Lyle Robinson Dec 24, 2011
Dan Adler is a wonderful New York based Jazz Guitar player who successfully balances a hectic day job alongside performing and recording situations. He’s recently recorded his second CD as leader with the awesome organist Joey DeFrancesco along for the ride. In this interview, Dan shares with us his ability to juggle two careers, his thoughts on the growth of Jazz Guitar coming out of Israel, and much more. A great read !
This interview was conducted via email in 2010.
JGL: How old are you?
DA: Hi, nice to be here. I am 50.
JGL: What geographical area do you live in?
DA: I was born and raised in Israel, I went to the Israeli army and got most of my education there, and I’ve been living in Manhattan for the last 20 years.
JGL: How long have you been playing guitar for and at what age did you first get into guitar playing?
DA: I started at the age of 10. After two years of piano, which I hated, my mother took me to a classical guitar teacher. She had in mind that I would learn to play classical and flamenco, but I had other ideas. I just wanted to learn songs. So, the teacher mostly showed me chords to songs and some basic classical guitar and reading music. He was teaching at a music conservatory in Tel Aviv, and when he moved away a couple of years later, the teacher who replaced him was a jazz guitarist named Avri Sharon who had gone to Berklee and studied with Jim Hall and Chuck Wayne. He started showing me scales, arpeggios, and all the jazz vocabulary. He played me some great recordings of jazz guitarists, which I had never heard before, and by the time I was a teenager, I had pretty much absorbed all of the theory needed to play jazz.
JGL: You originally started your musical journey in a more progressive rock, jazz/rock fashion. How did you get from that to your present musical identity as a Bop oriented player?
DA: After a year or so of playing, I started playing together with other friends. First, my friend David Graves, who started with guitar and ended up played bass, and we started forming bands. First, we played some Israeli pop music with our pianist friend, Daniel Lappin, and then, as we got into high school, we shifted to more of a rock group format, playing mostly at dance parties with David’s brother, Scott, on vocals. Eventually, I became obsessed with prog rock, mostly “YES” with Steve Howe, who was my idol at the time. I was already listening to jazz and studying all the jazz theory by then, but not really trying to play it. We formed a group called “Snowball” which played all original material in the prog rock style, and that also included my friend Miran Epstein on Tenor Sax. He and I were very interested in jazz and were listening to it a lot at that time, transcribing and learning solos and trying to get to a point where we could actually play jazz.
JGL: Can you recall that particular moment that first excited you about jazz guitar or jazz in general? The one that made you say “that’s what I want to do”!
DA: Certainly, the association with my guitar teacher Avri Sharon was what set it off, but there were also a few live performances that I attended that cemented in my love for jazz. The most memorable for me is Jimmy Smith performing in Tel Aviv in 1975 with Ray Crawford on guitar. That was the first time I had ever heard an organ trio with a great jazz guitarist, and it was a magical evening. It was actually released on a record called “Live in Israel” which is out of print, but was later reissued. I also remember seeing Dizzy Gillespie with Al Gafa on guitar, and Stan Getz visited Israel frequently in those days, so by the time I was in high school, I had the opportunity to see a fair bit of live jazz and that is what captured my interest. Hearing jazz on records is great, but experiencing it in a live setting is really something completely different.
JGL: Similarly, Was there a defining moment when you decided that Jazz Guitar would/could be your career path?
DA: I never decided to pursue jazz guitar as a career. I fell in love with the sound and feel of the instrument, and I knew by the time I was in high school that I would always play guitar and always strive to improve and reach the highest level I was capable of achieving. I knew that I did not have a level of talent that would change the world, and so I always pursued other interests as well, which I felt were engaging my mind and creativity in exactly the same way.
JGL: How difficult do you/did you find it making a living as a jazz guitar player, or have you found it to be relatively easy?
DA: As I mentioned, I never made a living as a jazz guitarist, except when I was studying Electrical and Computer Engineering at the Technion in Israel. During that period, I did a lot of teaching and played in various musical productions. But for the rest of my life so far, I have always supported myself and my family through my other profession, first as a designer of microchips and then as a software developer. I have always tried to maintain a strong practice regimen, but there were some years, right after I came to NY and was working at a software startup, where I hardly got to practice and had no live gigs. After a few years of that, I caught myself, and started taking lessons again with some of the great players in NY, and my playing kept improving steadily until I was able to play gigs in NY and continue from where I had left off.
