Paul Bollenback

April 1, 2009

DESPITE BEING A LONGTIME STAPLE OF THE NEW YORK JAZZ scene as both bandleader and accompanist—as well as teaching at various institutions—Paul Bollenback has never received his due from the larger jazz-listening public. That may be at least partially explained by his straightahead style, which adheres largely to traditional jazz guitar values, and therefore may escape notice from chronically jaded jazzers or fail to sufficiently titillate harmonic thrill-seekers in search of the “latest thing.”

The guitarist’s peers, on the other hand, clearly dig the dude’s bag. In addition to his longtime association with B-3 badass Joey DeFrancesco and an ongoing gig with Steve Gadd & Friends, Bollenback has accompanied a list of heavyweight swingers that includes saxophonists Gary Bartz and Gary Thomas, drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts, and fellow guitarists Herb Ellis and the late Charlie Byrd. Hell, he can even hang with tabla master Sandip Burman, playing Northern Indian-inspired world fusion numbers at breakneck tempos.

Bollenback’s most recent CD, Invocation [Elefant Dreams], features trumpeter Randy Brecker, drummer Victor Lewis, and bassist Ed Howard—along with his wife, vocalist Chris McNulty, on several tracks. The music ranges from adventurous originals such as the two-part title track to inventive arrangements of standards by John Coltrane, Irving Berlin, and Benard Ighner.

What guitars are you playing these days?

I recently got a guitar from Roger Borys, who is a legendary underground luthier. He came by my place one day and said, “Here, I was thinking about this for you, what do you think?” It’s basically a thinline modeled on a Gibson ES-330, which doesn’t have the block of wood on the inside like an ES-335 does. I’ve been playing it since August. The guitar I used on Invocation was a Guild Starfire IV—which does have the block—but the Borys B 122 Custom has a woodier and warmer sound, and its neck is impeccable.

I’ve also got an American-made Fender Stratocaster with a maple neck and Lace Sensor pickups that I’ve been playing for years. When I got the gig with Steve Gadd & Friends, I was originally playing the Guild, but Steve wanted a funkier sound, so I did some research and found that Cornell Dupree typically used a Fender with a humbucker in the neck position, so I put a Seymour Duncan ’59 in the neck slot on mine and I love it.

My acoustics include a Buscarino Cabaret Classical/Jazz Hybrid nylon-string, and a Guild steel-string. For strings, I use D’Addario .012 sets on the Borys, .010 sets on the Strat, and .014 sets on the Guild acoustic. I play with black Dunlop Jazz III picks.

Do you have a favorite amplifier?

For most of the softer-volume gigs and recording I use an Evans Ron Eschete 200 with a 10" speaker. It’s solid-state, but I use an ART MP Project Series tube preamp to warm it up. My favorite large amp is a Fender The Twin, but it’s a real back-breaker to drag around. I’ve also got an old, beat-up Fender Deluxe Reverb that I’m going to start using on some gigs.

Do you ever use pedals?

I’m just playing guitar through an amp when I’m playing with my trio or with Steve Gadd, though sometimes I’ll use a Lexicon MX200 to add a little reverb for a more open sound, and if I need distortion I’ll use an Ibanez Tube Screamer. About four years ago, though, I had lots of pedals, a Boss multieffects unit, and a Roland guitar synthesizer— all of which I ran into a computer and used with Propellerhead Reason. That’s because I was getting calls to do more coloristic things with people like [saxophonist] Tim Garland.

You play with a combination of pick and fingers.

That is something I’ve always done, so it feels very natural to me. It helps me vary my articulation, because I don’t want everything to always sound the same. I hide the pick between my index and middle fingers at the knuckle closest to my hand when I’m not using it, which allows me to play with all of my fingers, and have the pick immediately available when I want to switch back. Lately, I’ve been experimenting with playing with both pick and fingers together when string-skipping.

Describe your picking approach in detail.

