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Committed To Pre-Electric Jazz Guitar, Matt Munisteri



JGT contributor Joe Barth catches up with guitarist Matt Munisteri to hear about his musical interests and more.

A Brooklyn boy who was playing bluegrass banjo before he was ten and never had formal musical training matures later to playing jazz guitar with some of New York’s finest musicians is Matt Munisteri.

JB:  You grew up playing bluegrass banjo, what motivated you to play jazz guitar?

MM:  I heard “Dueling Banjos”, which was a wild-card pop radio hit when I was in elementary school, and I started begging my parents for a banjo. They finally found a teacher and got me a banjo at the beginning of 5th grade. Truthfully, they’d tried hard to get me to just agree to play guitar because they were having no luck looking for a banjo teacher in Brooklyn, but I wasn’t interested: It seemed to me that everyone played the guitar! 

But I did start playing guitar when I was ten during the summer after 5th grade, because there was guitar instruction at a day camp I was attending, and there was no way out. It came very easily after playing banjo, but I wasn’t really interested in pursuing it seriously until probably 10th grade when I found myself suddenly burnt out on the sound of the banjo. The timbre, the volume, the constant stream of 8th notes…I needed a break from all of it. I guess you could blame it on the onset of teenage angst.

So that’s how I came to the guitar, but I wasn’t paying jazz – I was playing bluegrass, blues, country, funk, rock, soul – everything BUT jazz. I found myself listening to more and more jazz through high school and college, but still wasn’t playing jazz – at least not well – and I didn’t try to “play jazz” with anyone else until several years after college, after I’d stumbled around in the dark trying to learn some of the language. Most of that learning came from recordings, which, as you might remember, had to be bought (and thus saved for) or heard on the radio (Thank you WKCR and WBGO). I started trying to sit in at sessions after 4 years of working various relatively undemanding day jobs to pay the rent and using my mornings, evenings, and days off, to practice and teach myself, with varying degrees of success. So, to your question “What motivated you to play jazz guitar”, my motivation was almost certainly the same as everyone else who’s ever done it. I’d come to realize that I’d never be able to live with myself if I didn’t learn how to express myself within this music that I’d come to love. 

JB:  Talk about your experiences with The Flying Neutrinos, then moving on to your CD Love Story.

MM:  I thought “Jazz” meant Bird-Miles-‘Trane and then whatever you want to call the various “avant-gardes” of the ’70s and 80s, and by age thirty I was playing “Jazz” in bars and restaurants in New York City pretty regularly. Then a bass player friend told me about a band he’d been doing some gigs with – “it’s like New Orleans music, or blues. or country…I don’t know really what kind of music it is”. I basically said, “Get me on it”. My dirty little secret was that I’d been listening to earlier styles of jazz for years, and, even worse, had always had the heartbeat of a hard swinger – think Oscar Peterson trio – but I’d been exposed mostly to “the Downtown scene” of the 1980’s and was primarily playing with people who’d attended the Jazz Academies of the 1980’s and early ’90’s, so I was blinkered to the existence of a world where “Stella” and “Little Sunflower” weren’t on every set. I truly had no idea that there was a soul still alive who was playing any form of pre-1960 jazz. 

That band turned out to be this odd little group, The Flying Neutrinos. They were working a lot and starting to do dates out of town and attracting attention from labels etc, so I was able to quit my day job at the copy shop. I worked with them for about four years and happily was able to bring together all the elements of my playing into what felt like an honest, unified whole. I could play my versions of hard-swinging bebop, funky New Orleans rhythms, Travis fingerstyle, acoustic and searing electric blues, country-ish flat-picking – there was a place for all of it. I also became the main songwriter once we started doing original material, and I got a publishing deal. The band eventually made a record for MCA, produced by Tommy LiPuma and Al Schmidt, but due to some fantastically unwise “strategizing” the deal was shelved.