JGL: What was your first guitar and what are you playing now?
DA: My first electric guitar was a cheap strat copy, which stayed with me throughout all the rock years. When I started playing jazz, I had no idea how to get an archtop guitar in Israel. I heard a rumor that a famous Israeli guitarist called Yigal Hared had an ES-175 in his attic (he was an acoustic player), so I called him and asked if I could buy it. My father took me over there and bought me that guitar on the spot, which was a great act of support on my parents’ part, and that guitar lasted me for many years.
JGL: What other gear are you using?
DA: A few years ago I bought an early 60’s Gibson ES-175 and that has become my main guitar. I have a few others like the Sadowsky nylon string telecaster, and some acoustic guitars, but that has been my main one. For amps, I use Polytone – first I had a Mini Brute II, and then I got a lighter Mega Brute, which is my main gigging and recording amp. Once in a while, I will also use my Clarus/RE8 combo on louder gigs.
JGL: Who were your influences on jazz guitar when you were beginning, and have they stayed the same or have they changed over the years?
DA: As I explained in the liner notes to my first CD “All Things Familiar”, my main influence then and now is Joe Pass. Especially everything he played up to (and including) the Virtuoso album. When I discovered jazz guitar, I spent days and days listening to all the greats. It was not easy getting jazz records in Israel at the time. There was one record store called “Massada”, and the guy who worked there, Shuky Weiss, was very knowledgeable about jazz. Every month, I would get my copy of “Downbeat” and go over to see him, and we would go over the reviews and decide what to order. He would then order it and let me hear it in the store and decide if I wanted to buy it. My guitar teacher also had a vast library of jazz guitar recordings, and then I met another jazz guitar fanatic with a vast library, so by the time I was in my last year or two of high school, I became quite an authority on jazz guitar history, and could pretty much listen to any clip and tell you what album it was from.
Still, through all of this, it’s always been Joe Pass who could stir the emotions in my heart like no one else. I could listen to his early recordings millions of times and never tire of his playing. There was an innate logic to his playing, which made it almost like a puzzle – you could hear him coming up with solutions to musical problems on the spot, and I believe that his spontaneous melodic development far exceeds that of any of his peers. In the early days, he never played any clichés – every musical statement was conceived from first principles – he was always challenging himself and always coming up with the perfect musical solution on the spot. Regrettably, later in his career, he did come to rely on many clichés, which is why I always stress to people to seek his early recordings first, and not rely on the Pablo releases to judge his place in jazz guitar history.
JGL: Who are you listening to today (guitarists or non-guitarists)?
DA: I listen to all the great young musicians who are flooding NYC. I try to get out and listen to live music as often as I can – to really take advantage of living in New York. You can find me most Tuesday nights listening to Jack Wilkins at his weekly gig at Bella Luna, and I love to go hear all the other great guitar players around New York. Other than guitar, I have been strongly influenced by saxophone players. I had a chance to play and study with Steve Grossman many years ago, and I studied and played with Bob Berg – another amazing player that helped shape the post-Coltrane saxophone tradition.
The sax player I listen to most today is probably Jerry Bergonzi, especially his standards band albums. Jerry has that perfect blend of old school and modern lines and I just love the way he develops his ideas. I’ve also been studying his books intently. But I don’t want to make it sound like this is all I listen to, I have thousands of jazz CD’s on my iPod and I continue to buy more music all the time. I’m just a huge fan of this genre, and immerse myself in any musician who speaks to me, and I love to go out and see live jazz as much as I can. Once I get interested in someone, I will try to buy everything they have recorded.
JGL: On your online bio you mention having become “…a fan of the group “Yes” and was especially fascinated by Steve Howe’s playing.” Have you had an opportunity to see and/or hear Steve’s latest take on classic Yes tunes in a Jazz oriented Organ Trio? If yes, what are your thoughts?
DA: I love Steve Howe’s guitar work on the YES albums, as well as on the live remakes of those albums which they have done over the years. He has assimilated rock, jazz, classical and country influences and has been able to present them to a wide audience. His groove while playing solo guitar on pieces like “The Clap” and “Mood for a Day” is still inspirational and I like the way he would sneak in some more jazzy elements into the solos he played with YES. I’ve seen some organ trio clips on Youtube, but I have not heard the album.
