In his wide-ranging career, Pat Kelley has appeared on more than 2,000 sessions as a studio guitarist, he has often performed with his friend George Benson, and he has been on many smooth and pop sets. However one should never underrate his talents as a jazz soloist.
On Overtones 4 Two Guitars, Kelley performs one duet apiece with guitarists Bruce Forman, Anthony Wilson, John Stowell, John Pisano, John Storie, Frank Potenza, Peter Bernstein, Howard Alden and Larry Koonse. The music is comprised of straight ahead renditions of standards (plus an original blues) including such numbers as “Stompin’ At The Savoy,” “Body And Soul,” “Nobody Else But Me” and “How Deep Is The Ocean.” Even with all of the different guitarists involved, there is a strong unity and consistency to the set with each performance swinging, featuring some friendly competition and lots of good vibes and interplay.
Overtones concludes with Kelley overdubbing with himself on his “Minor Inconvenience.” It is a perfect ending to one of his finest recordings. Those who love the jazz guitar will definitely want Overtones 4 Two Guitars, which is available from www.patkelley.com.
1) In your expertise, what are the main facets of jazz guitar playing that a student should focus on more than any other in his or her developing stages?
It requires a commitment to a combination of activities to develop into a serious and competent musician. Listening to music is probably the first step. We learn to speak mostly from listening to other people talk. The language of music has a lot of subtle magic that no one can really explain or teach. The reason a great many children of musicians become even better musicians than their parents is because of early exposure to music. The feel of music, phrasing, and melodic ability develops in the subconscious from an early age and then all through our lives. As we get older and study music we learn to hear melody, harmony, and rhythm in ways that we could never imagine at an earlier time in our development. The fundamentals of music and mechanics of our particular instrument need to be mastered in order to have a free command of what we have learned to hear. This is the realm of scales, arpeggios, chords, melodic patterns, and music reading. Developing a jazz repertoire is important not only for the purpose of making music with others and for others, but because learning songs allows us to explore the harmonic possibilities that make jazz a truly unique music.
2) What is it that separates a good player from a truly great jazz guitarist? Is it a gift or can you learn it?
I think there are those who have special God-given gifts for music. I also think that one is not able to fully recognize this without some work on the craft of playing an instrument. On a practical level, there is usually a great deal of study and practice that goes into developing the ability to play well enough to be a great player. It is a physical as well as mental activity much like tennis or other sports. Pete Sampras had to hit a million tennis balls to develop his ability to make that perfect stroke over and over again without thought. With practice and study, musicians can break free of the technical and analytical aspects of becoming a musician, and just react to each moment that the music presents. Truly great musicians transcend the notes and bring forth a unique feeling that touches the listener in a way that reminds us of the uniqueness of our humanity in relation to a force greater than ourselves. By that I mean that however we want to define it, there is a space, when we get out of our own way and deep into the music where some kind of magic happens that no one really understands.
3) How important do you think sight reading is in your area of the music profession?
In my career, sight-reading has been extremely important and has in many cases been a determining factor in getting the job. In addition to performing with my own group and as a solo guitarist, I am currently touring with Natalie Cole and David Benoit. Natalie has more than one hundred songs in her book, many with written single note lines that double big band horn lines and also some funk riffs and rhythm parts that are written in standard music notation. David Benoit's music also has a lot of written notes. Working as a regular band member on various television shows such as the Merv Griffin Show, the Pat Sajak Show, The Carol Burnet Show, and playing on all kinds of recording sessions, I have used my reading skills on a regular basis throughout my career. Currently, as a full time faculty member of the Studio/Jazz Guitar Department at the University of Southern California's Thornton School of Music, I am constantly involved in reading and writing music. We make reading a high priority in our program.
4) How important is TAB in your opinion?
Tablature is important because there are so few guitarists who can read music. If you are writing guitar books it is important to include tablature. It is also useful as a tool to show more precise fingerings.
5) As a professional player is there any one area of your playing that you concentrated on as a student that there is never any call for?
Everything that I worked on as a student has some kind of relevance to my playing.
6) Is there a particular area of traditional jazz education that you have disagreed with and which you think should be avoided?
Sometimes jazz education gets stuck in a very traditional rut that doesn't leave room for explorations of modern jazz and new ideas. I'm a big believer in having the knowledge of traditional jazz and still work now to learn standards that I don't know, but at the same time I see the need for young students to listen and learn music of their contemporaries.
