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NY Guitarist Joe Wittmanm Searches For His Own Sound



JGT contributor Joe Barth talks to a busy guitarist around the New York scene, Joe Wittman.

In searching for the tone of Kenny Burrell, the feel of Grant Green, and the phrasing of Jim Hall he found his own sound.  Delighting in the creativity of the guitar, bass, and drum trio, Joe has found a format for his unique sound to flourish.  Last Fall Wittman released his newest CD Trio Works Sol.

JB:  You graduated from Cincinnati Conservatory of Music in Ohio.  Talk about when you started to play guitar and what inspired you to play jazz guitar.

JW:  I started playing when I was about ten. My dad took me to a battle of the bands at the high school he taught, one of the guitarists was using a wah pedal and I thought oh, I have to do THAT! As far as getting into jazz, I owe that to my first guitar teacher in Cincinnati- Dave Ridenour. He burned me countless CDs and took the time to write in the personnel and track names. I owe a lot to him and I’m very thankful for his dedication to his students.

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

JW:  First, I would say Midnight Blue. I’m so drawn to Kenny Burrell’s tone and the way he blends the gestural blues guitar thing with very melodic lines. 

The second would be Full House. Wes Montgomery is the heavyweight champ of jazz guitar. He goes toe to toe with the virtuosic saxophonist Johnny Griffin, playing incredible lines and giving a masterclass in phrasing. 

Lastly, although the leader on the date was Sonny Rollins, I say The Bridge. Jim Hall is so unique; his rhythmic ideas are one of a kind. The way he comps behind Sonny propels the swing in a very special way. When it comes to soloing, I love how he acts as the foil to Sonny- something I learned a lot from!

JB:  Tell us about your goals in making your new album Trio Works Sol.

JW:  I had been playing with bassist Daniel Duke and drummer Keith Balla a lot over the years. I always felt we had a natural connection and unique vibe, something I wanted to document in the way of a record.

JB:  “Sweet Lorraine” is a great tune.  What drew you to it for this album?

JW:  I picked this tune because, despite it going a lot of places harmonically, it has a nice bluesy quality to it. Also, I think the trio plays this tempo very well and I wanted to showcase that.

JB:  “Born to be Blue” is by singer Mel Torme’ and Robert Wells who also wrote “The Christmas Song.”  What do you find satisfying about performing this great song?

JW:  Going back to what I liked about ‘Midnight Blue’, the bluesy quality mixed with a certain sophistication- this tune has that thing going on. Anytime a tune lends itself to a sort of blues approach, I’m all about it.

JB:  You mentioned working a lot with bassist Daniel Duke and drummer Keith Balla.  They are a solid rhythm section.  What do you appreciate most about working with those guys?

JW:  There is so much I appreciate about them, they work a lot together around New York City and know each other’s tendencies very well. They are quick studies, which allows me to throw new tunes at them, and after one play through we can file them away in our repertoire. I think bassist Daniel is a very special player, I am blown away by his creativity. Keith as well, and the way he comps behind me gives me a lot to work with, I end up playing things I wouldn’t have thought of otherwise.

JB:  You composed six of the songs for the album. Did you write them with this rhythm section in mind, for this project?

JW:  Yes, I knew what kind of things we do well together and wanted to capitalize on that. After many years of playing together, I have their tendencies in my head and when it comes time to put pen to paper it all comes out somehow. 

JB:  What do you appreciate most about the Guild and the other guitars you play? 

JW:  I mostly play a Guild Artist Award from 1977. It has such a clear and bright tone and is very resonant. The DeArmond pickup is very simple, just a volume knob which over the years is pretty much relegated to an on-and-off switch. Although it has a slim neck, the guitar has an unforgiving quality to it, which helped me work on some bad habits! I also occasionally play a Tele, MIM from 2001. It shares similar tonal qualities with the Guild, and of course, can be played at higher volumes and not feedback like a big archtop would.

JB:  Tell us about the amp that you use.

JW:  The amp I used for Trio Works Sol was a Fender Deluxe from the ‘60s. My musical mentor and former teacher James Chirillo lent it to me for the session and I very much enjoyed using that. For the “day to day” gigs I use a Kustom Contender, it has one preamp tube and is light enough to haul on the subway for gigs which is a must. I do have a 70’s Fender Princeton which I’ll take out for special occasions, but most of the nicer rooms in town have their own backline.

The Trio – Joe with bassist Daniel Duke and drummer Keith Balla

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?

JW:  I would say meeting and playing with a lot of people. So many really talented musicians out there with their own statements, you can pick a lot of things up from just playing with people. Jazz is a social music, getting out there and being a part of it and having peers you look up to those types of things helped me a lot.

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