I quit the band after that, at the end of ’99, and started doing more gigs with my own band, Brock Mumford (I’ll leave you to your googling), which featured more of my own songs, along with the trumpet of Jon Kellso and accordion of Will Holshouser. That band had the lofty goal of reuniting improvisation and song, which I believed, then and now, to have been the magic formula in the creation and enduring popularity of “the standard”. I’d been primarily listening to song-based music – Randy Newman to The Beatles – forever, and I’d always sung, and lyrics were always very important to me. The record “Love Story” was the result. To make a long story short, things were getting going, but it was hard to keep a band together when everyone was already an in-demand NYC professional, and I was starting to get better and better calls as a guitar player, and I had bills to pay!

JB:  I know you are self-taught, so to you, what were the three most influential jazz guitar albums and why? 

MM:  OK, with the possibly-obvious-by-now disclaimer that “Jazz Guitar” has had a relatively small influence on me (only given that I am after all, a jazz guitarist) the jazz guitar records that had the biggest “sea change” influence on me are as 1)  the double LP reissue of Wes Montgomery from the early ’80’s that had both the original Full House recording and Moving Along (yeah, I know, maybe that’s cheating, but as a teenager I experienced them as one record!). This was given to me by a teacher in high school, who said “There’s really only one jazz guitarist worth listening to”. Those words struck me at the time as being impossible, and demonstrably untrue…and it’s been a maddening frustration in my life that whenever I return to Wes all I can think is “Yeah…this is pretty much the only way it should be done”. Damnit! ; 

2) Danny Gatton’s Redneck Jazz (really only for the cut “Rock Candy” with Buddy Emmons, which I listened to way too much, and which quite literally made me lay down my banjo and find myself a telecaster when I was 16); 

3) the George Barnes/Ruby Braff group accompanying Tony Bennett on the Rodgers and Hart Songbook

JB:  I love the version of “Have You Met Miss Jones?” on that recording. George Barnes has a short solo but so creative.

If I were allowed one more influential jazz guitar recording it would be Kelvin Bell’s and Vernon Reid’s playing on the first two Defunkt records (Kelvin on “Defunkt” and both on “Thermonuclear Sweat”). When I was in my teens and early twenties I would follow those guys around town to any gig, and I wore those two records out. This reminds me of something…as a child of New York City in the pre-internet, pre-cell phone age, a lot of my musical influences were taken in live. Money was always a problem, but a token and ten dollars could get you into a lot of trouble, and I don’t ever remember feeling I didn’t get my money’s worth. 

JB: Being a pastor who plays jazz guitar as a hobby, I’m curious about how your degree in Religious Studies at Brown University fits into your musical aspirations.

MM:  That’s an interesting question, and I wish I had a satisfyingly illuminating answer…unfortunately, I think I can only say: NOT AT ALL. My focus as a Religious Studies major was on Judeo-Christian texts – origins and interpretations – and I was neither a happy nor a particularly good student: I was dying to somehow finish college, so I could be done with school, and get out in the world to start doing something that mattered. I’m a second-generation American on my father’s side – the family who surrounded me in Brooklyn – and the firstborn, and I didn’t have the strength to NOT go to a “good” college when I got in. The only concept from my studies that had any meaningful resonance for me at that age was Soren Kierkegaarde’s idea of “the leap of faith” – I was struggling to summon enough faith in myself to leap into music!

JB:  I can’t ask about all your albums, but tell us about your goals in making the album Hell Among the Hedgehogs?

MM:  Whit Smith and I just wanted to have fun and celebrate a longtime friendship that revolved around our love of Swinging Jazz and The Hot Guitar tradition. We rehearsed and cobbled together arrangements for a day, then, while struggling to remember everything, cut loose, rolled tape, and made the whole record in around 4 hours. I think it holds up! 

JB:  What do you find so rewarding working with vocalists Catherine Russell and Kat Edmonson?