JGL: Who has been most influential in your life as a Jazz Guitarist and why?
DA: I have already mentioned Joe Pass, although I never met him personally except to say hi backstage at some concerts. The three guitarists that most influenced my playing directly would probably be Gil Dor, Jack Wilkins and Peter Sprague. I met Gil Dor (himself a student of Jack Wilkins, and currently musical director and co-performer with the Israeli singer Noa) in Israel while I was in the army, and he became a great friend and teacher. His musicality is superb and his musical knowledge is encyclopedic. He taught me a lot about harmony, counterpoint, and other elements of music, and his whole analytical way of thinking meshed very well with mine.
I first heard Jack Wilkins on the “Bob Brookmeyer Small Band” record, and that was the first time I heard someone play straight-ahead jazz guitar with a completely different conception. Jack’s playing was traditional but ultra-modern even back then – he was way ahead of his time. I started taking lessons with him when I first arrived in NY, and continued on and off through the years, and I still learn something new every time I see him play. Peter Sprague was a big influence through his album in the 80’s. I got a chance to take some lessons with him, and really embraced many of his teaching concepts – especially his approach to arpeggios and some of his fingering concepts. Peter was very friendly and helpful, and went out of his way to send me lead sheets, books and transcriptions to Israel back when transatlantic communication was not as immediate as it is today. There were some other guitar players in Israel at the time who were around my age including Roni Ben Hur, Ronen Raban and Yossi Levi, and we were always jamming together and trying to help each other out.
JGL: Having been born and raised in Israel, what made you find a new home in the US? Was it music related?
DA: I originally moved here for a job at a hi-tech startup company, but I fell in love with New York City (which had always fascinated me). Then, I met my wife, who is American, and ended up settling down here.
JGL: In recent years I have had the pleasure of hearing some great Israeli Jazz Guitarists. Is there a strong and supportive Jazz scene in Israel and was it difficult to access Jazz related instruction/recordings as a young man growing up in Israel?
DA: As I mentioned, jazz information and recordings were very hard to come by when I was a teenager. I had some great teachers and I was very active in seeking out materials and recordings. At some point I even took the Berklee College correspondence course. But jazz education in Israel has changed a lot since then. There were several drivers for that: many of my generation of musicians came to the US, studied at Berklee and other places, paid their dues and eventually moved back to Israel. Some of them got together and formed the Rimon School of Music, which has become an important institution. There were also some great players from the US who came to Israel to live and teach, most notably Arnie Lawrence and Walter Blanding, and they had a major impact on jazz programs in high schools and universities.
JGL: In your opinion, who are the great players coming out of Israel today? Are there a few that we need to check out ASAP?
DA: For such a small country, it quite amazing how many great Israeli players are prominent in New York right now. In the guitar department you have guys like: Avi Rothbard, Gilad Hekselman, Yotam Silberstein, Nir Felder, Roni Ben Hur, Mordi Ferber – each very different in style, but all playing at world class level. There are also great players on other instruments like Anat Cohen and her whole musical family, Eli DeGibri, Avishai Cohen, Omer Avital the list goes on and on. There was a nice article in JazzTimes about it.
JGL: Even though I know you as a working and recording Jazz Guitarist, you actually have another professional life in a very different career in the computer field. How have you been able to balance the duality of opposing careers? And have you ever considered pursuing music as a fulltime occupation?
DA: I won’t tell you that balancing two careers and a family is easy, but my family is very supportive and I seem to have found a good balance. I work very long hours in my day job, and then I try to make time in the evenings and weekends for my family and for practice and gigging. It takes a lot of effort, but I hardly ever watch TV and try to be efficient with my time.
JGL: You have been quite fortunate to have studied and played with not one, but two great saxophone legends: Steve Grossman and the late Bob Berg. How did these associations develop and were the concepts learned widely different than what you would have experienced with a Guitar teacher?
DA: I was always attracted to the tenor saxophone. I love the sound and the way those guys play, especially the post-Coltrane players. In the early 80’s, while still in Israel, I was able to attend concerts and master classes by Joe Farrell, Michael Brecker and Dave Liebman. They would come to play concerts and do afternoon clinics and just answer questions. Those experiences showed me how different they think about improvisation than most guitar players do. Even when I was studying bebop, I was fascinated with Steve Grossman and Dave Liebman’s playing on the “Lighthouse” album, and I remember trying to transcribe as much of that as I could hear, and try to understand why it works so well.
