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Steve Greene

Steve Greene photo by Geoff Tesch

Steve Greene is a gifted musician whose voice is the guitar. As a composer he specializes in writing for modern dance companies. He has worked with the critically acclaimed Garth Fagen Dance and most recently with the Boston Dance Collective. He teaches, writes and performs regularly around Rochester and western NY. What stands out the most about Steve's playing though, is not just his skill on the instrument, but his rich, warm melodic tone. A sound that is not common today. Steve's playing possesses a quality that goes beyond his just playing a great sounding instrument. He consistently maintains a beautiful sound that transcends the guitar he chooses to play. Gene Bertoncini says, "I love the sound that Steve gets from the guitar." Tuck Andress says that Steve's music "invites you into a world of openness and possibilities." Steve and Gene Bertoncini have also just completed a CD of jazz standards as an acoustic duo. The disc will be available this Spring. Steve graciously spent a Sunday afternoon in March with this writer to play guitar, laugh and share some ideas about deep tones.

We began the interview with an acoustic jam over a couple of tunes (a Bb blues and Miles Davis' Tune Up). Steve played his 1947 Gibson L-7. I played my 1941 Epiphone Deluxe Regent. The guitars blended beautifully together. Steve's tone stood out immediately. His sound was full, rich and very deep. What follows is the discussion that ensued...



Forget the interview, lets get down to what really matters...tone. (Very silly official sounding voice) You gotta go deeper Eric. You can't tread on the top of that harmony. No, no that won't save you. You gotta go into that special place. I know it hurts to go there but...(both laugh)



I know it's there somewhere. I think I know where the door is.


Oh you've definitely got the oil on the hinges. I can tell that you've been there before.

Finding that very sweet tone! That's the stuff!



Do you mind if I say a few things about tone?

Please do.




Can I see your guitar? (Plays a very sweet melody on strings 1 and 2 while his right hand is picking around the 16th fret). Hear how the bottom strings all vibrate sympathetically and add to the color of each note? When you hit this note (plays A at the 10th fret on the second string-picking around the 16th fret) the bottom strings will ring sympathetically. This is such a sweet spot on the guitar. Picking around the node point—half way between the bridge and the note you're fretting with your left hand, gives you this tone. Also using the side of the pick with more surface area helps you get that tone. (Picks the note) Just hang out with that note and work on the tone color. (In a very official voice) So your first assignment, should you chose to accept it...(both laugh). Hang out with that "A" note for a long time, then with every note you play, consider the color of it, by that I mean try to hear the overtones. Check out that" A" note. You may need to use a lighter pick, like a medium as opposed to a heavy pick. (Hands back my guitar and a medium pick).

(I attempt to play a few melodic lines slowly in the same fashion).



Yeah. Right, that's it. Key into that sound all the time.

That's a very deep, musical sound.



I'm not saying that you should do what I do, but check out how the overtones move.
(Plays again).

That's beautiful. Thanks. Speaking of your tone. In the notes on your album The Steve Greene Trio Acoustic Living (1995 North twelve Records), Gene Bertoncini comments that we should all play melodies the way you do, from way inside. He's absolutely right. That whole album is about sweet tone. Did you set out to create this beautiful acoustic tone when you recorded this album?



We set out to capture our sound as a trio. But I'm always trying to work on the tone. So, yes we really tried to create that sweet acoustic sound.

One of my goals as a musician has been to really get deeper into that sound too. I would love to get beyond my chops; to get to the place where I can really say something with my improvisation.



Yeah, I think a lot of the lines you're doing are really nice lines and when you start to pay attention to the expression of tone color you can't help but make them even more musical. Then the licks might change too because you'll be listening to the harmonic series and that will lead you into these different melodic places.

It's scary, but that actually makes sense to me. (both laugh). You should write a book...Zen and The Art of Jazz Guitar.



The Tao of the Benedetto? (both laugh)

That sound is definitely something I need to work on. I tape a lot of my gigs and when I listen back, there are times when it sounds good to me, but there are times when I think, "Man, I'm just making noise. I'm not saying anything." Other times I listen and I say, "Wow! That spoke to me. How can I re-capture that?" I guess the thing to do is to be skilled enough so that I can create that tone consistently.



