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Scott Henderson: New Landlord of Planet Fusion

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Jazz/Blues/Fusion Guitarist Scott Henderson shares his views and insights on a variety of subjects, including his latest project - 'People Mover'.

Scott Henderson

Bob Bakert, Editor of Jazz Guitar Today:

The first thing I would like to say to our readers is – if you’re a fan of Scott Henderson “People Mover” is a must.  Tonally, Harmonically, Rhythmically, Dynamically the recording is a masterpiece done by a, yup, ‘master’. If you are not familiar with Scott and your reading Jazz Guitar Today – and want to hear the cutting edge, this is it!  Get your best listening ears on and dialed in.


Scott Henderson INTERVIEW

JGT:  First, congratulations on the newest record.  It’s a triumph for sure.  I keep getting surprised by your quick musical wit and musical nimbleness.  Truly great!

SH: Thanks!

JGT: You have been recognized and categorized as one of the best fusion guitarist for decades now. You have also been categorized as a jazz player, and a blues player … which of these do you currently feel most aligned with?

SH: That’s a good question, but honestly I’d rather not be categorized at all. I’m just a musician who’s been influenced by the many different kinds of music I like. What I’m digging or influenced by depends on what my iPhone throws my way – it’s always in shuffle mode. Yesterday I was listening to Albert King, Junior Brown, Tower Of Power, Beyoncé, and Charlie Parker, just to name a few. 

If a musician plays through chord changes and uses even the smallest phrase from the jazz vocabulary, the jazz categorization is inevitable. If a jazz guitarist decides to use distortion on a song, it’s a guarantee that no mainstream jazz radio station will ever play it. The music world can be very narrow minded. I wouldn’t mind being called a fusion musician if that word hadn’t become so offensive – most people these days think of it as what you hear in hotel lobbies. In my mind, it’s just a word which means mixture, like Gentle Giant being a mixture of classical and rock, or Mahavishnu Orchestra being a mixture of jazz, rock, and Indian music. In that context, call me a fusion guy.

“The compositional, improvisational, and tonal quality that Scott Henderson displays on his latest offering “People Mover” marks his arrival as new landlord of the far away planet fusion, only inhabited by past landlords John McLaughlin, and the late Allan Holdsworth.”  – jazz guitarist, Ede Wright

JGT: Your music is incredibly sophisticated yet accessible all while being  a joy to listen to.  You are sometimes “in your face” and sometimes subtle. The influence and synergy of different styles is apparent and insidious at the same time, its a complex blend for sure.  When you are composing are you aware of the audience your trying to reach… who (maybe yourself) are you composing for? 

SH: I compose for myself, hoping there are people out there who share my taste in music. There are some jazz musicians who’ve tried to target other audiences, usually for monetary reasons, and that music sounds completely phony to me. On the other hand, I think George Benson’s move into pop was sincere and heartfelt, which I can hear in the music. The only “concept album” I ever made was Dog Party. I wanted to do a straight up blues album because that’s the music I grew up listening to and where my roots are. It just happened that by the time I started making my first records, I was playing fusion, so I felt like a big part of my music life had never been documented, and it was a blast to go into the studio with some easy, fun tunes and just roll tape. It was the opposite of the “SMPTE” nightmare that Tribal Tech was involved with at that time. Extremely complicated would be an understatement. 

Guest JGT contributor and guitarist Bill Hart had some questions for Scott:

Bill Hart: What styles most influence your playing and compositions?

SH: I guess rock, blues and jazz, but I listen to so many other styles of music that I don’t consider one to be more important than the other. I’m more concerned about the phrases and tones within the music I’m listening to. We’re lucky to be living in a time when there’s so much great music out there to enjoy, so I’d have to say I’m influenced by anything I hear which moves me emotionally or peaks my interest in other ways. Lately I’ve been hearing some modern classical music which I find harmonically amazing. I don’t think there’s a style of music that’s completely void of things I like, though I don’t listen to much rap or opera. Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter are two of my favorite musicians, both for their playing and composing. They set the bar pretty high – as Peter Erskine said in an interview, “they’re the heaviest musicians I’ve ever played with”, and of course Jaco was included in that statement. 

Bill Hart: I first saw you live with Jean-Luc Ponty in the early 80s. I have followed your career since “Spears” and “Dr. Hee” came out. Can you tell us about your new project?

SH: I started playing trio when Tribal Tech stopped touring in the 90’s. I’d been mostly playing with keyboard players, so I wanted to expand my chordal approach to the guitar, and learn to compose for trio. The three albums which I made as a result of that were Well To The Bone, Vibe Station, and the newest one, People Mover. All three albums are similar in that they’re written for live playing, so there’s always one main guitar part, but I like to add layers to make the songs more interesting, both sonically and compositionally. I’m a huge Led Zeppelin fan and Jimmy Page was a genius at layering guitars – so is Michael Landau.

People Mover is a bit more jazzy than the other two albums and has more complex harmonies, but there are still plenty of rock n’ roll moments. Like most of my albums, there’s a lot of variety in the music, but People Mover is even more diverse. Also, the bassist Romain Labaye and drummer Archibald Ligonniere have more jazz vocabulary and are featured more in the music than the previous rhythm sections on my solo records. 

