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Pursue Your Passion!

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Jazz guitarist Greg Chako shares a recent life-threatening story as he embarks on the journey of self-awareness.

I went to hear a highly regarded local jazz player not too long ago. I can’t really afford to go out as much as I like to, but it felt great to be ‘on the scene’ listening to quality piano-trio music and supporting my jazz muso brethren. 

On their break, I complimented the pianist-leader on his excellent set. He had played all standard songs, and I recognized each one immediately after hearing the first few bars. He (and his bassist) both said they’d like to hear my album of chamber-jazz duets, “A Place for Bass,” which had just come out. After I handed him a copy, he perused it and said something to the effect of: “Oh, you’re mostly into your own originals . . . (when) there are so many great songs to play that have already been written . . .”

As true as that is, I found his comment slightly off-putting. Why? Let me ask a rhetorical question to help illustrate a point and to launch my musings herein: 

“Are there any great jazz player-composers who cannot play standards?”

I can’t even think of one. Coltrane, Monk, Duke, McCoy, Henderson, Shorter, Wes, Evans, Hancock, Silver, etc., all of whom became famous as unique and impactful jazz players and composers, could and did play the blues and standard songs from what we call The Great American Songbook.

I believe that writing your own music as opposed to playing covers is a natural progression that many artists, as opposed to craftsmen, technicians, and perhaps, lifelong lounge players, make as they learn the jazz tradition and begin to develop that most prized possession of any artist: a unique voice, AKA an original style! All true artists stand on the shoulders of giants. None of the great artist-composers listed above achieved their ‘Master’ status without absorbing much of the music that came before them.

I’m told that Ornette Coleman was heard practicing Charlie Parker solos note-for-note only minutes before his premier performance at Carnegie Hall, during which he played his original music (Harmolodics) that I guarantee sounded nothing like Charlie Parker heads. Similarly, Wes Montgomery literally wore out the grooves of every Charlie Christian record he could get his hands on, yet his own matured style could in no way be confused with Charlie Christian. 

When I was only 20 years old, I worked as a cook at US Blues, Another Roadside Attraction in Roslyn, Long Island, NY. Billy Joel came in late one night and ‘sat-in’ with the band. He didn’t play even one of his own well-known hits, but rather, played a whole set of classic rock standards. Fast-forward to just a few years ago after Joel had stopped performing live. I saw him on a TV talk show where he spoke about his newest compositions, classical in nature and performed by a Korean classical pianist (not him!). Billy Joel is quoted as saying: “I played Mozart before I played Lennon and McCartney. I played Beethoven before I played Billy Joel.” The genius composer Richard Wagner learned how to write just like Beethoven before any of his own pieces were played in public. Lester Young, “The Prez” is said to have quipped, “If you wanna join the throng, you gotta write yer own song!” Playing your own songs sets one apart.

The sort of artistic development described above rings true across all genres, including jazz. In fact, it occurs in all art forms – take Salvadore Dali or Picasso for instance – are you going to assume after being presented with their groundbreaking later work, that they couldn’t draw a realistic portrayal of a vase with flowers in it? Of course not! If you are interested and ever get the chance, I suggest that you visit the Dali museum in St. Petersburg, Florida, where you can observe his earliest to later works in chronological order as you walk through the complex. In case my analogy wasn’t clear enough – painting a vase with flowers in it (realistically) is akin to a jazz musician playing a standard like “Stella by Starlight” and Dali’s later works might be comparable to a jazz musician’s late-career original music.

Artists of all kinds are on a never-ending progression from foundational knowledge of the past into an unknown future which we hope best represents the pinnacle of their (our) own artistic achievement. The process of self-discovery and self-awareness never ends, but if it’s a true journey of discovery, it must keep progressing forward! True artists, in my opinion, imitate what came before in order to help them find their own individual style, not to regurgitate the past over and over again. They don’t get “stuck” in one mode of expression for very long, if at all, because they’re constantly seeking new pathways. Once Miles Davis personalized the penultimate version of “My Funny Valentine,” he moved on, effectively losing some of his fans who expected him to keep playing that way.

Guitarist Greg Chako

When I first started playing professionally some 30+ years ago, of course, I played standards! It’s all I knew how to do then. My first attempts at writing my own songs were tentative and done without very much self-confidence. My first record was made in 1994, titled “Everything I Love” after the Cole Porter song of the same name. It contained 9 covers including 4 songs composed by Horace Silver. But my next record, made 2 years later in 1996, “Sudden Impact,” contained 4 Chako originals. But even then, I was playing almost exclusively standards and covers at my nightly gig at the time (6-nights a week leading a trio for years at the Raffles Hotel Bar and Billiard Room in Singapore).

Damned if You Do, Damned if You Don’t!

