Guitarist Ken Hatfield has just released an album of duets with vocalist Eric Hoffman, “Stirring Still”. Joe Barth interview.
Ken Hatfield grew up in Norfolk, Virginia and went on to study at Berklee College of Music, where he was invited to teach at age nineteen then later completed his bachelor’s degree at the State University of New York. His voice is in fingerstyle jazz, Brazilian, and Appalachian music on a nylon string guitar. Ken has eleven albums out under his name and has just released an album of duets with vocalist Eric Hoffman. We talked about this album as well as his approach to the guitar.
JB: What do you find most rewarding about playing fingerstyle jazz guitar, as opposed to plectrum electric jazz guitar?
KH: I prefer the sound, which is obviously different. The sonic and musical options are more varied, especially with nylon string/classical guitars, which are the original “fingerstyle” guitars. There are also additional rewards such as playing polyphonically. When you play chord melody you have more control over the dynamics, the shading, and how you separate the parts/voices. You can emphasize the melody over or under a chord voicing accompanying the melody, or you can place the melody in different voices (i.e., soprano, alto, tenor, or bass) and still have it be audible in ways that I have not heard anyone do with a pick. You can play voicings that are impractical with a pick… though possible with a pick and fingers. You can play contrapuntally. And since no two people have the same fingers, when playing fingerstyle you produce the sound with the fingers of both hands, so no two players ever sound sonically the same.
JB: What was most helpful in your personal development as a guitarist?
KH: The study of composition and arranging. Once I began to focus on those elements of music, it led me to play more nylon string, because the expanded options that the instrument presents better accommodate things like counterpoint and voice leading. All of that led me to rethink my approach and stop overplaying. That realization was one of those “the unexamined life is not worth living” moments… to quote Socrates.
JB: To you, what are three of the most influential jazz guitar albums and why?
KH: There are so many, but limiting it to three that influenced me leaves me with:
(1) Smoking at the Half Note (Wes Montgomery with the Wynton Kelly Trio). This record changed everything for me. Hearing it for the first time was like a road to Damascus experience. Wes’s feel and the various ways he swung, plus his clear conception of what he wanted to say and how successful he was at communicating it, gave me a model to emulate.
(2) The Bridge (Sonny Rollins with Jim Hall and Bob Cranshaw). Jim Hall’s playing on this recording exemplifies how to play guitar in a piano-less quartet. His comping and his soloing are just perfect for this context. Keeping up with Sonny is a major challenge for any guitarist. Jim was the first cat to establish the dual role of accompanist and solo foil so successfully in a piano-less quartet that all those who followed had to check him out. Plus, the added bonus of Bob Cranshaw ensured the swing would be as sublime as it is.
(3) Trios/Solos (Ralph Towner with Glenn Moore). This is really the first time I heard anyone play the guitar as if the music came before the instrument. It was the first time I heard anyone play the guitar in an improvisational context polyphonically. And Ralph’s tunes are so original. I still remember how I was mesmerized the first time I heard “Raven’s Wood”.
JB: Talk about two influential guitar and voice duet albums.
KH: Well, any of the duo records Ella Fitzgerald and Joe Pass recorded fit the bill. They were not only already legends when they recorded these albums, but they were clearly musical kindred spirits who enjoyed working together. That is a combination that is hard to beat. I suppose I’d choose Easy Living, though Take Love Easy is a close runner-up. Their version of “My Ship” (from Easy Living) is a classic!
I’d be remiss if I failed to mention João Gilberto. Though not really a duo recording since João accompanied himself, I’m particularly fond of one of João’s late recordings produced by Caetano Veloso. It is called João Gilberto, and it contains my all-time favorite version of Caetano’s classic “Coração Vagabundo”… just voice and acoustic nylon string guitar.
JB: Tell us about your goals in making your new duet album Stirrings Still with vocalist Eric Hoffman.
KH: The project just kind of evolved as a diversion during the pandemic. The only guiding principles were: (1) make sure it worked musically and felt complete as a live duo with no overdubs, and (2) express what we felt about what was happening during the lockdown, reflecting on our lives in the process.
