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Artist Interview: Chieli Minucci

Bob Bakert, Editor

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Jazz Guitar Today takes a more in-depth look at Chieli Minucci with an exclusive interview.

JGT:  You have had an amazing career – contemporary jazz vs smooth jazz vs Bop, … How did you get started, were you always a “jazz” musician or did you start with rock, R&B, blues or possibly folk?

Chieli Minucci: My beginnings in guitar playing came at an early age.  I was around 7 years old, listening mostly to music my father brought me – early 60s pop music, mostly vocal, plus some early rock, like The Critters, the Beatles, the Monkees…  Then I heard the Woodstock LP and my whole world changed!  I fell in love with all things guitar (also all things having to do with cars!), Hendrix, Ten Years After/Alvin Lee, Edgar Winter Group, Johnny Winter, so many more… I was especially attracted to lead guitarists who could take the blues beyond the usual “BB King” realm and rock it out. I saw a lot of live concerts from an early age – Miles Davis being my first show ever (I hated it at 8 years old haha!), then Blood, Sweat, & Tears, Tower of Power, Santana, many, many others. 

“My Dad was a composer/pianist, and an A&R executive at Columbia Records in NYC and got my sister and me many free tickets to shows back in the early 70s!  Amazing times to soak it all in!”

I “discovered” jazz in my late teens, more so listening at first, but come college I played in many ensembles – big band, small combos, etc.  Jazz style playing crept in slowly and by the time I made my first LP with Special EFX I’d been exposed to many artists. I’d say I was a late bloomer for jazz though.  I was lured into it via artists like Chick Corea, Mahavishnu Orchestra, etc… fusion-jazz caught my attention in a big way first.

JGT:  You have recorded in the neighborhood of thirty Special EFX projects.  You are known as a recording artist as well as a composer and producer…  You keep a very busy schedule … how does guitar fit into your composition for TV and film or do you compose and arrange on the piano?

I studied music composition on and off during college, and after – it was suggested to me to write without using an instrument, which meant sitting down with a pencil and staff paper and just writing what I heard in my head.  This was a very different experience from writing with a piano or guitar, which I do all the time.  Like many others, I still use both keyboard and guitar to help develop my ideas.  I think most composers have different devices to inspire them.  Sometimes a rhythmic idea inspires the melody, and sometimes the melody comes first.  And of course, nowadays, with computer-based sequence-style recordings, sometimes the groove and chord progressions inspire the song.  It’s endless, really!  Inspiration comes from everything, yet can also be quite mysterious!

JGT: Let’s talk about Chieli the guitarist, you play a solid body strat style with overdrive distortion and a nylon string eschewing the archtop thing…  what do you look for regarding sound/tone…?

I’m not a concept-based guitarist when it comes to tone. I believe that 90% of your sound comes from your fingers and technique.  I tend to adapt to whatever the sound might be. I play a lot of live concerts in clubs, theaters, and festivals, and my modest setup often varies in response, to the acoustics of the stage environment.  But in general, I go for a clean amp tone as a start.  My 1984 Pensa-Suhr has been my go-to instrument for many years.  It’s got a lovely clean, sustaining tone, yet I use .009s on it, which are quite light.  I try to get a fat, clean, warm tone as a starting place, with some simple pedals to enhance it when needed – echo, delay, distortions, etc..The idea lead-tone often comes from combining my pedal set up with a couple of Fender Deluxe Reverbs in stereo.  Small amps tend to get the best sound for me.  I never go bigger than a 2×12 speaker setup in an amp.

I always have a nylon-string guitar onstage as well. I used to have the Gibson Chet-Atkins on tour with me, plugged into a reverb pedal, but nowadays I’m using my Scharpach Firebird, which is a handmade semi-hollow guitar made by Dutch guitar-master, Theo Scharpach.  It’s amazing!

JGT:  You play a style that has an overdrive tone but grounded in jazz harmony and rhythms.  Where did that come from,  What musicians influenced your style the most…?

I was always attracted to guitar tones that had a broad range – from a clean tone to a growl, all based on touch.  In the beginning, it was Clapton, Hendrix, Keith Richards, Townsend, Leslie West – the classic rock tones. I particularly remember the kind of sounds that small low-wattage amps could make.  You could caress the strings delicately and get a clean tone, but when you turned your volume knob up it would quickly turn into more of a liquidy, fat, lead-tone.  I used to have an Ampeg J12, and it was amazing! 

