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JGT Interview with Guitarist Arranger and Educator, Chris Buzzelli

Thomas Amoriello Jr.

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Jazz Guitar Today contributor Tom Amoriello interviews jazz guitarist, arranger, educator, and author, Chris Buzzelli.

Above header photo credit: Walter “Mac” McKeever

Trenton, New Jersey born Chris Buzzelli  has established career longevity as a well-rounded guitarist, arranger, educator and author who has made respectable contributions to the jazz guitar community well beyond the night club circuit.  This body of work includes arrangements for jazz guitar ensembles, a 7 string method book with Mel Bay Publications and most importantly more than two decades as a jazz guitar professor on the university level.  Oh yea, I forgot to mention that Chris can play rather well!  Jazz Guitar Today would like to thank Mr. Buzzelli for this exclusive interview.  

JGT: You have performed often accompanying jazz vocalists with your 7 string nylon classical.  What has attracted you to this medium and any words of wisdom when working with singers?

Chris: One of the things that attracts me to jazz is the songs (and by that, I mostly mean standards and not so much jazz tunes).  Some guitarists tend to think of a song as a set of chord changes.  Often, they don’t really know the melodies.  And even less often do they know the lyrics.  Because I consider the song as a whole, naturally I enjoy working with people who sing.  I have two pieces of advice for anyone who wants to work with singers.  But actually, I think this is good advice for any musician.  Firstly, know the whole song:  melody, lyrics and chord changes.  Even if you don’t know all of the lyrics, knowing some of the lyrics will inform you about phrasing the tune.  Also, if you know the lyrics, it’s easier to remember the melody.  And if you know the melody, it’s easier to remember the chord changes.  Something I always did with students was to have them build a large repertoire of tunes.  More often than not, when a student struggled with remembering chord changes, it turned out that they didn’t know the melody.  I know from my own experience that I can learn chord changes very quickly, but if I don’t know the melody, I forget the chords just as quickly.  Another benefit to knowing lyrics is that sometimes singers forget lyrics and you can bail them out.  I would love it if all the singers I worked with knew all the chord changes!  My second piece of advice is to learn songs in all keys.  This has the obvious benefit of enabling you to play songs in singers’ keys on gigs, even if they don’t have charts (or their charts are not in the keys they want to sing in).  But the benefits go far beyond that.  Playing songs in all keys forces you to analyze the harmony rather than just memorize it.  Once you’ve analyzed the harmony, you start to hear where it’s going.  You learn how it sounds to move to the key of the relative minor, or of the sub-dominant, or whatever.  From that point you can grow your repertoire very quickly because there’s less to remember.  You don’t have to remember what you can hear in your head.

JGT: A few years back Mel Bay Publications released your complete 7 STRING GUITAR METHOD.  Please tell Jazz Guitar Today readers what working on that project was like?

Chris: That book actually came out in 2004.  I had been playing 7-string for a while but felt that I hadn’t really taken the time to dig into it the way I wanted to.  So, I applied for a sabbatical where I planned to just study and practice the 7-string.  I had already done some smaller projects for Mel Bay and when my contact there heard what I was doing, he suggested I write the “complete” book as part of my sabbatical project.  I found the title a little daunting, but I don’t think that was ever negotiable.  They were releasing a lot of “complete” books at the time.  So, I dove in and made the book as complete as I could.  I checked out what little instructional material was available.  I got hold of some solos by George Van Eps and Bucky Pizzarelli, and Howard Alden had written a number of excellent articles for a magazine called Just Jazz Guitar.  Those materials got me going in the right direction, but my goal was to write as comprehensive a book as was practical.  It seemed logical to have three sections:  scales, arpeggios & chords.  With the scales and arpeggios, it was simply a matter of extending the ranges of things that any advanced student of the 6-string guitar would already know.  So, I included play-along recordings that could be used to drill scales and arpeggios.  These are Jamey Aebersold–style tracks, but as each scale is covered in the book, there is a corresponding play-along specifically designed to drill that scale.  I was pleased with how this turned out and I think these recordings are a good practice tool for anyone working on scales on any instrument.  But the section on chords is really the meat of the book.  I was fortunate to have studied with Jack Petersen at the University of North Texas and he had a great system for learning chords.  I was able to take his method and apply it to the 7-string guitar.  It’s funny how adding a single string can generate a whole lot of new ways of playing chords.  I learned a lot in writing the book and I hope it’s been helpful to others.

JGT: You also did some arranging for JAZZ GUITAR ENSEMBLE with additional publications through MEL BAY.   Can you tell us more about the practical uses of these books and what are some of the “Dos and Don’ts that you have held onto during the arrangement process for this ensemble?

