Bruce Forman developed his bebop chops over the decades he spent playing alongside jazz legends such as Ray Brown, Bobby Hutcherson and Roger Kellaway. These days, he employs those skills in his straight-ahead jazz trio as well as with his western swing band, Cow Bop, and Junkyard Duo, where he plays National steel guitar alongside a drummer who bangs found objects. Forman also has a podcast, Guitar Wank, which he cohosts with jazz-fusion guitarist Scott Henderson.
But the project closest to his heart is The Red Guitar, Forman’s one-man show based upon his life as a musician and his fixation on one particular instrument.
“I was performing at a guitar show in Wales, and there was this red archtop with a white mother-of-toilet-seat pickguard,” he explains. “All the jazz players snubbed it because it was too rockabilly. Out of spite, I picked it up and started playing. It was so full of sound that the entire hall went quiet.”
Stefan Sonntag, the guitar’s builder, let Forman use the instrument for his performances, and by the end of the show the guitarist was in love. The archtop was promised to another customer, but the luthier agreed to make one even nicer for Forman.
One day, following a concert where he performed with his new axe, Forman overheard two people talking. “Did you hear that guy last night?” asked one. “Who?” the acquaintance replied. “The guy with the red guitar,” came the answer. When, some time later, Forman was asked to play at a performing arts center, he recalled that conversation and was inspired to create a show based on the Sonntag. Over the next three months, he developed The Red Guitar, a musical monolog in which he explains what it’s like to be possessed by music. Forman calls the show “a psychological libretto where I narrate and play at the same time.”
The Red Guitar began as a trio performance that included bass and drums. “But after about a year, I realized that every time there was a bass or drum solo, I was losing the audience,” Forman says. “I did a solo show at a house concert to see if I could pull it off, because there’s lots of me talking while playing. It turned out it was no problem.”
While anyone can enjoy the show’s humorous and often poetic storytelling, guitarists, in particular, will marvel at Forman’s ability to casually tell his tales while simultaneously playing intricate jazz lines and chords. “I’ve always been able to talk and play,” he reveals. “It’s a skillset I took into account when I created The Red Guitar. It’s almost like a parlor trick, where I’m playing over ‘Giant Steps’ and talking about John Coltrane. It conclusively proves there are two people locked inside my head.”
What does he talk about in the show? “The work that goes into a musician’s craft, the vulnerability of baring your soul and prostrating yourself business-wise are all part of the narrative,” the guitarist says. “It is not all literal. I talk about meeting the Red Guitar as a metaphor for how I met music and jazz. I play the music of the artists who influenced me and explain what aspects of their playing I found inspirational.”
Those musicians include Wes Montgomery, Sonny Rollins, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane and Django Reinhardt. During the show, Forman brilliantly demonstrates the playing style of Reinhardt, who lost the use of his left hand’s fourth and fifth fingers in a fire, by deftly playing with just two digits. Like any jazz performance, the show differs from night to night. “If I feel the audience has had enough of the influences section, I’ll move on,” Forman says. “I go with my natural entertainer’s intuition.”
In a way, The Red Guitar is ultimately about the power we give objects. It’s a theme also explored in Hans Christian Andersen’s tale The Red Shoes, a favorite of Forman’s. In the story, a young woman becomes enamored of a pair of magic shoes, but upon wearing them, she discovers they will not let her stop dancing, leading to her death. Though The Red Guitar is not tragic, Forman see parallels to Andersen’s story. “It’s not really my show anymore — it’s me,” he explains. “I am The Red Guitar. It’s taken over my life completely. A lot of people think it’s revolutionary, but what is older than a guy with a guitar telling a story? Maybe my way of doing it has never been done, but we all tell stories with our playing.”
Forman hopes his story will offer his audiences a deeper understanding and appreciation of jazz and jazz musicians. “That would be great,” he says. “But more important, I’d like them to walk away asking themselves, ‘What’s my Red Guitar?’”