I learned to play with the left edge of the pick angled up toward the ceiling, sort of like George Benson does, as opposed to playing with it angled down toward the floor, like Mike Stern does. I’ve tried to find an approach that is more efficient, but I’ve always come back to some variation on that because I like the way it sounds. Recently, I’ve also been planting the portion of my palm near my thumb very lightly on the bass strings, and anchoring my pinky on the pickguard, which keeps things stable. Still, I pick mostly with the forearm and only a little bit with the wrist, and I use more of a sideto- side wrist motion as opposed to an upand- down motion.

Is there a typical approach that you take when arranging a jazz standard or classic song?

The process is different for every tune every time, but the starting place is always determining the vibe that I want to create. On “My Girl,” for example, I took a melody part and moved it to the bass line—and since I wanted to be a little adventurous, I changed the time signature to seven. I used melodic elements that were true to the tune, but put them in a place where you wouldn’t expect them. On “Everything Must Change,” I took what are basically the first four notes of the melody and created this false-harmonic thing where I wove them into some abstract harmony to create a mysterious, cloudy sound. I chose a ballad tempo, because that was the most emotive place I could find for the song—but I also wanted to have a groove at the end that I could play off of, and that’s why I came up with the swing-shuffle thing.

You lived in India for several years, and have worked with several prominent Indian musicians. How have those experiences affected your playing?

My family lived in New Delhi for about two and a half years between 1970 and 1973, which affected me in a profound way, because music was everywhere in the street. For example, trucks with loudspeakers on them were constantly driving by blasting music, which causes the music to sink directly into your consciousness. Rather than studying it, you just absorb it by being in it. Many years later, I met and played with tabla player Broto Roy, who showed me a lot of the basics of form and of rhythm. I also worked with another master tabla player, Sandip Burman, for about six years. Sandip’s music was unbelievably complicated, with very strange odd time signatures— like 21/8—and melodies so long that they’d take up about six pages if you were to write them out. He was such a taskmaster in terms of making sure that things were correct that when we would tour, we would do a two-hour rehearsal, a two-hour sound check, a two-hour concert, and then get in the van— and I’d still have to practice the material.

What is a “country” blues scale?

This particular sound comes out of George Benson’s blues playing, and guitarists before him such as Charlie Christian, Wes Montgomery, and even Robert Johnson to a certain extent. It’s like a combination of a minor pentatonic scale, a major pentatonic scale, and a so-called “blues” scale [1, b3, 4, b5, 5, b7]. The scale degrees you could use when playing over, say, a dominant-7th chord include 1, 2, b3, 3, 4, b5, 5, 6, and b7. I was looking for a way to describe what this was to my students, which is how I came up with the term. It’s not a blues scale, per se, and it’s not a minor or major pentatonic scale— it’s something in between. [See “‘Country’ Blues Approach” chart on page 74.]

What’s the most important thing to keep in mind when you are comping behind a soloist, and yours is the only polyphonic instrument?

The idea is respect and support—to try to understand what your role is in the particular situation. Most of the time people are not going to tell you what to do, which is a good thing, though that means you’ve got to figure it out on your own, and every situation is different. In a piano-less group, you are the link between the soloist and the rhythm section, so you have to work off of what the drums and bass are doing—both rhythmically and harmonically—as well as offer support for the soloist. For example, if you get a sense that the soloist wants to change direction, and they want to hear more from you, or they want to hear a lot of substitutions because they’re hinting at it in their solo, you have to be able to jump on that very quickly. And then there may be times when they don’t want much at all.

What is the most common problem you encounter when evaluating potential new students, and what’s the solution?

The biggest problem is that nobody listens to music extensively anymore. I’ll ask kids if they have such and such a recording and they’ll say, “Yeah, I’ve got that.” Then I’ll ask if they have listened to it, and they’ll say they’ve listened to it once. Well, you can’t listen to this music once. You have to listen to it over and over and over again, until what the person is doing really starts to sink in. Some students will have tremendous hands, or really good ears, but they don’t know anything about playing jazz because they never sat down and really listened to any jazz. If you are going to be a jazz guitar player, you’d better listen to some jazz guitar players and learn something.

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