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  • Monday, May 15, 2006


    Interview With Jazz Guitarist Christopher Woitach


    Christopher Woitach is a jazz guitarist and composer, currently residing in Portland, Oregon. He plays and composes in a fresh, innovative style that pushes the boundaries of modern jazz while embracing everything from swing to bop to free jazz.

    As a player, Christopher has covered a lot of ground, from backing up Rich Little and Bernadette Peters to playing with avant-garde cellist Hank Roberts. He plays throughout the Pacific Northwest with the popular swing band The Monarchs, and does several concerts a year with guitarist John Stowell. He performs every year for Bellingham, Washington’s Jazz Project in a variety of settings, and is a featured performer/educator for the Blaine Jazz Festival in Blaine, Washington.

    As a composer, Christopher combines all his influences with a thoughtful “third-stream” approach. He studied counterpoint with minimalist pioneer David Borden, 20th century composition with Robert Keefe, and jazz guitar with the great Jim Hall. His use of Baroque contrapuntal techniques with modern tonality, combined with extensive improvisatory passages, shows the influence these musicians had on Christopher’s work. Christopher teaches jazz guitar at Western Oregon University in Monmouth, Oregon, where he leads the WOU Guitar Ensemble and performs with the WOU Faculty Jazztet, known as “The Western Rebellion”. Christopher is a Teal Creek Records and Jazz Project recording artist.

    Christopher is soon to release a new album of original compositions, entitled "Dead Men (are heavier than broken hearts)" inspired by and featuring the words of writer Raymond Chandler, widely considered to be the preeminent master of the American “hard-boiled detective” crime fiction genre. Christopher’s website can be found at http://www.affmusic.com/.

    Christopher is also a personal friend of mine for the past thirty (30) years. His lifelong dedication to his passion for playing and composing music has been an inspiration to me during all the years it has been my privilege to know him. Needless to say, I am a huge fan of Christopher Woitach and his music. His previous album of original compostions entitled “Family” (available for download on iTunes here) is one of the most interesting and challenging albums in my jazz collection. Christopher is an extraordinarily talented and gifted musician whose fame and influence is destined to continue spreading throughout the world of jazz. I am very pleased that Christopher agreed to allow me to interview him and to publish his answers here.

    The Interview

    SV: When, how, and under what circumstances, did you first begin playing guitar?

    CW: I was introduced to guitar by a kid named Kevin Cornacchio when I was 13 (1975). He taught me the chords to "Country Roads", by John Denver. This might sound a little dramatic, but as soon as I was able to successfully navigate the changes, I knew that this was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.
    SV: Was your family particularly musical or were you an exception?

    CW: My father [Peter Woitach] was a brilliant jazz piano player (he played in a local Binghamton [upstate New York] group with the great bassist Slam Stewart), and my uncle (his brother) [Richard Woitach] is a great classical pianist and was an associate conductor at the Metropolitan Opera [in New York City] for many years. The rest of my family has dabbled ever so slightly in music, but I'm the only one of my siblings to become a musician.

    SV: What led you to focus on guitar, as opposed to other instruments you played when you were younger?

    CW: When I was in seventh grade, I used to hang around the band room with a ninth grader (Gregory Keeler, who has since had a career in public radio). The band director finally asked if I wanted to play an instrument, and when I said yes, had me play tuba. In those days, I was 6'1'' and weighed 120 lbs - tuba with marching band sucked, in many ways... Once I picked up a guitar, it spoke to me, somehow. Maybe it was just lighter, and one didn't need to study with Arden D. Wellington to play it - hard to say, really.

    SV: How did you learn to play guitar in the beginning?

    CW: After Kevin showed me a few chords, I picked up more chords from some music books around the house, and started trying to figure out music. Eventually I played something I wrote for my father ("The Incident That Took Place At The Hotel Under The Sign Of The Cactus", to be precise), and he told me I was a guitar player, and he would get me some lessons. He actually did come through with lessons and a guitar (following through being miraculous for him towards the end of his life). I studied for about a year with a guy named Brian Kirkpatrick, learned a thing or two, and finally quit due to his being a bit of an ass. After that, I just taught myself for the next few years.

    SV: Who were your early musical influences? Which guitarists or musical styles influenced your playing as you developed as a young musician and a guitarist?

