Thursday, January 22, 2015

A conversation with Dan Adler

Though I have never met him in person, I have known New York based guitarist Dan Adler for about 15 years. As a guitarist and internet friend, he has always been a great inspiration to me. If you don't know him, to get an idea why, just play the full album below he made a number of years with Joey D. 

See what I mean? Great sound, cool tunes, excellent bop chops and kick-ass phrasing ,,, what more do you need? High time for a talk with my old internet jazz friend. He was interviewed earlier by Jazz Guitar Life and for those that want to know more about this fine player, click here to read it. My interview kind of goes on where that one stopped ... Let's go!

Dick: Hi Dan, great to have a talk with you here. I always wanted to ask you this. Do you consider yourself to be a bebop guitarist?

Dan: Hi Dick, thanks for the opportunity to have a dialog with you about the music and the instrument we both love. As a mainstream jazz guitarist, I like to think that I draw from all past and present traditions. I think that bebop was to jazz what ‘Bach’ was to classical harmony: a logical foundation for melodic improvisation. Bebop is almost mathematical in its precision and its power to prescribe ‘good’ melodies over chord changes, and jazz students and educators have derived theoretical rules -- by extrapolating from the solos of the bebop masters -- that give any improviser a great starting vocabulary to develop their own style. But it’s up to each and every one of us to move beyond that and tell our own story. I think the hallmarks of a jazz improviser are: an identifiable style which represents the uniqueness of their personality, a strong sense of melody, a respect for tradition and the ability to move others emotionally. The latter point is very important to me, because nothing leaves me colder than a great musician who plays with no passion. Many players place an emphasis on mastering syntactic elements of music such as playing over complex harmonies and compound meters. While I can be floored by the technical achievements of such players, I find that I am not emotionally attracted to their music once the novelty wears off. On the other hand, many of the old bebop masters expressed themselves in a very personal and moving way with a relatively limited musical vocabulary, and I find that very satisfying to listen to over and over. Having said that, I find that players who are pure imitators also completely miss the point. It’s like the Woody Allen joke: “I failed my metaphysics exam because I looked into the soul of the boy sitting next to me”. You can’t copy someone else’s personality. You can use their ideas and vocabulary, but channel it through your own musical sensibility and life experiences.

Dan: How do you feel about developing a personal style versus learning from others?

Dick: I think that is vital for any ambitious player indeed. Of course you start out imitating others. And as a hobby player you can do pretty much whatever you want but not if you follow some kind of artistic path. For, how can you be an artist and not have a unique and distinct voice of your own? I have seen that aspect of your playing develop over the years tremendously by the way.

Dick: We both seem to have a preference for 1960s Joe Pass. What about Joe’s solo guitar playing … not your thing?

Dan: I love Joe Pass first and foremost because his playing stirs me emotionally. I feel it in my “kishkes” (guts) first, and in my brain second. In his early recordings, he was really reaching for the moon in terms of his creativity. I know you are also a big fan of the “Joy Spring” album, and what always amazes me about that album is how he took chorus after chorus of pure creative flow. None of what he played there sounds or feels to me like it’s worked out. He keeps reusing basic musical ideas and developing them into more and more complex melodies that flow and evolve and have a definite overall architecture. That to me is jazz improvisation at its best. Like many players, Joe evolved into a different player around the time he joined Pablo. I love his “Virtuoso” albums and many of his later recordings, but it almost sounds to me like a different person. Just like late Coltrane sounds to me like a different person than his early period, and of course Miles went through many musical incarnations. I’m not judging any of them or saying I wish they hadn’t evolved. Not at all. We all evolve. I’m just saying that, in the case of Joe Pass, I find that his early recordings move me more than his later ones. That said, whenever I do play solo guitar, I hear elements of Joe’s style in my playing, even though I’ve never copied any of it. I think it’s just the fact that I am too lazy to sit down and arrange a piece, so I just improvise it, as I believe Joe did.

Dan: How about you? Do you hear a direct musical link between the Joe Pass of “Synanon”, “For Django”, “Simplicity”, “Joy Spring” and “Catch Me” and his later solo recordings?

Dick: I must admit that I, like you, strongly prefer Joe’s early work to his solo guitar work. I hear a different Joe too after the 1970s somehow, also sound wise. To me he sounded best on the early 60s recordings. Of course I fully realise Joe’s importance, artistry and mastery as a solo player but I have always preferred him in a trio or small group setting (“Intercontinental” is such a great album …) Solo jazz guitar playing is not my thing to begin with. Nevertheless, one of my favourite Pass albums is a very late album: "Joe Pass in Hamburg"  (1990). Surely a different Joe than the one turning out chorus after chorus of amazing bop lines on “Joy Spring” but amazingly lyrical and beautiful.

