The current laboratory for McGill’s Jekyll and Hyde persona is punk-jazz trio MMS (with bassist Michael Manring and drummer Vic Stevens), and its experimental alchemy is showcased on What We Do [Free Electric Sound]—an edgy dissection of a dozen jazz standards with plenty of what McGill terms “skronk factor.”
What strategies did you use when rearranging the standards on What We Do?
Usually, when guitarists do standards, they become a little too reverent of the jazz tradition, and filter out the individuality of their own playing. But these tunes are really adaptable to different interpretations and styles, so why not explore? We’d generally keep the melody notes of a song intact, but base the chord changes on repeating cycles—moving each chord up a minor third regardless of the melody note, or what chord traditionally should come next. We’d have A7 go to C7, then Eb7, and then Gb7, instead of having it always resolve back to D, for example.
I also don’t solo using traditional jazz scales. I practice a lot of 12-tone serial sets—a cycle that uses all 12 notes before repeating any of them. I’ll displace them to different octaves to get extreme, very non-guitar-like intervallic leaps. That comes from studying 20th Century composers such as Arnold Schoenberg. On a song like “Cherokee,” which cycles through a bunch of keys, I won’t outline every change. Instead, I’ll shoot for a target tonal center—in that case Bb—and use synthetic scales made from notes in each key center, such as the six-tone symmetrical scale (Bb C#, D, F, Gb, A). The formula there is a minor third followed by a major second.
What’s up with the bombastic reading of Miles Davis’ “Solar”?
There, we messed with the form of the song more than anything else. Again, we kept the melody the same, but I voiced it in the bass notes of the chords. Then, we elongated or truncated certain phrases. Usually, altering a jazz tune means re-harmonizing the chords or changing the rhythmic feel, but keeping the structure intact. We decided to stretch things time-wise.
Your tone on “Solar”—and most of What We Do for that matter—is very heavy and very processed.
That’s my Brian Moore i8 guitar into a Koch Pedaltone preamp, a Koch Multitone 100-watt head, and a Koch TS212H cabinet. I use a bunch of pedals—including the Line 6 FM4 Filter, MM4 Modulation, and DM4 Delay Modelers—but my favorite gizmo is the Boss PS-5 Super Shifter, which I use to drop lines down an octave. It also has this Tremolo Arm setting that bends your notes up or down a pre-set interval. That’s the analog-synth-sounding stuff you hear on “Maiden Voyage.”