Yeah. We all want that. And it's certainly not just one tone color. It's an awareness of tone possibilities applied to real-time music events. The differences between the first and second choruses of your blues solo were remarkable. In the second solo you really got into the music; into that space . . .very centered. Once you got there I could hear that you were getting deep into creating melody. You can relax there and then the music breathes too.

Letting the music breathe, giving it some space can make a big difference in what we play. Just relaxing when you're playing can really help. I can move beyond my typical lines and licks then and really focus on the music when I'm relaxed.



Definitely. I think its a nice idea to let it breathe. I think a lot of true musical elements are found in very basic things. I remember one summer when I was playing electric bass with this free jazz band. I think I was 16. We spent a whole summer practicing and I would spend so much time playing these simple bass riffs. Just like two note ideas. You can find a lot of music in the very basic things, like the exploration of one note and its overtones. It leads you to the next right note. Like if you're drawing with a charcoal stick and your picture is all grayish tones and then you introduce the color blue. Its huge. Then the tones in the grays and blue can lead you to choose other colors too. That's true with arrangements, like that Tune Up arrangement you played (plays my chord melody arrangement almost exactly). Here's your E min 9 chord (at the 7th fret). Then there's this, this, this and this (plays each note of the chord individually). Why do we need to run a scale when we've got these four notes right here under our fingers already? Any combination of these notes sound musical in different ways. Then when you add duration it opens up a whole new world of possibilities for improvising. Your tonal color factor comes in here too. (Plays a very deep, slow, soulful line over the first 3 chords of Tune Up). And the melody, always be aware of the melody directly and indirectly.

Wow. That's beautiful and very simple. It's deep Well, Let me ask you...



Yes. I was born a vitamin child. (both laugh)

...about your history as a player. How long have you been playing?



Ok. We're going from deep to official "magazine interview." Ok. I give. "Uncle" (both laugh). I have been playing since I was 10 years old.

Did you get into rock and roll? Were you always into jazz?



I started to get hip to jazz around age 15. I was also listening a lot to the compositions of Charles Ives and Harry Partch at that time. One of the things, in retrospect, that helped with this tone coloration idea was listening to rock players too; players like Jeff Beck. There's something in the distorted guitar that displays the harmonics of the string very vividly. There's something in the distorted guitar that allows you to hear those overtones.

I suspect that most of us aren't as in tune with that aspect of sound as you are. At least I'm not. When did you start paying attention to that tone color issue? When did the awareness come into play for you and what brought it about?



I bet you're much more aware than you give yourself credit. Like think of all the different ways one can say "Yes , I would like to do that." We can hear immediately if someone really wants to do that or kind of wants to do that or really would rather not do that, by the way they express (color) their voice. Put those inflective hearing muscles towards the guitar strings. In my own learning though, there's a guy named Karl Berger who had a place called the Creative Music Studio in Woodstock, NY. He had an exercise there where people would sit in a circle and sing one note and when you would start to hear a sound from that note’s harmonic series you would sing it. When you do that for half an hour you have this beautiful choir happening and you start to think, man this is all generated off of one note. That was big in terms of getting me to hear these things. That got me interested in the tonal color issue. Doing things like painting and sculpture got me more interested in what form was about. I also had a teacher at Bard College named Ben Boretz who was into things like taking the first measure or two of a simple 5 note Stravinsky piano piece and listening to it. Then exploring it's content in many different ways for two or three months. You really learn to study it that way. So the idea was to hang with something and really see what the particulars were rather than just "learn it" and moving on to some thing else—really absorb it. What's interesting is that one product of being a teacher is that you are sometimes given the opportunity to revisit a lot of musical material and take it very slowly. So, instead of thinking that it’s a drag, it's an opportunity to hear new things and continue to shape it.

There's a lot to be said for that. Memorizing something is one issue, but really taking that material and building on it creatively I guess is another issue entirely.