Dick: In an earlier interview you indicated that Joe’s later playing relied more on clichés. How did that happen in your opinion? Is it not so that your creativity is supposed to grow as you get older?

Dan: It’s a fact of life that all jazz players evolve. Classical players too. Gould’s early and later “Goldberg Variations” are a great example. I think that the 60’s, after Joe kicked his addiction, were extraordinarily creative years for him. Even the early 70’s albums “Intercontinental” and the albums with Art Van Damme (on the MPS label) still had that fresh vitality, and the first “Virtuoso” albums are also some of my favorites. I think that in his later period, he played night after night of solo guitar concerts without a rhythm section, and a certain “sameness” started to creep in. When the spotlight is on you non-stop for 2 hours straight, I can imagine that a bag of tricks emerges that allows you to “tune out” part of the time. It’s just not possible to maintain that kind of focus and creativity under such demanding conditions.

Dick: What about Joe’s facility in playing fast single lines. I think his picking was so much better in the early 60s, when he used a pick?

Dan: Joe maintained great picking facility even in his later years. He used a small medium pick (cut in half) and his picking was a variation on Gypsy picking, always using a downstroke when changing strings. I think that as he spent more hours playing solo, his fingerstyle technique improved, as did his slurring, but he always had a pick between his teeth and pulled it out for uptempo solos. I think that many guitarists think there is an objective “secret” to picking, which you have to “discover” in order to get to the next level (for example, “Benson picking” or “Gambale picking”, etc). Personally, I think the process should be the other way around: adapting your technique to suit the way you want to hear things. I think the original bebop guitarists developed their picking styles based on trying to play like the horn players of the day. They knew what they wanted to sound like, and they figured out a technique that works for that. Today, the lines people play are more complex and less diatonic, and many guitarists have found that playing with an anchored wrist works better for that. I think the best way to approach it is by playing through lots of transcribed solos of musicians that you admire and adjusting your technique to make it work. 

Dan: I know you worked on some Clifford Brown and Bird solos. Did you find that you had to adjust your technique to execute those the way you wanted to hear them?

Dick: Yes, I had to adapt my picking quite a bit. Parker is hard to play on guitar and it is sometimes simply impossible to pick every note in certain measures because he is playing so fast. You need slurs and whatever type of picking works to get it done. I used to play along with Bird over and over again until I thought it was good enough. And I know it's far from perfect. Same for Clifford Brown. So far I haven’t been able to execute bars 17 to 23 of his classic solo on "Joy Spring" at the original speed. I dare every guitarist to have a go at them! Next to impossible. Compared to horn players, we still have a lot of catching up to do in terms of speed and dynamics :) 

Dick: How do you feel about Tal Farlow’s playing in the mid 50s if you compare it to Joe’s approach in the early 1960s?

Dan: Tal was always another one of my idols, but I found that there was not that much that I could learn from him. His style was so personal. Starting from his unique time feel, his impossible voicings, and those amazing melodic lines that cover the whole fingerboard in the space of one second. He has always been in a class of his own. I have always admired him and listened to him, but I don’t believe that I learned that much from him. It’s a little like Bird and Diz. Even though they were both amazing and innovative, you can learn so much more from Bird than from Diz because his conception is so clear and logical, while Diz was more individualistic. I have tried to balance learning from other players with learning to sound like myself. I think there is a lot of conscious effort involved. I often listen to recordings of myself and try to say to myself: this is me, this is copied, this is me, etc. that process helps me choose how I want to sound. When I watched the movie about Pat Martino relearning how to “sound like himself” after his brain surgery, I realized that sounding like yourself is an active endeavor of making choices, and not as mysterious as it is sometimes made to be.

Dan: Have you ever tried to consciously work on developing your own voice?

Dick: Way too little. I think I have always concentrated too much on just playing guitar instead of consciously developing my own voice. Still, most people seem to be able to identify my style immediately so no big worries there. But there is certainly room for improvement. There always is.

Dick: Do you feel your playing is still evolving in your 50s or are you happy trying to keep up your current level?

