grammar, my thoughts sometimes drift from admiration to feeling like I’m not hearing enough “wrong” notes … artfully included. Ran Blake was always encouraging on this point.

JBN.S: – How to prevent disparate influences from coloring what you’re doing?

CHJ: – If such prevention is a virtue, then I haven’t done a very good job. I’ve made a whole career out of amalgamating a range of eclectic influences. Everything from The Beatles to Takemitsu. Africa, India, jazz, blues, and rock. Pop music, classical, folk, and whatnot. I’ve tried to be inclusive of everything I like and not exclusive.

JBN.S: – What’s the balance in music between intellect and soul?

CHJ: – As much time as I spent in music conservatories, one thing I came to realize was not part of the curriculum was any treatment of the use of intuition in composing or improvising, perhaps because it would seem to downplay the importance of hard work, and also perhaps because it would be difficult to teach. Schools generally, as a simplification, are better at teaching (and grading) things like what scale goes with what chord, etc., and there is debate about the implications of the way the rise of college jazz education has influenced jazz, along with the decline of the jam session or apprenticeship model (think of the Art Blakey band as a school). The intellect or the hard work is there to provide a resource for the intuition, so that when one is called upon to react spontaneously there is a part of you that can be accessed faster than one can think about it. Sonny Rollins has said you don’t have time to think when you’re improvising, but hasn’t Miles said you have to think when you play? An essay could be written on the potential meanings of those two points of view. Many times you have to think yourself out of a musical problem, but I have experienced calling upon intuition at times when composing, reaping a benefit that I would never have thought of if I were to just use the intellect. It is kind of like using Wikipedia (which is fine as long as you are careful about the inaccuracies), but more importantly, looking to Wikipedia for answers doesn’t do you any good if you don’t know enough to formulate the questions. As an extreme method to crack into a new vein of creativity, at times I have used chance operations or aleatoric methods to discover the sometimes shocking efficacy of random sound relationships, rhythms, chords, melodies, etc. So there is a balance, and everyone must come up with their own “intellect to intuition” asset allocation.

JBN.S: – There’s a two-way relationship between audience and artist; you’re okay with giving the people what they want?

CHJ: – That can be problematic. It might be too complicated and easily mistaken to second guess an audience. I have had these thoughts also when applying for grants when a committee has to judge your submission. Better to propose something you believe in and want to do, and flourish off of your actual enthusiasm, rather than get stuck having to execute something you imagined someone else wanted, which might not even be real.

JBN.S: – Please any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

CHJ: – Hmm … well about ten years ago, maybe longer, I was over at Roberta Piket’s apartment in Brooklyn…she’s a pianist I know from NEC…she had invited me over for a session. Might have been the great Eliot Zigmund on drums that day. Anyway, I had pulled out my chart on the Spiderman cartoon theme (which is an amusing minor blues with a bridge), and we were playing through that. Apparently George Garzone lived in the same building (Roberta and I both knew him from his teaching at NEC). George burst in to the unlocked apartment with his tenor; of course he killed. He read the weirdo coda I had made (non-standard ending), and remarked afterwords, “What a great tune to walk in on”. That was a fun moment, and classic Garzone.

JBN.S: – How can we get young people interested in jazz when most of the standard tunes are half a century old?

