Wunderkind Guitarist Jake Hertzog on Chromatosphere

June 1, 2009

FOR A SMALL GUY IN HIS EARLY 20S, JAKE HERTZOG certainly lives large. Since earning a scholarship from Berklee and taking that institution by storm, he has been awarded the Grand Prize in the Montreux Jazz Festival’s 2006 Jazz Guitar Competition (performing there the following year), become the musical director for Nickelodeon ’tween sensations the Naked Brothers, toured internationally with Jordanian master musician and peace activist Zade Dirani, and landed a gig in legendary drummer Victor Jones’ acid-jazz ensemble Cultureversy.

The young guitarist’s latest album, Chromatosphere [That’s Out], boasts Jones on drums, and heavyweight bassist Harvie S, with contributions from veteran keyboardist Michael Wolff. The album features seven tasty originals and imaginative arrangements of three standards, including Brubeck’s “In Your Own Sweet Way.”

Hertzog keeps listeners constantly on their toes, zigging when you might expect him to zag, and blazing through unorthodox intervallic maneuvers with an ease that would likely give players twice his age pause. And that’s just when he’s playing jazz. The 22-year old wunderkind also has his sights set on pop songwriting, and possibly even rock godhood, intimating that he’s liable to get his Edge on when recording his next album.

You are holding a Tele on the cover of your CD, but that’s not what you played on the album is it?

The photo session we did for the album didn’t come out well, so I used photos from a session for another album I played on, and now everyone thinks I play a Tele, which is hilarious, because I don’t even own one. My main guitar is a custom semihollow built for me by Matt Artinger. It is lightweight, with a small body, and as a small person, the most important thing in a guitar for me is its physicality. All of the electric guitar sounds on the new album were made with the Artinger.

You’ve also got a nice Gibson Les Paul goldtop, don’t you?

Yes, and I use it in heavier rock situations. I think the heavier the band is, the heavier the guitar should be, so the goldtop usually wins out. Those guitars just sound unbelievable with distortion and effects. I’ve also got a Fender Strat that I use for playing, say, James Brown tunes.

Do you have a favorite amp?

I have a heavily modified Fender Deluxe Reverb that I believe was originally a limited edition reissue. A friend got it for me, and all I know is that it has a Jensen alnico speaker and a couple of fancy tubes, and that it sounds great.

Are there any effects that are essential to your sound?

I’ve got several Fulltone distortion pedals that I use a lot, and four c that I like to use together through multiple amps. One of the coolest pedals ever is the Boss PS-5 Super Shifter, which gives you whammy, detuning, and other effects in addition to harmonies and pitch shifting. I prefer using individual pedals, rather than multi-effects, because they allow me to more easily manipulate each type of effect.

How about picks and strings?

I use Dunlop Jazz III picks and standard GHS .010 sets. I wish I could use heavier strings for sonic reasons, but I wouldn’t have as much control because I have tiny hands.

How did you get the huge chorus sounds on your new album?

I was using my effects pedals when we began recording, but almost immediately we decided to just record clean guitar signals and use software plug-ins such as IK Multimedia AmpliTube to get different sounds and effects. In some cases, the engineer would copy the tracks and process each one differently, sometimes with one softer in the background. I liked that because that’s the way I would do it live with two or three amplifiers, just to get more depth.

Is that how you got the spacious lead tone on “Bonding”?

Yes. We layered a clean sound with a really present clean sound that had more sustain, and a sort of Eric Clapton-like distorted tone.

You play with an unusual right hand technique.

While in college I came to the realization that as a small person what I brought to the guitar wouldn’t be complex chord voicings, but rather two or three notes at a time used effectively in a different way, like a pianist with seven fingers chopped off might. That was impossible to do with a pick, or the traditional hybrid style combining three fingers and a pick, because my fourth finger was just too short to be useful. So I use a pick and the middle and ring fingers for a three-note approach, which leads to playing more open intervals, rather than the patterns that more linear playing is about.

To what extent is jazz improvisation intellectual?

I think you would get different answers depending on the age of the person you were asking. Players from a few generations ago might say that improvisation isn’t at all intellectual, because they likely grew up learning on the bandstand, and playing whatever they were feeling. In contrast, my colleagues and I have had the experience of breaking it down intellectually at an academic level, before going back to the bandstand and having to unlearn it. Practicing is an intellectual experience, but performing shouldn’t be. I’d rather listen to someone that doesn’t have all the theoretical knowledge, but can really play from an emotional place, and I hope that when I’m playing, it’s coming from an emotional rather than a theoretical perspective.

