Talking guitarists

Josh Breakstone, opening the Opera House Jazz series, is more vocal than most with his instrument.

Josh Breakstone 521 (photo credit: Courtesy: Josh Breakstone)
Josh Breakstone 521
(photo credit: Courtesy: Josh Breakstone)
Josh Breakstone has been singing since he was just a young lad, but not necessarily with his mouth.
This evening Jewish American guitarist Breakstone will display his vocal approach to his instrument when he joins up with Italian pianist Tony Pancella in the first installment of the new Opera House Jazz series in Tel Aviv.
The concert is being touted as a tribute to two renowned guitar-piano duos of yesteryear – Wes Montgomery and Wynton Kelly, and Grant Green and Sonny Clark – and Breakstone and Pancella will play some numbers originally performed by their illustrious predecessors, as well as some original material.
Breakstone is certainly delighted to have the opportunity to salute Green’s contribution to the jazz oeuvre.
“I have always admired Grant Green’s playing and I have been compared, many times, to him,” he notes.
“But, of course, if you’re a guitar player you get compared with Wes Montgomery too, but I think my approach to playing is more in line with the approach of Grant Green than Montgomery.”
Not that Breakstone has any problems with playing Montgomery numbers either.
“I have recorded CDs dedicated to both. I did one for a Japanese company with material by Green, and then for an American label dedicated to Montgomery,” he says, adding that he enjoys taking on subject-specific projects.
“When recordings have a theme, it is very interesting for me because I can really do something about them. We always think of Wes Montgomery as being such an exciting improviser and performer. Then, with Grant Green, you think of the single lines. It is also interesting to take a step back and think of Wes as a composer.
That’s fun for me.”
Even so, Breakstone says he doesn’t try just to replicate the source material – that simply isn’t the jazz way.
“I never try to play something the way Wes or Green might have played it, I have my own approach.”
That’s perfectly natural – otherwise one could just take the original record or CD and we wouldn’t need the Joshua Breakstones of this world.
“I have also done an album dedicated to the music of [pianist] Bud Powell, but what I try to do is to try to communicate how I relate to the music of, say, Grant Green.”
Breakstone has been following that independent, innovative path for over three decades. However, like many of his contemporaries, the 56-year-old guitarist initially turned on to the raw energies of the rock scene and was a devotee of such frontier-pushing icons as Jimi Hendrix and Frank Zappa.
“I grew up in a very rock ’n’ roll-oriented era,” Breakstone recalls. “I had a sister who worked at the [late Sixties New York concert venue] Fillmore East so we had a lot of rock ’n’ roll guys over at our house all the time and I spent almost every night watching one or both shows, and meeting almost everyone who passed through Fillmore East, like Zappa and Hendrix, when I was about 14.”
But jazz was never far away from the youngster’s ears and heart and, when he was 14, he heard trumpeter Lee Morgan and the die was cast.
“I was into rock but I’d heard a lot of jazz, even though jazz didn’t interest me much to begin with,” he says. But Morgan changed all that. “When I heard Lee Morgan I heard something that grabbed,” continues the guitarist, “I didn’t have any idea what it was. It was just very exciting for me.”
Jazz trumpeters were his main source of inspiration, until he heard bebop founding father alto saxophonist Charlie Parker. The sounds of Morgan and fellow trumpeter Clifford Brown helped Breakstone formulate his approach to articulation on the guitar, but it was Parker who really opened Breakstone’s creative floodgates.
“When I heard Bird [Parker], I knew I wanted to play like him, in the sense of playing things which are meaningful, emotional and, more than anything else, irresistibly beautiful.”
Jazz musicians, certainly when they are starting out, talk about the importance of finding their “own voice.” That doesn’t necessarily mean taking a vocal approach to their instrumental playing, it’s more in the sense of discovering their own path through the rich maze of sound, harmony and articulation. In Breakstone’s case, singing is an important part of his mind-set.
“When we translate what we do vocally into music we start talking about legato [sequences of uninterrupted notes]. So, for me, if I’m playing a piece of music and I’m not entirely happy about how I am playing it, or if I am playing with a student and we are trying to work out expression and phrasing, the right and wrong is always to go back and sing it.”
That brings the guitarist back to one of his initial sources of inspiration.
“I loved the sound and energy of Lee Morgan, and that was what got me into jazz. I tried to play like a trumpet player. I think what I share with a trumpet player or saxophone player, trying to play something almost like I’m singing it. That approach is what really communicates.”
Breakstone says that he rarely hears that sound from his fellow instrumentalists.
“I didn’t find that, and still don’t, in that many guitar players. So I was really attracted to horn players but, of course, some guitar players.”
One of the horn players who enhanced Breakstone’s vocal approach to his instruments was saxophonist Warne Marsh.
“I played with Warne [who died in 1987] quite a lot, and he was out of [revolutionary pianist] Lennie Tristano’s school. One of Tristano’s approaches with students was to have students learn the lyrics to a song and to be able to sing them. I heard that Tristano said that unless you learn the lyrics you can’t play a song. Having that association with your voice is what music is. Music is a means of nonverbal communication.
“We start developing and understanding from music when we are in our mother’s womb. Through the voice we can understand, on an intimate level, the nuances of meaning when we’re speaking. I think the job is to translate what people understand from actual spoken language into what we’re doing musically.”
Breakstone says that Green certainly managed to convey that.
“There a lot of great guitarists out there who really know their instrument, but it’s not about the technical stuff. It’s about going to the next level of really having a unique voice. In that sense I think that Grant Green is not just one of the great guitar players, but one of the really great musicians in jazz.”