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Artist Interview: Wolf Marshall



As many players are well aware, Wolf Marshall is not only an eclectic guitarist but one of the leading authors and educators of our time.

I had the distinct pleasure of conducting an extensive cover story interview with Mr. Marshall for Just Jazz Guitar magazine back in 2006, but much has transpired for him on multiple fronts since then. I recently had the chance to sit down with Wolf once again, this time for Jazz Guitar Today and with the express purpose of bringing everyone up to date on what’s been happening in the life of this highly unique six-string artist. – JGT Contributor, Mark Stefani

2006. Guitar duets with Steve Herbeman. Marland.

M.S. On the college educational front, how did you first get involved working with the jazz department at UCLA back in 2007?

W.M. I got involved through Kenny Burrell, who is head of the Jazz Studies department at UCLA. We’d known each other for a few years professionally and he asked me to participate and co-plan a segment of his 75th Birthday Concert at Royce Hall. That was a great concert; Pat Metheny and Russell Malone also came to town and played in the show. I helped organize a performance of “Chitlins Con Carne” with Jacques Lesure, Calvin Keyes, Paul Jackson Jr., Wayne Goins, Anthony Wilson, myself and Kenny. That was a once-in-a-lifetime experience: playing “Chitlins,” a signature KB tune, with seven jazz guitarists! It went well and was quite unique–even got a notice in Variety. A little later that year, Kenny, knowing my educational background and experience, asked me to join the UCLA jazz faculty–which I did without hesitation. It’s a great school, acknowledged as one of the best in the nation. Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter and Ron Carter are also on the faculty and we host such impressive guest lecturers as Benny Golson, Jimmy Heath and Christian McBride. It’s been expanded into the Global Jazz Studies program and Terence Blanchard recently joined, as the recipient of the Burrell endowed chair. 

2013 UCLA with Kenny Burrell

M.S. You and I both describe legendary jazz guitarist Kenny Burrell as a major influence during our formative years. What was it like to actually work with KB while teaching at UCLA, then becoming good friends and even performing with him?

Wolf:  It’s a dream come true. He was my earliest jazz guitar idol and a role model–I found listening to him in my formative years to be the perfect musical bridge from my blues background to jazz.

I met Kenny while researching my Wes Montgomery book/CD project for Hal Leonard in 2001. We got along right away and talked at the time about many of the details of Wes’ life, their friendship and about the equipment Wes borrowed from Kenny for his first NY leader session–a little-known fact. Incidentally, that was Kenny’s guitar and amp heard on tracks like “Round Midnight,” “Missile Blues, and “Yesterdays”–surprising because most listeners assume it Wes’ usual L5 guitar, not Kenny’s L7 with Charlie Christian pickup and a tweed Fender Deluxe amp. Kenny was very forthcoming. Anyway, from there, I stayed in touch and we talked again in greater depth while I was writing a similar book/CD on Kenny in 2007. When I began teaching in the UCLA jazz department we would often have an impromptu lunch together and I’d spend time just hanging with him in his office between classes. Sometimes he’d spontaneously drop into one of my sessions with a student and make some observations, comments or suggestions. Imagine Kenny Burrell walking into your guitar lesson and sharing his insights! What an inspiration for an aspiring player–not to mention having him be a bandleader in your combo classes and the conductor and MC at the student recitals. That’s the essence of real-life training and a jazz musician’s apprenticeship in the scholastic environment. Performing with Kenny feels almost surreal; especially the last time when we were in concert, doing “Sunset Time”, a beautiful ballad he composed, with the Jazz Unlimited Orchestra. Dee Dee Bridgewater was singing the tune and Stevie Wonder and B.B. King were in the audience. Wow, talk about surreal. I remember just moments before we went on stage, Kenny took me aside and said, “I know we rehearsed it with a trumpet solo, but if I nod to you after the verses, I want to have you play a guitar solo instead.” He did and I did do a solo he liked very much over some of his gorgeous changes. That was a particularly inspiring evening I revisit often. 

2009 BlueFire Grill. Trio debut night.

M.S. Tell us how the Wolf Marshall Trio came to be with regards to the concept, personnel and venues that featured your work beginning back in 2009?

