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Jazz Guitar Today Interview With Phoenix’s Jeff Libman



JGT contributor Joe Barth talks to guitarist Jeff Libman about his influences, recent recordings, and gear choices.

Above photo by Joseph Berg (cropped)

An active player in the Phoenix, Arizona area is guitarist Jeff Libman.  Jeff grew up in the Chicago area and moved to Phoenix to work on his master’s degree at Arizona State University in the mid-2000s.

JB:  Talk about when you started to play guitar and what inspired you to play jazz guitar.

JL:  When I was a kid, I showed promise as a singer. At some point, I wanted an instrument that I could use to accompany myself when singing. Over time, the guitar became my primary instrument.

I attended Naperville North High School in the suburbs of Chicago. The school had a strong music program. When I heard the top jazz ensemble, I was enthralled.  The summer before I played in that top jazz ensemble as well as attending the Jamey Aebersold camp. I was getting a taste of the music, and I was hooked.

JB:  Talk about the things you appreciated most about your guitar studies in Chicago and Northwestern University.

JL:  At Northwestern, I received a bachelor’s degree in Music Education, with a choral music emphasis. But it was clear to me pretty early in college that my primary musical interests were with the guitar, and with jazz. I was very lucky to find that even with a different music major, I was able to take every jazz class and play in every jazz ensemble. Northwestern was where I met Mike Kocour, who was then my teacher. I moved to Arizona when he took the job as the Director of Jazz Studies at ASU. I got two more degrees there. Now, Mike is my boss and colleague at ASU. 

At Northwestern, there wasn’t a jazz guitar instructor. I studied improvisation with Mike and composition with Don Owens. There was a fantastic graduate student guitarist in my first year named Doug Wamble. Doug is a great guitarist and singer. I studied with Doug and learned a lot from him. A bit later, I studied with Fareed Haque, a brilliant guitarist and teacher who lived not far from the university. 

JB:  What were some of the best things you learned at Arizona State University?

At ASU, I worked with my then jazz guitar teacher Chris Champion to improve my overall guitar playing. I also had the opportunity to study jazz composition and arranging with a great teacher, Mike Crotty. And Mike Kocour had plenty more to teach me about jazz even after studying with him at Northwestern. 

In my second year in that program, I was the TA of the Jazz Studies program, and I got my first experience teaching jazz. I led a jazz combo and taught a jazz fundamentals class. That important formative experience led to some teaching work at local community colleges before I was offered a position at ASU. 

Guitarist Jeff Libman. Photo credit Diane Banyai

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

The first jazz guitar album that hit me like a ton of bricks was Wes Montgomery’s Full House. I heard it in high school, and I just couldn’t believe that anyone could play the guitar like that. The power and energy of his lines on “Blue ‘n’ Boogie” was just astonishing. Of course, I love his octaves and block chords, but I also appreciate his fluidity when he plays a melody like “Born to Be Blue”. Johnny Griffin is such a flamethrower, and his presence takes Wes to an even higher level.

Secondly, I discovered Peter Bernstein’s Signs of Life in college. If I had to pick, I’d say Pete is my favorite jazz guitarist. I took a lesson with him when I lived in New York, and he said something to the effect of “There are limited possibilities in harmony, but there are unlimited possibilities of nuance.” Pete is the master of nuance, and he’s always melodic and swinging. His sound is so beautiful, even back then before he got his beloved Zeidler. I love every track on that album. His version of “The Things We Did Last Summer” is particularly beautiful, and it’s obviously inspired by Grant Green’s version. His solo intro is so lovely. And his “Tea For Two” contrafact “Jive Coffee” is a blast to listen to, and to play! Signs of Life is amazing because, in addition to Pete, you have Brad Mehldau, Christian McBride, and Greg Hutchinson in the group. What an amazing band! This is some of my favorite Brad Mehldau playing ever. He’s just overflowing with energy and new ideas, and he’s a great accompanist too. 

Kurt Rosenwinkel’s The Next Step is to me the quintessential modern jazz album of the last 25 years or so. “Zhivago” is such an amazing piece of music. But when I first heard this, it was a revelation: powerful, dark, simultaneously melodic yet somewhat strange. The way he integrates melody and comping together on “Minor Blues” was a real sea change for jazz guitar. I think Kurt pushed so many of us to try to level up with our comping. Also, “Use of Light” is such a mysterious and beautiful melody. There are so many guitarists who have juggled the roles of player/composer/conceptualist, and Kurt, I think, is most often my favorite of these.

