Alex Skolnick covers new territory fusing rock and metal in a flurry of altered dominants with different modes of the melodic/harmonic minor scales language.
The New School graduate Alex Skolnick has been known to guitarists in the metal community since the thrash metal explosion of the mid-1980s with Bay area legends Testament. Though still relevant within the metal community, Skolnick took a detour to earn a BFA degree in jazz studies and founded a trio that bears his name. Technical skills galore, Alex has covered new territory fusing the unexpected rock and metal tracks decorated in a flurry of altered dominants with different modes of the melodic/harmonic minor scales language. The longtime Brooklyn resident is also a composer/improviser, author, camp instructor, and involved in other highbrow projects when not touring or recording with Testament. Jazz Guitar Today would like to thank Mr. Skolnick for this exclusive interview.
JGT: In prepping for a gig that involves long-distance travel, do you have a running to-do checklist or advice before your departure that can help an aspiring artist?
Alex: Take some time during the week or so before, just thinking about everything you possibly need to bring, even if it seems obvious, and jot it down on a list. There is too much to remember for your brain to rely on memory alone. I’ve made special lists for things I’ve forgotten. It’s usually something that would seem obvious, like a supply of picks, since I almost always have one or two in my wallet but that’s not enough for a tour. It definitely helps to have a checklist, much like a pilot.
JGT: Have you had a chance to catch any of the Jazz themed documentaries on Netflix or Amazon Prime such as those on Jaco Pastorius, John Coltrane, Lee Morgan, Bill Evans and more?
I’ve seen them all except for “Time Remembered,” the Bill Evans doc, although I did see the classic one, “Universal Mind of Bill Evans,” which I loved. I plan to watch it soon. The Jaco film was heartbreaking but a great view. I know his son, Felix (just ran into him yesterday in fact), and was talking about it to Robert Trujillo while he was making it. The Coltrane doc was illuminating – Denzel did an amazing job bringing his dialogue to life and it was fascinating to hear early recordings. It’s surprising to hear him not quite having it together – and he’s not exactly a kid at that point – trying hard to sound like Bird, knowing how strongly he would find his own voice later. The Lee Morgan drama was sad as well, such a brilliant artist and I had no idea about the drama surrounding the end of his life.
JGT: Mentorship can come in a variety of ways from a guiding instructor to a legendary performer. What was a memorable moment from your early days at The New School of Jazz & Contemporary Music that brought you to a breakthrough moment?
I had one teacher who is a familiar name to many jazz players, although not widely known outside musicians’ circles: Hal Galper. There were some methods of his teaching I didn’t quite agree with, including humiliation – not so much compared to JK Simmons’ character in “Whiplash” – but probably the most ruthless teacher I’ve had (you had to have thick skin to get by in his classes). That said, some of the information he conveyed was profound. The biggest for me was the importance of feeling a strong sense of rhythm in everything, including how you listen, how you play, and how you listen while playing. If you are totally honest with yourself and limit your playing to only notes and chords that are solidly in time – it can be very humbling and you’ll find you may not have nearly a much in your arsenal as you thought. But if you rebuild your playing in such a way so that a solid sense of time is always present, you will become a far deeper musician.
JGT: In the area of improvisation, do you have a different approach than perhaps ten years ago? Do you have a mantra in this area?
My approach is very different than it used to be. The method I described above, being honest about the time, playing only notes that are locked in, and accepting what comes out is a key component. What if I’m in a jam and only one more solidly comes out? Well..that’s what it is and it’s better to play one really solidly grooving, good-sounding note than an attempt at many notes that don’t say anything. Now of course that’s an extreme example, I can always play more than one note, but being ok with just a note or a few notes is important and sets a template of humility which opens up the possibility of more complex ideas played well. I try to have the same feeling melodically as rhythmically. Am I truly “hearing” the note or phrase? If you’re not happy with what you’re hearing, then you can address that in your practice but you should stick to what’s in your head. The now late, great Chick Corea said, “Only play what you hear.” Amazing advice.
JGT: Please tell Jazz Guitar Today a few of the 2021-2022 activities we can expect from the Alex Skolnick Trio?
We have a video single coming in the Fall. It’s a bit different for us, more of a fun tune. It’s actually a blues where I sing and the lyrics are quite funny, if I may say. We also have a show on Sept 29 at The Iridium, shortly after they open up again. We’re also writing lots of new songs and planning to go into the studio in 2022 for a new release.
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