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Exclusive JGT Interview With Guitarist Andrew York

Thomas Amoriello Jr.

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Jazz Guitar Today contributor Tom Amoriello interviews GRAMMY-winning guitarist and composer Andrew York.

GRAMMY-winning guitarist and composer Andrew York has for the better part of three decades swam in classical guitar waters as an in-demand clinician, concert artist, educator, and receiver of countless commissions for his compositional skills.  As a former member of the acclaimed Los Angeles Guitar Quartet and current solo artist, York has traveled the globe with programming that features his original works, arrangements, and improvisations.  The jazz guitar had been an integral part of his musicianship during his formative years and he later developed Jazz for Classical Cats as a successful workshop often presented at the former National Guitar Summer Workshops along with the accompanying book series.  Jazz Guitar Today would like to thank Mr. York for this exclusive interview.  

Above photo by Christine Lang


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JGT: As a composer for solo, chamber & orchestral music, were there times when you found jazz guitar techniques and concepts seeping into your formal art music compositions? Also do you have a particular original composition with jazz leanings that you would invite a jazz guitarist to explore? 

Yes, all the time. Though I don’t really see a division of my stylistic influences when I write. They are all available as knowledge and influences from my studies and assimilation of the styles, and I welcome the richness they offer my creative process. Studying jazz was one of the most formative experiences of my younger life; but I also studied other styles and periods, from medieval, renaissance, baroque, and classical to rock and roll and bluegrass. Jazz was an obsession in my younger years. All these styles and periods lend voice to my expressive needs, and I don’t usually separate them, they work together to blend into something else as I write. This is how it feels to me.

As for solo guitar pieces that focus more exclusively on my jazz background, “Freelin’” would be one, from my recording “Into Dark”. This piece was also recorded by Bill Kanengiser. It’s more of a true swing approach with jazz harmony and intensely developed themes. Another would be “Blues for J.D.”, a Joe Pass style blues I wrote for my friend John Dearman.

JGT: Jazz Guitar for Classical Cats started as a workshop at a summer camp during the 1990’s and became a popular three part book series within the classical guitar community. The volume of books covered Harmony, Chord/Melody and Improvisation. Please reflect on this project and perhaps you have a significant moment to share from this period? 

Being part of the classical guitar world, I was always surprised how little they typically knew about harmony and fingerboard knowledge. And the idea of improvisation seemed like an alien concept to most classical players. Some showed curiosity though, and I proposed to teach a class on jazz for classical players to the National Guitar Summer Workshop. I was there the same time as Scott Tennant, and his proposal was “Pumping Nylon”, which of course became a huge best-seller. Both our class ideas became books, but Scott’s became iconic. “Jazz for Classical Cats” had built-in limitations – targeted to classical players who have an interest in jazz. Though even with a smaller audience, it has done well and has been in print now for about twenty-five years.

Those early NGSW workshops had a mythic quality. At a campus in Connecticut in the summer, the dorm rooms were stifling and steaming, the workload was excessive, and both teachers and students were glassy-eyed from exhaustion by the end of the week. It was really a boot camp for guitar. But deep bonds and life-long friendships were forged from the intensity. 

JGT: What would you say to a seasoned “jazz cat” about the benefits of studying the classical guitar (not to be a recitalist) and what it can bring to their jazz game? 

Classical technique is the most efficient and advanced way to approach the instrument. Combining classical technique and jazz fingerboard knowledge will change your life! In essence, classical technique allows for true contrapuntal expression through the instrument. This can sometimes be a bit lacking for jazz guitarists. Real control of your right hand allows for contrapuntal expression of voices. It’s not a trivial thing to develop that ability, but it can only expand your music and your mind. Nothing wrong with playing with a pick, I would usually solo with a pick back in the day. But when it was time for chord melody, or to comp behind a soloist, the pick went into the corner of my mouth and I would use my fingers to comp, adding more sophisticated open voicings and inner lines that weren’t possible to do with a pick.