If I can add an honorable mention, it’s Sonny Rollins’ album The Bridge. When I work with my students at ASU, I inevitably introduce this album as the album to learn how to comp from. Jim Hall to me set the standard for comping on guitar in the stead of the piano. His work on “Without a Song” is amazing because it’s so flexible. With chords, octaves, double stops, and melodic responses to Sonny, he makes jazz guitar comping so compelling. His playing on “God Bless the Child” is just perfect. He blended the boundary between comping and line playing, setting a template for modern jazz guitar playing.  

JB:  Is Strange Beauty your newest CD?  Tell us about some of your recent recording work.

JL:  I don’t record projects under my own name that often. I released a self-produced organ trio album called Not Even the Rain in 2007. Strange Beauty is from 2016 and was released on the Cellar Live label. I recently recorded a new quartet record with Mike Kocour on piano, Ben Hedquist on bass, and Lewis Nash on drums. I’m hoping to release it this year. It’s definitely a straight-ahead jazz guitar record, with a lot of music from the American Songbook, such as Harold Arlen’s “A Sleepin’ Bee” and Gorney and Clare’s “You’re My Thrill.” I’ve also got an arrangement of Ariana Grande’s “No Tears Left to Cry”, a song I haven’t heard another jazz musician play yet, so I’m excited about that. I really like to arrange for small jazz groups, and I’m proud of how the arrangements came out. I also have a few original compositions on there too. This album was a bit of a leap for me because I have been playing with mostly my thumb for a few years, and I finally felt comfortable enough to record that way. My sound is quite different than it was on Strange Beauty, I think. Hopefully, it still sounds like me though.

 JB:  You have performed with guitarist John Stowell.  Talk about John’s impact on your playing.

JL:  John’s a guitarist that you could identify pretty easily on a drop-the-needle test. He’s got his own sound, defined by his touch, his close interval voicings, and his use of harmony and substitutions. When he passes through town, he teaches periodically at ASU, and we are always glad to have him. Aside from his skills as a player, he’s a great teacher and such a smart and kind person. He talks about how the joy of making music is to play with his friends, and I hope I can consider myself among that group. John really likes simultaneous improvisation. At first, that was difficult for me, but it gets a little more comfortable every time I play with him. He always has some new spin on a few standards each time I catch up with him. When we played together last week, it was “You and the Night and the Music” with each A section of the form in a different key. I have a blast playing with John.

JB:  Are bassist Ben Hedquist and drummer Dom Moio your regular rhythm section?  If so, what do you appreciate about them as players?

JL:  I wouldn’t say I have a regular rhythm section, but I certainly love playing with Ben and Dom. Ben’s a super versatile musician who plays beautifully in any context you can throw at him, and he’s a very capable bandleader, who plans all kinds of varied projects. He genuinely loves to swing as well. Dom is such a veteran, with so much experience under his belt. He’s always been so gracious about playing my music. If I write something, and I get the Dom Moio seal of approval, then I know my music makes sense! Dom is the godfather of the Phoenix jazz drum scene over the last few decades. He’s so easy to play with and so joyful on the bandstand. It’s a thrill to be able to play with musicians this good.

JB:  I know you play left-handed.  What do you appreciate most about the guitar you use? 

JL:  I mentioned that I started guitar as an instrument to accompany my voice. At the time, I had no idea that guitar playing would grow into a career. I tried playing right-handed, and it just didn’t feel right. Now, I wish I would have tried a little harder. Playing left-handed is kind of a drag. Part of the fun of guitar playing is everyone having all these cool guitars you can try, but I can’t really play those guitars. Finding jazz instruments isn’t easy anyway, but it’s way harder if you are left-handed. Thankfully, the Eastman company makes a lot of models left-handed. I recorded Strange Beauty on a lefty Eastman Pisano 880. Lately, I’ve been more comfortable with a thinner-body guitar, but I love the archtop sound. Those two things don’t usually go together. Recently, I’ve been playing most often on an Eastman T146SM. It’s a really unique guitar. It’s only 1 3/4” deep, but it’s fully hollow, without a center block. It’s also a solid wood instrument, which is unique for a guitar this thin. To me, it sounds like a larger acoustic instrument, with a big, woody sound. So, for me, from a comfort and sound perspective, it’s the best of both worlds.

JB:  What amp do you use and why?