JGT: You’ve had a long relationship with John Suhr and a signature Suhr model. Maybe a word or two about the guitar and what brought you to John?

SH: I was never happy with the Charvel, though it sounds pretty good on the Spears album, and “Cat’s Tales”, a song I recorded with Jean-Luc Ponty. That’s because we used a Neumann 87 microphone, but a condenser mic shouldn’t be needed unless the guitar sounds thin. That’s a good mic to use with .008’s like Allan Holdsworth did, but I was using .010’s. I had the same problem with the Ibanez, which had a smaller body and sounded thin. I met John when he had a small workshop at Bob Bradshaw’s place. Later he made a Strat for me when he was working at Fender, and that was my main guitar until he started his own company and I became his first endorser. 

JGT: I remember when you played a purple Charvel with humbucker‘s. I know you are very specific about the specs that you give John Suhr to build your custom guitars. Could you share a little about what you like in a guitar as far as string gauge, neck radius, fret size and how you set your tremolo?

SH: My signature Suhr guitar is basically a vintage Strat clone, but with a D shape neck and jumbo frets. It has a noiseless system, which in my opinion sounds much better than noiseless pickups. The Fender six screw bridge has been modified to stay in tune, and has a thicker tremolo bar. It’s also shorter, so I can hold it it my hand without making the guitar go out of tune. I set up the bridge so the G string goes up a major 3rd when I pull it all the way up. I have a few guitars with ML pickups which I use live, and a few with V60LP pickups, which are a bit more scooped and traditional sounding. The neck radius is 16” and I use D’Addario .010’s. 

JGT: What do you look for in choosing musicians for your projects and live gigs?  Is the criteria the same? Are some players better in the studio and some better live?

SH: I have the same criteria for both situations. A rhythm section most importantly has to support the music and make it groove, but I don’t want chart readers. They also need to have strong musical personalities and know when to add their own voices to the music. There are certain drum grooves and bass notes which have to be played as written to support the melodies, but great musicians always know how to add ideas to improve the songs, and when to add them. These guys are both supportive and incredibly creative. 

Archibald Ligonnière

Hometown: Fontenay-Le-Comte, France

Bio: Archibald is a session and live drummer who has collaborated with numerous artists. His distinctive impactful sound and feel for the groove, has landed him to work with Scott Henderson, Richard Bona, Scott Kinsey, Jimmy Haslip, Hadrien Féraud, Gildas Boclé, Nicolas Folmer, Axel Bauer, and many others.

On playing with Scott… As a drummer I would say it has been pretty easy to work with Scott in the studio. He can be extremely specific about his own guitar parts and bass lines are performed. however, as for the drums, he’s more open minded and allows me to do my own thing. It seems that after 3 years spent together on the road, he had no complaints and always trusted me and my playing. Prior to studio sessions, he would send me demos of the songs with extremely difficult guitar parts and quite simple drum parts. He always admitted he was not a great composer when it comes to the drum parts, so it was pretty clear that I was free to play those songs the way I wanted as long as it fits with the general atmosphere. The songs People Mover and Syringe are based on a groove composed by Scott. By the way I struggled to record Syringe cause I heard the beat backward… But anyway, it has been a true pleasure and privilege to record with one of the musicians I was listening to on the road to school when I was around 10 yrs..

Romain Labaye

Hometown: Normandy, France

Bio: Originally a drummer, he turned himself toward the bass at the age of 14, after having been completely overwhelmed by Jaco Pastorius, like many others.In 2011, he got accepted to the National Superior Paris Music Conservatory. He will leave after a year to go on his own. He met the great guitarist Nguyên Lê, with whom he’s been touring for more than 8 years. In 2016, he joined Scott Henderson’s trio who would embark him for all of his world tours. The trio just released an album, People Mover, in the summer of 2019. Romain has also performed with Tom Ibarra, Omri Mor, Thierry Maillard, Karim Ziad, Dean Brown, and Nina Attal.

On playing with Scott: I’ve always loved to play trio and I’ve had the occasion to do so with many artists. But Scott’s music can be tricky sometimes and is not always likely to be played in trio. (…more likely with 25 guitar players!) The great thing about him is that he gives me so much room that we never feel any kind of emptiness on stage.  Playing with Scott helps me to find my own voice as he really wants us (Archie and I) to have moments to express ourselves during the show. The busy touring schedule that we have every year helped us three to develop a very nice and strong musicianship with a lot of interplay. And I think that’s the most important thing in any band.

JGT: When you record how much of it is charted and how much is improvised?

SH: The melody sections are composed, but there are always sections which are loose with room for improvisation and interplay. My records aren’t commercial, so solos can be long – and they usually are. I’d say the ratio is different depending on the tune, but 50/50 sounds about right.

JGT: Do you ever compose solos?