How do you keep that analytical part of your mind at bay when performing?

What you are working on intellectually at a given time is always going to be far ahead of what you are actually able to execute on your instrument, and when you step into a performance situation, you instinctively go back to a more emotional response. There is a process that has to take place between confronting a new concept intellectually and translating it into a physical representation on the instrument, and even once you have something under your fingers, it has to sink into your mind and heart before you can pull it out spontaneously. I always have things that I’m practicing that I can’t do live, and then maybe three months later I will be able to play them.

It’s like learning another language. You’ve got words that you can speak or understand on a vocabulary test, and you get a hundred percent on that test in the classroom. But then when you go out on the street and try to buy something, and the guy has a different accent, you think, “Oh crap, now I don’t remember that word.” But there are all these other words that you knew before taking that test, which had nothing to do with it, and you go from there.

Describe how you might approach re-harmonizing a jazz standard.

At this point, I’m into this interval thing using two of my fingers, as I mentioned when discussing my right-hand technique. Rather than harmonizing a melody in the traditional way using the changes, I look for different interval combinations that will flow on top of the bass line. For example, I’ll use sixths and sevenths and voices based on them as opposed to the usual thirds and fourths. Those wider intervals have a different sound that obscures the harmony slightly, which I think is more interesting than just playing Bbmaj7, Ebmaj7, D7#5, because people have already heard that kind of harmony many times before. I’ll also choose intervals based on how dissonant or consonant I want the harmony for particular notes to be. For example, minor seconds, minor sevenths, and minor ninths will produce more dissonance, whereas fourths and fifths will produce a more consonant sound without giving away the structure of the chord, which is going to be in the thirds most of the time. Chord melody arrangements are beautiful, but I’m more interested in counterpoint or single lines or weird interval combinations that are going to produce sounds that aren’t expected.

It sounds like dissonance is a big part of your harmonic concept.

Dissonance is my entire harmonic concept! At least in the sense that instead of always approaching harmony in a chord/scale or linear way—which I also love and continue to practice—I prefer to think in terms of consonant and dissonant moments. So, if there is a Gmin7b5 chord, instead of thinking about the scales that’ll work with it, or non-harmonic triads or whatever, I think about which notes, intervals, and combinations are going to be dissonant and which are going to be consonant. And when I have that as a reference point, I can say that within the context of a particular moment in the music, I want the harmony to be more on one side or the other. And that concept can also be applied to melody, for motif development or repetition of phrases, because I think they too have dissonances or consonances relative to whatever else is going on. Using dissonance as a basis for the conception of a solo or an entire piece is where I’m at right now.

What is the first thing you need to know when approaching jazz improvisation?

The first thing is to be able to identify parts of the song—form and changes and rhythmic ideas—from an overall perspective, so you have a mental picture of the framework you are going to be improvising within. Joe Lovano said something great to me once, which was, “If the song was different you would still have played the same solo.” That was a good lesson for me, because you have to be true to the song, especially if you are playing jazz. A lot of musicians ask how a song can service their improvisation, but the question should be how their improvisation can service the song. Know the song as if you wrote it. Everything after that point is style and language.

How do you feel about smooth jazz?

Just like with any kind of music, sometimes it is really great and sometimes it can be done badly. What I do like about it is that it allows people to sing along with jazz in a way that they probably haven’t been able to do since Cole Porter or George Gershwin, and I wish there were more jazz musicians who were writing tunes that people could dance to or sing along with or understand in an emotional way so that they weren’t required to have a music degree in order to enjoy them. So, for whatever else smooth jazz musicians sacrifice to get there, they at least bring that back.

What was the most important thing you brought away from your master class with Pat Martino?

I don’t know what he wanted me to get from it, but what I brought away was his absolutely commanding voice on his instrument. Every note he played and every way that he played the notes was a living expression of that voice, and that was really astounding to me, because I had seldom seen that intensity before. That was really deep for me, and what I would consider to be the ultimate level of artistic expression. It left me hoping that I could be like that in spirit some day.

What does it mean to be a jazz guitarist in 2009?

Jazz is all about searching for new musical concepts that haven’t been explored yet. That’s what the creators of the style were all about in their time, and I feel that, in our time, we should carry forward the same spirit without playing the same notes. So, while I started by learning what had already been done, it was more important for me to push for something new than to study with the intention of sounding like somebody else or a player from some other era. Of course, traditionalists and innovators support each other, because the traditional forms provide the context for the newer forms. It’s just like with classical music, Mozart was great, but that doesn’t mean you can’t play Bach anymore.

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