CHJ: – I think there are at least two parts to this matter. One is with education in the arts in the schools in general. I haven’t studied the issue but conventional wisdom contends that, partially due to the mandated importance of standardized tests, the arts have been deemphasized in favor of core reading, writing, and math…with flat or increased funding for sports. Since there also appears to be science to suggest that the arts elevate certain kinds of mental creativity as well as teamwork, then, reduced prominence for these subjects (art, music, theater, poetry) seems short sighted. The specific point you raise is one that is more obscure, pointed, and perceptive. I grew up hearing those standard tunes in the house through Sinatra records, so when I began to get interested in jazz I had a baseline familiarity with that repertoire. I played those tunes on commercial gigs starting in the eighties. Audiences in the forties and fifties knew the tunes that were being improvised on. And … half a century? Golden era standards from the 1930s are more like 85 years old! From what I can tell, jazz students of more recent vintage are focusing on odd time signatures, vamps, world music influences, and original composition. And my sense is that they are more insular, less inclined toward learning through collegial collaboration and a common repertoire. There is absolutely less emphasis on the artful elaboration and decoration of those standard tunes, progressions, etc. I don’t know the answer to your question, but I do know that jazz has always been changing, and it will continue to change to the point where contemporary iterations might become increasingly harder to recognize as jazz. And I don’t say that as a neo-conservative. To an extent, I find that both of those descriptions of a jazz musician apply to me as a guy with a foot in both eras. I grew up knowing and liking the standards. I learned the music using that repertoire and I still like playing those tunes today. But I also spent years in jazz colleges and conservatories and have made my mark through composing for my own bands, often with a rock music inclination with electric guitar as my main instrument. The music continues to transfigure, for better or worse depending on your perspective; as I have often said, nothing is constant except change itself.

JBN.S: – John Coltrane said that music was his spirit. How do you understand the spirit and the meaning of life?

CHJ: – I don’t know how to answer this today. All I can say is that recently I have just been feeling gratitude. Despite the hardships I experience in making a life in music, I know that many others in this country and around the world are suffering.

JBN.S: – If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

CHJ: – Difficult. Something about public dissemination of culture…that it wouldn’t be so highly controlled commercially. Or that a wider range of music be more present in the culture. That more people would have an appetite for music that went beyond tightly formatted conduits so that more musicians than the superstar 1% could make a better living. And that there were more venues to play this music. Even in New York City, it seems like there are always more concert spaces closing than opening. But I don’t want to complain…remember … gratitude.

JBN.S: – Who do you find yourself listening to these days?

CHJ: – Lots of things. Sonny Rollins lately. Steve Lacy. Negativland, Grateful Dead, Dutilleux, Takemitsu, Cage. Traditional African music. The Miles Davis Bootleg Series Volume 6, lately…the last tour with Trane. Armstrong, Ellington. Corea/Vitous/Haynes reunions. YouTube is fascinating. Live stuff from Towner/Garbarek from the 1970s. The other day I found bootleg audio of a Bob Marley concert I attended in 1978.

JBN.S: – What is the message you choose to bring through your music?

CHJ: – There are many messages on many levels, but one is that there is a way to be creative and unusual without being harsh and impenetrable. More generally, what I try and express with my music is what it feels like to be alive, to attempt to flourish and thrive, and again, to be thankful that I am able to do so.

JBN.S: – Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go?

CHJ: – I think I’d opt for the future. Technology is changing so fast, can you imagine what a cell phone or a computer will do in twenty years? The past is alluring, to go back and witness a famous event, but I’d be too afraid of, say, sixteenth century dentistry or medicine. I liked that Stephen King novel about going back in time and changing the Kennedy assassination. If it was just a quick trip and not permanent? Maybe I’d go back and play some Stravinsky for Mozart. In my past life as a radio DJ and in my teaching I have enjoyed curating music for different audiences…it would be fascinating to observe his reaction. Would he be intrigued? Offended? Blown away? Comprehending or just confused? Somehow I doubt the latter.

JBN.S: – I have been asking you so far, now may I have a question from yourself…

CHJ: – A question for you or a question for myself? What do you get out of listening to music?

JBN.S: – Thanks for answers. In jazz rhythm and spirit, which to date there are few musicians have, unfortunately …

JBN.S: – So putting that all together, how are you able to harness that now?

CHJ: – Here’s a poem I wrote:

Done ran the dharma down.

I’ve neither lost nor won.

Don’t even want nothing.

A peanut weighs a ton.

Interview by Simon Sargsyan

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