Fareed Haque

March 1, 2009

“I’M JUST THINKING MELODY AND CHANGES WHETHER I’M playing Bach or bebop,” explains the laid back Fareed Haque. Born of Pakistani and Chilean decent, and based in Chicago, Haque naturally embodies many apparent opposites. Classical and jazz, East and West, the future and the past, the brain and the booty all come together in glorious harmony via his fleet fingers and freewheeling spirit. The associate professor of classical and jazz studies at Northern Illinois University has the formal knowledge you’d expect—yet he’s also one of the most down-to-earth cats on the planet.

“A lot of music is taken really seriously, and that’s a shame,” he quips. Haque has his share of fun. He has played with the likes of Latin jazz icon Paquito D’Rivera, the late keyboard virtuoso Joe Zawinul, tabla guru Zakir Hussain, and Sting. Haque primarily tours with the jam-jazz quartet he co-founded, Garaj Mahal, and the project he leads, the Flat Earth Ensemble. The guitarist is featured prominently on Garaj Mahal’s fusion-heavy Woot, and the Dixon-Rhyne project’s Reinvention—a funky jazz affair led by former Wes Montgomery organist Melvin Rhyne— both of which were released in 2008 on the Owl Studios label. Haque was in mixing sessions for the Flat Earth Ensemble’s Flat Planet at press time. Saxophonist George Brooks’ Summit group, featuring Haque and Hussain, is also due to deliver a new album.

Haque’s guitar arsenal contains two particularly intriguing instruments—a custom guitar/sitar hybrid called the “Guistar,” and a Moog Guitar prototype. Haque is a spokesman for the fascinating, infinite sustain-producing innovation, and he can be heard playing it to marvelous effect on “Jamie’s Jam,” the epic finale on Woot.

How do you compartmentalize so many different musical endeavors?

I’ve come to think about music in pure terms rather than genre or style, and I approach, say, a classical piece in much the same way I would any other type of music. Rather than memorizing something, I study it until I really understand the structure and harmony, and how it was created. That’s how you approach jazz standards, or any tune involving improvisation, and when you do that with classical music, it ceases to be classical music per say, and just becomes music.

How would you describe the differences between Garaj Mahal and the Flat Earth Ensemble?

Garaj Mahal is a democratic group of musicians from very different backgrounds. The focal point is music that has layers of complexity and reveals our various influences, but ultimately still has a sense of humor, dance, and fun. We each contributed two songs to Woot.

The Flat Earth Ensemble is based on a similar concept, but it reflects more of my Indian heritage. I’ve always dug the boogaloo grooves of Grant Green, Wes Montgomery, and early Pat Martino. I would play those rhythms and hear Nusarat Fateh Ali Khan’s tabla players in my head, because a boogaloo shuffle is essentially the same as a Hindustani pop shuffle, and it’s so infectious that it really gets my blood flowing. Our gigs are becoming more and more like jazz gigs, but instead of having that silly bongo player with the funny hat from the ’50s, we have an Indian tabla player.

Can you describe how the Indian rhythmic discipline of Konnakol informs the way you count beats and develop grooves?

India is just like the West in that some players, unfortunately, take a very formal approach to music. And then there are the cats that just listen, imitate, and groove. Studying the rhythms of Konnakol has been very instructive, but I was already playing them instinctively because they’re part of the culture. It is dangerous to overemphasize the intellectual side of things, and being a professor, it’s crucial I keep that very clear.

Did you really burn a student’s book under the premise that if you can’t hear, you can’t play?

He didn’t really need the book anymore, but the poor guy became paralyzed without it, because it was his security blanket. I gave him $20, and we burned it ceremonially in the parking lot. I had another talented student who simply needed to listen to himself. I told him, “Sing the note you want to play, and then play that note.” Two hours later, he became relaxed enough to do that. He played beautifully for 15 minutes before saying, “You know what, that freaks me out!” He quit playing jazz right at that moment. The biggest obstacle for most musicians is the fear of being in the flow.

How do you teach bebop harmony?

