Laurence Juber on Instant Composition and the Magic of Wood

“The music was entirely improvised,” explains Laurence Juber about his acoustic-duet album, Musings [New Gold/The Orchard], with pianist William Goldstein.
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“The music was entirely improvised,” explains Laurence Juber about his acoustic-duet album, Musings [New Gold/The Orchard], with pianist William Goldstein. “We had nothing prepared before starting the recording.”

That’s a ballsy move for any artist, and especially curious coming from a cat known for his solo-fingerstyle prowess.

“I’ve spent a great deal of my career as a solo artist playing on my own,” says Juber, “so it’s delightful to play with other people. And I was motivated more towards the improvisational side that I needed for Musings by playing electric guitar on recent dates with Albert Lee and Jerry Donahue. Playing off each other’s solos was refreshing.”

Juber also revealed he has a holiday album already in the can with upright bassist Domenic Genova and drummer Michael Jochum (both of whom played with Juber in the studio bands for The Rosanne Show and Home Improvement) entitled Holidays & Hollynights [HoLo-Gram Recordings]. The record is scheduled for release on September 16, 2016.

How much have your been using your new signature Martin OMC-21?

I used it heavily on Musings, on all but the last song of Holidays & Hollynights, and I’m playing it on tour. That guitar simply has an amazing voice. My personal instrument was the prototype for a Martin limited edition made of Guatemalan rosewood with a high-alpine Swiss moon spruce top—moon spruce being spruce cut on the waning moon. It sounds like some weird kind of voodoo, but here’s what happens: On the waning moon, the sap drops to its lowest level, and cutting it yields a drier log. Supposedly—and, to my ears, it indeed seems to be the case—moon spruce provides as much as 15 years’ worth of natural aging simply because of its dryness.

You’re known for being an Adirondack spruce aficionado. Can you draw a comparison to European spruce?

It almost doesn’t matter whether it’s Swiss, Italian, or German. High altitude means a short growing season, which produces a tight grain. Such tops seem to have a natural stiffness combined with flexibility akin to Adirondack spruce, but there is a difference. Adirondack spruce is like playing through a Fender amp, and a European spruce is like playing through a Marshall. There’s a little more natural compression, and a richer harmonic content. I love the warmth of Adirondack spruce, but when I started experimenting with European moon spruce, I found it had a certain articulation that suited me rather well, and it seems to be pretty versatile. It certainly sounds a little more elegant than Adirondack spruce.

Can you share some insights about how Guatemalan rosewood contributes to the sound of your OMC-21?

Guatemalan rosewood is kind of a first cousin to Brazilian, and, to my ears, it has more projection than rosewood from Madagascar.

Why the OM-21 style?

I did an OM-21 style mostly to keep the initial price down, because by the time you start adding in hide glue and a thin finish, it becomes a pretty expensive guitar. Going up to a style 28 pushes the price too high, and I’ve always been a fan of simple guitars anyway. Martin and I have done a number of signature models since 2002, but this is pretty much the end offering, because now I’m only working through their custom shop. You can’t get hide glue in a regular production model anymore, and I’ve come to enjoy the extra mojo hide glue provides.

Can you describe that mojo?

Simply put, acrylic glue never truly sets hard. It acts more like a gasket, whereas hide glue sets like glass, so it transmits vibrations more readily. It’s a significant contributing factor to the tonal characteristic one associates with vintage guitars. But hide glue is harder to work with. It has to be applied hot, and you only have a very short window to get it right. Whether or not hide glue is worth the trouble and expense depends on the maker, and how you use the instrument. On a stage instrument played predominantly with a pickup, the difference is not so significant. But, because I’m kind of working within the classic Martin paradigm, I try to achieve a balance of elements from the golden era combined with a modern performance sensibility.

For stage, are you still using a D-TAR Wavelength pickup with an internal Audix mic run through a Mogami stereo cable and into a Headway EDB-1 preamp?

