An old post: The Bay Area Guitar Players of the 90’s: An Homage

With the passage of (a little) time, it’s starting to emerge that the San Francisco Bay Area had, in the 1990’s, an inordinate number of great jazz-oriented guitarists, many of whom now have to moved to other locales. I count many of these people among my best friends, and feel very fortunate to have been able to play with them. Being around these guys (all guys, alas [but see 2011 footnote, below]) has been the single most determinant factor in my development as a guitarist. I wanted to sketch a little portrait of the ones I know best, or admire the most, or have borrowed equipment from at some time. It’s difficult to write about them all without resorting over and over again to phrases like “…a great player,” “a jaw-dropping player,” and the like, but here, in alphabetical order, are some “guitarists I have known and loved”:

Duck Baker Duck! A huge influence on me, in about seven different ways. A comprehensive music encyclopedia that walks on two legs, a flabbergasting fingerstyle guitarist who, like Charlie Hunter, can improvise contrapuntally, a great performer as well (which is wholly independent from being a great guitarist), a very thoughtful arranger for the instrument, one of the most reliable and informative music critics active today, a story teller, a friend, a resourse: Duck is all of these things. In addition he’s a member of that small tribe of people who really made a difference in the mid-seventies: Rova, Kaiser, Zorn, Chadbourne (see below). I just feel really fortunate to be able to hang out with this guy occasionally. Duck’s records are all great, but Spinning Song, his collection of Herbie Nichols pieces, is a special favorite, probably because I love that music so much. Duck’s “take” on it is, of course, very hip and original. He has also authored many books of guitar arrangements. Every guitarist should own them. You can learn so much from them. I especially treasure his gospel collection, published by Mel Bay. Duck writes record reviews for many different music magazines, in addition to liner notes, book reviews and guitar articles. Even in a tiny four sentence review he can really make you think. I often think of one where he noted that Anthony Braxton’s alto tone was often markedly similar to Benny Carter’s. The aptness of that comparison is really remarkable, and I have never heard anyone but Duck make it.

Will Bernard My buddy in T. J. Kirk, the guy that shared my side of the stage as well as hotel rooms, and was the other guy in the band who ate meat. Will is an easy guy to love; every time I see him I want to jump in his lap. Touring with him, playing with him, just hanging out with him is always a lot of fun for me. We can talk about any kind of music, books or movies. He has a wide range of experience in modern classical music, theatre work, jazz, ethnic and funk musics. We both played in Persian pop bands in our late teens, a resume item you don’t come across every day. Playing night after night with Will in TJK was the best kind of competition, the kind you read about, the kind you dream about. A friendly call to arms, a challenge, a Just recently in mixing the live T. J. Kirk album, I realized just how distinctive Will’s sound is. The thing about Will is he sort of poses as a hipster slacker lunkhead (He’ll kill me for writing that!) BUT, somewhat covertly, he’s a serious, intellectual musical thinker, who values

Myles Boisen is a sort of Bay Area Most Valuable Player. In addition to being a consummate sideman in a wide variety of musics, he also is one of the foremost recording engineers in the Bay Area. For many years he played a double neck guitar/bass in the avant jazz combo The Splatter Trio, as well as the Clubfoot Orchestra and many other groups. Myles is a very good listener, very musical and supportive. He fits into any musical situation like a glove. He never struts his stuff, preferring the poetry of things suggested, hinted at, or sketched. I really value his musical judgment, and trust him completely. I think the three CDs under his own name, “Guitarspeak”, and “Scrambledisc,” and “Past – Present – Future,” as well as the Splatter Trio disc “Hi-Fi Junk Note” are innovative, eminantly listenable films-for-the-ears.

Alex Candelaria An intense guitarist with great taste, chops, and sound. His CD “Sidewalk Technicolor” is very engaging. He also can be heard on several Graham Connah recordings.

Steve Cardenas Steve, who moved to the Bay Area from Kansas City around 1988, and then to New York in about 1995, was, during his time here, my absolute number one guitar idol. I went to as many gigs of his as I could, took lessons from him, and in general just pestered him. The attraction was simply his musical ear: I felt that his ability to improvise compelling melodies was pretty much unrivalled by anyone locally or on the national stage. Funny thing: this is an almost unappreciated part of being a jazz musician! I mean, a lot of lives are wasted, spent trying to master ever more arcane harmonic ideas, more recondite scales and substitutions. Steve played MELODIES, and when I heard them they really sang to me. I saw him in dingy bars, in ritzy nightclubs and in goofy restaurant gigs, almost always as a sideman, and no matter the context he always delivered the goods. He just hit homeruns a very high percentage of the time. It’s funny how the slight age difference between us manifested itself. Punk had been a big part of my teenage years, both musically and ideologically, and I had practically never heard groups like Weather Report or Return To Forever. By contrast, I think those bands meant a lot to Steve as a young musician. To the extent they left a mark on his playing, I sometimes felt I had to listen past them, to get to his pure musical genius. Likewise his playing could be sooo smooth, so facile, that it sometimes didn’t make a huge impression on people. Sometimes I would turn people on to him, of course with a big build-up, and they would be somewhat non-plussed. They didn’t hear in him what I heard. I remember sitting in Kimball’s one night, listening to Steve, amongst a modest audience on a rainy Monday, and thinking “This was probably what it was like to hear Bach at the organ in Leipzig: a local musician, doing his gig, for people that appreciate him, but who nevertheless are unaware that they are listening to THE BEST GUITAR PLAYER ON THE PLANET.”