To build a bebop castle, start by arpeggiating a chord—1, 3, 5, 7—and then play whatever chromatic notes in-between the notes sound good leading to them. If you approach them from below, you have four half-step notes, giving you eight notes to choose from. If you approach from above, that gives you four more half-step notes. Now, you could also approach the four notes from a whole-step above or below, giving you eight more notes, for a total of 20 to choose from. So, there are more than 12 notes when you start thinking about how notes lead to each other. And at that point, you’re no longer just dealing with the note, but the function of the note.

Learning to sing the melodies of five jazz standards and then harmonizing them is also important. Build the accompaniment chords from the color tones—thirds and sevenths— out to the roots and fifths, and then add extensions. When you get a sense of phrasing based on the melody, all of the sudden the pocket starts to happen, and the chords and melodies connect.

How did you come to play the Guistar?

Luthier and yogi Kim Schwartz and I were on a quest to create a fully-fledged chromatic instrument with a sitar’s tone and drone, and he ended up making me a doubleneck with13 drone strings and six guitar strings, all of which rest on a bone sitar bridge. There are two pickups—a Bill Moll piezo on the inside and a Bill Lawrence magnetic pickup in the soundhole. The cool thing is that the harder you hit the strings, the more buzz you get at the bridge. I used it on a blues track with Cassandra Wilson, and it was like playing through an old Fender Princeton. Rock guitarists didn’t invent distortion— some sitar player invented it a thousand years ago [laughs]. Our ears and bodies have always loved the complex harmonic overtones of stuff that buzzes.

How do the drone strings factor into the way you play it?

I hit the drone strings occasionally, and sometimes I play on the chikari strings—the high-pitched ones—to create a rhythmic part. But I mostly play the guitar neck just as you normally would. I tune the drone strings to the key of the song, and they resonate sympathetically. The amazing reverb-like effect is actually the sound of the drone strings firing when I hit various notes. It’s totally out of control and wonderful, because it happens at random. You can hear it acoustically, or when it’s miked up well in stereo. That was the case when Zakir and I played the double concerto, “Lahara,” which I wrote specifically for Guistar and tabla. I played the Guistar twice on Woot—for the rhythm part on “Corner Piece” and for the solo on “Ishmael and Isaac”—and I used it on a few Flat Planet tunes.

You’re one of the first players to record with the Moog Guitar. What was that like?

The Moog Guitar is off the charts. It can create infinite sustain without distortion in a completely organic way. All you have to do is manipulate the flow. They brought me a prototype when Garaj Mahal was in the studio, and I did about five improvisations to demo it. I used the most interesting one to introduce “Jamie’s Jam.” That was done in Full Sustain mode [For details on the Moog Guitar’s three modes see “Paul Vo Collector’s Edition Moog Guitar Prototype” in the November 2008 issue of GP]. I used the Moog on the rest of the tune as well, because it seemed like a natural vehicle. I played it through a Boss ME-50, which I regularly use for distortion and most of my effects, and a Polytone Mini-Brute.

Can you remember any other settings you used as the tune progressed?

The first solo is the treble pickup in Controlled Sustain mode. For the rhythm parts, I used the Mute mode. It sucks most of the sustain out of the strings for an almost Clavinet-like feel, which is great for playing funk. The wah-wah pedal is the most important guitar innovation of the past 50 years because it revolutionized rhythm guitar playing, and the Moog Guitar has that same degree of potential. It’s also got a piezo pickup that you can blend in to add some acoustic tone, as well as an onboard Moog envelope filter for further shaping all the sounds.

You sound genuinely stoked about it.

Dude! I was so freaked out that I sold my Gibson L5S. It was a pretty big move, but I want to focus on the Moog. We’re working on one with flatwound strings at the resistance I’m used to so I can get that Jim Hall tone. One of my goals is to play polyphonically, with the notes holding like four voices in a saxophone section. I’ll find a chord I like, hang it out there, and then move one voice. It’s going to lead to a whole new vocabulary for guitarists. I can’t wait until Allan Holdsworth gets his hands on one.

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