W.M. After many years in the studio as performer and producer doing various freelance sessions, my book audio tracks and recording music for major publishers and companies like Line 6 and EMP, I felt motivated to return to playing live regularly–but in a jazz band. I thank Henry Johnson, the great jazz guitarist who was touring and recording with Joe Williams and Ramsey Lewis, with planting the idea in my mind and encouraging me to get out on the scene. He’d been talking about it since 1998. I credit Sheryl Bailey for getting the ball rolling, though at the time I don’t think she was aware of the impact playing with her had on me. She was passing through town, San Diego–where I live, for some performances on the West Coast in 2007. I played the first set with her in a Cardiff nightclub and it was such a joy. Well, she’s certainly a joy, plays brilliantly and is an inspiration to bandmates and listeners alike. We were both Pat Martino fanatics, so our first tune had to be “The Visit,” in honor of her trip. We also did an interesting Afro-Cuban take on “Stella By Starlight.” That night I got acquainted with a local rhythm section: drummer, Roger Karlsson, and bassist, Don Skelton, who were also sitting in. When Roger referred me for a gig in the house band at the Bluefire Grill in the La Costa Resort I thought it was a great opportunity to get out and play live again. The leader was Brad Rambur, a saxophonist who had been studying with Eric Marienthal, and the music was a mix of funky jazz, fusion, pop and standards–and some smooth jazz, which was popular locally at the time. Interestingly, next time she was in town, Sheryl played with that band as our guest star. After a couple of years, the steady weekend gig presented a chance to form my own group, based on the soul-jazz style I love, with a real B3 organist, Jack Hill, and drummer, Roger Karlsson–both of whom were playing with the house band on the weekends. We played blues, straight-ahead tunes, bossa novas, American Songbook standards, hard bop, and soul-jazz every Friday night as the Wolf Marshall Trio and Saturdays with Brad’s more commercial outfit. After leaving the Bluefire, we ended up taking the trio into all the major venues in the area, including Twenty20 and Vivace, as well as a lot of private events and clubs in the outlying vicinities. A number of those performances were recorded informally and can be seen in clips on YouTube. Jack and I had a close relationship to NAMM’s Museum of Making Music in Carlsbad and, as a result, our trio played a couple of unusual but enjoyable gigs for the organization.

One I remember distinctly was the grand reopening of the music museum, where one of my childhood favorites Larry Graham (bassist Family Stone) was in the audience, and commented that the group reminded him of the organ trio with Kenny Burrell and Jimmy Smith. High praise!

Another NAMM performance was on San Diego’s morning TV show. We had to be there, set up, and playing jazz at 5 in the morning! That’s almost bedtime for most gigging musicians. 

2011 Old Globe Theater, San Diego. Working on guitar parts with Burt Bacharach.

M.S. I remember how excited you were to collaborate with the great Burt Bacharach during that six-week holiday performance a few years ago, especially the time that you spent with him one-on-one discussing arrangements and such. What was that experience like and what more did you learn about him?

W.M. What was exciting was to have Burt call me at home personally for the performances. I’d always admired his music, since the ‘60s and “Walk On By.” We played “Look of Love,” “Wives and Lovers,” and “Alfie” on our trio gigs. He had a been a legend in the business for decades so to get his call was unreal. Normally, he worked through contractors for hiring people in his stage shows and the music was from a book of set arrangements of his well-known hits. In this case, it was more fluid. He was writing all-new music in 2011 for a new show, Some Lovers, so it was to be tunes that have never been heard before and never had been played with an ensemble. It was the first full-length show he had written since Promises, Promises, back in 1968–more than forty years. He brought in some top NY performers, a stellar music director and a legendary orchestrator. He required a wide variety of sounds and styles from the guitar: pop, jazz, rock, Brazilian, R&B, orchestral, varied mood music and light classical. I fondly remember Burt working on a particular guitar part with me after the official rehearsal had ended. It was very special to be sitting next to a man I consider a genius and tweaking the arrangement of a classical/jazz/pop piece called “Hush” based on his feedback and suggestions. It was just the two of us: he was at the keyboard and I was just a couple of feet away on guitar. “Hush” was the very emotional closing number and began with solo voice and solo nylon-string acoustic doing a semi-classical fingerpicking. From the outset he had something very specific in his mind–a vision–and I believe he felt it was very important to the show’s ethos to pursue its realization. It was loose yet structured; I know that sounds oxymoronic. He kept playing certain thematic figures on the piano and had me play along with him until the phrases were developed and built up to his taste. It was illuminating, instructive and inspiring to play things together and have him comment on and respond to the choice of voicings, style of arpeggiation, chord textures and the like.