Michael Goldberg Michael is a very compelling, and very busy, classical guitarist. He plays everything from Dowland to world premieres, and he does it all the time. He also is a fine jazz guitarist. The nerve of some people!

Charlie Hunter All I can say is, I played on stage with him for hundreds of shows, made a few records together, and I still have no idea how he does it. Charlie is an innovator, and there really have only been a handful of those in the history of the instrument. I have nothing but admiration and respect for Charlie. He and I inhabit somewhat different musical worlds, although with considerable overlap, but I think he really challenged me as a musician. Charlie has zero tolerance for music that doesn’t groove, is out of tune, or is ordinary. At first I found his taste conservative. But ultimately it really forced me to reconsider some cherished notions I held about snobby music I had defended. Charlie delivers the goods. He offers value for your music dollar, a sensibilty nurtured in his working class background and years of playing music on the streets for tips. I’ve often said that you could put Charlie on a stage in front of 5000 people with nothing but a broom and a bucket and he would somehow rock the house. That’s how intense his charisma and his drive to perform is.Beyond all that, the guy has just been exceptionally supportive of me, and is funny as hell.

Henry Kaiser Henry Kaiser is cool. He and his early seventies comrades, including Eugene Chadbourne, Duck Baker, the Rova Quartet, and John Zorn, really made some revolutionary music, and blazed trails that all of us walk through. I feel like a little kid around them, except when they’re acting like little kids; then I feel like a boring grownup. Henry and I have played together in numerous combinations, including a large Cecil Taylor ensemble, a large Rova ensemble, duos and trios around town, and one very memorable night, in a quartet with Duck Baker and Fred Frith. It’s always great to play or hang out with Henry. He takes chances, he plays WITH the people he’s playing with, he has fun, and he has big ears. Did I mention that he’s a world-class musicolgist, with hands-on experience on every continent on the earth, (including, recently, the South Pole!)? In addition you just could not find a more enthusiastic and supportive friend. He’s always been so encouraging to me, and has included me on many occasions where I learned far more than I could possibly contribute. Henry’s 30-year discography is huge, and includes videos and DVDs as well.

Adam Levy When Steve Cardenas moved to New York around 1995, I felt Adam Levy took over first chair among Bay Area guitarists. Like Steve, I would have to cite something like his pure musical abilities, coupled with a very secure guitar foundation, and an unsurpassed ability to supportively accompany others. Adam and I played so many cool gigs together, but the coolest was when we arranged the entire second side (before you could download things, there were CDs, and before that there were LPs, and the LPs could be played on BOTH sides, and…never mind) of Abbey Road for an eight piece band, and passed out the lyrics to the audience beforehand and encouraged them to sing along ala Handel’s Messiah! I still flashback on that all the time. Anyway, Adam is the complete and total MAN, and, as you probably know, a few years ago he met a singer named Norah Jones, and found a plush home for his abundant talents. He’s also put out some fine CDs himself, including “Get Your Glow On” and “Buttermilk Channel.”

Dave MacNab I don’t really know Dave all that well personally, but I sure have picked my jaw up off the floor a few times listening to him. Since he got the gig with Shelby Lynn he’s been off the Bay Area scene quite a bit. When I first became aware of Dave he was part of this group called Frame, with Elliott Kavee, Eric Crystal, and Hillel Fament. They were like a little tribe unto themselves, a virtual cult of odd-time signature worshipers. I’ve always been drawn to bands that have an intense brotherhood (who isn’t?).

Postscript: This is of course, by no means a complete list of Bay Area guitar slingers of the 90’s. There are many others, who I didn’t know as well as I did the ones mentioned above: Andre Bush, Brad Buethe, Jeff Buenz, Ben Rodefer, Matt Lax, Robin Lewis, Scott Foster, Joel Harrison, Randy Vincent, Randy Porter, Jon Pruess, Morris Acevedo, Liberty Ellman, Brian Pardo, Jeff Massinari, Carl Lockett, and many others. Two veterans deserve special mention: Calvin Keys and Eddie Duran. I’d like to also mention two guitarists that don’t live in the Bay Area, and to my knowledge never have: Thanks to the wonderful guitarist/composer Joel Harrison, I had an opportunity to work a little with the awesome Nels Cline. Nels’ playing is ravishing and extraordinary, but the thing that took from my experience working with him was his energy and commitment. He psyches himself up for every show as if it was Game Seven of the World Series. Being around that even once really can change you. Growing up in Seattle I met Brad Shepik. (back then it was spelled Schoeppach.) We eventually attended college together, studying with the same teachers and taking many of the same classes. Alas, we too rarely played together, and then I moved to the Bay Area and he moved to New York. Brad was a modern guitarist when I was still listening to Charlie Christian and Wes Montgomery. He had checked out Bill Frisell, John Scofield and Pat Metheny, who in 1984 were just beginning to make their impact. Brad also practiced like his life depended on it. Night after night after night at Cornish, our college, Brad’s guitar emanated from the practice rooms, for hours on end. I really admire his dedication and perseverance.

January 06, 2005

2011 footnote: Of course, there were wonderful, inspiring female guitar players in the Bay Area during the 90’s: two that immediately come to mind are Mimi Fox and Shelley Doty. I just didn’t know their work well enough until later.

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