7) Is there a facet of jazz guitar education that you might be personally known for? In other words if a student came to you for musical inspiration, what might he or she get from you that they might not get from another source?
I have developed an ability to move young improvisers from the world of modes and scales to a place of really playing the changes in a song. Good solid fundamentals go along with it. Materials are presented that I find practical and help students to make music right away. In his book Effortless Mastery, Kenny Werner stresses the importance of working on a smaller amount of material before moving on, and I agree with him that this is helpful to the learning process. I like to see a student learn to play some new ideas with ease in one position before moving on to master all the positions on the guitar where a pattern or scale can be played. In this way the ear has already been trained to hear the idea before learning to play it on another part of the fingerboard. I also work with students on the subject of playing different, better, or alternate chord changes to songs and understanding commonly occurring chord progressions. Above all, I want to encourage students to find their own voice and be engaged with music that moves them emotionally.
8) What musicians, books or educational material turned your musical world around as a developing artist?
When I was thirteen, I was introduced to some Howard Roberts Records. That really changed my life. I loved his swing and the songs with great melodies and chord changes. Shortly after that I also discovered Wes Montgomery, Johnny Smith, Jim Hall, Grant Green, and Joe Pass. Later I was into George Benson, Pat Martino, John McLaughlin, and Ralph Towner. Musicians other than guitarists that had a big impact were Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Freddie Hubbard, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, and Bill Evans.
9) Is it dangerous to practice too much? If so what do you think happens?
I'm not sure if I can answer this in a way that would apply to all players. A person's mental disposition has a lot to do with how much practice time is the right amount. Aside from physical injury such as some sort of overuse syndrome, one student may be intrigued or even possessed with the process of practicing while another may get burned out and lose enthusiasm before reaching full potential. I think there is a correlation between the time put into practicing and the level of accomplishment. I recommend the book Zen Guitar by Phillip Toshio Sudo (Random House) as a source of inspiration regarding practicing.
10) What advice would you give to a jazz guitar student looking to enter the music profession?
Make the most of your early years. You want to be prepared to get the most out of your opportunities. Opportunities include learning from other players that you will encounter as you begin to work with other musicians. Your early preparation will have an exponential component to it. If you have done the work you had intended for yourself in the early years, your opportunities to play with more advanced musicians will be greater and you will have the ability and understanding to be able to take full advantage of the learning that can take place only in an environment of high level musical interaction. This will then push you to the next level of your musicianship and open up a further opportunity that is now available because of the previous experience. It works like compound interest in a savings account. Get started early and your chances for success will be much greater.
11) Where in your opinion is jazz guitar headed? Is there any new vocabulary to be found?
With twelve notes to use, it is remarkable that so much different music exists. There always seems to be some way to combine melodies, rhythms, and harmony to come up with something that sounds new. I don t know where it will go in the future. I hope that we go in a more positive direction in regards to music education in our schools so that we can have a better hope of having a musically educated society. I wish for a radio format not bound by the confining requirements that have been imposed by advertising and media consulting groups. There is some adventurous and inventive music being recorded that does not have a home on radio. The Internet has been a good thing for making CDs available that can't be found on radio or in most stores. I think radio listening over the Internet will increase, and more artful music will be available for the masses to discover.
12) What ambitions and goals do you have right now in your musical world?
After recording seven CDs in various instrumental formats, I want to record a new jazz quartet CD and a solo guitar CD this year. I plan to perform more on my own, do more producing, and further develop my teaching, coaching and mentoring abilities so that I can benefit young up and coming musicians.
13) Any other comments?
Music has its own rewards. Don t short change yourself by being in too much of a hurry. There is much to discover about music that will only be revealed when the time is right. I see it as a blessing that there will always be undiscovered territory to explore as long as I have the passion to embrace the challenge.
JB: When did you begin on the guitar?
PK: I’ve been playing most of my life. My dad sang and played guitar and he got me started on ukulele at about age five. When I was six he gave me an acoustic guitar that he played when he was a kid. I still have that guitar.
JB: Along with your dad, were there any local players that inspired you?
