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JGT Interview With Jazz Guitarist Charlie Apicella



JGT contributor Joe Barth talks to Charlie Apicella about his approach to playing and his new record, Destiny Calling.

A busy man around the New York scene is guitarist Charlie Apicella.  Charlie studied composition and improvisation with saxophonist Yusef Lateef and music history with fellow saxophonist Archie Shepp.  In 2014 he studied guitar with Pat Martino. Charlie and his group, Iron City, just released a new album Destiny Calling.” I talked with Charlie about his approach to playing and the new record.

Charlie Apicella

JB:  Did you grow up in New York City and what inspired you to play jazz guitar?

CA:  I’m from upstate New York and I’ve been in Brooklyn for 13 years.  I did not start listening seriously or playing guitar until college. When I heard Wes Montgomery and Charlie Parker I immediately gravitated to that tradition. I could tell it would be a lifelong endeavor to practice jazz and that long road is what attracted me.

JB:  Early on you immersed yourself in the music of Jimi Hendrix and later in 2014 Pat Martino invited you to study with him. Talk about the impact of each upon you.

CA:  Both are legendary musical storytellers. I hear the same ability to deliver a great story through the guitar.  Jimi is having an impact on my life at this very moment. Juma and I are playing Blue Note in New York City with a band we call Hard Bop Meets Woodstock.

Charlie Apicella & Juma Sultan, One Rainey Wish:

My dad’s older brother and a couple of his cousins were at Woodstock so it’s always fascinated me. My love of Jimi guides what I do in music and in many aspects of life. It was his collaboration with Juma Sultan that mesmerized me and I feel Juma has been a Griot for me since the beginning.  I’ve worked hard to not have even a shred of rock guitar sensibility in my sound.  While I love Jimi, I’ve never attempted his solos and I only know one of his tunes. I tried to learn in the same way he did by mastering the blues and the Chitlin Circuit, the oral tradition side of things. It is the same tradition Pat Martino came up in, as they were both sidemen with R&B bands in the early 1960s.

Pat told me many stories about that period of his life during my lessons. He encouraged my pursuing a modern-day Chitlin Circuit style career path with my band Iron City.  In addition to my guitar lessons, Pat gave me great career advice and even made some phone calls for me. He put in a good word with some booking agents and with TrueFire, which is how I was able to start my guitar school, Charlie Apicella’s Solid Guitar.

It was a tremendous honor to be invited to perform at his Celebration of Life festival back in November in Somers Point, NJ. I was the youngest guitarist on the roster.

JB:  Then what did saxophonist Yusef Lateef inform you of that the guitarists didn’t?

CA:  Yusef Lateef was my first music teacher. I had barely started playing guitar when I entered college.  He was a fascinating person to be around and had an open heart and personality. He was a gifted teacher and had a way of imparting a love of nature and other interests in his life and directing that energy into his performing in composing.  The suggestions and instructions he gave in my private lessons and in the classroom were more than I was able to appreciate at the time, but luckily, I have a good memory and took detailed notes!  Only within the last couple of years have the lessons I learned from him started to come to make sense.  I was honored to be invited to perform in a video for his 100th birthday celebration at the University of Massachusetts in 2019.

JB:  Tell us about your meeting in 1999 with the great B.B. King.

CA:  B.B. King was the first concert I ever attended, my dad and uncle surprised me with front-row seats. A couple of years later I got to meet him when he performed at the University of Massachusetts. He had some great advice for me as a guitarist and I witnessed his incredible character and inviting personality, as he spent a nice moment with every fan who wanted to meet him. I was so impressed by how organized his team was and the overall production of a B.B. King concert. I saw that band perform three times in the span of about five years and I feel it was the best band of his entire career.

As much as I love Jimi Hendrix and B.B. King I never attempted to learn their solos. The guitar I play is a nice big archtop directly into my amp. The only pedal I own is a delay/reverb.  When B.B. passed I transcribed several of his pre-1960s tunes focusing on the three-part horn arrangements and playing his vocal parts as the head on guitar. That became my fourth record, Payin’ the Cost to be the Boss.

Payin’ the Cost to Be the Boss by Charlie Apicella & Iron City.

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

CA:  Barry Galbraith Comping (Jamey Aebersold method book).

I love the 1950s guitarists and Barry’s playing and teaching materials are the best out there. I often listen to the CD which accompanies his guitar comping book. It is the most direct, pure illustration of what the guitar is capable of as Barry plays a duo with bassist Milt Hinton. His ideas are wonderful and the voice leading and rhythmic variations are so exciting.

Next is Idle Moments by Grant Green.  I heard this on the radio right when I was starting out and was immediately drawn into Grant’s playing. I have transcribed close to 50 of his solos, tunes, and any small cells that catch my ear. I have often been compared to him in my approach and I always take that as a compliment!

Third is The Maker by Pat Martino.  This is a mid-1990s record of Pat’s which has a mysterious, often avant-garde atmosphere. He was the master of writing tunes to frame his improvisation style.

JB:  Tell us about the groups Iron City and The Griots Speak.

CA:  My work with The Griots Speak is an opportunity to experiment with the advanced concepts I was first exposed to through Yusef Lateef. Specifically, how improvisation is a compositional element, and can be written into the form of a tune. Collective improvisation is not “instead” of writing, it is framed through different techniques, such as composing short sketches which act as catalysts over the course of a long improvisation.

My vision for Iron City has always been to be the ‘baddest,’ most grooving, and muscular rhythm section in New York City. I love playing with these masters and the strength of an organ trio is that we work as a complete unit or as a band for hire.  We have been on the roster at Blue Note for six years and have been one of the house bands at Arthur’s Tavern since the club’s reopening in May 2022.

JB:  Tell us about your goals in making your new album Destiny Calling.

CA:  As a member of the Griots Speak I have the opportunity to reinvent myself as a percussionist. I enjoy the limited range of each of my selected instruments, which is a dramatic contrast to the many notes, timbres, textures, and dynamic ranges offered on the guitar.  I’m able to compose in the midst of our collective improvisation performances with a small drum or bell, which I can use to direct the performance in a certain direction.

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

CA:  I am committed to passing on a message through music and I have remained organized and focused in handling business. I worked at a bank for 10 years before coming to New York City and that has helped in all aspects of keeping my business alive.

I started Blues Alive which brings the masters into New York City schools.

I branched out in college and earned degrees in African American Studies and Arts Administration. I have a minor in art history in which I studied Chinese calligraphy. It helps me in my composition and record-producing skills because I learned how to balance compositional elements and work quickly to gain a certain momentum in a project.

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