MM:  Much of my work for the past 15-plus years has been connected with Catherine – I’ve been her guitarist since shortly after she launched her solo career, and her music director for a lot of that time. Catherine is the pro’s pro: She’s a masterful musician and performer/communicator and those two qualities rarely align in the same person to the extent that she possesses. Plus, she always does her homework and is prepared, and we share many of the same varied (and perhaps unexpected) influences. I continue to learn so much about managing the confluence of Art and Entertainment and LIFE from her. You are ALWAYS safe when you’re on stage with Catherine Russell! 

Kat is a seriously gifted natural musician – her improvisations sound like compositions and vice versa. She’s also a throwback to an era of immaculate manners that it can be difficult to imagine ever existed: She’s respectful, considerate, upbeat, communicative, genuinely kind, and outgoing. Her whole scene is a great hang. 

JB:  You have performed and recorded a YouTube video with guitarist Frank Vignola.  Talk about Frank’s impact on your playing?

MM:  I met Frank one night in early ’99 when I was roped into sitting in on a gig of Claude “Fiddler” Williams that he was on. Claude egged us into trading chorus after chorus on some uptempo tune, and needless to say Frank cut me to ribbons by the end – and I enjoyed every moment of it! I worked some with Frank and Joe Ascione’s group in the early aughts, and we’ve continued to work with many of the same people in NYC for many years. We did several tours with Mark O’Connor’s Hot Swing – a group that regularly included two guitarists (Howard Alden, Julian, Frank, Stephane Wrembel, and even Bryan Sutton, and we’ve all been paired together in variation incarnations). It hadn’t occurred to me to think of him an influence per se, but Frank’s a complete master of melody, can play you the most achingly perfect version of any American Songbook standard, and has two of the very best hands in the business – and I’m sure I speak for anyone who’s ever picked up an acoustic guitar when I say that I’m jealous of that right hand! 

Watch Frank Vignola with Jimmy Bruno, Matt Munisteri and Roni Ben Hur…

JB:  Talk about what you find so rewarding playing in the music of American singer-songwriter Willard Robison.

MM:  Willard was playing and singing his original songs in the 1920s with daring arrangements that incorporated much of the cutting-edge jazz music and musicians of his day, many decades before there was such a thing as “The Singer-Songwriter”, but none of these recordings has ever been re-issued – not on LP, not on CD. He then went on to write hits and work with some of the biggest artists of his day. Yet still, he remains undeniably obscure. Why? Well, maybe it’s because the songs themselves had no place in their own time. 

Before I made my record of Willard’s compositions I had opened my 2002 CD “Love Story” with a song by Willard, and closed it with a song by Van Dyke Parks, and many years later I got to share this fact with Van Dyke after he reached out to discuss our mutual fandom of Willard. That was an unexpected and titillating moment of circuity. One of the fun aspects of playing this music is that I get to interact with all the history that’s implicit in any performance of a “standard”, while actually feeling like I’m more engaged in a sort of collaboration (as opposed to an interpretation) with the writer; the original material is unknown to my audience, and I can take things where I feel them going, instead of interpreting someone else’s interpretation for an audience that’s already bringing its own concept to the performance of the song. This blurs the line for the listener about what pieces of the whole are mine and what parts are nearly 100 years old. If someone ever releases all of Willard’s own original music, I’ll look forward to the critics sorting it all out, but until then I ain’t tellin’! Here’s a link to the full booklet of notes that came with the CD “Still Runnin’ Round In The Wilderness: The Lost Music of Willard Robison Volume I”. 

JB:  Reflect upon working with David Grisman at the Red-Hot Strings Workshop

MM:  Eight years ago I was asked to teach at a strings workshop that the Port Townsend WA arts organization Centrum was hosting, and that led to them reaching out to discuss my putting together a workshop, and Red Hot Strings was the result. We’ve held it 5 times – twice virtually. I created it with a “narrow focus” (!!) on acoustic string instrument traditions in the popular music of The Americas, 1900-1950…and somehow Centrum went for it! We’ve had instruction in guitar, tenor banjo, mandolin, fiddle, steel guitar, and bass, and we’ve had ensembles focused on western swing, hot jazz, Hawaiian music, Trinidadian calypso, and ragtime. Each year has been an incredible few days of music-making and sharing, and this year’s workshop will be May 15th-19th. 