Chris: Again, thanks to Jack Petersen, I had the very valuable experience of playing in a jazz guitar ensemble at the University of North Texas.  I played trumpet through high school and college, so I had a lot of ensemble experience, but not on guitar.  And the charts we played were very difficult.  We did “Super Sax” style arrangements of Sonny Stitt and Cannonball Adderley solos, but harmonized with five guitars.  We also played big band charts with 15 guitars!  When I started teaching, I knew that I wanted guitar ensemble to be a part of the curriculum.  There weren’t many jazz guitar ensemble charts available, so I started writing.  The first charts I published were my own compositions, which I self-published.  Then I published some of Jack’s originals.  By the time Mel Bay asked me to contribute to their projects, I already had a number of things out there.  The people at Mel Bay had the idea of putting out series of books at three different levels:  beginning, intermediate and advanced.   I contributed one chart at each level for both their Jazz and Blues series.  I guess the charts I self-published would be considered “very advanced” as they kind of pick up where the advanced Mel Bay charts left off.  And the charts we played in Jack’s group were even harder than that.  It’s no secret that guitar players tend to not be able to read as well as their peers on other instruments.  Playing in a traditional jazz band a guitarist can spend more time fighting with the piano player over who should be comping then they do reading lines.  But in a guitar ensemble, it’s all lines all the time.  I know of no better way to get a student’s reading in shape.  Writing for five guitars isn’t much different from writing for five saxes or mixed horns, or whatever.  Of course, you don’t have a great variety of colors as you would in a mixed ensemble.  I try to use different textures for variety:  solos, duets, octaves, unisons, and of course different types of voicings.

Chris Buzzelli and his 7 string

JGT: You are originally from New Jersey and graduated from Trenton State College (now The College of New Jersey).  You were sandwiched in between Philly, NYC and Atlantic City.  What was the jazz scene like in this region that you remember when you were coming of age? 

Chris: At that time, I was a full-time student, working some gigs and teaching in music stores.  So I only occasionally made trips into Philly and New York.  If Atlantic City had a jazz scene at the time, I was unaware of it.  I did live in AC for a short time after graduate school and had a steady gig at Caeser’s.  But the great thing about being in Trenton was that many of the New York and Philly musicians would come to us.  The jazz band director at Trenton State was a great drummer named Tony DiNicola and he would bring many of the best players in the region to TSC as guests.  I got to hear, and sometimes play with, people like Red Rodney, Turk Mauro, Sal Nistico, Kenny Davern and many others.  There was also a club in Trenton called Lanzi’s where Richie Cole had a regular Tuesday night gig.  I went to see him as often as I could.  Richie and Tony D. were two of the greatest musical influences and inspirations for me.  In the years that followed, Richie moved around a lot and I lost track of him for long periods of time.  But I did manage to get him out to BGSU as a guest soloist in 2002.  And I saw him several times in the last few years after he moved to Pittsburgh.  The last time was for his “29th Birthday” party.  Richie was born on “leap day”, so he had his 29th birthday in 2020.

JGT: Then you were off to Ohio and were a member of the music faculty at Bowling Green State University from 1984 to 2015 as Professor of Guitar and Jazz Studies.  What advice would you offer an aspiring jazz guitar student on the audition circuit looking for the right place to study?  Obviously factors differ for everyone.

Chris: The single most important consideration in choosing a school is your major professor, in this case, the guitar professor.  While there are some great teachers who no longer play, I think there are clear advantages to studying with someone who is an active performer.  If nothing else, it can be very inspiring to hear your teacher play.  I would also warn, though, that there are many great players who are not effective teachers.  I would recommend taking a lesson in advance of going to an audition.  In this age of online teaching, this is more plausible than ever before.  If the teacher can’t be bothered, go somewhere else.  Even if you have to pay for the lesson (which you should certainly offer to do), the cost of the lesson could save you four years of misery.  It’s becoming increasingly common for schools to hire “name” players who may be commuting great distances to campus.  Sometimes, these artist/teachers are rarely there.  This is likely to become even more prevalent as people are becoming more comfortable with remote teaching.  While this situation may have its advantages, I think it’s probably most valuable for very advanced students.  If the professor is truly “in residence,” the students have far greater access.  Besides having weekly lessons, you might see your teacher in studio classes, ensemble rehearsals, or possibly in a classroom situation.  I’ve been a part-time teacher and I’ve been a full-time teacher, and the difference with regard to the mentor/mentee relationship is huge.  Having said that, there are other considerations as well.  Do you want to be in an urban environment where there might be more opportunity for gigging, or would you be better off in a slower paced environment where you can focus more easily on your studies?  It’s also a good idea to look at the overall state of the guitar program, and the music program.  Will there be other guitarists to jam with and learn from, or will you be the only fish in the pond?  How are the ensembles?  Are the other studios in the school healthy?  Does the administration seem supportive of the jazz program?  Are there specialized teachers for all the instruments, or is the jazz faculty only a few professors trying to do everything?  Going from Trenton State to North Texas, I went from being virtually the only jazz guitar student to being one of about 80.  There were advantages to both.  At TSC, I was able to play in the jazz band all four years.  I sang in choirs.  I played trumpet in the band and brass choir.  At NTSU (now UNT), I was much more focused on guitar and I learned as much from the other guitar students as I did in my classes.  Had I attended NTSU as an undergraduate, I might have been overwhelmed.  Quite by accident, I feel like I was in the right place at the right point in my life.  It’s important to choose a school that fits well with wherever you are in your journey.  The school with the biggest name or the most famous teacher may not be the best fit.

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