Yes. That kind of study in addition to studying old jazz masters and getting a hold of asmuch ear training and theory is all important too. It's all a part of learning the art form.

When you start approaching music in that way there comes a time when your either imitating other peoples music or creatively going beyond it. I guess going beyond it is really where the art is. I guess that's what I think you're doing. You've really found your sound.



That's nice, thanks. I think it's important to really be honest with yourself and really play what it is that you hear. For me if I play this chord (Am 7 at 5th fret). I hear this (sings a very slow melodic line and then plays the notes). I don't hear this (scats a be bop line). That honesty in improvisation is important because you're reflecting on the story of the song, which is the melody. That's very different from some harmonic schema, like a scale, which is a useful tool—but it doesn't reflect on the "story". Like if I have this melody (plays When the Saints Go Marching in) and I play this over it (plays a fast bebop line). It's like we're having two different conversations. There are very few people who can make the be bop architecture work. There are many that can replicate it. It's a great study and may or may not be your natural voice. So even just inflecting the melody or as with Dixie Land music with 3 or 4 instruments riffing on the melody can make a tune really interesting. (Plays a few riffs based on the melody). That's huge, then add complexity to taste.

Yes, your "When the saints go Marching In" example, that can be like starting a conversation and having someone abruptly change the subject.



Yes. Which might not be a bad thing necessarily, pure linear construction can get grow static sometimes. But if you say; "Hey lets go down the street and buy a pack of gum." And your friend responds with, "I don't believe there should be taxes in Arkansas. It's just not always relevant.

That's a good analogy.



A lot of that comes from the old idea that if you don't have something to say then don't play. If you "let go" to make music then you really have to be willing to get out of the way of the music. You're watching in the sonic field of music—it's a different activity than trying to make music happen.

That makes sense. I've been on both sides of that fence and when the former happens it's magical. Having that approach, has that ...



Caused a lot of problems?

Yes. I mean I see you as an artist. I can't imagine you in a wedding band.



I've done that too though. When I first finished college I had to do that and I played all of those pop and...disco tunes—ahh (both laugh). It takes a long time to believe that what you actually feel is okay. Maybe a wedding band is just the right creative channel. Most things in society, not to put society down, but most things in society don't promote enough individual thought.

That's a profound point. It does take us a long time to know that what we feel is okay. You're absolutely right. Maybe that's a rite of passage for artists. To acknowledge that what we want to express is okay.



You're stuck with your own creativity, so you might as well un-zip the halo.

You're calling to mind many sleepless nights when I was in college wondering if I was going to really become a real jazz player and whether or not I would be able to really tap into my own creativity. There's a lot to be said for addressing those issues.



Yes. The pressure to not be an individual is very heavy in our society. The mechanisms
for those rites of passage are not present. We mentioned Carl Kress and McDonough, they are one of the reasons I'm drawn to the arch top. There's a huge deep quality in how creative they were. They were in the middle of creating something that was very new, jazz and the arch top guitar were still very new when they were playing. So much has happened in the guitar and jazz world since the 30's. To be able to really create some thing now is such a hard task. It is so much easier to imitate. But once again, studying what has gone before and building on it is crucial.

It's always been easier for me to imitate than to create.



It's that way for all of us. I think one of the answers to that is to study music composition. I majored in composition in school as opposed to performance, because I really wanted to get into the structures of music. Jazz to me is about composing. Improvisation is about composing a new melody over the song you're playing, making stuff up, commenting on your current context. Singing your lines helps you get to some of that. Singing with and
without the guitar.

That really helped me get grounded in playing over changes and learning to play what I hear.



It's a great way to make a connection between your ear and your instrument. There's really a lot to study. We have so much information available to us and that information base grows each day as time passes. Jazz is a long, long story that has been told since the late 1800's and were all a part of that history. We’re all adding to that story and all of what we add is important. Studying all of those who have gone before us is so important. That helps us get grounded in the form and be a part of the continuum.

There's such a wealth of good material to study. Well, tell me about your history as a player.



