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New Album From Nylon String Guitarist Benji Kaplan



JGT contributor Joe Barth talks to nylon string guitarist Benji Kaplan about his new album, “Untold Stories”.

Above photo credit: Cynthia Delconte

“A guitar player with impeccable technique and fluency.” This is how Jazz Times magazine describes Benji Kaplan. New Yorker, Benji Kaplan, is an accomplished guitarist, vocalist as well as a painter.  I recently spoke to him about his newest album, Untold Stories.

JB:  What do you find most rewarding about playing fingerstyle jazz guitar, as opposed to plectrum electric jazz guitar? 

BK:  I started on an acoustic steel string Yamaha guitar when I was 11, and switched almost entirely to archtop jazz guitars when I was 13 or 14 years old. I fell deeply in love with Wes Montgomery, Tal Farlow, Barney Kessel, and Django Reinhardt, and wanted to play like all of them, so the plectrum techniques were what I worked with a lot for some years (of course Wes played with his thumb). I was always deeply affected by Brazilian music in parallel to the jazz greats and so I began to dig into the Nylon string guitar and learn the accompaniments of João Gilberto, the solo guitar arrangements of Luiz Bonfa. It just expanded from there to singers and composers, various styles, etc. By the time I was 22, having finished college and spent the academic years formally studying and playing with a plectrum on the electric guitar, I was emotionally in crisis, I had felt I hit a creative wall. I eventually discovered that the deep open string harmonies that would come often intuitively for me, came mostly when I would play on nylon string with my fingers. I could feel the whole orchestra with my fingers and felt much more directly connected to each note and the sound. It took me years to realize that the pick made me feel too far removed from the instrument. As I was naturally developing/ becoming more and more, a composer and vocalist rather than a Jazz guitar performer per se, I desired less and less to play plectrum electric guitar. I also became more in love with nylon strings and the easier tension as compared to steel strings that have much higher tension even if you lower the gauge, which ironically, as it happens, I always liked 13’s/higher tension strings for electric, even flat wounds because of Tal Farlow’s sound.  But even these days I do like to record my electric guitar on some projects to get certain sounds, vibes, etc. 

I still feel that there are things as a jazz guitar player, in a setting where I’d improvise and play with others and the use of a plectrum would be way more efficient and appropriate to express many single note passages, sweeps, arpeggios, ideas, etc. but since I’m not playing that way so much these days, it doesn’t hold much utility for me personally now.  

JB:  What was most helpful in your personal development as a guitarist? Both with jazz technique as well as classical technique.

BK:  When addressing the development of jazz technique, I found that studying, listening to, and learning the solos of my favorite artists by ear and at times through writing out/transcribing to be very helpful in developing my voice, vocabulary, sound, and being able to play with others. I loved learning the solos of Bud Powell, Charlie Parker, Lester Young, and Wes Montgomery for example. More recently I’d try to learn Debussy on guitar or some parts of Rachmaninoff’s piano concertos. Singing and learning songs, and standards is also an essential one for me. The melody is so important, just the songs themselves, the meaning of the lyrics, and the way that they intertwine with the compositions melodically and harmonically. 

Classical technique was a slow and confusing process for me, as I never really studied it formally, nor really knew what it might entail until perhaps within the last 5 to 7 years. I was mostly self-taught in the fingerstyle realm. I think the first thing I tried to learn that was classical on guitar, was a recording on tape that I had of John Williams interpreting Isaac Albeniz’ “Sevilla” (and I was just seeing it as music I like without identifying it too much as part of one genre or another). A very difficult piece, but one that moved me so much. I think I was 13 at the time.  At some point when I was in Brazil, I took a couple of lessons with a guy who gave me a book by Henrique Pinto. It had lots of righthand technique arpeggios, addressing the use of syncopation, breaking up of chords, and a whole bunch of other things. This opened me up to more rhythmic and even harmonic freedom, technique of dynamics and intention. Listening to João Bosco and trying to play his guitar accompaniments was another thing that greatly opened up my eyes and ears to something resembling a classical meets jazz technique. Through composing more and more on classical guitar, I realized I needed to have a firmer technique to be able to execute my own ideas and so I took a few pointers from many different players, including my brother who is a great classically trained guitarist. 