One day I was playing a gig in Israel and a tenor saxophone player asked if he could sit in. That was Steve Grossman. After I picked my jaw off the floor, I was amazed by the fact that he didn’t play at all like on that “Lighthouse” record – he sounded like a straight ahead player out of the Dexter Gordon, Sonny Rollins school of sound. I kept asking him about it, and eventually he agreed to teach me. It was a strange experience studying with him, as he was battling some addiction issues, but I learned a lot from him. We would trade choruses on blues or other forms, but all on paper. He wanted to see if I could transcribe what was in my mind. Then he would read it and make comments and I would try again. I don’t think I ever encountered that kind of approach before. It was analytical, but not theoretical, and it focused on hearing what is inside you. Bob Berg is a different story. I met him in NY, and had some lessons with him almost up to the time he tragically died. It was mostly playing together and making some comments and giving me ideas what to work on and what he was practicing.
JGL: You have also studied and played with a huge list of top Jazz Guitarists like Peter Sprague, Jack Wilkins, Vic Juris, Rick Stone, Joshua Breakstone, Satoshi Inoue, Peter Bernstein, Richard Boukas, Rodney Jones, Paul Bollenback and others I’m sure. Can you talk a bit about these situations and how they came to be?
DA: At some point I realized that since I’m living in NYC and have access to the greatest players in the world, I should take advantage of that. Each of these players had a completely different approach and emphasized different things. I have never sought out great teachers, I just wanted to study with the guys that I admired. Since I was already an intermediate player, I made sure to get their honest feedback on my playing, and see what they thought I should improve, but I was also very adamant about what I wanted to learn from them based on their strengths as players.
JGL: Speaking of lessons, do you teach privately and if so, how does one go about studying with you? Is there a particular level of student you are looking for?
DA: I don’t teach. As we discussed, my life is very hectic and busy and I don’t have time to fit that in. I do enjoy providing instructional material on my website, and participate in the google group rec.music.makers.guitar.jazz which is a great forum for anyone interested in jazz guitar. I wish I had access to that kind of information when I was a teen. You can ask any question and have 20 experienced players give you answers. Of course, there are a lot of opinions and some occasional skirmishes, but you get people like Jimmy Bruno, Tony DeCaprio, Joey Goldstein, Kevin Van Sant, Clay Moore, Mark Kleinhaut, Jack Zucker and lots of other great players chiming in.
JGL: What are your thoughts on the formal academic educational system in regards to Jazz and had you ever considered changing majors at any point?
DA: As an analytical person, I am always interested in finding ways to codify the methods by which jazz musicians approach improvisation. Since I was an engineering and computer science student, I never studied music formally, but I have spent time reading many books and studying privately, so I have a fair amount of theoretical knowledge. I also spent a lot of time improving my hearing. I was not born with great hearing, and I had to really work hard to acquire a good ear. I studied classical ear training using Lars Edlunds books (“Modus Vetus” – tonal, and “Modus Novus” – atonal) with a private teacher in Israel.
JGL: How do you approach improvisation? Is it based on the usual scale/chord relationships or are you coming at it from a different angle?
DA: The book that has impacted me the most in terms of improvisation was (naturally) the Joe Pass Guitar Style book (and the great accompanying CD). I used that book to learn the basic vocabulary of bebop over chord changes. Of course, I had to supplement that with the usual study of chord scales and functional harmony since that book does not go into those areas. I also studied John Mehegan’s book (volume 1) with a piano player in Israel. He was surprised to find out that scale patterns like 1-2-3-5 and their permutations were not that easy to play on guitar, so he insisted that I learn it as if I were a piano player, and I think that paid off in the long run. I also did a fair bit of transcribing, some of it by actually writing out solos, but mostly just playing along. I recently put a couple of clips on Youtube of examples of myself playing along with Joe Pass on tunes from his “Simplicity” album. I used to do a lot of that. Play along with an album from beginning to end and learn every nuance that was on it. I didn’t do it as a marathon, I would just pick albums that I really loved, I would put it on and try to play along and get a little more of it each time through.