Prior to the Covid outbreak, which hit NYC hard, Eric and I had been doing a very nice gig playing live in the apartment of a man named Jeremy who is quadriplegic due to a massive stroke. His mother, the author/novelist/poet Annette Berkovits, contacted Eric and me about playing music for Jeremy because the music was one thing he could and did still really enjoy.
We did so a couple of times a month for a few years. We grew to really love this family. We looked forward to the gigs because Jeremy is an incredible audience. His attentive listening is palpable. His energy feeds ours. So, we valued this gig. Then the pandemic hit, and the gig ended.
One day as we packed up at the end of the gig, Jeremy said he had the beginnings of some lyrics for a song he hoped to write with us. He spoke the first line, and I heard a melody and about half of a chord progression that fit his lyrics. That gave us most of the A section for a standard kind of AABA song form. When we ran into problems collectively creating a bridge, I wrote the melody and the chords for one. But we still needed lyrics for the bridge. Jeremy’s mother, Annette (who is after all a poet), came to our rescue. I fine-tuned everything and we all dug the results. That’s how the song “The Time I Spend with You” came into existence.
When we could no longer play for Jeremy due to the pandemic, Annette asked us to record the song we all wrote with Jeremy. We did, and we also recorded my song “Juniper Street” on the same date. We liked the results.
Eric and I needed a creative outlet during the pandemic, so we decided to continue the process and recorded some more. When we got the eleven tracks on Stirrings Still, we decided to release it. It’s available in vinyl, CD, and digital download and streaming on most major platforms.
Listen to Ken and Eric perform “Answer Me, My Love” from their new album Stirring Still…
JB: Talk about the guitar you play.
KH: I actually played three different spruce-top nylon string guitars on Stirrings Still. As I wrote the arrangements and Eric and I rehearsed them, I found that certain instruments fit what I was trying to accomplish better than others. I played a 1991 Thomas Humphrey Millennium on: “Juniper Street”, “Answer Me, My Love”, “The Time I Spend with You”, “Lonely Nocturne” and “See You Tomorrow” (“À Demain”). I played a 2004 John Price (which I’m holding in the pictures on the album) on: “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most”, “Any Place I Hang My Hat Is Home”, “Down Here on the Ground”, “You Can Never Hold Back Spring” and “Stirrings Still”. And I played a 1994 Sergio Abreu on: “Most Every Day”. They are all great guitars, each unique yet still outstanding in its own way.
JB: Tell us about how you amplify your guitar in performance.
KH: It varies depending on the circumstances of the gig.
The pickups for nylon strings are improving, but they all still present serious problems, most of which are exacerbated by things like if you even use an amp, or play through a P.A., where you place your amp, if you use the amp for the audience or just as a monitor for yourself, if you mic the amp or go direct from the amp or D.I. to a house P.A. or both. My setups are perpetually evolving.
JB: With such a mass of talent coming out of the music colleges each year, what’s the best piece of advice you’d give these guitarists for building an international career?
KH: If they went to music college, they’ve heard all the musical advice about learning a thousand tunes, being able to play them in all 12 keys, playing in tune and in time, listening intently to what’s happening around you before responding, being open to change but mastering the traditions… especially the blues and swinging. But as unsexy as it is, they need to understand the business, too. Make no mistake, music is a business, so acknowledging that and acting accordingly is fundamental to building a career in music.
I encourage all aspiring musicians to stop giving their music away for free and to stand up for better remuneration rates. Musicians must educate themselves about the business of music. No one can afford the luxury of ignorance about a business they want a career in.
We do this thing called music for the love of it. When others profit from our work, we deserve a fair share of the revenue our work generates. The music business is broken. It’s the least fair it’s ever been. It won’t fix itself. It falls to the next generation to fix it. They’re next up in the ongoing fight for artists’ rights.
My advice to all those who want a career in music is: educate yourself about the business, learn about it the same way you learn about your instrument, get involved, and align yourself with artist rights groups advocating for change to the status quo. United we can improve things and create an equitable, sustainable music ecosystem, one in which ALL participants profit fairly.
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