I’d met David briefly up at Berklee, and he lives near the Centrum campus, so I was happy to reconnect with him in Port Townsend, and was thrilled when he agreed to be a guest for our next faculty concert – and he’s continued to come out and grace us with his Dawgish self on a few tunes each year. It should be no surprise that he was a HUGE influence on me and many of us on staff at the camp. That first DGQ album set my 12-year-old self on fire, and I actually got to see the original quintet with Tony Rice. His sound is shockingly undiminished, and his focus and total commitment when making music are truly ferocious. 

Touring has meant that I’ve only had time for a handful of occasional private students over the years, but teaching at workshops and designing curriculum for RHS has become a very satisfying part of my working life. About ten years ago I was approached by the fledgling online stringed instrument site Peghead Nation about creating a streaming class for subscription. I designed the lessons to teach the techniques and repertoire of the acoustic guitarists of the 1920s and 30s – an era of guitar playing that I think is essential but which I was not seeing represented in any jazz education. The class became their #1 subscribed guitar class, and last year we finally completed the recording of all the lessons of The Roots of Jazz Guitar. We’re now working on a Western Swing Guitar class. I’ve also taught master classes at Juilliard and Berklee’s Roots Music Dept, and last year I taught at Bryan Sutton’s amazing Blue Ridge Guitar Camp, and each experience has been incredibly inspiring and eye-opening for me. 

JB:  Talk about recording your new CD Live at the Ear Inn.

MM:  Jon Kellso and I began playing at The Ear Inn (a bar I first drank at when I was 16!) on Sunday nights 14 or 15 years ago and Jon soon came up with the name “The EarRegulars”. The band is a drum-less quartet with a two-horn frontline, squeezed into a tiny corner at the bar, with no microphones, and among its rotating personnel are unquestionably many of the most creative masters of collective improv in small group swing and hot jazz anywhere. So it’s become a fixture of sorts among musicians and fans of this style from all over the world.

Arbors Records was interested in making a live CD at The Ear – something Jon and I discussed for years – and we recorded it exactly a year ago. I asked my friend, the guitarist Chris Flory to guest on a couple of tunes. Chris was one of the first LIVING guitarists I heard playing 1930’s style jazz back in the 1990s, and he’s been one of my main subs when I’m unable to make the gig (others include Howard Alden, Joe Cohn, James Chirillo, and my former student, Josh Dunn). The CD came out in August and is doing really well – among our fans are some folks at NPR, and Jon and I wound up taping a full episode of “Fresh Air with Terry Gross” that has been aired TWICE since Thanksgiving! I imagine those broadcasts might have played some small part in my being world-famous now. 

JB:  Tell us about the guitars you play.

MM:  I’ve stuck with a pretty small number of instruments over the past 40 years (I used the 1948 L-7 that I inherited when I was 12 pretty exclusively until I was 35, and still own it) but I’ve also been horse-trading since I was in my twenties, so a lot of instruments have gone through my hands over the years. A LOT. There are probably 8 guitars that I have ready and in rotation for this and that – various recording sessions, touring – but I really only have 3 that are my bread-and-butter gigging instruments. 

My main acoustic for the past 23 years has been a 1930 L-5 (sold to me as a 1927, before Joe Spann found the Gibson shipping records) that was re-necked in 1934. This guitar has been discussed in various interviews etc, so I’m not gonna get into it, except to say that it’s fantastic. I also own a sibling of that guitar – another L-5 from the same batch with a serial number 7 digits away that strolled into my life when I wasn’t looking. It appears to have been reworked (neck carve etc) and refinished by D’Angelico in the late ”30s/early 40’s. It’s super friendly and sounds great, but its brother has the woof and loves every mic. 