Dan: I do find that I am evolving. Being in NYC and going out to listen to a lot of live jazz is my main source of inspiration. In our multi-tasking world, a live performance is one of the few times when you are really focused for a long period of time, and really make an effort to get into the head of the improvisor that you are listening to. Sometimes after an inspiring gig by some great players, I will come home to practice and find that my playing has gone up a notch without my doing anything. I think that once you get beyond the grammar and syntax of music, improvisation becomes about the stories you are able to tell, and those are enriched by any cultural experience that raises your level of inspiration and emotional awareness. If you see a good actor who makes you identify with a character in a play, or a TED speaker communicating an idea effectively to an audience, at some level, that enriches the way you can convey a musical message to your listeners. 

Dan: How about you, do you find that your playing is influenced by other aspects in your life?

Dick: O yes.No doubt that my internet activities have always had a profound influence on my playing. I am an online kind of person and have been so for years. I started studying jazz very late in life. In the late 90s I was doing my first gigs aged 40 and the internet became a major part of my development. I remember hanging out at the RMMGJ newsgroup on a daily basis. That’s how we met in the first place, Dan. I was a rookie at the time and I was completely inspired by the cats posting on that newsgroup. Many of them played way better than I did and there was a lot of sharing and inspiration there. I took it all very seriously, even the flame wars. I could be such a hothead. These days I know better but my internet presence is still very much alive. Facebook, my Blog …. all this keeps me inspired for, unfortunately, the local jazz scene over here is eh … not that happening. No offense meant but it’s mainly an amateur thing. Very unlike New York, where you are from and where you can see the heavy cats every week.

Dick: What material are you studying these days?

Dan: I have shelves full of music books, which are mostly languishing. I did enjoy working through the Bergonzi books, and Dave Liebman’s “Scale Syllabus” at some point, as those gave me more of a modern approach to improvisation than the bebop vocabulary which is based around chord tones. On the physical side, I find that I constantly have to work at being more relaxed when I play. Kenny Werner covers that idea in his “Effortless Mastery”, which I think is an important book to read, although the application of the principles is pretty much up to the individual player. Beyond that, for me, practice is either just noodling, or sometimes playing through tunes, reading some heads or solos, and composing. I find that composing is a good way to get more of yourself into your playing. When you compose, if you do it by trying to sing some ideas, write them down, and then learn to play them, you will find that you are transcribing the “real you”. Sometimes that ends up being someone else’s ideas recycled through your subconscious, but sometimes you will surprise yourself with something that sounds original and you have no idea where it came from. It’s really quite humbling to feel that you are able to write a tune that you didn’t realize was “in you”. It’s almost a mystical experience to realize that things like musical talent, musical hearing and composing are processes that occur inside of you, and yet can totally take you by surprise. 

Dan: Have you done any composing? What are you working on musically?

Dick: I have little interest in composing. Like I said earlier, I consider myself to be a guitarist rather than an artist. Just trying to get better in playing guitar. See where I can still go. It’s a hobby but one that I take very seriously. I’ll bop till I drop. I am working on my comping right now. I am playing in a pianoless quartet and the way I comp is pretty determining there.

Dick: I know you like Dutch guitarists such as MVI and JVR. Do you actually hear some kind of “European” concept in their playing? Or are they just contemporary guitar styles like you hear from the great players in New York?

Dan: I believe that jazz is a universal language, and I don’t mean that just as a platitude. It’s a way for musicians from all over the world to get together, name a tune, count off, and instantly be creative together. There is no other system of communication that allows that kind of immediate bonding and collective creativity by people who come from very disparate cultures and backgrounds. It allows us all to celebrate our commonality and our uniqueness. Of course, the roots of jazz are in Blues and in the African American genius for transforming their suffering and isolation into an intellectual system of communication and collective creativity that transcends place and time. I have met so many musicians from all over the world through my jazz guitar playing, and in most cases it has lead to lasting friendships. Although I have never met JVR, I’m a big fan of his playing. I think he has a very distinctive sound, a very melodic concept and very powerful articulation that is instantly recognizable. I think “Live at Murphy’s Law” is up there with the best of the jazz guitar trio albums. A few years ago, I was hanging out at Jack Wilkins’ gig at “Bella Luna” (which unfortunately has been discontinued). I was by the bar talking to Jack, who was playing duo that night with the great Peter Bernstein, when I heard someone new sitting in with Peter. Within a few notes, and before I looked over, I said “That MUST be MVI”, and indeed it was! It’s really a badge of honor for a player to be so instantly identifiable. He is certainly one of my favorites today. There are also a lot of great jazz players in NYC from my country of origin, Israel, and it is interesting and inspiring to see how each generation transcend the previous one. New York is a real jazz melting pot. There are great players from France, Italy, Germany, Australia, India and everywhere else. Each one brings something unique from their own culture and music. They all come to NYC to cut their teeth on this great music, and often they go back and open music schools in their home countries and then the next generation of players come to NYC even more prepared. That’s how I got into jazz guitar. Avri Sharon was a jazz guitarist who came to New York, studied with Chuck Wayne and Jim Hall, and ended up being my teacher at a music conservatory in Tel Aviv when I was an impressionable teenager. If it were not for him I don’t know if I would have been bitten by the jazz guitar bug. 