I’m using a slightly updated Audix internal microphone, and I’ve changed the location. It’s now attached to the endpin jack and facing toward the neck. I discovered that when you put a mic inside the soundhole, as is typical, it picks up more bottom end than you need, because the soundhole functions like a bass port on a speaker, letting out low frequencies. We also rigged the pickup right at the back of the guitar. As for the preamp, the moment I discovered Grace Design had come up with an acoustic-guitar preamp, I ordered one within nanoseconds, because their studio mic preamps are quite spectacular. So the Grace Design Felix two-channel acoustic guitar preamp has become my main squeeze onstage. I have it mounted on a Pedaltrain Nano, along with a tuner and a TC Electronic Hall of Fame Mini Reverb set to an EMT 140 plate emulation. .

Musings is interesting, because you’re in a mostly neoclassical duet setting with a piano, and that’s not exactly common when it comes to improvisation.

A guitar/piano duet is an unusual combination nowadays, but it was not uncommon in the early 19th century. Interestingly, the first guitar-and-piano recording with bona fide guitar soloing was Lonnie Johnson’s “6/88 Glide” in 1927. It still isn’t a common combination, and, in this case, we were brought together in an unusual way. Bill Goldstein and I actually met at the funeral of a mutual friend who was a fine television composer. Bill mentioned that he practiced “instant composition,” and that he always wanted to do a record with a guitar player. We did a quick test to make sure it would work, and then got together the next week to record.

What a challenge.

It was an interesting challenge, because the piano is a two-handed, harmony-driven instrument. You don’t typically play single lines on it. You support those with something harmonic. I quickly realized that there wasn’t much room for me to be laying chords under the piano. As a result, it set a particular direction for me. I became the melodic voice to a large extent.

Had you been down any similar paths before?

I did an album with Preston Reed called Groovemasters in 1998. Preston played very percussive, harmonically driven stuff that left a lot of room for melodic material. I naturally went into lead-guitar mode as opposed to being as textural as I would in my usual fingerstyle arena. But Bill is a film composer with his own kind of melodic conception. So I would often find myself playing counterpoint—finding complementary melodic phrases to what he was doing. It was an exercise in being in the musical moment. I made mostly decent guesses. We wound up doing a certain amount of editing during mixing, just to take out the stuff lacking mojo.

How did you tackle the instant composition session from a tuning perspective?

I wound up reverting to standard for most of the songs, because that’s still easiest for improvisation.

What things were you listening for as you and Bill improvised?

When I started as a player, my idea of improvisation was basically playing a 12-bar blues, or trying to figure out what Jimmy Page or Barney Kessel or Django Reinhardt was doing within a jazz-blues-rock context. In a neoclassical style where blues licks don’t really apply, it’s much more about creating melodic and harmonic substance using scales and arpeggios. It’s about listening not only with your ears, but cluing into the feel of the emotional content—which could be abstract. It becomes intuitive. You leap deep into the continuum and try not to think, because if you think, then the moment has passed. The more I get into improvisational material, the more I realize that you just have to keep adding information. You can’t deny what the other person just played. You can take it a slightly different direction, but it still has to be sensible, or you’ll get into a train wreck.

I suppose the flip side of listening carefully is speaking clearly on one’s instrument.

You have to make a firm statement. There’s no room to second-guess yourself. Simply commit. When you start to understand the other player’s phrasing tendencies, then you can anticipate the shapes of where phrases will lead. Then, you can grow your parts organically, and feed the player something that leads to a natural response. For example, I noticed that Bill likes to move keys by a major or a minor third. Bill and I both have a significant grounding in music theory, and have played a lot of Bach. When you have musical values grounded in counterpoint and melody, playing in Bach’s style feels very improvisational. You can trust your intuition to lead you in the right direction. If you hit a wrong note, it becomes a grace note when you make it right. There’s no time to stop when you’re trying to produce complete pieces of music. If there’s a moment when you don’t feel like you can contribute something genuine, pause until you feel that you can.