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Eighteen-Year-Old Jazz Guitarist Henry Acker Talks To JGT



Eighteen-year-old Henry Acker talks to Jazz Guitar Today about what inspires him to be a jazz guitarist.

Eighteen-year-old jazz guitar phenom Henry Acker was recently awarded the DownBeat magazine student award for High School Honors Jazz Soloist  – Guitar.   The DownBeat awards are given to top student performers in the U.S. and Canada annually and are now in their 45th year. Henry performed the Duke Ellington classic “Caravan” as a blazing gypsy jazz arrangement. This is Henry’s fifth award from DownBeat in as many years. Henry is a long-time student of guitarist extraordinaire Frank Vignola. Along with performing with his own trio which includes his father Victor Acker and uncle Dana Acker, Henry has shared the stage with Bucky Pizzarelli, Frank Vignola, Julian Lage, Vic Juris, and many others.

“Henry Acker stands out as one of the very special younger generation players.” – Frank Vignola.
Photo credit Ann Marie Acker 

JGT: When Frank Vignola introduced you to the world at 14, how did that affect you?

Henry: By the time I was 14, things were already starting to happen. I was getting calls from everywhere and playing some cool festivals. A lot of that had to do with Frank bringing me up on stage at a bunch of venues early on.  One day Frank sent me an email and said “Let’s do a CD!” Well yeah! My Dad and I put together a list of tunes and flew down to a studio in New Jersey. Nicki Parrot played bass, Frank, my father and I played guitars. It was a 5-hour session in a gigantic summer thunderstorm.  Every tune was a first or second take. Charlie Parker’s “Segment”,  Cole Porter’s “Night and Day”, and Duke’s “Caravan”, it was a nice setlist. The day went very well. We put it out shortly after and it did very well. We called it “14”.  It made many people aware of my playing and I can’t thank Frank enough for producing the project. It definitely elevated my presence to a new level. That CD is still selling like crazy after shows, 4 years later. Something I am very proud of.  I am ready to do another.

JGT: Are you playing exclusively on an archtop?

Henry: Not exclusively. It depends on the gig situation.  It makes more sense in a Birdland situation to play with my Gibson ES 175.  I am currently a member of Jason Anick’s Rhythm Future Quartet. I took over Olli Soikkeli’s chair. Being that a lot of what we play is Django Style Jazz I generally play an acoustic Selmer Maccaferri-style guitar. Those are really what I was brought up on.  I have an AJL 503 XO made in Finland, a Stringphonic made in Japan, and a Thijs van der Harst from The Netherlands. Because these types of guitars are so sensitive to the weather, I pick the one in the best shape on the day of the gig and it is different every time. I want to play more archtop and am hoping to find something that really feels good and grabs my ear. 

JGT: What music/musicians have influenced you and continue to inspire you?

Henry: I got exposed to the European guys early on. Bireli Lagrene just knocked me out. Both his Gypsy projects and his straight-ahead stuff are jaw-dropping. He is so inventive and playful and technically brilliant. Stochelo Rosenberg, Angelo Debarre, Adrien Moignard, Benoit Convert from Les Doigts de l’homme, and Jesse Van Ruller from The Netherlands is completely underrated and overlooked over here. His sense of harmony is completely his own and I would recommend people check him out as he will blow your mind.

JGT: What’s your dream gig?

Henry: Funny, I have played a lot of dream gigs already.  I opened up for my hero Bireli Lagrene, I have played The Blue Note, Birdland, The big Django Fest in Samois, France and played with Julian Lage and Bucky Pizzarelli, Vic Juris and played with a lot of Django Jazz royalty. To be honest, when I’m on stage with a bunch of really great players and it is really swinging, it is always a dream gig. To be in the moment while I am soloing and learning from other players while they solo. It all seems like a big dream.

JGT: Your technique is excellent… what are you doing to connect your heart and soul to the music?

Henry: When I begin to dive into a tune, I want to get inside it and find everything beautiful about it. When you find the perfect little melody to play over the changes during the solo, that is the best.  Sometimes, you find the perfect unexpected quote to toss in that no one is expecting and that can be magic. How can you not just float away playing a Mancini tune or Bacharach or Jobim? That music plays you. I have been writing some of my own songs and they run the gamut from pretty melodies to playfully intricate quick tunes. I really love it all and I love to make the audience happy.

Rhythm Future Quartet L to R (Jason Anick, Greg Loughman, Henry, Max O’Rourke) – photo credit Brad Brose

JGT: What are the three top reasons you want to be a successful guitarist?

Henry: I can not imagine doing anything else for one. I’ll be touring all over the country with the Rhythm Future Quartet this year. Nothing makes me happier.  I won my fifth DownBeat magazine student award. I love performing, I love the travel and meeting amazing people. I love the hang after the shows. Just the connection with other players live on stage in the moment.  I have no desire to sit in an office somewhere.  Now is the time, while I’m young, to build up my presence and make this a viable career choice and enjoy the adventure as it unfolds!

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