“Looking back at my teen years, I’d say that Al DiMeola, Alan Holdsworth, Steve Hillage, Lee Ritenour, helped bridge my musical scope to more jazz-related tastes.”

JGT:  Your band plays very complex ensemble pieces.  Lots of unison with Jay Rowe (your longtime keyboard player)  yet you never get the parts confused or do they seem to occupy the same space and definitely not muddy …. how do you view the blend of guitar with keys…  since you do this so well, what advice would you give to guitar players who are looking to blend with the keyboard player better?

Practice, practice, practice!  haha~  The starting place for uni-lines is knowing your part inside-out.  Then you can further create nuances with tone and attitude.  For instance, we have an impossible-to-play uni-line in the piece, “Courageous Cats”.  It’s fast & chromatic.  A line like this takes practice – practice to choose the best fingering, and practice to learn how to swing it once learned.  Once we all learned it (our bassist, Jerry Brooks knows it well also!) we discussed tones and blend.  Sometimes Jay uses a Fender Rhodes keyboard patch, sometimes a horn-type patch.  I use a clean warble effect with Jay’s horn patch, but switch back to a clean, delayed tone midway.  It’s fun to try sounds once everyone has the part under their fingers!

JGT:  what is your musical education,  how important is theory and traditional musical training to you… do you and your musicians read and do you write out detailed charts?

I seemed to have been born with a good ear for music, yet I still studied piano from ages 5-8, then switched to guitar, although lessons didn’t officially start until I was 10. I studied with jazz guitarist Jack Hotop from ages 10-12, and joined a local neighborhood band at 13-14. This group, Taurus, gave me all my earliest experiences – learning how to sing harmonies, how to play all kinds of styles.  We rehearsed 2-3x/week, without fail.  The members were all dedicated, and we were close as friends could be. This band gave me endless amounts of “street “experience, as we performed regularly until I left NYC for college.  Once in college (Ithaca College, NY) I studied classical guitar, big band, theory, solfeggio, big band composition & arranging, was a member of the choir, etc., etc.. I played in folk groups, rock bands, fusion jazz bands, free-jazz bands, etc.. I can’t say enough about studying as much as one possibly can.  The more, the better.  All of the theory/solfeggio I learned early on came back to help me in many instances as an adult.

The members of Special EFX all read music.  The songs we perform are all charted out, in great detail.  Although all the members are encouraged to memorize as much as possible since half our show is improvised.

JGT:  Can you talk about your band and musicians that guest with you?

The core members of the group have shifted over the 35+ years.  Our first lineup was me, and my percussionist partner, George Jinda, plus drummer JT Lewis, bassist Jeff Andrews, and keyboardist Alan Smallwood.  By 1987 it was drummer Dennis Chambers and keyboardist Michael Bearden.  Many musicians who’d later go on to become famous have passed though Special EFX.  Today, the NYC lineup is Joel Rosenblatt on drums, Jerry Brooks on bass, Jay Rowe on keyboards, and Mino Cinelu on percussion.

Our guest list is big, as I also tour as “The Special EFX Allstars” – Lao Tizer on keyboards, Eric Marienthal and Nelson Rangell on sax, Karen Briggs and Regina Carter on violin, Gerald Veasley on bass, Elliott Yamin on vocals, and occasionally, Maysa on vocals.  Each guest artist is a bandleader in his or her own right~

JGT:  Talk about your equipment choices to achieve your sound…

I prefer a dual amp setup – 2 Fender Deluxe Reverbs or 2 Mesa Boogie Lonestars, in a stereo setup.  These are patched into my pedals, usually, a Line6 M9 multi-effects, patched into a Vox CryBaby and a Bogner Ecstasy pedal.

My acoustic setup is simple – My Scharpach Firebird is patched directly into a Strymon Blue Sky reverb unit, direct into the board.

JGT:  What kind of projects do you have coming up?

I’m about to start writing new material for the 2020 Special EFX CD.  I’ve got most of the music written and recorded already, but the record label (Trippin N Rhythm) has asked me to write 3 “commercial” pieces, which is the most challenging of all for me.  

“But I like that kind of challenge – to try to write music that’s easy on the ears, yet cool and sophisticated at the same time.”

Check out more about Chieli when he was our Artist of the Week.

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