    CW: Certainly, listening to my father play as a child has shaped my playing, although it's more on an unconscious level, as he died when I was 15. My first guitar major influences were Leo Kottke, Jorma Kaukonen, and Jerry Garcia. I gravitated to solo blues guitar after listening to Dave Van Ronk in Garberville, California. I then started listening to and arranging ragtime piano music for guitar - a painful process, as I barely read music at the time. Somewhere in all this, you, Verbit, and I listened to the late night jazz show with DJ Armond Hocker [on WSKG-FM in Binghamton, NY]. I still remember playing guitar at dawn, trying to make some of the sounds we'd heard, and you saying, "Yup, that's jazz", in the sort of chops-busting tone you had at that time.. nothing more came of this for a while, but I believe it had a profound influence on me.

    After hearing guitarist Guy Van Duser's take on stride piano music, particularly Fats Waller, I delved into early jazz music for solo guitar. Around this same time, I got involved with an acoustic R&B group, Moxie, and faced the soul music learning curve. Eventually, I heard the music of Charlie Parker, and have strived for various styles of jazz music ever since.

    SV: When and how did you decide to make a career in music?

    CW: Very shortly after learning guitar, I knew that there was noting else I would ever want to do with my life - it has all seemed inevitable, somehow. I'm pretty sure that I'm one of the luckiest people in the universe - I knew what I wanted to do at an early age, and have done very little else, career-wise.

    SV: When and how did you become interested in jazz music? What led you to focus on playing and composing jazz, as opposed to other genres such as rock, folk, country, classical etc.?

    CW: The when and how I've partly answered, but I'll continue at the next step. One day, while walking on the Commons in Ithaca, NY, I heard an alto saxophone playing the music of Charlie Parker, with that same joie de vivre and technique - mind boggling, at the time. I walked until I found the source, a guy named Joe Salzano playing with my friend Harry on guitar. Harry asked if I'd like to play a tune, and I jumped at the chance. Bear in mind, I'd never played jazz with another person, really, but I did OK. Joe said that if I had any gigs he'd play with me. I promptly walked across the street and got a gig at Pete's Bar, which ended up lasting for three years. Three years of cigarette smoke and sax spit in my face, three years of sucking and trying so hard to get better... I really thank my friend Ken Carrier, a great guitarist and brilliant thinker, for walking with me for hours after each show, especially in the beginning, and helping me deal with what I was sure was ultimate failure and a profound lack of musical talent... sigh - I got through it, somehow.

    Although I love other types of music, and play many styles, the various styles of jazz fulfill me in ways nothing else can - the combination of brains, soul, variety, and the constant reminders to be humble keep me endlessly striving and practicing. My only hope is to be able to play the music someday, with clear intent and honesty.

    SV: What role has formal music training (e.g., in music theory, harmony, counterpoint, composition) had in your development as a guitarist and musician?

    CW: Although there are many great players (Wes Montgomery, Chet Baker, etc) who couldn't read music or did not have any formal training, I believe that the more knowledge you have about music, the better off you are, especially when playing jazz. If I had to make a choice between having a great ear and having theoretical training, of course I'd pick the great ear, but it isn't necessary to make that choice.

    The training I had in composition, although relatively brief, changed the way I thought about music. I began to feel there was a way to create music that wouldn't have to adhere to anyone's imagination but my own, and use all the styles I could play without forcing them together in an artificial fusion. The music I write, while not pleasing to everyone (oh well), is an honest representation of me, which is the all anyone can hope for. None of this would have happened without the training I received, particularly in counterpoint from David Borden. The year or so I spent playing with the great Hank Roberts taught me much about feeling free to use my imagination any way I could, as well.

    SV: What technological advances have you incorporated into or do you find useful in your guitar playing and/or composing?

    CW: Since about 1989 or so, I've used computers to help me codify my music, to be able to hear the ensemble music realized and to print out clear parts that my handwriting (which sucks!) couldn't achieve easily.

    I've always tried to keep abreast of new amplifiers and speakers to get the best sound possible. I currently use Acoustic Image amps with either a Raezer's Edge or Daedalus cabinet. I also use the Roland VG-88 modeling device to get other, non-traditional jazz sounds. I've never liked old tube amps, which are the favorite of so many people - noisy, heavy and easy to break. I don't particularly like the tone, except in an overdriven loud setting, which is not my thing usually.

    SV: What musical instruments other than guitar do you play and/or use in recording or composing?

    CW: I sometimes use my odd little "kotoloa", banjo for Dixieland gigs, and a keyboard as an input device for composing.

    SV: In your publicity, it says, as a composer, you combine all your influences with a thoughtful “third stream” approach. I have seen “third stream” used to refer to a fusion of jazz and classical music, but I was curious what it means as applied to you as a composer?

    CW: Just that - a fusion of Baroque counterpoint and modern jazz, with whatever else thrown in. I dislike the term "third stream," so if you can think of a simple description for my stuff, PLEASE tell me asap!

