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New Album From Portland’s Dan Balmer, When The Night

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JGT contributor Joe Barth talks to Portland’s Dan Balmer about his new album “When The Night”.

Portland, Oregon has one of the finest jazz scenes in the Pacific Northwest. A guitarist in the center of that scene is Dan Balmer.  Dan has just released his tenth studio album featuring organist Gary Versace and drummer Rudy Royston.  I met up with Dan to tell a little more about himself and his new album.

JB:  I’d like our readers to get to know you a bit.  Did you grow up in Portland and what inspired you to play jazz guitar?

DB:  I grew up in Portland which had a great jazz scene. Early on there were many venues and I played with the great Native American Saxophonist Jim Pepper, Sonny King, organist Count Dutch, and many of the famous Portland musicians like Tom Grant, (who I spent 10 years with), Ron Steen, David Friesen and more. It was a wonderful place for a young musician to learn the music.

I, like most guitarists, started in rock, pop, and country, listening to Creedence Clearwater, Jimi Hendrix, and others.  When I was 14 my brother brought a Larry Coryell record home from college and I was hooked on this music where the improvising and the guitar were focal points instead of the vocalist! From there I discovered George Benson, John McLaughlin, Wes Montgomery, Charlie Christian, and the rest.

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

DB:  I suppose a Larry Coryell record that got me started. I don’t remember the title. Then when I was getting into jazz my father brought me a record he bought in a New York record store called The Great Guitars of Jazz. It had Barney Kessel, Oscar Moore, Kenny Burrell, and others one song by each great guitarist, but the last song on each side was Wes Montgomery, and those songs in particular slayed me, and I thought “Who is this guy who gets two songs when everyone else gets one?”  That got me deep into Wes. It would be hard to name the third most inspirational record because we explored and were moved by each one we had.   Extrapolation by John McLoughlin, Spaces by Larry Coryell, and Body Talk by George Benson. Since then, many have moved me greatly, but as one ages and tries to find a voice one has to stop being blown away by each new thing and you have to look inward. Everyone influences me because I love it all.

JB:  Tell us about your work with pianist Tom Grant in the 1990s.

DB:  I started by sitting in with Tom Grant in 1983. He would always let me play and pretty soon clubs asked him to hire me and added money to pay me and after a year or so, it was always the whole band. That was a thrill because Tom was and still is great. He’d toured with saxophonists Joe Henderson and Charles Lloyd, and drummer Tony Williams.  All three, are real heavies. But, he always had a strong pop sense and wanted to play more accessible music and I loved that. He immediately started playing my tunes and when my tunes appeared on his albums I was thrilled. Those songs were picked up by television and movies and I started making some real money from royalties (unfortunately that doesn’t happen much anymore)! We were incredibly popular and toured the US many times and went to Europe once. We played five nights a week for eight years. It was a great band and paved the way for my first record deal, buying my first house, developing my writing and playing, etc. It was great on so many levels.

JB:  What did you appreciate most about working with singer Diane Schuur?

DB:  The great thing about playing with Diane Schuur was the band and the places we played. We played in 18 countries and I got to many places I’m not sure I would have got otherwise like Korea, Brazil, Russia, Argentina, and elsewhere. Reggie Jackson on drums and Scott Steed on bass were great friends and musicians and Diane often played one or two of my songs which was always a thrill to play my music around the world. I’d always wanted to tour internationally and that was a good opportunity. An opportunity I’ve also had recently with Pink Martini as a sub. More countries, more cities, new audiences, new venues. 

Playing internationally has really been the biggest thrill of my career and I’ve been grateful to fulfill those lifelong dreams.


JB:  Talk about some of the things you learned about the guitar/organ combination working with organists like Joey DeFrancesco and Dr. Lonnie Smith.

DB:  I’ve worked with organ players all my life starting with Count Dutch in Portland. Organist George Mitchell, Chris Lee, and I made a CD called “Don’t Forget The Way Home” in the early 90’s I’m extremely proud of and I still play with Louis Pain in the Mel Brown B3 group and the LA transplant Joe Bagg who’s an excellent organist now in Portland. So, playing with Joey DeFrancesco and Dr. Lonnie was very natural for me. Both opportunities were thrilling; Joey was so great, and playing with Dr. Lonnie was some of the most fun I’ve ever had playing music. There’s nothing better for a guitarist than playing an organ trio; so much history to embrace, such a groove, such a fun sound, so much space to blow. It’s pretty ideal in a way.

JB:  Your new CD When the Night is a guitar, organ, and drums trio album.  All the songs are originals of yours.  Did you write the songs with the guitar and organ in mind?

DB:  I didn’t write the songs with organ trio in mind because they work well with a piano, bass, and drums. 


JB:  Organist Gary Versace and drummer Rudy Royston are, of course, a fantastic team. What do you appreciate most about them as musicians?

DB:  Having Gary on organ is so special for my music because we have played and recorded together over the years and he understands what my songs are trying to say. He plays the organ like a synthesizer in that he gets so many nontraditional sounds and colors and his bass playing is autonomous, so it’s almost like a quartet! We did a recording with Matt Wilson in 2006 called “Thanksgiving” which was my first effort using out-of-town artists. They were awesome. For this, Gary suggested Rudy Royston and oh my goodness, there is no one better. He immediately understood and embraced the music and really brought it to life. Great suggestion by Gary.

JB:  What do you appreciate most about the Gibson guitar you play?  

DB:  I have quite a few guitars but on this recording, since I was flying to NYC, I was really limited in what I could use. The guitar on most of the record is my old Ibanez Artist which is very versatile. I had to use whatever amp was in the studio and only a few pedals, but Chris Sulitt the engineer is so good he did great tracking I did use my L-5 on the “Love Ballad”, and I love that guitar as well. It’s so inspiring to play!

JB:  Tell us about the amp that you use.

DB:  On the CD I used the Fender Super Reverb in the studio because that’s what they had. Eddie Pletka in Portland recently made me a tube amp that is very cool, and on small gigs, I still often use one of my three old Polytone Mini Brute 2’s which still sound awesome in the right room.


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?

DB:  I think the key to my success artistically and career-wise (such as it is!) is never giving up, always trying to evolve, playing every gig that comes my way, and continuing to hustle and seek new opportunities. In my teaching, I am always telling my students, “Get to the jam, pick up the phone and make a call, connect, hang out” etc. There’s so much to learn from every playing situation and so many good players that you can never rest on your laurels and never stop trying to grow. I think I’m a good example of someone with limited natural ability who’s made up for it with a lot of desire and drive. And, I hate to admit it, fear of failure.


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