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Jonathan Kreisberg Expands the Jazz Guitar Universe

Bob Bakert, Editor

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Jonathan Kreisberg’s music has so much going for it. He exemplifies the contemporary jazz guitarist, or dare we say it “Jazz Guitar Today”.

Bob Bakert, Editor of Jazz Guitar Today: A lot of musicians study and play jazz. Many grew up playing in rock and blues-based bands.  The styles are blended and some call it ‘fusion’. Fusion giant Allan Holdsworth is a big influence on Kreisberg. But Jonathan also brings a heavy classical background into his music. His technique, his lines, the way the bass lines move, choice of voicings… and a very sophisticated rhythmic approach which appears to be influenced by Konnacol (Indian practice for vocalizing rhythm most often to help understand complex rhythm). All of these influences – jazz, rock, classical, Indian, and blues are masterfully blended into Jonathan’s very fresh style of jazz guitar. We are very happy to bring Jonathan to our cover story this month. Please enjoy our conversation – and check out the video of the interview below.

Please note this is a transcription of a conversation and therefore, some of the grammar might not be 100% correct – apologies… but we tried to maintain the spirit and overall meaning of both the questions and responses.

Bob Bakert: You have a tremendous quiver of guitar stuff to draw from.  I know that you started in classical, but give me where did you come from and how did you make it happen?  Tell me a little bit about your guitar maturation. 

Jonathan Kreisberg: I actually think that in music, in general, regardless of the style, there’s always going to be different philosophies about playing. Some decisions are very conscious for the player and some are just subconscious or unconscious.  I think it’s a really big subject – the idea that when we play, how comfortable are we with what we play?  Like how well do we know what we’re going to play before we play it?  How many choices do we have?   As opposed to jazz,  the answers are more obvious in composed music, like classical music, where choices are obviously all about the interpretation alone.  For that music it’s not even about what you’re playing,  just how.  When you listen to Glenn Gould’s original performance of the Goldberg variations, and then you hear the one he did as an older man, they’re totally different.  It’s really brilliant to hear how that can happen…And, that’s both the same guy!  Then there’s music like flamenco music, which I’ve always loved.  I was really surprised when I learned that with Paco de Lucia, the stuff he’s playing is basically composed, and that was like mind-blowing to me.  It sounds so improvised.   (I mean, I hear that there are composed passages that are part of the tune of course) but what I’ve been told is that most of the “solos”  are almost a hundred percent composed and then performed in a way where it feels improvised.   Sometimes it’s like sections that he can kind of mix and match, but basically, all composed and practiced.  But that was really interesting to me to learn.  

So I guess that’s what brings us to Jazz, which is actually TRUE improvised music.    I consider Jazz home for me, and everything I play at this point in my life is kind of through the prism of jazz.   if I had to describe myself… It’s like my way of thinking really comes from bebop.   Even though I wasn’t a kid born in the forties, or as a young man learning in the forties, there’s something about bebop, that rings true for me.  I was studying some Bach and Baroque playing and I started to get into that, analyzing lines that way.   So when I learned about jazz,  it all came together in a way where it made sense to me.   It’s funny, I always think of that as almost like one lineage of line language.  And then there is this kind of rock thing that I grew up on too,  which is almost more connected to like modal playing or Indian music or something because it’s a different way of thinking of harmony.   But I always feel like a lot of my thing is coming from this bebop way of thinking, but then letting all this other stuff that I like or have played into it.   

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Jonathan Kreisberg in concert
Jonathan and band in Buenos Aries

Bob: It is evident in your playing.  I hear a lot of things going on. I hear a lot of, rhythmic choices in your phrasing that are not the normal fare. It’s not something that many other people do. You have a signature that I’m picking up on, everybody’s got their thing, it’s the rhythmic choices that you’re making in your phrasing. That’s unique to you as far as I’m concerned.  

Jonathan:  Thanks! Yeah, that’s one of my tricks.    I take something that’s familiar and I’ll use rhythm or I’ll use harmony, or different melodic twists and turns to hopefully make it sound timeless, yet fresh at the same time.

