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Introducing A Young Spanish Jazz Guitarist, Russ Hewitt



JGT contributor Joe Barth talks to Spanish jazz guitarist Russ Hewitt about his new album, Chasing Horizons.

The heart of jazz is improvised music. Improvised music from Spain has always included the flamenco style that accompanied dancing. Guitarists like Laurindo Almeida and Charlie Byrd were masters at combining the jazz, classical, and flamenco approach to playing.  On December 5, 1980, Al DiMeola, John McLaughlin, and Paco de Lucia came together at the Warfield Theater in San Francisco to record what many critics consider one of the greatest acoustic guitar albums of all time. Paco de Lucia and his fiery flamenco improvising was an important element to the synergism of that evening.  Guitarist Russ Hewitt comes from the tradition of Paco de Lucia. Russ keeps busy as a performer and has just released a new album Chasing Horizons.

JB:  How old were you when you started to play guitar and was it flamenco or popular music that first captivated you?

RH:  I got my first guitar at the age of 11 because my older brother also played guitar. It was also about the time my friends were starting to play as well, so we all sat around and jammed. It wasn’t until my brother quit the guitar and sold me his good equipment that I took it seriously and started practicing. Then I went to the University of North Texas and got a degree in classical guitar performance. After college, I discovered gypsy jazz and flamenco, which included traditional flamenco, nuevo flamenco, and flamenco jazz. 

JB:  To you, what are three of the most influential guitar albums and why? 

RH:  1) Ozzy Osbourne‘s Blizzard of Ozz’ (1981) – The first album I ever purchased with my own money. The songs were great, the guitar playing and solos from Randy Rhoads were a melody unto themselves. I learned from that recording that a memorable solo with something to say is as important as the song itself. 

2) John Williams ‘Bach: The Four Lute Suites Great Performances’ (1986) – John’s tone, phrasing, articulation, and dynamics brought to life the notes on the page. This recording helped me make the decision to study classical guitar. Also being a fan of the neoclassical movement that was happening at the time, led by Yngwie Malmsteen, the chord progressions and modulations were exciting to me. 

3) Strunz and Farah ‘Live’ (1997) – This recording changed how I viewed what was possible with the nylon string guitar. They took the fiery playing from ‘Friday Night in San Francisco‘ (1981 live album by Al Di Meola, John McLaughlin, and Paco de Lucía) and the song and melody sense of ‘Nouveau Flamenco’ (Ottmar Liebert’s groundbreaking 1990 debut) and combined it into listener accessible music that was genius. Add in their use of exotic scales and rhythms, it was a combination hard to beat. 

Russ Hewitt on stage

JB:  You hold high the flamenco tradition yet visualize it in the world of popular music.  Tell us about your goals in making your new CD album, “Chasing Horizons”?

RH:  Yes, I write my songs in the pop/rock music form; Intro, verse, pre-chorus, chorus, bridge, and solo. All kinds of variations from that are being used, but I think that type of structure works best with what I do. My goal with “Chasing Horizons” was to try and be everything to everybody, ha! What I mean by that is first, I wanted to appeal to the casual listener. A recording that could be played hanging out outside, relaxing inside, at a dinner party, etc. Something that a wife, girlfriend, parents, or strangers could enjoy without knowing much about me or my music. Next, I wanted to appeal to musicians. The backing band has top-notch players with years of experience in what to play and how to play it. A true masterclass on where to place the note or groove, how not to overplay and how to leave space for the other instruments. The drums and bass are killing it, and the percussionists lock right in with them. And finally, to appeal to guitarists. With the extensive guest artists that I have, each bringing something different, it should be a wide enough variety to keep things interesting.  I didn’t want a whole album of 32nd notes, but I didn’t want to bore you either. 

JB:  Tell us about the Godin guitar and what amp you use.

RH:  I play the Grand Concert Duet Ambiance Multiac. It features a 2″ neck like a classical guitar. I’ve tried and have gone through dozens of nylon string guitars, but you just can’t beat a Godin guitar for the stage. I’ve found it hard to get a good balance of volume and output between the treble and bass strings, but their pickup/mic combo inside the guitar works perfectly for me. Particularly in most of my playing situations where I have drums, bass, percussion, rhythm guitar, and violin, I need to be loud in the monitors for everybody – I needed a guitar that could handle that and not feedback as well. I’ve done some modifications to the guitar to adjust it to my playing style. 

I don’t use an amp per se, I use the Radial Engineering Tonebone PZ-Pre Acoustic Direct Box Preamp and do a line out to the house and another to a speaker. 

JB:  Practice and listening aside, can you pinpoint one or two ‘things’ that really boosted your profile and career toward where it is today?

RH:  The old saying, “Say yes and you’ll figure it out afterward,” held true for me. Persian singers coming to town and need a guitar player? Guitarist from India that plays songs in 18/8 needs a second guitarist? Say yes to it all and being willing to go way out of your comfort zone would be my first advice. The best example of this for myself is having a film and TV director ask if I wanted to do the soundtrack to his new web series. Of course, I said yes and then proceeded to purchase the ProTools software, good monitors, a keyboard, and Native Instruments. I figured it out and had songs to him in three months, I’ve been his go-to guy ever since. The second is more of an epiphany that I had. At one point I had a crazy practice schedule; I was working on bluegrass, country, jazz, flamenco jazz, traditional flamenco, classical guitar repertoire and technique, blues – so basically everything. Ha! Although I’m still an advocate to learn everything you can, at some point I asked myself, “What’s the end goal here?’ It was then that I started working on original songs and applying what I’ve learned. That was the advice Al Di Meola gave Paco de Lucía, changing him from a traditional Flamenco guitarist to an all-time great.

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