    SV: You studied jazz guitar with jazz guitar legend Jim Hall, who has recorded nearly 30 albums under his own name, and who worked with such jazz titans as Chico Hamilton, Jimmy Guiffre, Ella Fitzgerald, Sonny Rollins, Bill Evans, and Ron Carter, just to name a few. Pat Metheny referred to Jim Hall as “the father of jazz guitar…who reinvented what the guitar could be as a jazz instrument.” My questions are: (A) How did you come to have the opportunity to study jazz guitar with Jim Hall? (B) What was Jim like as a person and as a teacher? (C) What did you learn from Jim or how did he change your approaches to or techniques of playing jazz guitar or musicianship in general?

    CW: I had a friend who somehow got his number, and I called. I had to be interviewed by his wife, Jane, and I guess I passed the audition.

    Jim was one of nicest people I've ever met - he always put me at ease, and whenever we'd play a tune, he'd walk across the room and shake my hand at the end - every time. He was a great teacher - we mostly focused on how to approach improvisation, almost more philosophy than anything else.

    He taught me to trust my instincts, and after hearing my first recordings of my original music, was the first person to encourage me to focus on that. Having him accompany me on tunes taught me a lot about how to comp, and how to play to the situation, whatever it might be. I will always be grateful to him - I got to sit in the presence of a true master craftsman and artist - what else could you wish for in your life?

    SV: Same questions with respect to your studies with David Borden and Robert Keefe?

    CW: I met David Borden at Pete's Bar in Ithaca. He asked me if I would teach his son, Gabe, and I agreed. Gabe is one of the best guitarists I've ever heard, and a very kind and good person, as well. When I decided I wanted to study counterpoint, David let me audit his class at Cornell and then gave me private lessons in fugue writing. He is a true genius and an amazing composer. All my music is based on things he taught me.

    Robert Keefe is a great jazz guitarist as well as being a brilliant composer. I met him at a jam session I ran at the ABC Cafe in Ithaca. We hit it off, and he eventually gave me private lessons in modern composition. I never write music without applying the techniques he taught me for preparing the music - too much to go into here, but all great stuff.

    SV: What musicians are you playing and recording with currently?

    CW: Lots of projects going on - Duos with Larry Holloway, Rick Homer and John Stowell, my group, the Cathexis Orchestra, Lance Buller and the Monarchs, society jobs with David Cooley, various groupings for the Jazz Project, and anything else I get hired for.

    SV: What musical projects are you currently working on or otherwise involved with?

    CW: I just finished what I consider a great CD - "Dead Men (are heavier than broken hearts)" - a tribute to Raymond Chandler, the great detective writer. I also just finished a fun project with Lance Buller and Stephanie Porter called "Alone Together" - nice swing music, mostly. I'll be making a new recording of mostly jazz standards with Larry Holloway, a great bass player from Bellingham, called "Doggone" - probably out by June. John Stowell and I are about to start a guitar duo recording, too - I sound busier than I feel, somehow...

    SV: The album covers you created for Western Rebellion and Family clearly demonstrate your gifts and talent as a graphic artist. Is this graphic art an outlet that you will continue to pursue professionally?

    CW: I'm only interested in drawing personified instruments in human settings, so in the rare case where someone wants that look (the Jazz Project in Bellingham sometimes uses my stuff), I'll do CD cover art or a poster, but generally I hate to do graphics for other people - everybody has their own ideas, and I'm not interested.

    SV: What advice would you give to a young person who wants to learn to play jazz guitar and/or make a career in jazz music?

    CW: Study with someone better than you, play with people better than you, practice till your fingers bleed, and don't be in it for the money - you can make a semi-comfortable living, but that's it, financially. (PS - learn how to invest - you'll need money!). Jazz is about Gestalt - becoming one with the other players - nothing else matters - not your solos, not the bread, nothing.

    SV: If you had to compile a list of the “best” jazz recordings (with “best” being defined by whatever subjective standard you care to apply), which albums would comprise the top ten (10)?

    CW: Not the "best", (who knows what that is?) but some I like:
    Out To Lunch - Eric Dolphy
    Any early Wes Montgomery album
    All Charlie Parker records
    Ditto for Bud Powell
    Ditto for Sonny Rollins
    Emperian Isles - spelled wrong, I think - Herbie Hancock
    All Jim Hall, but I love Concierto
    All Bill Evans
    Grace Under Pressure - John Scofield
    Tim Berne records - especially any with Miniature with Hank Roberts
    All Pat Martino
    Anything i forgot...

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