Well, I took lessons at the local music store when I was a kid. I remember there was something about the resonance of an open E chord that just sent me. My parents and sister we're real supportive. That's important. My first Jazz teacher teachers was Don Ames. Don studied with Karl Kress. He plays in a variation of Kress' tuning. The thing about Don is that he is such an expressive player. We're fortunate that he's still around. I'm hoping to record him at some point. I did a lot composing and played in a bunch of bands and went to Bard College to study composition. I started studying with Dick Longale after college. Dick was a local jazz hero. He was the guy that really got me into that 4 to the bar rhythm guitar stuff. I spent 7 years sitting with him and really tried to hear each voice of a chord and how they move individually with each chord change. (Plays a very tasteful groove and swing progression with one chord per beat). You don't make time, you have to step into it...let time happen. Dick passed this on to me. You learn non-verbally from a craftsman. That's the beauty. That's the great mystery. These three chords are not a static form (plays a II-V-I progression) but they're four moving voices. You know my students might say that they want to learn more chords, but I'll ask them, "What else can you do with what you have?" Gene Bertoncini, Mick Goodrick and Jim Hall really have this down. They have studied the guitar linearly. They are orchestral players. There aren't a lot of people that have that skill.

That kind of style can really make a piece interesting.



Yes. Another important element is silence. That's what we're shaping. As a musician you're making sound within the field of silence. The ringing in between the cymbals is as important as anything else. The point is that silence is musical too. You can create tension with it. The music is an occasion to break the silence. We draw the listener in and play and then there's silence. Miles Davis and John Cage were my heroes for really letting the silence happen.

Miles was such a genius with that.



Yeah, he's just in it. It's like when you're in a crowd of people if you want to be noticed you don't fight to step up, you just step back.

Excellent point.



I also studied with Gene Bertoncini. I took some of his summer programs at The Eastman School of Music in the 70's. Recently he said, "Steve, no one gets the sound out the guitar that you do." I told him, "Well I've had a lot of great teachers." Gene then said, "I've never considered you a student." He’s such a cat. He's been a wonderful influence for me. Especially in terms of feeding my music and keeping it as the center and still dealing with all of the joys and hardships of life. If you're an artist its very important to be in the world and still be true to your art.

You, in turn, are passing that sentiment on to others as well. Tell me about your project with Gene. You currently have the “Acoustic Living” album out with the Steve Greene Trio.



Yes and this new project with Gene is all acoustic too. Gene is playing his Buscarino nylon string and I'm playing my '47 Gibson L-7 arch top. We're playing all standards. Would you like to hear a little?




It's not mixed yet but it should be available this soon. (Steve plays a tape)

That's beautiful! What a sound!



What I've learned through these sessions is how Gene can architect a solo; how he builds from simple to more passionate. Its great. Initially we'll put it on the North twelve label as a product and then try to shop it around.

I’m looking forward to getting a copy. So, how is the jazz scene in Rochester lately? You're teaching and gigging regularly?



Yes. I'm playing and teaching. There are some good clubs here as well as some great summer music programs and jazz festivals. I'd like to see more street music happening though. There's something appealing about sitting and playing and if people want to listen they can, if they want to give you money they can. That's ideal. I like the idea of it.

You know, I had a teacher who once told me that we really can't understand the true value of our art until we can play without being concerned about the money, when we're willing to give it away. I'm definitely not there yet. (Both laugh)



Well, it gets back to what society places value on.

Yes, definitely. So, what kind of gigs are you doing now?



I've been doing some very electrified work with a quartet lately. This keeps my ears hearing in other ways, the electric thing. The Acoustic Trio is still going. The acoustic archtop is where I learn the most. I'm beginning to work on the next recording project which will involve some orchestral arranging by Tim Sullivan. I'm working on a new piece for the Boston Dance Collective. This music usually doesn't use guitar at all. I'm also part of a composers group called The Genesse Floodplain and District Sound Crafters Guild. We'll have to spend a lot of money on ink if we ever want to make t-shirts. (Both laugh).

Steve you have certainly passed on some great food for thought. Thank you. I'm looking forward to hearing the new disc.



Thank you Eric you're a grand fellow. (More laughter)


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