My main electric for almost 20 years was a 1940 ES-150 – it’s a great guitar and I certainly didn’t anticipate finding a new traveling companion, but a 1957 L-5CES (a custom with a Charlie Christian at the neck and an Alnico V at the bridge) walked into my life in 2021, and it sort of turned everything upside down. It’s a killer, and it’s now my first choice when there are drums. Then almost a year ago a stunning blonde 1949 L-5 came across my transom, and it was a perfect match for a very old gold-plated rhythm chief that I had (in the late ’90s I heard about this new thing “Ebay” that was on “The Internet” and I was buying up old DeArmonds like crazy). It’s a super responsive and even guitar and its best qualities translate straight to the pickup (which isn’t often the case) so it is serious FUN to play. It moves a lot of air and has a silky spark to its treble strings, and it’s become my main guitar when there are no drums. 

Among the other at-the-ready crew for odd jobs are two Martin OMs from the ’30’s; a 1960 ES-330D with an old Bigsby; a Danocater tele, and a gold-top LP reissue. I also have a mess of other non-guitar fretted stringed ephemera hanging around the farm. 

JB:  What amp do you use?

MM:  I have a few old smaller amps for recording (a ’58 GA-20, and ’60 Skylark), but I’ve used a ’64 Princeton Reverb almost exclusively for my live gigs for at least 22 years. These days I sometimes bring a Swart AST Pro – it’s very detailed and truly luscious sounding in the studio, but I’ve often missed the blackface “hardness” in live situations. I also have a great ’64 Pro Reverb that I’ve used on some recordings and will bring when cartage is included! 

A little over a year ago I found a ’54 narrow panel Pro Amp (with its original 15″ Jensen) and that is really my favorite amp to use now, I used it for most of the Live at The Ear record (it’s the amp on all the tracks where the guitar sounds great!). It’s kind of replaced the Princeton for most situations nowadays. The weird way the mic channel volume interacts with the instrument channel makes it a great pairing for the ’57 CC L-5 – you can scoop out lows and mids and really tune the room – and I’ve recently found a way to use it with the ’49 L-5 (the trick is to use the mic channel). 

JB:  With so many wonderful guitarists in New York City, talk about how you carve out your place and make a living there.

MM:  Well hopefully some of the voluminous content above has already answered this a little! The short answer is that most of my income hasn’t come from playing gigs in New York City for probably 17 years – the concerts on the road are what pays the bills. The longer answer is that I believe I started getting calls not because I was playing ideas that sounded like math (even if they were); I was getting calls because I made things feel good. I was trying to live the musician’s Hippocratic oath – “Above all, do no harm”. So in that way, I started getting to work with lots of people who were much better than I was, and that led to my becoming a much better all-around player. 

Learn to accompany, and learn to play a wide variety of rhythm styles. I think any properly trained monkey oughta be able to play good swing rhythm guitar, so I don’t understand why the jazz schools aren’t foisting a couple of hundred new graduates in NYC every year who are already killer rhythm players, who know lots of tunes, have their sound and touch together and make every situation feel good. Could it be because they don’t want them to make all that phat rhythm guitar money and be able to pay off their loans?  Do they WANT them to noodle around endlessly at a too-loud volume, playing music from the era when jazz and popular music (ie; jazz and an audience) parted company – until maybe it seems like it’s a good idea to go back for another degree? If NYC were flush with great rhythm guitarists, I’d welcome them taking my gigs – I’d even hire him/her/them and finally just get to play melodies and take solos all night!

Anyway, I kid. Sorta. 

The bottom line is hopefully you find your people, and you become yourself, with a sound, ideas, and style that is honest and only you. And you hone in on that and perfect that voice, those ideas. That way you’re the one who gets the calls for You…I mean, until a younger, cuter You moves to town. Then you’d better forget about “you” and just make sure you sound like Pasquale or Julian. 

Lastly, I’ll just end this by saying that the “so many wonderful guitarists” in town that YOU’RE thinking of might not have any overlap with the “so many wonderful guitarists” in town that I’m thinking of. There are a lot of factors that have put NYC on the ropes of late, but it’s still a wild ride and there are still a lot of different scenes, and different musical families, all hustling and turning some room mad somewhere.

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