JL:  I’m in an experimental phase with amps. I like the blackface Fender sound, which is pretty standard stuff for jazz guitar. I have an amp by the Vintage Sounds company and Vintage 22SC. It’s 22 watts, like a Fender Deluxe Reverb, but it’s in a Princeton Reverb-sized cabinet, so it’s a little smaller and lighter, but it still fits a 12″ speaker. It also has some nice extra features vs. a Deluxe, like a midrange knob, a reverb dwell knob, and a bright/dark switch. 

During the pandemic, when a lot of us were teaching online, I discovered the Universal Audio Apollo series and was shocked at how good of a Fender tube sound I could get using their plugins. I had been very old school, and disinterested with modeling products, but UA changed that. About a year ago, I got their Dream ’65 pedal, which has amp modeling, speaker modeling, spring reverb, and tremolo. It’s the Deluxe Reverb pedal I had always hoped someone would make someday. So sometimes I use that through a Henriksen Jazz Amp, and I think it sounds great. You can even plug that pedal into a powered PA speaker, and it sounds surprisingly good. I’ve been experimenting with various super light-powered speakers to see if I can find a super light, compact rig that sounds just right, but I haven’t settled on anything yet.

JB:  As an educator, what traps do your jazz guitar students easily find themselves in?

JL:  Before I talk about the traps they might fall in, I should say that I think my students are amazing! Music students are some of the hardest working, most focused students you could find anywhere, and I respect them so much. 

Sometimes, I find that jazz guitar students can be too focused on the guitar and jazz guitar, and they have a less well-rounded opinion on jazz masters of different instruments. I like to ask them questions like “Who is your favorite bass player, and why?” or “What saxophone players have you transcribed?” Some freshmen are already thinking this way, but others are just really fascinated by the guitar, and they haven’t dug into as many jazz masters of other instruments as they will need to in order to better understand the music. By and large, jazz isn’t guitar music per se, it’s music that guitarists can play. We need to be well listened to across the entire art form. We need to understand saxophonists, drummers, bassists, brass players, pianists, and singers. We should know what they think about when they perform and what they want to hear. That gives us the best chance of making the best music when we come together on the bandstand.

The other thing that comes to mind is the issue of what to think about when you improvise. I’ve met some students who think about music theory when they improvise. It’s good that they know some theory and that they are applying it to their practice. But thinking this way can yield results that feel academic and not organic, at least from what I have seen. The time to deal with music theory is in the classroom and then in the practice room. Theory expands your set of possibilities for making good music. But when it comes time to play, I think you have to think about melody just about all the time. Are you playing a melody — how do you want to phrase it? Are you improvising — what possibilities are hearing in your head? Are you playing chords — voice leading within chords is melody too. Are you accompanying — what countermelodies do you hear that support the music? All the prep work you do just fills you up with more and more melodies to imagine and play. 

JB:  Talk about the jazz scene in Phoenix and the gigs that you do.

JL:  I think the jazz scene in Phoenix is ascendant. Phoenix is ascendant. It’s one of America’s growing cities, whereas many great cities are shrinking in population. In addition to my work at ASU and as a jazz musician, I’m the Vice President of the Board of The Nash, Phoenix’s jazz performance and education venue and nonprofit organization. I’m proud to be one of its founding members. When The Nash opened in 2012, it was the only jazz-focused venue in the whole metro area. Now we also have the beautiful Ravenscroft in Scottsdale as well, and I should also mention the recently opened Century Room in Tucson. Of course, there are many venues in town that have jazz some of the time. I’ve been teaching at ASU since 2008, and it’s gratifying to see former students building the jazz scene in the community. The last time I saw Tucson-based tenor saxophonist Brice Winston, he spoke glowingly of the Arizona jazz scene. He said, “it’s never been like this.” 

I like to play both straight-ahead jazz gigs and original music projects as well. I recently played with a show with a group called The Nash Composers Coalition, recently revived after a pandemic hiatus. In this group, each member writes a tune before each performance. I love opportunities like this that push me as a player and a writer. I just played with John Stowell when he passed through town on the longstanding Sacred Grounds jazz series. I’ve had the opportunity to play with luminaries passing through town over the years. Some that came to mind that I really enjoyed were Cory Weeds, Roxy Coss, Lucas Pino, Juli Wood, and Gerard Gibbs. And then periodically, I will lead a band with my own book of tunes and arrangements. I look forward to some shows this year with the music from my forthcoming album.

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