Jonathan with his Gibson ES-175

Bob: A good way to describe your playing is that while you’re playing is steeped in the tradition, you’re bringing a fresh coat of paint to it.

Again, thank you.  That is what I originally was unconsciously trying to do, and then over time, I got more conscious about it.  I think of music, a lot of times like a timeline, and we’re here, right…  and as we go forward, I’m also trying to go farther back.   So I’m checking out stuff, even as far back as Gesualdo, which is even before Bach, so that I can go forward with deeper ideas… to make things happen now that are connected in deep ways.  That is how I hope I can contribute somehow, humbly… 

Bob: In your shows, how much of your performance is composed versus improvised?

Jonathan: In the strict sense of what ‘composed’ means  –  none of it is composed…just the themes maybe.

Bob: Let me rephrase it. How much of it is you’re literally jumping off the deep end?

Jonathan: Well, the musicians that play with me a lot would probably say that there are certain tunes where I have kind of a game plan of some story I’m trying to tell.  I might build it to a certain thing that happens when I finishing up the solo or something like that.  Or, I may start a solo at a certain place in the tune where I just want it to kind of break down or something.   But even those things can change, depending on the gig.  So basically I might have some tendencies on some tunes,  like certain concepts that I’ve tried before and I’ve worked on them to a point where I can improvise with those concepts, but not like a specific line that I’m planning to use or something per se.

Bob: Let’s talk about your tone a little bit – great tone. You’re using a Gibson ES -175 and a Fender Deluxe Reverb?

Jonathan: Well when I’m on the road, a lot of times it can become a little tough to get the exact stuff for my favorite stereo setup, but at this point, I prefer to have a Deluxe Reverb ’65 reissue’ which I think is one of the best new amps on one side.   It’s got a very organic “tubey” kind of sound.   Then I also like kind of sterile Polytone sound, (like when I’m practicing, a lot of times I’ll just use a Polytone)  So on the road, it’ll usually be a stereo setup of those two amps and I get different things from each of them.  The Polytone is more controlled.  It’s a very flat, even sound and for a solid-state amp they are very clear…whereas the Fender is obviously more “spiky”, it’s going to have more kind of an organic reactions to things you do.  It also has a nicer feedback – because sometimes I actually use feedback to my advantage.   A lot of the sustain that I get out of my guitar people don’t realize is actually controlled feedback.  So that’s better with the tube amp than with the Polytone, which is just going to be a big, low-end kind of explosion.

Bob: Everything we love about tubes is what you’re discussing. And it’s also what you can hate… 

Jonathan:  I just find that the combination gives me more control too, because I can sometimes bring one up and the other one down and get it just right… And phasing is also a huge thing.  You’ve got to be able to flip the phase on one of them.  I used to do that by hand in the back of the amp, which was extremely dangerous. 

Bob: Are you actually you running like a stereo reverb?

Jonathan: Yeah. I use my old Alesis Nanoverb.   I’d say that’s the problem with most modern reverb pedals is they’re making them mono.  If you want to get a (mono) spring reverb sound, that’s fine.  But why do you want to get a spring reverb sound?  I mean I get it for the vintage guys that want to sound like that vintage sound.  But the whole idea of the reverb in the first place was to sound like ambience , and they did it with a spring which is kinda caveman stuff.   It’s almost like eating a salad with a rock fork. haha. But I get it, and it’s a sound, and Grant Green sounds pretty damn amazing with spring reverb.  But a natural organic reverb is not supposed to be mono … that’s the funny thing to me. 

Bob:  Many people have made some pretty good sounds, (with mono spring reverb) but that’s a big soundscape. If you want that big thing, and you spread out (it’s a digital reverb with large space emulations)

Jonathan: Well, my point is, culturally we’re used to it.  We associate that with the sound, but actually it’s weird. It’s not more natural.  The digital thing is more natural.  Because it’s actually using samples to recreate what it would sound like if you were playing in a big hall,  so it actually sounds more “real”.    Whereas if you came from another planet and you heard older jazz with plates and spring reverbs, you’d say “what’s that weird reflective thing that’s going on there?”  It’s like some of those plate effects, we love them, but they’re, they’re weird sounding”. 

