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Exclusive Interview With Master Session Guitarist, Michael Anthony



JGT contributor Joe Barth talks to one of the jazz guitar masters and first-call session players of the 1960s and ’70s, Michael Anthony.

Not to be confused with the bass player of Van Halen with the same name, Michael was born in New York and moved with his family to Los Angeles.  As a jazz artist, Michael has worked with a “who’s-who” like Miles Davis, Ray Brown, Quincy Jones, and others, and as a studio guitarist has performed on the soundtracks of “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”, to “The Flintstones” and others. 

JB:  When did you start to play guitar and what inspired you to take up jazz guitar? 

MA:  After picking out tunes for three years on the harmonica that my parents gave me for Christmas at eleven years old, we moved to California and I heard Les Paul, Andre Segovia, and Bo Diddley. I asked my parents if I could take up the guitar. My dad came home from work with a guitar and I started guitar lessons. This was 1955 and I was fourteen years old.

JB:  What was most helpful in your personal development as a guitarist?

MA:  The tenets that most perpetuated my development as a guitarist are still a part of me today. They are:  

(a) love of music 

(b) love of the guitar (when I see a guitar I still get excited and imagine playing runs and great music on it). I guess that’s an obsession. “How many guitars does a guitarist need? – Just one more”! 

(c) Self-motivation and being willing to be alone for hours, explore, and work hard (d) Courage to go all out for your dream no matter where it takes you. All of the arts are a journey of self-discovery!

JB:  Your mentors were Jimmy Wyble, Howard Roberts, Joe Pass, and Tommy Tedesco.  Tell us how each of those men impacted your playing.

Jimmy Wyble was my first teacher. He inspired me with his mastery, his guidance, and generosity.  Joe Pass’ first album Sounds of Synanon impressed me. Joe later took me under his wing by inviting me to his house after a recording session at MGM.  Tommy Tedesco began having me sub for him in the recording studios and guided me in mastering the required skills as a studio player.  Howard Roberts’ first album Mr. Roberts Plays Guitar blew me away!

He later took me on as a student giving me a clear scientific path to developing my playing. He then took me around with him and introduced me to the other guitarists, composers, and contractors and also had me sub for him which kick-started my career in the L.A. recording studios. Howard was my ‘true’ mentor!

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

In my humble opinion, the three most influential jazz guitar albums are The Poll Winners #1 by Barney Kessel, Boss Guitar by Wes Montgomery, and Virtuoso by Joe Pass.

Barney’s example of chord-melody mastery and swing in this guitar/bass/drums (no piano) recording is iconic!

Wes’ fire on “Besame Mucho” in 6/4 time and explosive energy on “Dearly Beloved” are off the charts. One can drop the figurative needle anywhere on any of his records and be inspired!

Joe Pass’ solo playing on Virtuoso and especially on “Cherokee” which he takes at quite a clip with ‘no’ rhythm section is unbelievable! He’s locked into a groove and never wavered.

JB:  Tell us one story of recording a TV or movie soundtrack from your Los Angeles days.

MA:  Tommy Tedesco and I did a TV Special at NBC (early 1970) for Burt Bacharach. It included a full orchestra and chorus and guests. Pete Matz was a close friend of Burt’s and was brought on to compose and conduct extra music for the show. Pete did the iconic arrangement of the huge hit “People” for Barbara Streisand! So, I was impressed to meet and get to play for him. A few months later I received a personal call from his contractor, Joe Soldo, and was asked to be the guitarist for “The Carol Burnett Show” which Pete was composing the music for! I was honored and for the last eight years of the show, I happily went to CBS, Studio 33, and played the show.

JB:  Tell us one story of recording an album for an artist from your Los Angeles days.

MA:  I was at RCA one day recording an album for Barbara Streisand (don’t recall which one), and the great Neal Hefti was the arranger/conductor.

At a certain point, my sheet music said I was to improvise two bars of blues and Barbara would scat sing and copy me through that chorus. In that session there were two guitars and… who was the other guitarist, but my mentor Howard Roberts!  No pressure!  I said to him that he should play the part. He said, “No way man, it’s on your music stand.”  So, I reluctantly played the part and Howard sat there like a proud papa. The whole band knew he was my mentor.

JB:  Which of your CDs best represents your playing?

Since I spent twenty years in the L.A. Recording Studios and I appreciate all styles of music, each of my CDs expresses a different aspect of the styles I developed through those years. Having said that, I’m going to say that my most recent CD Recollections with the First Take Trio, dedicated to my mentor Howard Roberts would be the one. Because it was ‘all’ first takes and not fixed or adjusted in any way. It’s totally honest and spontaneous.

JB:  Over your stellar career as a teacher, what are some traps that guitar players get themselves into? 

MA:  I’ll speak of my personal experience as I share what I think is a universal problem when those of us who begin playing by ear and exploration then take music courses in school. 

In the beginning, we don’t know any rules so we proceed with abandonment and joy. Suddenly, we learn a lot “no’s” and “don’ts” and our playing becomes cautious and stiff.  I have had students that don’t know any theory and their playing always sounds the same and never grows. Then I also have had students who do understand theory inside and out but can’t swing. 

We have to learn how to put things into perspective and use the rules to broaden our possibilities without losing our fire and sense of adventure.  It is a delicate balance that is achieved through awareness, thought, and experimentation!

JB:  Why did you leave Los Angeles in 1980?  What do you find rewarding in living and playing in New Mexico and your career now?

MA:  My wife Kathie and I met on the Carol Burnett Show in the 1970s. She was one of the Ernie Flatt Dancers and I was the guitarist in the Peter Matz Orchestra. The recording industry, as we knew it, has changed immensely. However, since that time many musicians have moved away. I was fortunate to be there during the ‘boom’!  But the handwriting was on the wall since the 1970s. 

Three reasons why Los Angeles studio work has slipped away:

1. the Moog Synthesizer and other electronic keyboards have come into existence copying the sounds of acoustic instruments, 

2. rock and pop groups who for a long time used studio musicians for the quality of their recordings now became self-contained. 

3. outsourcing had begun with London musicians doing non-Union sessions for a third less than L.A. musicians.

A business opportunity came up for Kathie and me – we took over her parent’s dance school as they wanted to retire. We eventually built our own studio and our ‘Brady Bunch’ happily grew up in Albuquerque, NM. Kathie runs the curriculum and teaches at the studio. I’ve been teaching at the University of New Mexico for over twenty years.  I have also recorded my ten CD albums and have written four Jazz Guitar Method books that have been published by Mel Bay here.  I have returned to L.A. occasionally for certain projects and in New Mexico here play some local gigs and concerts with fine musicians. Life here in New Mexico has been very nourishing!

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