Were Alex Skolnick’s Planetary Coalition the only musical testament ever given by this Brooklyn-based virtuoso, it would provide more than enough evidence to convict him as one of the most talented, creative, and genre-defying guitarists on god’s green earth. The album is a 14-track odyssey through the music of the world, encompassing myriad styles including droning Indian raga-fueled improv, Django-esque gypsy minor swing, driving African-rhythm grooves, and fiery flamenco forays. The Artist-Share-funded project features contributions from no less than 27 world-class musicians representing five continents, including Mexican acoustic guitar duo Rodrigo y Gabriela, oudist Adnan Joubran, Cuban percussionist Horacio “El Negro” Hernandez, Indo-Canadian vocalist Kiran Ahluwalia, Argentine bassist Pablo Aslan, Israeli percussionist Gadi Seri, and the New York Gypsy All Stars.
Still, what really makes Planetary Coalition such a unique and noteworthy achievement is the personal musical pilgrimage Skolnick has traveled to see his vision through. Skolnick first surfaced as a teenage shredder with San Francisco thrash stalwarts Testament in the late ’80s. After a decade of stretching the scalar and technical boundaries of metal guitar, Skolnick’s restless muse led him to Manhattan’s New School, where he traded 100-watt heads and arena tours supporting Metallica and Megadeth for archtops and classrooms and earned a BFA in jazz performance. This led to his next endeavor, the Alex Skolnick Trio where, in addition to performing and recording his own jazz compositions, Skolnick also reimagined classic rock and metal tunes in the bebop idiom. Since then, he has been involved in numerous other projects, including several tours with the Trans-Siberian Orchestra and a reformed Testament. Informal jams with NYC’s burgeoning world music community eventually led Skolnick to envision what he describes as “an ethnically flavored collective of musicians from all over the world, driven by acoustic guitar and bringing together inspirational melodies, in-depth improvisation and the passion of the musical styles of Gypsy, Middle Eastern, Indian, Latin, East Asian, Mediterranean, Balkan/Eastern European, African, and other indigenous lands.” Thus, Planetary Coalition was born. The core seven-member group gave their debut performance on the Summer Solstice of 2012 at a New York City Guitar School-sponsored event in Manhattan’s Union Square Park, and is currently performing around the greater New York area.
You’ve already made the transition from thrash metal to jazz. How did your interest in world music come about?
It’s a project I’ve always wanted to do. I don’t really see it as getting into a new style of music. It’s more like I’m revealing a side of myself that’s always been there. I’ve always loved acoustic guitar playing, especially when it had an international flavor. Early on I was fascinated with Django Reinhart, and later I got into the flamenco-influenced fusion of the Paco de Lucia/John McLaughlin/Al Di Meola trio records. Even when I’ve been on the road with a rock band, I would always warm up on an acoustic guitar. Originally I was going to record an acoustic solo album with minimal accompaniment, but it got to the point where I knew I wanted to do this grand international project. There’s a community of great international musicians here in New York who I’d been listening to and playing with for years, so I finally said, “If not now, when?”
Did you ever formally study other styles of world music?
No, but I studied jazz composition with pianist Phil Markowitz and arranging with Bill Kirchner at the New School, so that gave me a good base to draw from. Once you’ve internalized the basics, then you can write more intuitively and organically. I composed melodies at the piano as well as on the guitar with the goal being to find stuff that was interesting and fun for the other musicians to play. I didn’t overanalyze it.
There are plenty of intricate arrangements on the record but you also give the other musicians room to improvise and stretch out.
I included a lot of modal vamps in the songs. A good portion of the material had been composed before I officially began the project, and was performed solo or with a small ensemble at restaurant gigs and house parties. In order to give myself something to improvise over I’d play the changes into a Boss RC-30 Loop Station pedal and that wound up becoming a key compositional tool. Still, you can imagine what sounded pretty cool in the looper sounded absolutely amazing when played by an ensemble of world-class musicians!
“Island in the Sky” kicks things off with an exotic-sounding 5/8 riff. Is that acoustic guitar?
Skolnick (third from left) and a coalition of the willing.
Yes, it’s actually Lenny Breau-style harp harmonics with some pull-offs on a Bm9 chord. Midway through the song there’s a Bm7-Cmaj7 vamp that was inspired by some of the changes in Herbie Hancock’s “Dolphin Dance.”
How did you achieve such a distinct Indian flavor on “Passage to Pranayama”?
Originally it was written as an instrumental, but I decided to bring in Kiran Ahluwalia, who is a masterful Indian vocalist. If you listen closely, you can hear her sing the microtonal pitch gradations common in Indian ragas. Also for this track, I tuned the G-string down a half-step to F#. Playing two-note, octave-fifth shapes on the A and D strings against the open F# and B strings approximated the drone of a tamboura. Then I just started improvising and composing melodies against it. It was very intuitive, but there wound up being a fair amount of the odd-metered rhythmic groupings you hear in Indian music as well.
There seems to be plenty of odd meter on this record.