For about 6 years, from 1994 right up until 2000, when I released Integration which included 17 original Chako compositions, I was actually criticized because I didn’t play any original music! Instead of, “oh, you’re mostly into your own originals . . . (when) there are so many great songs to play that have already been written . . .,” I heard this: “oh, you’re just playing other people’s music . . . you don’t write and play any music of your own.” It seems to me I’m damned if I do play just covers and damned if I don’t play just covers – ha ha! I hate being pigeon-holed!

Since (and including) my 2000 double album, Integration, I’ve released 13 albums and 10 of them contained either all or mostly my original songs. Only 3 of the 13 did not: one solo guitar album, “My World on Six Strings,” and two live albums recorded in Japan: Two’s Company, Three’s a Crowd, alternating duets with piano and vocals, and “Christmas Time – Live in Izu Nagaoka with the Kei Masada Trio, a trio album in which I was merely a featured artist. Obviously, the latter portion of my professional career up to this point has focused on my own writing and arranging (incidentally, the solo guitar album mentioned above featured truly one-of-a-kind arrangements which were the subject of my DMA Lecture-Recital at The Eastman School of Music).

On May 3rd, 2024, my 17th album titled, “Standard Roots” will be released worldwide by Mint400 Records and Raining Music. Here are the liner notes of that new album, which are pertinent to this article:

Leading a G/B/D (Guitar/Bass/Drums) trio is how I became a professional. It’s my ‘roots’. That’s the format I worked with in 1995 when I began playing 6-nights a week year after year in Singapore. In the beginning, I played all covers. But, as I gained confidence composing and recording my own songs, and as the exotic environment I was living in inspired my imagination for newer sounds, I moved away from the traditional G/B/D trio with my records so that I could flesh those new ideas out with different instrumentation and larger ensembles.

I treasure my own songwriting above all else, but I have never tired of playing standards. The Great American Songbook (GAS) is still popular, and given the quality writing of composers such as Porter, Arlen, Jobim, Kern, & Hammerstein, there is always ample opportunity to flex ones’ improvisational chops with the GAS. It’s not called The Great American Songbook for nothing! Playing this great repertoire while leading my trio is always a joy.

After recording so many albums featuring my own compositions, this newest one is a return to the type of music I played at the outset of my career more than 30 years ago. It includes some of the same songs that we often play on local gigs today. There was no effort made to arrange or rehearse this music; we simply played what we felt like and recorded it all in one take. – G. Chako, Mar. 1, 2024

We recorded the whole album (Standard Roots) with no rehearsal and first-takes because playing standards is relatively easy for each member of my experienced trio. Playing standards we’ve played for literally years doesn’t require the same level of concentration, focus, and creativity as an album of all-originals does. 

So what’s my point in sharing all this? I’ll get to it forthwith:

Just a couple of weeks ago, days before a scheduled mini-tour with my trio to promote my original music, I ended up with a Sepsis infection that could have killed me. I was in the hospital for 9 days straight and had to cancel all dates. On my 2nd night there, before they found the right antibiotics to treat this pesky bacteria that had invaded my kidneys, I thought I was going to get canceled! Once I started feeling better, I believed that I had been blessed with a 2nd chance . . . a new lease on life. My album of standards (Standard Roots) had already been recorded, but I had planned for a Horace Silver tribute album and a few other things that did not really involve my own original compositions. The near-death experience caused me to put all ‘cover’ projects on the back burner.

Our time in this flesh and blood on this plane of experience is limited . . . we don’t know when or how we’re going to die. Therefore, pursue that which you’re most passionate about. There might not be enough time for you to do all you wish to do, so don’t waste your time doing anything but what you treasure the most, what provides you the most happiness and confidence. I believe that honest self-reflection is paramount, and spiritual goals of self-awareness are crucial for us to be the best we can be. It is not, nor has it ever been, merely about the notes, and music is not a competition.

You can decide now what your legacy will be and what you choose to focus your time and efforts on vis-a-vis your musical path. The professional requirements to be a great sideman, a great lounge pianist playing requests, a great studio musician sight-reading any music notation put in front of you, or a great technician capable of stunning “chops” are all different, and of course, all worthy too if that’s what you really want. 

My passion is composing, teaching, performing, recording, and sharing of myself and my unique brand of jazz. My goals are of a spiritual nature. Self-service to others, as opposed to selfishness, is what I desire the most. I know for a fact that there are innumerable guitar players with better reading skills than mine, who know more songs by memory than I do, who ‘hear’ better than I, who have way more chops and technical skill on the guitar than I do, who have more high-level professional experience than I ever will, etc. 

But I am comforted by the fact that, as the great Lester “Prez” Young suggested, I have and am writing my own song! I am that which I desire the most, and that which nobody else can entirely duplicate: ME! And I’m alive! 

My message of hope and inspiration to you is this: Embark on the journey of self-awareness, endeavor to know yourself, be yourself, be happy, and be diligent. Pursue your passion with a passion, and without delay!

Greg Chako April 3, 2024


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