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A Start to the Next Chapter in the Jazz Guitar Story

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Jazz Guitar Today contributor Tom Amoriello talks to a new talent on the jazz guitar scene, Max Light.

Max Light first caught the attention of the international jazz music community as a finalist in the prestigious Herbie Hancock Guitar Completion.  Having completed a graduate degree in music, multiple club appearances, and a debut Red Piano Records recording with an abundance of accolades, Mr. Light can be potentially defined as a start of a next chapter in jazz guitar story. Jazz Guitar Today would like to thank Max for this exclusive interview.   

WASHINGTON, DC: Max Light performs during the 2019 Herbie Hancock Institute of Jazz International Guitar Competition at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater on December 3, 2019, in Washington, DC. (Photo by Shannon Finney/Getty Images for Herbie Hancock Institute of Jazz)

Having attended two prominent jazz schools such as New England Conservatory and Aaron Copeland School of Music, please talk about the bonds that are formed with other student musicians while in an academic setting?

I had an amazing time attending NEC and the Aaron Copeland School at Queens College.Both were extremely formative, while being completely different.NEC is the oldest Conservatory in America so there’s a real focus and rigor in regards to classical music.There was also the Contemporary Improvisation department, which was really hip and focused on a wide array of music, from bluegrass to totally free improvisation to contemporary electronic music.The Jazz program was started in the 50’s or 60’s by Gunther Schuller, and is a really small program.I think there were about 70 or 80 undergraduate jazz students while I was there, so we were all really close and played together all the time.Overall, I was just exposed to so much music and so many different styles and approaches to music while I was there.

The Aaron Copeland School of Music was also an incredible experience.  I got to work closely with some of the best musicians in New York and the classes and ensembles were all really small so there was a lot of focus on each student.  I got to hang out and learn from Antonio Hart, Paul Bollenback, Mike Moreno, and David Berkman.  The curriculum was overall more focused on the tradition of jazz music, which was really refreshing coming from NEC, which was so spread out stylistically.  Also, Queens College is a state school, so financially speaking, it was way cheaper and I still got to study with some of the best musicians in the world.

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 Herbie Hancock Competition was one of the craziest experiences of my life.  It was formerly the Monk Competition, which every student of jazz in the world is aware of.  Many of my favorite contemporary players were semi-finalists and finalists in the past.  The last time it was a guitar competition was 2003 I think.  I had kind of had it in my mind that it would be guitar again sometime soon, and I figured I would give it a shot.  I know so many great guitar players my age, so I definitely wasn’t sure I would even get a spot.  Basically every step of the way I was so honored to be in it, and totally blown away that I was chosen as a finalist, especially after hearing all the other players at the semi-finals.  It was a really nerve-wracking experience as well.  Just knowing that I would be playing for John Scofield and Pat Metheny was extremely intimidating.  It was really crazy having to play after the other guitar players too.  Like, still trying to sound like myself, but being totally floored by the players before me.  At the end of it all though, we were all really close and the hang with all of us was amazing and inspiring.  The other 2 finalists especially.  The 3 of us were like brothers backstage at the finals.  

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

My earliest musical influence was probably Angus Young, the lead guitarist from AC/DC.I was exposed to their music through the Movie School of Rock when I was in 4th grade actually.I still love his playing today.One of the most lyrical rock guitar players ever.As I got older, I got really into metal bands like Pantera, Metallica, and eventually bands like Between the Buried and Me and Meshuggah.I still love metal and go to shows whenever I can.I started out playing bass guitar, but my brother had a guitar, and once I tried it, I thought it was way more fun, and never put it down.

Please tell Jazz Guitar Today readers about the Max Light Trio?

I’ve loved playing trio ever since I started playing jazz.  I love how understated it can be, and how the connections between the musicians and musical statements are so apparent.  The music on my trio record, Herplusme, is all fairly old.  It’s a collection of music for trio that I wrote between the time I graduated from NEC and recorded the album.  The bass player and drummer on the record are two of my close friends and musicians I love to play with.  Unfortunately, the record was released on February 14, 2020, right before Coronavirus shut the world down, so we didn’t get to play many shows for the release of it.  Fortunately, we got to do a great livestream a couple weeks ago, where we played a lot of the music from the cd.  It can be found archived at underexposed.live.

Max Light Releases

Have you enjoyed any recent jazz musician (or any genre) documentaries on Netflix during your downtime?

Yes! I think everyone has been watching more movies and television than ever these days.  I’ve really enjoyed the Miles Davis documentary and the Lee Morgan one that is on Netflix.  I also recently rewatched an amazing documentary about the Canadian guitar player, Lenny Breau.  He’s one of my favorite players and a totally unsung hero of the guitar.  You can find the documentary on Lennybreau.com.  It’s called the Genius of Lenny Breau and it’s a must-watch.

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