Absolutely. The first place I was ever exposed to odd time signatures was the music of Rush. I actually gave them a nod in the composition “Old World Dance”—both in the title, which references their song “New World Man,” and in the 11/8 melody which briefly quotes the intro to “YYZ.” That said, time signatures like 5/8, 7/8, and the like are generally more ubiquitous in world music than they are in Western pop and rock music.
How much direction did you give the other musicians? Did you write out detailed charts in advance?
Initially, I scored out a lot of things, but some of the players don’t deal with standard Western notation at all. The Indian musicians, for instance, have their own way of notating stuff. With Max ZT, who played the santoor—which is what’s known in the west as a hammered dulcimer—we would work out “roadmaps” of different sections. After a while, I realized I was better off not coming in with a full chart because collaborating with the different artists would affect how I heard the song and I’d wind up changing, adding, or cutting out parts anyway.
What was the genesis of “Salto”?
I wanted to do a tune with Argentine percussionists Jose Luis Terzaghi, Juan Casanovas, and Fausto Nascimbene. I figured it would be a tango since that’s what I’d always associated with Argentina. They very politely explained to me however that the tango is an imported urban phenomenon in Buenos Aires, but the rest of Argentina has its own indigenous rhythms and styles. “Salto” is based on a rhythmic pattern called a Chacarera. On that track, I’m in dropped-D tuning down one whole-step [C,G,C,F,A,D low to high], on a Yamaha NCX-2000R nylon-string because the slacker strings just felt right for the groove.
What other instruments did you play on Planetary Coalition?
My main acoustic was a gloss-top Martin JC-16GTE. I also used a Yamaha LJX26C and an 11-string Godin Encore SG Inuk, which is based somewhat on the oud. I tuned it like a 12-string with the low E string not having an octave. I mainly used it for layering and doubling melodies, but it’s featured pretty prominently on “Negev Desert Sunset.” There, I tune the two B strings down a whole step to A.
Did you incorporate any other altered tunings?
Yes. The Turkish tune “Taxsim Square” uses DADGAD tuning, which I find works really well for the key of D minor.
Speaking of minors, the majority of Planetary Coalition seems to be in either minor or modal keys.
The only tune that’s in a definitively major key is “Alla Lak’e,” although during some of the improvisation I incorporate the raised fourth from the Lydian mode. It’s one of the few tunes on the album I didn’t write. It’s actually a centuries-old traditional Malian song and the main theme feels almost like a blues vamp.
Among the many world music masters you collaborate with on this record are renowned Mexican acoustic guitar duo Rodrigo y Gabriela.
I guested on their album 11:11 back in 2009. They were in town to do the Letterman show and I had them come in to the studio and play on “Playa la Ropa.” Gabriela plays the percussive rhythm parts and Rodrigo takes the first and third solos.
Did everybody who played on the album actually come to New York to record?
No. That would’ve been ideal but unfortunately I couldn’t make that work out. Gadi Seri tracked the percussion part in “Negev Desert Sunset” in Israel. El Negro Hernandez recorded his drum tracks for “Mojito” in Miami but his daughter Jennifer, who co-wrote and played piano on the song, is local and she really schooled me on Cuban rhythms. She recorded her part without a click track and I erroneously recorded my melody—first one subdivision ahead, then one subdivision behind the beat [laughs]! Eventually, I got it right, but it took me a while to get used to the rhythms. If you just listen to the piano rhythms on their own, it can be really disorienting to western ears as to where the downbeat is.
You’ve made plenty of records playing electric guitar. What was the biggest culture shock about making an acoustic album?
We didn’t track any of my guitars direct. Everything was close-miked with Neumanns. Because of this, I had to be mindful of my posture when recording. Even the slightest movement could change the tone considerably. If you’re locked into a position for a while, you really need to find something that’s comfortable. Overall though, electric and acoustic are just two different atmospheres to me. This may not be a perfect analogy, but it’s a bit like the casual atmosphere at a sporting event versus the formal atmosphere at a black-tie-only dinner. It’s taken me years, but thankfully, I’ve been able to spend enough time in each of these worlds to become comfortable in both.
More specifically though, what’s the biggest difference between playing in Testament and playing in Planetary Coalition?
Over the past two years Testament has played at two huge festivals at the San Manuel Amphitheatre and Campgrounds—one built around Slipknot and the other built around Iron Maiden. I still love to do that, but with a rock band like Testament, there is a certain expectation that goes along with each show. You’re essentially trying to achieve the same results every time. It’s a challenge that continues to be worthwhile, but I don’t want it to be the only thing that I do. With Planetary Coalition, the parameters for what I can do—what instrumentation I can use, what directions the improvisations will take, what mood we’ll create—are much wider. If anything, with improvisational-based world music, the expectation is that the show won’t be the same each time! Now I feel I’m in a place where I can do multiple projects and the fans seem to be more accepting of that.
Any plans to work with Testament in the near future?
We’re sending ideas back and forth and planning an album for 2015. I still enjoy the concept of making albums. All the industry people are saying the album is over and to just do singles or just put your music online or whatever. I can understand if your goal is to be a contestant on The Voice and do Taylor Swift-style pop—then an album could be a bit grandiose—but I grew up in the age of the album as an art form though, and I refuse to let it go. If you’re an instrumentalist and/or a composer, the album is still your canvas.