Dan: Tell me about Wim Overgaauw and how he influenced the Dutch jazz guitar scene? Did you meet him?

Dick: I never got to meet him for he had died already in 1995 when I started studying jazz. I was already 37 when I took my first jazz lesson. But I had been listening to him for a few years. Wim Overgaauw was the nestor of Dutch jazz guitar. Not only was he a great player but an important educator as well. He shaped the first generation of truly great Dutch jazz guitarists, notably Jesse van Ruller and Martijn van Iterson of course. He put Dutch jazz guitar on the map. I have written about Wim in my Blogs several times and of course he appears in the interviews I did with Jesse and Martijn.

Dick: Do you have some kind of concept for building up solos?

Dan: I think the only concept I have is to be conscious of the fact that a solo should be a complete statement that you are trying to convey to the listener. You have to bring them down from the previous solo or head, capture their attention, and then try to keep them interested, so that they stay with you. You have to be emotionally involved in your solo, or they will sense it and lose interest and check their email. You can think of yourself as an actor or a speaker. You have to take them along on an emotional experience. I find that singing, audibly or silently, helps me shut out distractions and focus all of my mental and emotional energy into the solo. It also allows me to step out of my body and hear the music as a listener. That can sometimes be an eerie experience, but it is essential to learn to  detach from thinking of the mechanics like fingerings and chords, so that you can be aware of what the other players are doing and how it all fits together. I also think it’s very important to end your solo strongly and clearly, so that the audience have a cue to clap, and the next soloist is clear that you are done. I see many players deliver a great solo and then fizzle out at the end, and that confuses the audience and sometimes the other musicians as well. 

Dan: You specialize in communication in your day job. Do you find that this helps you connect to people through jazz?

Dick: Yes, I think so. Maybe not so much on stage but I am always writing about jazz and sharing stuff on line. My Blog is even a direct result from my work. Blogging is important for companies these days so I was lecturing on content strategies at my university and when my students had to start their own Blog to gain experience with creating content I started my own Jazz Guitar Blog too to know what it was like. 

Dick: You recorded a CD with Joey D. What was it like working with arguably the greatest contemporary Hammond player?

Dan: The experience of recording with Joey D. and Byron Landham was unforgettable. During the first take of the first song, my hands were literally shaking from nervousness (I won’t tell you which cut that was), but within a few minutes they put me at ease, and did everything they could to realize my musical vision. Joey is such a sweet person in addition to being a monster player, and he was a complete gentleman in terms of putting his ego aside and making sure I was happy with the results. It was very gratifying that the album got such great reviews and continues to be played occasionally on jazz radio stations.

Dan: Do you have any plans to record an album? I think it’s time (I’ve been telling you that for years!)

Dick: LOL. Yeah, I know. I get that question from others too sometimes. Well, I do not think a serious recording is going to happen soon. Earlier I stated that my ambitions are humble. One of my weak points is that I do not play that well under stress and the very thought of recording bop tunes in a studio scares the heck out of me. And I am not sure what I could possibly add to the jazz guitar scene in my country with guys like JVR and MVI kicking my ass. But a fun recording to share with friends, yeah, maybe one day … I am in a promising quartet right now so who knows ...

Dick: Your main instrument is a 60s ES 175. How do feel your ES 175 compares to the current offering by Gibson?

Dan: I also have a 1973 ES-175 which looks very similar but has a wider neck. My main one has a very thin neck which most players find uncomfortable. I used to buy a lot of guitars to experiment with new sounds and new inspiration, but every time I thought I was getting used to a new guitar, I would pull out my trusty old work-horse and it just felt infinitely better. So, I think I’m set. Unless something bad happens to it, I don’t see myself on the market for a new guitar. But, I’ve also learned to never say never (especially in print).