Apart from his superior musical sensibilities and craftsmanship, Burt has this amazing quality as a person and musician that brings out the best of people he’s working with – you just want to make him happy with what you’re playing.

That’s what I felt in those interactions. I’m sure that’s one reason he’s been so successful in his career. 

M.S. One of the many things that we share in common is being full-time educators, and many of our students work with us long distance via Skype and Zoom. Any thoughts you’d like to share regarding this technology and how effective it can be nowadays?

W.M. Yes, I’ve been teaching students from all over the world for over ten years on Skype and Zoom. It’s a wonderful medium and I think it suits guitar instruction very well. It’s like having a live video for the student. Over the years many of my students purchased VHS tapes or DVD discs to have visual access to the instruction. That was fine, but it was static. Now the online conferencing technology allows us to reach people all over the world who are thirsting for the kind of language-based instruction, that’s been missing from the usual academic circles or online tutelage, in real time. With the ability to send PDFs instantly and to record the demonstrations of concepts and particular phrases and patterns, it has for me become the quintessential multi-media format for learning and gives my instruction a global reach as I have students that are out of state, and in foreign countries like England and Australia. Moreover, I have used the technology to give my UCLA students a lot of extra material that couldn’t possibly be covered in a customary hour lesson on campus. 

M.S. Of all the books you’ve authored over several decades, your work on Giant Steps plus the volumes devoted to jazz icons really stand out for me and have been very well-received by fellow players. You and I had many discussions when you were assembling the GS book prior to publication. Is there anything you’d like to add to what we already know about these editions?

W.M. I had the idea of Giant Steps for Guitar for a decade or so before it saw the print reality, thanks to a very sympathetic soul at Hal Leonard, my publisher. For many years I’d been collecting language phrases from all my favorite players with the goal of applying them to Trane’s tune, as part of the all-important modeling process in what I call the “assimilation stage” of working out material. In my private teaching practice I saw that many guitarists were struggling with the changes and the modulations, so I was striving to write something to un-complicate and de-mystify the approach to improvisation and to foster a general guitaristic understanding of the harmony and progressions. Of course, learning the specific Coltrane cells and moves on guitar is very valuable but in my vision I linked those with a common Pat Martino line to create a new hybrid that works surprisingly well. That’s the kind of thing I encourage. I am particularly keen on the notion of taking your existing vocabulary, in my case from Bird, Wes, Cannonball, Dexter Gordon, Sonny Stitt, Vincent Herring, Hampton Hawes et al, and making it part of your personal take on “Giant Steps.” In that regard, many rhythmic and thematic elements from other sources can be very effective but are frequently overlooked. For example, a syncopated rhythm on a single repeated common tone (F#) is a viable technique that can connect Bmaj7, D7 and Gmaj7, and creates an interesting contrast to chord outlining in steady eighth notes.   

2015 NAMM with George Benson and Henry Johnson

M.S. Currently you’re heavily involved with two exciting educational projects, one for Truefire plus a comprehensive jazz guitar course for Hal Leonard. Can you share some of the details?

W.M. Sure. My TrueFire series will begin with two topics near and dear to my heart: one, the acquisition of language via transcribing and how to assimilate it, transform it and then apply into into useful repurposed material for your own playing, and two, the exploration of key language lines on the fingerboard and how to expand the melodies into valuable connections for improvisation. It all comes down to the music’s language and our manipulation of it once assimilated. The same goes for my jazz-guitar course for Hal Leonard. It will be a thorough and practical method, again language-based–which means in Joe Pass’ words, things you actually would want to play on a gig. I plan to have sections on harmony (chord forms, comping, chord-melody, etc), rhythm (idiomatic jazz phrases and their feel), melody (lines and phrases, not necessarily scales in the academic sense), improvisation over a variety of chord progressions from blues to beyond bop, and functional theory sprinkled throughout. I am hoping it will bring together some of the key elements I have gleaned from my heroes, guitarists, and other instrumentalists, and put them into a user-friendly volume with audio tracks and video support.

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