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

BK:   The best way I can answer this question is to speak of the albums that first struck a chord with me, in my teens and early/mid 20’s. I heard Gene Bertoncini’s album which was a tribute to Jobim, called Someone To Light Up My Life. His style of playing, unique harmony, and light touch really got me. He has added so much beauty to solo jazz guitar.  For the second album, I’d say, Baden Powell Live at Rio Jazz Club 1990, and the third would be a somewhat more recent album, by the virtuoso, Marcus Tardelli called Marcus Tardelli Interpreta Guinga “Unha e Carne”.  Tardelli has taken the technique of using the thumb in the left hand for harmonic uses to another level. His ability to sustain notes and play in a pianistic way is really something else, all in the service of beauty and not for flash or show. I also have to mention, Barney Kessel, Tal Farlow, Guinga, Helio Delmiro, and Ted Greene.  

JB: Tell us about your goals in making your new album of solo guitar pieces entitled Untold Stories. 

BK: My goals are fairly simple and straightforward in the endeavor of making Untold Stories. In the past few years, I have done many different projects or portrayed my music in different formations with varying degrees of instruments and arrangements, and so I wanted to share with listeners an album that illustrates my compositions in the way that they were first conceived, just with guitar in hand.  

JB:  Were the nine original songs composed for this album?  Talk about the compositional process of a couple of the songs.

BK: These songs were not written specifically for a particular album, and they were composed before, during, and even after the pandemic in some cases.                     

In the case of “An East Side Story”, something was coming out of me at the beginning of the piece and I said, ah that could turn into something solid. I started to jot it down by recording maybe 30 seconds of something on my phone’s built-in recorder, then I kept playing the passage over, recording two or 3 different versions, until I decided ah, this is the exact contour of the melody and I started to hint at the next motif, then going back to the beginning a few times until I saw that I had a definitive place to end up in the next section, then from there everything started to propel and get momentum.  It is kind of a mysterious intuitive process for me to write music. I have no idea where, why, or how I will end up with a new song in my hands from one moment to the next. I feel that often you just need to show up and start working on something. Sometimes it comes effortlessly and other times it’s like trying to climb Mount Everest.   

Perhaps recording the album is a way for me to close a chapter and not have to worry about holding on to the old homemade recordings on my phone, and if I forget them over time, I can re-learn them from the records. Of course, I also have a long-standing plan to put them all into a series of books of compositions for solo guitar. 

JB:  You recorded the album in New York and then mixed and mastered it in Sao Paulo, Brazil. What drew you to master it in Sao Paulo?  

BK: My wife, son and I live and work half the year in Brazil and we were traveling there right after I had finished recording the album in Woodstock. I didn’t want to wait too long to release it and knew we’d be there for a few more months. That is only part of the reason that I mixed and mastered it in São Paulo. The other reason is that I have always wanted to collaborate with Homero Lotito, who was the engineer who mixed/mastered the recording. He is really one of the best in my opinion! Since there is so much Brazilian influence in my compositions and in the way I play, I felt that he would have a sensibility for the best approach to mix and level the sound and bring it to life.  In Brazil, the nylon string acoustic classical guitar is the national instrument and has been since at least the 1950s. In the United States, it’s much more common for engineers to mix and master steel string acoustic or electric guitarists. It’s a different beast. But I do want to say that there are plenty of brilliant engineers who mix nylon string beautifully that live in the U.S. 

JB:  Talk about the guitar you play.  

BK: I play on a handmade guitar by Matthew Rubendall, who is a luthier who works and lives in Brooklyn, NY. It’s the guitar I play and record on the most. I feel that the guitar and I have grown closer together over the 12 or so years we’ve been working together and I’m grateful for that. 

JB:  Tell us about how you amplify your guitar and voice in performance.

BK:  To amplify my guitar, I currently use K & K pickups that are placed underneath the saddle or around that area. I had Matthew install the pickups and modify the guitar to create a quarter-inch jack input and hole on the bottom so that I could plug it in, as it was originally a completely acoustic guitar. I like to go through the PA system which is a stand-alone tower made by Bose.  I always use my L.R. Bags D.I. /preamp box to go through for a more powerful/clear-cutting sound. This combination and modification on my guitar have been the best investment so far in terms of getting the best results live without feedback issues. 

JB:  What do you appreciate about performing with vocalist Rita Figueiredo?

BJ: I appreciate the spontaneity and trust that we’ve built as a duo over the years. It’s really a fun and satisfying collaboration for me to be a part of. I like getting to accompany Rita as a guitarist and switch roles as an artist from arranging to playing to singing or composing and vice versa. I also enjoy when Rita plays guitar together with me and we get to find new harmonies together or I get to improvise off of what she is doing. We try to combine all different kinds of possibilities. Now we are in the process of recording our second album as a duo and I’m writing lyrics in English for some of her compositions, which is something new! She is also a great songwriter and storyteller through her songs. 

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