JGL: For the student of Jazz Guitar, what would you say is the most important thing to do when learning to improvise and play over changes?
DA: I like to hear logical lines, dramatic development and some band interaction, and I really like there to be some excitement in the solo. Some people will play a million notes, but I don’t hear any logic to it. That is like babbling incoherently. When you listen to a jazz soloist, you want to hear him take an idea, develop it, resolve it, toy around with it, maybe make a reference to a famous solo or song, and then connect it to another idea that somehow relates to it. Then, when you listen to the whole solo, you want it to span a range of emotions. It could start out cool, build some momentum and end with a climax, or it could build to a high point and back down again. It’s not formulaic – that’s where the creativity of the artist comes in to play. I also like to hear the soloist excite the other band members and get them to throw things back at him. Most of these parameters have very little to do with specifics of playing over changes – learning that part is relatively easy – but developing a solo that has intellectual and emotional content and is creative – that’s the real challenge, and that can only be learned by doing it.
JGL: What is your practice routine like these days? Do you work on specific things or just play tunes?
DA: On weekdays, I’m lucky if I get 1-2 hours of practice, sometimes less. Sometimes, if I’ve had a rough day, I will just reward myself and play aimlessly with a backing track. I make it a point to listen attentively to music for at least an hour a day, and having an iPod, I can jump from one thing to the next as my associations dictate. So, I will spend time listening on my commute or at the gym, and then maybe I would work on elements of what I heard. Either a phrase or a way of developing an idea, or a technical exercise, or learn a new song. I was very inspired by the Chick Corea instructional video where he suggests that every practice session, short or long, should have a goal that is attainable in the amount of time allotted. This is critical to avoid getting overwhelmed by the fact that there is so much to learn, since that can lead to doing nothing. Sometimes I like to play along with internet radio stations. I will put on some random jazz or ambient or hip-hop stations and just try to groove along or work on some ideas on top of that.
JGL: You recently came out with your own CD as leader which I loved by the way. What took you so long to debut and how has the response been?
DA: I put off releasing a CD for many years because of other priorities in my life, and because I felt I was not ready. I was also not sure how exactly to do it. Eventually, I realized that it’s just as simple as booking the studio and the musicians. Once that was done, I had a deadline, and I love working with deadlines. Suddenly, I became very efficient, I wrote tunes, I arranged standards, I worked out part, I produced the whole thing – and that’s how it happened.
I just completed my second CD, an organ trio with Joey DeFrancesco and Byron Landham, and I’m very excited about it. It’s also a nice mix of originals and standards in the classic organ trio tradition. Joey D. is one of my favorite organ players, and one of my favorite soloists on any instrument. The way he builds excitement in his solos is something that has always fascinated and attracted me, and having him play on my CD was really a dream come true.
JGL: How did you come across the concept of taking already established tunes and creating new melodies/arrangements around them?
DA: Well, like I mentioned, I set a deadline for myself, and then I started wondering what to play. I wasn’t sure how good I was at composing because I had never done it before. So, I tried to write a few tunes based on standards, and some tunes based on original progressions and blues progressions, and I kept the ones that I thought sounded good. I found that lessons with Steve Grossman, where he forced me to write out solos from my head, really helped me there. I found that my method of composing is to sing a line and then figure out what it is on the guitar or just write it out, rather than trying to find interesting things on the guitar itself. I think this made the tunes more melodic and accessible and many people have told me they found them to be catchy and singable. My biggest compliment is when non-musicians and people who are not really jazz fans tell me that they play my CD all the time in their car or at home. Being able to communicate your emotions to people through music is really the ultimate goal.
JGL: How do you go about marketing yourself? Are there any tools that you have come across that you have found to be effective?
DA: Promotion is very important in today’s world. Putting a CD out there without promoting it is meaningless, because no one with find it. There are zillions of resources on how to promote independent music, and I would highly recommend to any artist to spend time on the internet researching this topic, and to leave some budget for that. Some people blow their whole budget on recording and mixing and then have no money left over for promotion. I was lucky enough to be able to create my own label, but even if someone is signed on to a label, they should take an active role in their promotion.
JGL: If you could only pick one individual or group to play with (alive or dead), who would that be and why?
DA: That’s easy. A guitar duo with Joe Pass.
