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JGT Interview with Guitarist, Composer and Educator, Cecil Alexander

Thomas Amoriello Jr.

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Jazz Guitar Today contributor Tom Amoriello interviews up and coming jazz guitarist, composer, and educator, Cecil Alexander.

Hot off the competition circuit, Cecil Alexander is an up and coming guitarist, composer, and educator who has made a mark in the last several years beyond earning degrees from prominent jazz programs at Berklee College of Music and William Paterson University. Citing modern jazz guitar influences such as include Peter Bernstein, Kurt Rosenwinkel, and Jesse Van Ruller, Mr. Alexander is already inspiring others with his online presence, competition appearances and as one half of a jazz vocal and guitar duo.  Thank you Mr. Alexander for this exclusive interview with Jazz Guitar Today. 

JGT: Currently you are working in a husband and wife duo with vocalist Ari Alexander.    Please share your thoughts on what a guitarist can learn by working with a singer that could not be obtained by working modes and inversions in the practice room?

I believe that learning to accompany a vocalist is one of the hardest skills to practice. It’s certainly one of those things that you only really get better at by doing it. Working with a singer teaches you how to frame a melody tastefully, how to interact, establish a groove, and be mindful of how your accompaniment/arrangement relates to the lyrics of a standard. 

JGT: You were a finalist in the Herbie Hancock Institute of Jazz International Competition as well as a top prize winner in a few other events.  What kind of work do you put in behind the scenes while prepping to play before a panel?  

The main thing that I kept in mind was to represent myself honestly. Leading up to the Hancock competition, I spent a while deciding on material. After a few weeks, I settled on some material that I felt I could stretch on and not worry about getting hung up on too many details. I made a conscious effort not to look into who the other competitors were/what they sounded like, because I felt that would get in the way of me being honest in my performance. I tried not to over-prepare the things I was going to play, so in the weeks leading up to the competition, I just tried to play with people as much as possible, because I feel that there’s no better way to get comfortable with material than to play it with/for others.

JGT: Having attended two prominent jazz schools such as Berklee College and William Patterson University, please talk about the bonds that are formed with other student musicians while in an academic setting? 

I was lucky enough to attend two programs that had a diverse pool of musicians- no matter what your musical background or preference, you were guaranteed to find some like-minded people who wanted to do something similar. Having the opportunity to play with musicians who were coming from a similar place prepared me for gigging and networking outside of the music school bubble. During both my undergraduate and graduate studies, I met people (within the first week of school!) that I still play with frequently and am lucky enough to call my friends. When I found a group of musicians that I could bond with, I was able to shed new ideas with them and develop my craft without fear of judgement. 

JGT: Your semi-hollow bodied custom tele is a unique choice in this genre.  Please tell Jazz Guitar Today about your choice of guitar and the advantages that led to it being your main axe?

My tele is a partscaster- meaning it is put together from parts from various manufacturers. The body is a semi-hollow Mahogany relic (sunburst finish) from MJT Guitars. The neck is a q-sawn maple back, rosewood fretboard from Musikraft. I had always wanted to put together a partscaster, probably since I first started getting serious about guitar, so as I was nearing the end of my undergrad at Berklee, I saved up for the parts and had a luthier in Boston assemble it. I knew I wanted something versatile, because I was playing a lot of different styles at the time, so I opted for the humbucker/single coil combo (Dimarzio PAF Master in the neck, and Area T Hot in the bridge). While the tele was sufficient for a while, I recently bought a custom L5 style archtop by a builder named Alexander Polyakov, which has quickly become my favorite guitar I’ve owned. I’m very drawn to the resonance and responsiveness of the larger body guitars. 

JGT: Who were a few of your early non-jazz influences and what made you choose the guitar? Or did it choose you?

When I was 6 or 7, I saw the movie Back to the Future, and the scene where Marty McFly plays “Johnny B. Goode” on a red ES-345 made we want to start playing guitar. About a year later, I got a red Squier Stratocaster for Christmas and started lessons the next month. I initially hated it- I didn’t want to practice, I didn’t know what music to listen to, and I soon found out that none of the music that I or my friends liked (which was mostly pop and rap on the radio) had guitar in it. After a few years’ hiatus, I saw a video of Jimi Hendrix playing “Hey Joe” and immediately went to my basement to dust the cobwebs off my Strat and start practicing. I learned as many Hendrix tunes as I could by ear, and later got into Albert King, Albert Collins, and BB King- who then led me to Charlie Christian, Wes Montgomery, Grant Green, and Kenny Burrell.

JGT: What are your plans in the education department having recently completed a graduate degree?  Do you plan to teach on the college level? Continue studies?  Also, are you doing the virtual teaching at the moment?

I currently teach adjunct through two institutions: UCLA’s Global Jazz Institute, and Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC). I have a few private students through both schools, and I also teach a beginner-intermediate guitar class through BMCC. Both schools are currently fully remote for the time being. In addition to UCLA and BMCC, I have my own roster of private students. Because I usually connect with these students through my playing posts on Facebook and Instagram, I usually focus on improvisation, transcription, and building a repertoire. I currently have no plans to continue my studies (with a DMA or PHD) but that could certainly change!

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