LOTS OF GREAT JAZZ GUITAR PLAYERS—INCLUDING WES Montgomery, Pat Martino, and John Abercrombie—have performed and
recorded in the organ-trio format (electric guitar, Hammond organ, and
drums). It’s easy to appreciate why such players are intrigued by this configuration.
A skilled organist can draw a virtually limitless range of timbres
and textures from the instrument, all while handling melodic, chordal, and
bass-line duties. Such dynamic flexibility makes the organ trio an ideal
vehicle for exploring all sorts of musical vistas, from ostentatious funk
to hard-swinging blues to tender balladry. Yet wherever the music goes,
and whatever the tones the players choose, the prime sonic characteristics
of the organ and the electric guitar remain simpatico.
Another jazz six-stringer who enjoys working regularly in this format
is New York-based guitarist Sheryl Bailey, whose latest record, A Meeting
of Minds [Cellar Live], is her fifth organ-trio release. The album’s title is
apt, though it could’ve been called A Melding of Minds, because the players
(Bailey, drummer Ian Froman, and organist Ron Oswanski) are so in
sync that they seem to finish each other’s musical ideas at times. Though
it was recorded in a studio, Minds has an undeniably live feel. The playing
is bold and energetic, and each member of the trio spurs the others
on while keeping their own ears wide open.
Faint echoes of classic organ-trio recordings of the ’60s can be heard
here and there, but the mood of the album is neither nostalgic or retro.
The compositions here—all Bailey’s own—are modern in conception.
The improvisational flights are forward thinking. The tonal quality of the
recording is warm, yet with ample definition and dimension. Listen on
a great pair of speakers or headphones and it’s easy to imagine yourself
right there in the room with Bailey, Froman, and Oswanski.
How did you get that live feel in the studio?
We didn’t do more than two takes of anything. Honestly, most of the
tunes are just one take. We could do that because we’ve played a lot of
gigs together, for at least five years. That’s what I wanted to document
and what I want to promote, because there is something to be said for a
When you’re only going for one or two takes, how do you know when
you have the keeper?
You look at each other and you know—yep, that’s it. If we did it again,
could we play it better? You get diminishing returns after awhile. You want
to keep it fresh. In terms of playing together, we’ve already explored these
tunes a lot and stretched out on them. We’ve refined where the peaks are.
None of it is worked out exactly, but you get a sense of where to take it.
Also, we’ve played these tunes enough together so that everyone really
knows the melody. That’s a big thing—knowing the phrasing of a song.
Is your tune “Unity” a nod to organist Larry Young and his mid-’60s album of the same name?
No, but I really love the way that Ian and
Ron took to “One for VJ” because it reminds
me of that record. They totally got it.
What other organ-trio records are you
a fan of?
The Dynamic Duo—by Jimmy Smith and
Wes Montgomery—was a big influence on me.
In what way?
The swing. If an alien from another planet
came here and asked, “What is swing?” you
could just play that stuff!
Your tone is rich, yet really clear as well.
So many guitarists sacrifice one for the other.
How do you think about tone, and what are
the elements of your rig?
I play a Ric McCurdy Mercury Sheryl
Bailey signature model through an Acoustic
Image Clarus 2R head, into a Raezer’s
Edge cabinet with a 10" speaker. That’s my
whole rig—except on “Cheap Jersey Gas,”
where I used a bunch of pedals. I’m always
on my students about this—practicing with
an amp, so that you’re aware of the sound
that you make. You develop your touch when
you practice with an amp. Without an amp,
you’re gonna overplay. Just turn up the knob
if you need more volume. You don’t need to
dig in to play an electric guitar.
I’ve watched you play, and your picking
form is unconventional. Can you break
down your right-hand technique?
I play with a sort of upside-down right
hand, which I learned from Rodney Jones. I
call it the “Benson technique.” It puts your
pick at the same angle as your fingers would
be if you played classical guitar. Classical guitarist
obsess over their fingernails because
that’s what hits the string. I use a Fender
Medium, which is more-or-less the thickness
and flexibility of a human fingernail. That—to
me—produces the best sound. The way those
classical players develop their tone is through
their fingernail and the angle of the nail on
the string. I’m doing the same thing with a piece of plastic. That’s my theory, anyway.
Many jazz players seem to think that a
heavier pick equals better tone.
Well, you had to come to a woman to find
out size doesn’t matter. [Laughs.]
You mentioned using some effects on
“Cheap Jersey Gas.” That’s a wild tone in
the intro. What’s going on there?
It’s supposed to feel like you’re sitting in
traffic on the Jersey Turnpike, so I wanted
something like a radio sound. I used an overdrive
pedal, and I have an old Boss pitch
shifter—I did some stuff with that. We also
took an intro from another take and ran it
backwards along with what I played live on
the main take.
You play some really interesting contrapuntal
things on “5-1” near the end of the
tune’s melody. You’re sustaining the top
notes your chords while the lower voices
move independently. Is that something
you’ve worked on a lot?
It’s something I’m always working on.
When I’m practicing, I’ll take a tune and
play the melody with bass notes underneath,
then I’ll start improvising from there. Over
time, you can start to see chords like more
like moving melodic shapes instead of static
chunks of sound. I wouldn’t say I’m good at
it, but it’s something I’m practicing.
It seems like a pianistic approach, more
so than the kinds of chordal things that
guitarists are prone to.
I love a lot of piano players, and I grew up
in a family of piano players. They can do that
so effortlessly—playing little lines inside of
a chord. I love how [pianist] Horace Silver
comps. It’s almost like a little big band. And I
get to hang out with [guitarist] Gene Bertoncini
sometimes. He’s is a total master of that.
Your McCurdy signature model—is that
the guitar you play all the time?
No, actually. I’m on the road now playing
guitar for a band called Ancestral Groove.
It’s a little more funk based. I’m playing a
Strat-style McCurdy guitar with that band.
That’s so different from your Mercury,
which is a semi-hollow ES-335 type of
instrument. I can’t picture you with a Strat.
As much as I love the guitar, it’s still foreign
territory. Ric’s making me one now with
a shorter scale. I’m a Gibson-scale girl. He’s
making it with that scale.
What difference does the scale make?
There’s a difference in the way the
instrument speaks. It’s more singy, to me,
in short scale.
Had you ever owned a Strat-style guitar
My very first guitar was a Harmony solidbody
from the J.C. Penney catalog, but my
first serious instrument was an ES-335,
which I’d saved up my money for. I still like
that style of guitar. I think people tend to
stay loyal to their first experiences.
You do a lot of teaching—at Berklee College
of Music in Boston and the Collective
in New York City, as well as offering online
courses through TrueFire. How is teaching
online different from working with a roomful
One thing I’m doing with TrueFire is their
Sherpa program. I’ve created a curriculum and
it’s kinda like my college, in a way. I’ve shot
almost 300 little video lessons. I have students
all over the world—they subscribe—and they
range from someone who is just learning what
a 7th chord is to guys who can really play.
Creating these short lessons has helped me
streamline my approach as a teacher, because
I’ve realized that sometimes a three-to-five-minute
lesson is really what they need. I used
to always assume that if someone’s here for
a lesson, I should give them everything I can
think of on the topic. But sometimes people
just need one little nugget.
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