Dan: How about you? You seem to go back and forth between your 175, Tal and Ibanez. Why can’t you commit? :-)

Dick: Good question. I have always been jealous of players that bonded with ONE instrument only. Like Wes, Tal Farlow, Barney Kessel, Martijn van Iterson and yourself! I like my guitars but I keep switching between them. Sometimes I prefer the 175, then the Tal and on stage I often use the 350 because it’s a thinline and is more practical in smaller spaces. The Ibanez is a great couch guitar somehow ... I don’t know really. It kind of depends on my mood too. Sometimes I think I should sell all my gear and go for the ONE AND ONLY vintage guitar that is waiting for me out there. But maybe I am just not into guitar monogamy.

Dick: I know you studied Joe Pass’ “Guitar Style”  a lot. Do you feel that is still the definitive method for bebop guitar playing? What about Joe’s later material?

Dan: I have called it the “Bible” of jazz guitar. I think that’s true. The examples are priceless. It’s not very structured, but it covers a lot of bases in a very practical way. It doesn’t really go into functional harmony, which is essential to jazz, but any intelligent person can learn that in the space of a few weeks or months. It’s not that complicated. The other thing that “Guitar Style” is missing is an organized approach to arpeggios. My playing lacked grounding until I mastered arpeggios. You somehow have to reach the point where you look at the guitar, and for any series of chords, you instantly know where each chord tone is on the fretboard in every position. The method I used was Peter Sprague’s method of mapping out all the arpeggios in each position for each type of chord, but you can use any other method that gets you to the same level of mastery. Roni Ben-Hur has a great book that maps out the Barry Harris method for guitar. Then, you have to connect the arpeggios with hearing the chords, so you become aware of what the 5th sounds like against the chord, what the maj7th sounds like etc. Once you can hear and see those clearly on the fingerboard, that gives you enough anchor points to create lines that are grounded in the chord changes but also form logical and beautiful melodies. Beyond that, it’s all about transcribing the jazz masters in order to learn what good lines sound like. How they resolve. How they use chromatic notes. How they sit on the time. How they swing. 

Dan: Have you used any materials that you would recommend?

Dick: I have used many educational materials over the years but I can’t say I think I have found the definitive way to learn how to play jazz guitar yet. There is so much excellent material. I used to study from the internet a lot. I do like Joe Pass’ “On Guitar” method. It’s a bit more accessible than his original “Guitar Style” but not so profound and comprehensive. As it is, I have a bookshelf full of jazz guitar methods, most of which are hardly ever used these days. Playing along with Aebersolds and later, Band-in-a-Box, the iReal Book and Hal Leonards has always been a big part of my studies. You have to play tunes. We have a luxury problems these days. It’s all there on the internet and on Youtube for free but  … you have to be able to filter out the good from the bad. You have to find the stuff that works for you. Or get a good teacher. 

Dick: Tell me about your latest project and your gigging plans for the future.

Dan:  I’m very excited to be putting out a new album as a joint project with four other great musicians. It’s called “Arty Facts” and will be released in a few weeks. Speaking of the international reach of jazz music - this album is a great example of that: I am originally from Israel, but living in NYC for half my life. Arnon Palty, the bass player and producer, is also from Israel where he plays and teaches harmony and composition. Yvonnick Prene is a phenomenal young harmonica player from Paris. Lewis Porter is an educator, author (“John Coltrane”), and fantastic piano player who has recorded with Dave Liebman and others. And Marcello Pellitteri is a great drummer from Italy who gigs in NYC and commutes to Boston to teach at Berklee. The album was actually recorded in the summer of 2012 when Arnon came to NYC to record an album of his arrangements with the Dave Liebman Big Band. He brought some of his compositions with him, which were all contrafacts on known standards, and we each brought some of our own tunes to create an album of all original melodies on standard chord changes. We have some great gigs lined up in Israel and New York to celebrate the release of the album, and I hope people will take the time to check it out. Details can be on my website.

Dan: Thanks, Dick. It was a pleasure exchanging ideas, and I am truly looking forward to meeting you in person and trading fours. I feel like we have known each other online for so many years that it will surely feel more like a reunion than a first meeting when we finally shake hands. All the best to you and your family!

Dick: Yes, it seems strange that we have known each other for so many years without ever having met in person. You have always been a great source of inspiration to me and still are. I wish you continued success, both with your professional and musical career! Thanks so much for the intervierw.


  1. Wonderful article indeed. I love all of Dan's albums.


  2. Great interview. Hope you come to NYC one day and we can hang out (with Dan too of course).