SH: I’ve done it a few times in the past, but not much anymore. That being said, in a few songs that we’ve been playing for a long time, I’ve improvised phrases which I remember and want to play again. After discovering a lot of them within a set of chord changes, the other guys recognize when they’re coming and add to them, either rhythmically, harmonically, or both. Those are cool moments for the audience, but the solo ceases to be 100% improvisation and develops a form. Even though there’s nothing wrong with solos that become mini-compositions, I eventually abandon them and just go for it. Like most improvisors, my goal is to try to invent ideas I’ve never played before and tell a good story. 

JGT: I know you use Marshalls and other high volume amps while recording… how much does that Db level affect your tone, music and phrasing?

SH: I use a 100 watt Marshall and of course it sounds better when it’s really cranking. That’s how I record it, but not how I use it live because it would be way too loud for the rooms we play. Fortunately my ’71 plexi and it’s clone made by Suhr, the SH-100, have a master volume. I’m playing on stage at about 1/2 to 3/4 of the volume I use when recording. I like to play loud when appropriate, but not overly loud – that becomes a negative factor in the music. The guitar feels like it’s out of control, and I get a kind of “shell shocked” nervous feeling. It’s OK for rock n’ roll, but not for music that’s designed for listening to what the other players in the band are doing. I set up far enough away from the drums so that I have a choice of how loud I want to play. My biggest peeve is poorly designed rooms which make even the softest music loud. I’ll never understand why club owners spend a fortune on PA systems for rooms with nothing but concrete or glass surfaces. 

JGT: You told me a story about how you recorded your solos at home because there was not a studio in LA that could contain a Marshall full out… yet you did it at home

SH: The last time I brought a 100 watt amp with a 4×12 to a studio, they put it five rooms away and we could still hear it in the drum mics. I ended up turning it down to 2 and it sounded terrible. 

Scott Henderson, guitar - Romain Labaye, bass - Archibald Ligonniere, drums - Photo Credit: Nikolay Nersenov

JGT: When we talked you equated your albums as “movies not theater”.  Meaning movies are scripted, edited, several takes, etc. and theater is live, warts and all… which do you prefer?

SH: Wow, that’s a loaded question which might require a long answer. We all want our recordings to have the interplay and live feeling of a gig. That’s easier to accomplish with a small amp. A hollow-body player can isolate the amp from the drums, or not, if he doesn’t care about mistakes. Some of those guys are so amazing, they probably don’t make any in the first place. I’m pretty weird because I have the mentality of a jazz musician when it comes to phrasing and interplay, but I’m more like a rock musician when it comes to tone. My favorite tone is too loud for live sessions, and though I’ve tried to use small amps, IR’s and amp simulators in the studio, it’s never as good as the tone I can get at home with my own gear. 

If I play a solo in the studio and the guys react to it, I can’t totally change it. I have the option to play some different notes, but the rhythmic phrases have to stay. If I know the tone from the live session can be greatly improved, I’ll learn what I played and play it again with better tone. I’m not going for perfection, because mistakes are sometimes really cool sounding, but I do try to get the best tone I can for solos and important melodies. If I played something well and the tone isn’t as important, I’ll keep it. On People Mover, I kept stuff from the live session, and even a few solos from my original composition sequences. Those were played with a Korg Pandora PX5D, which is a small pocket size amp simulator I use for writing. They’re first take solos and I liked them, but I thought I could make them sound better by recording them again using real amps. Turns out that I couldn’t, because I couldn’t capture the vibe or subtle inflections of the phrases, so I used the original Pandora solos. Sometimes what you play is inspired by the tone you’re getting and it can’t be changed, but sometimes it can. Every situation is different – whatever works for that particular solo.

About the movie reference, I don’t believe making a record has to be exactly like a live gig. I’m also a producer, an arranger, and an engineer – making a record is a different art form which allows me to wear all those hats and have a great time doing it. If people want to hear me make terrible mistakes, they can listen to my live record and YouTube channel. 

Sometimes I hear jazz musicians saying that they hate their records. If a record is just another slice of life, I get why they would say that. It’s how I feel about my live record – not my worst playing, but certainly not my best. I want to walk away from a record liking it, for at least six months. 

SUHR SCOTT HENDERSON SIGNATURE SERIES GUITAR

John Suhr has been building custom guitars for Scott Henderson since 1991. Scott was the first artist to be endorsed by Suhr. John and Scott have been working together since then in perfecting Scott’s Signature Suhr Classic S. Scott’s Classic S comes equipped with a couple of features that set it apart from it’s Classic S counterpart. The Bridge is modified with a custom steel block and a thicker, shorter steel tremolo arm. We also drill the six mounting screw holes bigger and install the screws in a way that makes the bridge stay exceptionally in tune. We also remove wood from inside the tremolo cavity to allow for increased range, allowing Scott to pull up a major third on the G string and push down one octave on the A string. Loaded with ML Standard (not hot) in the bridge and ML standards in the neck and middle position, in addition to Suhr’s proprietary SSCII (Silent Single Coil System) which gives you all of the traditional single-coil tones, without the 60 cycle hum.  For more on Scott’s Signature guitar.

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Jazz Guitar Today would like to thank Scott Henderson, the nice people at Suhr Guitars, Archibald Ligonnière, Romain Labaye, Bill Hart, Ede Wright, and Nikolay Nersenov for their contributions to this article.

Thanks again Scott!

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