PK: I grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma and there were friends of my dad that he played with, mostly at home. They inspired me when I was very young. Later as a teenager, I remember certain players in Tulsa who left a profound image in my mind about guitar playing and music. One of my all time favorite blues guitar players is a Tulsa guitarist, Steve Hickerson. His feel is it. And Tommy Crook is an amazing solo guitarist in Tulsa. And of course, Eldon Shamblin, the king of western swing.
JB: How old were you when you started to play jazz guitar.
PK: Growing up we had records by Chet Atkins, the Ventures, Johnny Cash, Buck Owens, The Beatles, plus some big band swing and some records that bordered on jazz like Les Paul, and that kind of thing. When I was about thirteen I got a hold of several Howard Roberts records and that really turned my head toward jazz. Man, I just wore those records out. Records like “Howard Roberts is a Dirty Guitar Player” and “Whatever‘s Fair”. They were perfect because the arrangements were all short and easy to listen to. They still sound great! Then I started buying Wes records and Johnny Smith and Joe Pass. A little later it was Pat Martino, George Benson, Jim Hall, John McLaughlin, all the late sixty’s and early seventies guys.
JB: Did you study with any guitarist or are you self taught?
PK: I took lessons from several different teachers after my dad. Bill Davis started me through the Mel Bay series and gave me an early start on reading. My next teacher, Dick Gordon, really stressed learning songs and performing them. I could play a hundred songs by the time I was twelve years old because of him. In high school I studied with the legendary Eldon Shamblin who played with Bob Willis and the Texas Playboys in their heyday. He was a great chord melody player and he worked with me on lots of chord melodies on jazz standards. Milt Norman was my last teacher in Tulsa. His single note jazz improvising was pretty advanced and he helped me mostly with that. I also attended week long seminars by Howard Roberts when I was eighteen and Johnny Smith when I was nineteen. After I moved to California I had a couple of lessons with Joe Pass.
JB: Did you study music in college?
PK: I was a music composition major at the University of Tulsa. I also played guitar in the TU jazz band. In high school I played in rock and soul bands. I supported myself in college playing primarily in a jazz quartet that played a super club gig six nights a week. So a lot of my guitar education comes from just playing all the time and learning from all the players I was around.
JB: When did you move to Los Angeles?
PK: In 1973 I moved to San Diego, lived there three years and then moved to L.A. The years in San Diego were a huge time of growth for me. I was practicing and playing all the time. There are some great players in San Diego and I got a lot better playing with them.
JB: What brought you to Los Angeles?
PK: The music business and the players. From a very young age I knew I wanted to be a musician and live in Los Angeles.
JB: What are three jazz guitar albums that influenced you the most and why?
PK: I mentioned Howard Roberts Is a Dirty Guitar Player, then I got into Wes (Montgomery).
JB: Let’s first talk about the Howard Roberts album. Why was that influential?
PK: I was moved by the swing and groove of it. I loved the tunes with chord changes. Howard also had a Bluesy sound. It had a rhythmic energy to it.
JB: Which of Wes’ albums would you single out?
PK: Smokin’ at the Half Note would be it. Wes stretched and developed his solos in the most mesmerizing ways. His ideas and feel are unequalled.
JB: A third album?
PK: George Benson’s Beyond the Blue Horizon. George had such a feel combined with harmonic sophistication. This record was recorded in 1971 when I was nineteen and before George was a pop star. For me this was a time of heavy learning, practicing, and absorbing music and this record got plenty of spins. It was so cool to work in George’s band many years later. Standing on stage with him for nearly five years was an honor.
JB: What did you find most exhilarating working in his band?
PK: Just being around him. George has such a strong presence. Of course, he is also such an amazing player. I love to hear him play solo guitar off stage. On stage he just seems to play effortlessly while keeping his audience spellbound.
JB: Any non guitarist jazz albums that really influenced you and why?
PK: Chick Corea’s Now He Sings, Now He Sobs is such a burning album. When I heard that, I thought to myself, “Man, guitar players just don’t play like that!” Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue. I know people have talked about this album a lot. When Paul Chambers launched into that walking bass on “So What,” there was something about that kind of swing. I was also fascinated by the way Bill Evans played and just the vibe and feel of the whole thing. Also, Joe Farrell’s Moon Germs. Man those guys were burnin’! Herbie Hancock plays some incredible Fender Rhodes on it. I remember this one blues tune in particular where they were really stretching out.
JB: During your development years, how much did you practice and what kind of things did you do?