JGL: Has your impressions and experiences of being a Jazz Guitar player been what you had expected when you first decided to become a musician?
DA: Living in NYC is the best thing I can imagine in terms of exposure to jazz. There are so many great musicians and so many players on other instruments to be inspired by. It really is the center of the universe in terms of jazz. If you go to “Smalls” or “FatCat” or “55 Bar” or “Zinc Bar” or “Bar Next Door” or “Cornelia Street Cafe” on any given night, you will hear the jazz that is shaping the world today. If you wander uptown to “Smoke” – you might hear some of the most exciting straight-ahead or soul jazz playing in the world today, and then there are lots of smaller duo gigs in restaurants. You can find me almost every Tuesday night at “Bella Luna” listening to Jack Wilkins host world class guitarists like Bucky Pizzarelli, Gene Bertoncini, Howard Alden, Joe Giglio, Carl Barry and many others. That’s always enough to keep me inspired and remind me that there are so many higher levels of excellence to strive for.
JGL: How would you like to see your musical life unfold in the coming years and what do you think would be needed to get you there?
DA: Now that I am on a roll in terms of recording and creating new music, I hope to continue that and keep coming out with new material. That’s really what I am striving for: to release CD’s that people will enjoy listening to, and to get an opportunity to play with some of the great players around today.
JGL: If you could do one thing over again, what would that one thing be and why?
DA: I would have probably started recording earlier in my career.
JGL: Any advice for the younger guy or gal who is thinking about playing jazz guitar?
DA: Like the scene from the “Graduate” where the uncle gives him career advice: “P..l…a…s..t…i..c…s” – well I think that applies more than ever today. There is no business model to being a jazz musician. The only two ways jazz musicians make money is by touring (which is destructive to any family life) and by teaching. The only other option is build an alternative career. I would like to see more jazz musicians take some other courses in college that would give them access to other types of work. The intelligence required to become a jazz musician is greater or equal to what is required for almost any other profession. I hear musicians falling on that old adage “this is all I can do”. Well, that’s just not true. They just haven’t tried anything else, at least not early enough in their career. There is a lot of excitement in other lines or work, and especially in being an entrepreneur.
I hope to see less people choose the path of teaching, as I think that is destructive to whatever is left of the jazz industry. The jazz industry keeps churning out more and more players, not because there is more demand for players (there is less), but because more established players want to become teachers and professors so they can lead a normal family life. This is almost like a ponzy scheme. More people need to teach to make money, so they need to find more and more students. Then, when the students graduate, they compete with their teachers for the few gigs and festivals that are out there. The teacher will tell the student: you have to gain experience, so go out there and get a gig, no matter what they pay you. Then the student goes to the club where the teacher is playing and offers to play for 1/2 the money, and the teacher will rant that it’s the owner’s fault because they can’t tell the difference. I think people need to understand that this model is not sustainable, and invest in some alternate way of making a living other than touring or teaching.
JGL: Apart from music, what else do you like to do for fun?
DA: Well, I work very long hours at my day job and often continue working from home in the evenings. Besides that, thankfully, I have a wonderful family, and I try to spend as much time as I can with them. I also love watching old movies by the great classic film directors, and my love for math and computer science often leads me to read technical literature in my spare time – I’m a real geek. Eleven years ago, I created a very successful open source software project called JACOB and that has led to many interesting connections with software developers from all over the world.
I also dabble in writing jazz reviews, mostly for Jazz Inside magazine. I find that, as a musician, I can usually listen to a CD or a live performance and capture what the artist had in mind. So my reviews end up being more like liner notes where I try to walk the listener through what they will experience when they get this CD or come to this gig. I find that too many critics think that their role is to offer up their opinion and criticize aspects of the performance. Well, it’s not. If a critic doesn’t like something, they should avoid writing about it – that is punishment enough for the artist. To write a well-informed CD review, you have to listen to the music 10-20 times in a row. How can you even do that if you hate the material? So, I only write about things that I really like, and I try to get into the artist’s head and convey some of what they intended to pass to the listener through the music. Musicians seem to appreciate my approach, and they often tell me that I captured things that they were hoping would come through in the music, but never said explicitly.
JGL: Thank you Dan for participating in Jazz Guitar Life. It is most appreciated and I wish you great success in your career and life.
DA: Thank you Lyle.