In this exclusive Jazz Guitar Today interview, contributor Joe Barth talks to a jazz guitarist that relocated to Sweden, Andy Fite.
Andy Fite grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania studying guitar with Joe Negri (Handyman Negri) of the Mr. Rogers children’s TV show. Moving and making music in New York City he met his Swedish wife and they eventually relocated to Stockholm, Sweden. Andy maintains an active performing and teaching schedule in Stockholm. I met Andy in Stockholm for this interview.
JB: I know that you grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and started playing guitar there. What was most helpful for you in your personal development as a guitarist?
AF: One thing was simply to work as hard as I could to master the guitar thoroughly. I played all the major and minor scales in all positions, along all the single strings, and also developed my own fingering to cover the whole neck in one smooth motion.
I found a way to organize every combination of intervals, then played scales in two, three, and four voices in these combinations, giving me thousands of chords, some familiar but many definitely not. I also used that system with single notes, creating thousands of melodic patterns. After years of this, I began to introduce chromatic neighbors and their resolutions into these systems, which has given me more and more clarity, flexibility, and harmonic complexity. Thanks to the advice of my teacher of ten years Connie Crothers, the New York pianist who was Lennie Tristano’s favorite student, I made it a point always to play these things not as dry exercises but really as music, with a solid sound and a singing feeling. The idea that you should never “practice” but always Play, even when it’s just a scale, is crucially important in my opinion. When you bring genuine feeling to some technical or intellectual work, it is then that the given information can integrate with your feeling and thus be available, most often transformed, when you play spontaneously.
To connect with the sound and vibration of a single note and to let it merge with your own life energy, is the key to a personal sound. I gave, and still give, a lot of attention to that.
To learn solos by singing with the recordings, and not play them till I could sing them without the record, was a major bit. That as I understand it was Lennie Tristano’s big breakthrough in his teaching. Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Charlie Christian, Billie Holiday, Warne Marsh, and Lennie were probably the most important for me.
Last, for this brief summary at least, was to stop playing on the chords and to focus instead on learning, internalizing, and then loosening up from the melody. A well-constructed melody will give you a good 80% of what you need to play coherently on the changes, and most likely open up greater harmonic complexity than the old chord-scale routine.
JB: What are a couple of the most influential jazz guitarists to you and why?
AF: Charlie Christian, especially the jam session recording from Minton’s Playhouse. I love his intensity and energy. Every note he plays has such a solid core. And his line is awesome. As is his time feeling.
George Van Eps for his chord playing! A standout track is his “Once in a While” from 1949. It’s startling to realize it’s just one guitar being played. His approach to chord playing, it seems to me, is more linear than vertical, and this conveys something that very few guitarists get anywhere near.
Joe Pass’ Sounds of Synanon was a breakthrough for me. I heard it when I was 16 and it was the first time I found jazz guitar exciting. Before that it was all rock for me; the jazz guys always sounded a little prissy to me, sterile even.
Jimmy Raney was important to me for a while, and he helped me love the guitar, but maybe I imitated him too closely for too long. As with Chet Baker’s singing, which I also tried to imitate, it’s a little uncomfortable now for me to hear it. I know too well maybe what it feels like.
In the end, it isn’t mainly guitar players for me. Warne Marsh, Charlie Parker, Lester Young, Lennie Tristano, and Clifford Brown do more for me than the guitarists, the great exception being Charlie Christian, who I never get tired of.
JB: You were born in California, grew up in Pittsburgh, lived in New York for ten years, and then moved to Stockholm. What brought you here?
AF: In New York, I met a Swedish lady, a very fine pianist by the name of Boel Dirke, and I married her. After a couple of years of coping with the stress of New York, she had to get out of there, and I followed her here. Now, there are many things I love about living in Sweden.
JB: What do you find rewarding in your career today as a guitarist in Stockholm?
AF: Maybe I’d rather say Life than Career. My career’s been ok, I can live without struggling much. I am not out on the big stages as often as I’d wish but I get around some, and it’s gradually getting better. I specialize in duos, especially with singers. I have a bunch of good friends who can really sing, and a fair number now who can also handle the material I write, which is a bit on the complex side. I’m crazy for counterpoint (if you look on the streaming sites I’ve got 5 Bach albums), and I’ve written a bunch of conversational duets for a boy and a girl. I love playing solo guitar and I love accompanying and am pretty good at it, which enables an intimacy that I deeply enjoy. There are a couple of albums with an Estonian singer Helin-Mari Arder that I’m very proud of, and one, and another coming up, with a great Swedish singer Amanda Ginsburg. The singers in NYC never seemed to want me to sing with them. They wanted that role to themselves. The attitude of the ladies I’ve known here was a huge lift for me. Because I do sing seriously and love it.
JB: Tell us about one of your CD albums
AF: My son, Niklas, and I recorded an album together called Picksburgh. Niklas and I play duo with a great rhythm section, Mauritz Agnas on bass and Sebastian Voegler on drums. I love the contrapuntal textures between us in our playing. He’s got a sensational ear, is spontaneous and intuitive, and he swings his ass off. We are both represented as composers on that album.
JB: Tell us about the guitar that you use.
AF: I have two great ones. The one I take out is a 1950 Epiphone Broadway, magnificent, loud enough to swing a big band unamplified, warm, and extremely easy to play. Niklas recently called my attention to the wedding scene in the Deer Hunter, where a band is playing, and the guitarist is playing what looks to be this guitar, down to every detail. That movie was shot in Pittsburgh in 1978, and I bought the guitar from a guy who found it at a flea market in 1985. I strongly suspect my great Epiphone was once an extra in a big Hollywood movie!
I’ve also have a 1950 D’Angelico Excel, bought three years ago in New York. This one I’m keeping this in its original state as a purely acoustic guitar, and I’m doing most of my recording on it. It is a dream to play and to hear.
JB: What would you say if you could speak to an 18-year-old guitarist who has some facility on the instrument as well as aspirations of a career as a jazz guitarist?
AF: Again, Career, I don’t know. Life? Yes, yes, yes. Play what you want, whenever you want. Play with feeling. Do it for the pleasure of it. Be curious. Keep reaching. Learn everything you can, or at least everything that intrigues you. Survive as best you can. If you have to work days at something else, see if you can find a way to get that down to three days a week, so you’re working to live, instead of living to work. Best of all, unless you’re lucky enough to make a living playing what you love to play, is to teach. It’s a human connection and it amplifies your empathy, as well as constantly making you look more clearly at your own playing and process. It definitely beats playing music that doesn’t interest you, which I would advise people to avoid at all costs. There’s too much meaningless noise in this world as it is.
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