PK: I practiced a lot of hours. Scales, patterns, arpeggios, chord melody, reading, and tunes. I worked on how to improvise on the changes, breaking tunes down to figure out what worked over certain sections of the song.
JB: Like what?
PK: Not necessarily scales, but lines that sounded good over those sections. Let’s say the chords in the tune were Em7-5 to A7#5 to Dm. I wrote out pages of melodic ideas that sounded good over those changes and practiced them so that I could play through common chord sequences without sounding like I was starting a new idea on each chord.
JB: Does studio work enrich or detract from being a jazz guitarist?
PK: Studio work teaches the importance of time, sound, ideas, and feel. You have to learn to be very inventive. You also have to be very accurate with your part. Coming up with a creative part or reading a written part and making it sound good is what you are required to do. I think this training has helped my jazz playing. I’ve had a balanced life and I feel very blessed that I’ve had the opportunity to work with and learn from the greatest musicians in the world and make a decent living with music.
JB: I do not know your first three recordings, reflect upon them a bit for me.
PK: I was playing a lot of funky fusion jazz then. I used a clean sound, an overdriven distortion sound, and nylon string. The songs all had funky or Latin grooves, no swing grooves. I’m putting together a compilation of some of the early music for a Japanese label to re-release.
JB: Your album The Road Home is kind of a mixture of “smooth” jazz and then there are some straight ahead things on it. What were your goals in making it?
PK: I was getting back to playing straight-ahead jazz again. The Road Home was a mixture of several different styles. I even sang a blues tune. (laughs)
JB: The straight ahead things are really nice. I just love the chord melodies in “The Way You Look Tonight.”
PK: I love playing chord melody. That was recorded almost ten years ago and I have bumped my chord melody playing up quite a bit since then. I’d like to record a solo CD in the not too distant future.
JB: Reflect upon the making of the live trio album with Frank Potenza, John Stowell and you?
PK: That was actually the first time we had played together. It was John’s idea to put the three of us together. The Jazz Bakery was a perfect venue for recording. People come to listen. You can hear a pin drop in there.
JB: It is a wonderful album! You all seem to fit together nicely and stay out of each other’s way. What did you talk about ahead of time, or did you just listen very carefully?
PK: We put a song list together over dinner before we went on. Frank and John are such strong players and great listeners that they made it easy. Three guitars can be tricky but it felt good from the first note and we seemed to be able to shift roles without forcing anything. We want to play more together and there’s been talk about recording a second CD in the studio, this time with a little preparation.
JB: Your newest album is In the Moment. The organ is very dominant and the saxophone doubles the guitar quite a bit on the heads. What were your goals with this recording?
PK: I wanted to record this CD with my band and try to capture a live kind of feel. We stretched out with solos and everyone got to play. Rob Whitlock on Hammond B3, John Ferraro on drums, Ernest Tibbs on bass, and Andy Suzuki on sax. I think your readers will really like this CD. This band has such positive energy every time we play.
JB: I want to talk about your approach to playing jazz guitar and specifically, how you improvise. Tell me what is going on in your mind as you solo over a tune like “All the Things You Are?”
PK: Hardly anything (laughter)!
JB: You mean it comes so automatically?
PK: I tell my students that the goal is to become so fluent that we don’t have to think very much, but just react to each moment that the music brings. Now, that is very difficult to do. That’s why so few people get to that point. Because it takes so much thinking and hard work to get to that level. So, it is having a command of the fundamentals like scales and arpeggios, but it is also having developed your ears. Great phrasing and a real understanding of the language of jazz usually comes from listening to records and live jazz over and over again and playing your instrument with other like-minded musicians.
JB: Let’s say you are in the recording studio and you are called on to solo over a tune you have never heard before. What are you thinking about then?
PK: Almost the same thing. I have become so familiar with following chord changes that I can do it without thinking. Now that’s not enough to guarantee even a decent solo. It does, however, give me the luxury of being able to focus on the composition, style, rhythm, dynamics, and other elements that contribute to a great performance. This is where the fundamentals that we have practiced for so many years pay off. You can forget about them. They are there. I’m really just trying to let it flow from one moment to another.
JB: I want to ask you as an educator and professor of Jazz Guitar at USC, what are some common deficiencies that college level guitarist have as they enter your program?