JGT: What was a pivotal milestone point in your personal life and study as an improviser?

When I was sixteen, my best friend asked if I wanted to go to Washington D.C. and hear the Air Force big band, The Airmen of Note, play a concert on the steps of the Capitol building. We drove up and this was my first experience hearing a classic jazz big band, trumpets, trombones, saxes and rhythm section. It opened my eyes and just blew me away. I was a serious rock and roller at that time and I vowed at that concert to stop playing rock and to study jazz. After the concert I went up to meet the guitarist, Rick Whitehead, who was a really great player. I began to study with him and that was my first step down the road of learning to improvise in a jazz style, and accumulate the necessary knowledge and skills. Just before I turned eighteen, Rick recommended me for a new Air Force rock band called “Mach One.” After considering it, I decided I didn’t want to be in the military, so I declined. I imagine I would have lived a different life had I taken that path!

JGT: Having studied with Joe Diorio and Lenny Breau, do you still hear their voices every so often in your head while teaching or playing?  What stuck with you more than any other feedback or advice they shared? 

Joe Diorio was more than a guitarist. He approached the instrument in a different way, like a painter or sculptor. Sometimes when he would play the bottom would drop out and it was like you were hearing things you never heard before, an inner journey of great depth. As a teacher I think it was difficult for him to express those kinds of things. But his inspiration was tangible just as an artist. It taught me to look for ways to express music on the guitar that was greater than the guitar, to look for the transcendent window that might pop open for an instant now and then, and go through it.

Lenny Breau was a mind-blowing talent. I’ve never heard a guitarist with such ability, before or since. Many of the things he showed me influenced my playing heavily at that time. You can hear it in the electric guitar pieces I recorded for my first CD “Perfect Sky.” Lenny was a troubled soul, and that was hard to witness, but the things he would show me that were possible on the instrument were just almost too much to believe. And not just technically, it was the musicality and how he could use a guitar to express such great ideas in ways that nobody had heard before. But you had to be quick, if you weren’t totally focused, and capable of following his flow, that stuff would be gone before you could absorb it. But I soaked it up as fast as I could. What an experience. With Lenny, I learned much about comping more as a pianist would. He had a way of playing a bass line, while also playing chords above it in a different rhythm and articulation, and then a melody on top. And not in a crude way like you sometimes hear guitarists do – with him it sounded so natural and beautiful. I tried to understand and emulate some of that.

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JGT: The business of being a musician, sheet music publisher, clinician, educator, blogger/ web design, composer, public relations agent, fashion and hair coordinator (haha) require today’s musician to wear many hats overall. What advice do you have on balancing between all of these necessities as an independent artist in the “biz”? 

It’s always been that way to a degree, but perhaps more essential now to be competent in so many tangent disciplines to keep a music career going. I’m fortunate that my wife is so skilled in so many of the business things that need to be done in social media, marketing, video editing, and generally running a business. Having such wonderful help allows me to focus more on intensive composing, recording and publishing, and tech stuff that needs to be done. It’s really impossible to do it all. I’ve noticed many gifted self-marketers are sometimes deficient in their creative voice. And those who are intensely creative and artistic are sometimes lacking in their ability to create a coherent business model for their art. I understand and admire the skills on both sides. It is a balance and a choice, how to move forward in your career by understanding what your strengths are. Being clear about your motivation, why you are really doing music at all, can be helpful for your focus and success in the long term.

JGT: Leaving on a fun note, what were a few of the recent documentaries on Netflix related to the giants of jazz that you enjoyed and perhaps took a tip away from? 

I love Miles Davis, so I watch everything about him I can find. A complicated and charismatic man, but as an artist, I respect very deeply the relentless commitment in his life to breaking new stylistic ground with great authenticity. Many of the giants from that era are my heroes – Trane, Herbie Hancock, Ella Fitzgerald, Barry Harris, Tony Williams, Joe Pass, John McLaughlin – the list is very long.

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