Bob: I think you’re you are dead on. And of course, I love those sounds too. 

Jonathan: Yeah, I’m just trying to create a little more of an organic natural thing. And to me, the stereo reverb thing really puts it in a place. 

Bob: Well, the bottom line, regardless, all this solid state, stereo, tubes and all that talk not-with-standing… you get an amazing tone!

Jonathan: Oh man thanks, although I don’t always agree because I’m very picky and there are times where I’m really picky to a fault…. Where I’m thinking about it so much that it’s taking my head out of the music and that’s when I have to say “enough!”.  I’ve learned to relax a little over the years about it.  

Bob: Let’s talk about your guitar. So you’re using a Gibson ES-175. 

Jonathan: I thought it was older all these years because my year had a strange, serial number that could easily be read wrong.  Gibson added like a letter or a figure or something this one year and I found out it’s actually a 1976.  That’s it (pointing) on the wall and it’s been around…I’ve been playing it for a long time.   When I was younger, I had a few guitars… I was playing a Strat mostly at the time, even when I already was playing jazz.  And then I must’ve been about 18 when I got the Gibson.  It became my main guitar within a year or two after that.  And that’s pretty much it.  And all these years I’ve been getting, lots of crazy sounds out of that guitar just because it just felt like home to me.  Even though it was, odd maybe to get some of the sounds that I was getting on that… 

Bob: I listened to you play with overdrive too, and some of your stuff where you’re playing, a definite overdrive tone. 

Jonathan: And those sounds, I could have gone to another guitar, but instead I just kind of committed to trying to get a better sound on the Gibson.  It works well now… but it didn’t always, I mean, I had to go through a lot of experimenting. 

Jonathan: And the ES-175, it’s so balanced.   When I play 335s, if you take your hands away the guitar will just flip right off you (head dive).

Jonathan with Dr. Lonnie Smith

Bob: I don’t play a  335 for that reason it doesn’t work for me as well. But the 175 does.  I’ve got some friends that have got them, old ones (175) like yours and older and every time I pick one of those babies up, it’s like an old shoe, it just feels great, and I think that’s really cool. And, the interesting thing with you is that it’s not known as an instrument that gets married up with a pedal board. 

Jonathan: Yeah, that’s the thing I figured out over time, there’s a way to get different sounds out of it. 

Bob: Let’s talk about your pedalboard a little bit. Well, give up, give up the goods, bro. What you doing?

Jonathan: Oh, I mean, there’s just a, just a myriad of stuff. It’s always changing a little bit. 

Bob: What are some of the main things you discovered about using a 175 with your rig? What challenges did you overcome? 

Jonathan: Still working on it,  there’s a lot of experimentation about to happen.  I’m working with a few different companies on some pretty interesting things.  I’m sure they  wouldn’t mind if I mentioned, but it’s all prototype at this point.  But I’ll also say that one of my secrets is learning how to use feedback.  Using the guitar as an organic kind of an feedback instrument using movement with the instrument as part of the expressive capabilities of it.   A lot of that has to do with positioning between the amps in a certain way.  I’m using it for certain kind of spatial relationships with the amps and the guitar and, the venue. I’ve learned a lot about that.  

About using monitors, (jazz musicians aren’t traditionally very good at using monitors) – and I’m kind of as crazy about that as I am about everything else – now that becomes almost like a third amp. 


Bob: It’s energy in the environment. 

Jonathan: Yeah. And when playing duo with Nelson Veras, I use condenser mic on my guitar too.  So there’s a lot of stuff you can experiment with.  It’s always an experiment, but, being meticulous is a big secret, especially with the 175. It’s just not a plug and play guitar. You got to find out how to make it work. 

So for the pedals, I use a T1M two channel modified “Micro POG” that I go into first, usually, which I used for the octave stuff on “WAVE UPON WAVE”  and other stuff like that.   Then it would go into my kind of gain structure things, which, which is usually, a Morning Glory (overdrive) from JHS and that goes into a VooDoo lab Sparkle Drive, which I use sometimes one of the other ones. 

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