PK: We’ve been getting some strong students. They aren’t all into the same music but most of them have a real sincerity about wanting to be musicians. The most common problem in playing jazz is not having listened to it enough to have it in your soul. The players of past generations grew up listening to jazz in the clubs and so they had a natural concept of what jazz is and how jazz is phrased.
JB: As a jazz guitar educator. What are some skills that you require your jazz guitar graduates to have?
PK: The USC Studio/Jazz Guitar Department encourages a wide range of skills. Students learn all kinds of music. We have a strong emphasis on reading. Everybody has to learn some classical guitar. Everybody plays standard jazz tunes. Richard Smith teaches a guitar style class where students learn everything from the funk rhythms of Earth, Wind and Fire and James Brown to the early rock of Chuck Berry and the Ventures. This is preparation for the TV date where the arranger says “I need a Dick Dale kind of guitar sound.
JB: So, you are pretty thorough.
PK: Yeah. We want our students to be prepared to make a living in music.
JB: You’ve mentioned that the studio scene is not what it once was. Talk about career opportunities for your graduates?
PK: It is a different world out there, but I believe that new artists will find their way. Live acts need players. Schools need teachers. Some will pursue artistic dreams. Songwriting is very important. Studio work will be for some. Some will become composers for television, radio, movies, video games, or whatever. Music technology is still developing.
JB: I want to ask you about that. How essential is it for a jazz guitarist to know computers and the Internet?
PK: Young musicians have to know computers. They do anyway so we don’t even need to worry about that one. Seriously, we can all record now with a computer so I think anyone serious about the recording end of music must be involved with computers. They are not going away.
JB: As a jazz player, tell us about the guitar that you use?
PK: I’ve been playing a Roger Borys guitar for the past four years. I love it.
JB: Did he build it for you?
PK: No, I found one for sale that was made in 1984. It takes quite a while to get one of Roger’s guitars made so when I came across this one, I snapped it up. Ironically, it once belonged to Paul LaRose, former chair of the USC Studio/Jazz Guitar Department.
JB: What other guitars do you have and use for jazz playing?
PK: I have a beautiful Guild Artist Award, a Tom Williamson acoustic steel string made in Maine, and a Mike Stephens guitar that has a maple top and a chambered mahogany body about the size of a Les Paul.
JB: Is Mike Stephens a local builder?
PK: Mike is an exceptionally fine guitar builder in Texas. He has a website you can check out also. My guitar was actually made by him when he worked for Fender Custom shop a few years ago. I also use a “62 Relic” Fender Strat from the Fender custom shop, a Tom Anderson Tele, and my favorite strat, a James Tyler, which I’ve used on more recordings than I can remember.
JB: What amp do you use?
PK: My main amp is a Matchless Chieftan. I also have a a ’64 Blackface Fender Deluxe reverb, and a vintage 4X10 Fender Bassman.
JB: Do you often use two amps together?
PK: Yeah, I like the sound of stereo amps.
JB: What strings do you use?
PK: I use D’Addario strings and quite a few different ones. Nickel, Bronze, Nylon, Baritone guitar. On my Arch tops, I use nickel wound D’Addario strings with a .012 first string.
JB: What is your favorite performance ensemble? Trio, quartet?
PK: I enjoy it all. In a guitar trio setting I play a lot of chord melody and I love that. I also like having the organ in the band, or the sax.
JB: I understand that you were inducted into the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame last summer. How do you feel about that.
PK: Well, I feel honored beyond words to be acknowledged by my home state in this way and to be placed in the company of such great artists as Charlie Christian, Barney Kessel, Chet Baker, Lester Young, and many more.
JB: You have played with so many different people, toured all over the world, worked on hundreds of sessions, put out your own records. What would you like to do with the guitar now?
PK: I still want to do lots of different things. I want to play jazz, work sessions, write music, finish my book, produce new music, and be a better mentor to my students. Playing jazz and learning keeps a spark alive in me. I’m excited about music because I’m still growing and evolving as a guitarist and musician.
JB: What advice would you give to young jazz guitarists?
PK: Use your time wisely to prepare for the future. Get the fundamentals down. Work on your time and develop a strong harmonic sense. Let your style evolve. Learn tunes. Learn from everyone around you and don’t forget that a great feel will help you achieve your biggest success.
JB: Pat, thanks for talking with me.
PK: Thank you Joe.