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Guitarist Greg Skaff “Re-Up”s With New Album



JGT contributor Joe Barth talks to guitarist Greg Skaff about his new album, “Re-up” and his approach to playing.

A native of Kansas who now lives in New York City, Greg Skaff held down the guitar chair in saxophonist Stanley Turrentine’s band for over five years, a guitar chair previously held by the likes of George Benson, Kenny Burrell, Grant Green, and Dave Stryker.  Greg has just released a new album, Re-Up.  We talk about it and Greg’s approach to playing.

JB:  You grew up in Wichita, Kansas.  Talk about what inspired you to play jazz guitar.

GS:  My exposure to jazz came only after I was already playing guitar. In my teens, I played in a garage band and we used to hang out at the organist’s house where he lived and his father had quite a collection of jazz records. We would hang out and listen to the blues and rock records that we were into, like Magic Sam, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Led Zeppelin, etc., and then out of curiosity we would grab one of his father’s records and listen to it. That’s where I first heard Louis Armstrong, ‘Bird’, Dizzy, John Coltrane, Sam Rivers, Eric Dolphy, Miles, George Shearing with Dakota Staton, Chick Corea, Keith Jarrett, John McLaughlin, and so on. Those are only the ones I remember. That exposure opened up a new world to me. In addition to that, there was a club that would bring in national acts that were in the area touring. That’s where I first heard Lou Donaldson with Lonnie Smith, Jack McDuff, and others. There were also outstanding local musicians of all kinds playing and sometimes people don’t realize what’s right in front of their face. Case in point, a girlfriend and I would go to a cocktail bar out by the airport and listen to an older black man who had a steady gig playing piano and singing with a trio. They would play country songs and every so often throw in a jazz tune. It was much later we found out that he was Jay McShann and the bassist, who played a Danelectro bass, was Claude “Fiddler” Williams. But at the time those names didn’t mean anything to me because I didn’t know much jazz history. 

Guitarist-Composer-Educator Greg Skaff, a Reliably Swinging Presence and Facile Improvisor on the New York Scene Since the Late ‘80s, Returns with the Trio Album
Re Up

JB:  To you, Jimi Hendrix’s Are You Experienced and George Benson’s It’s Uptown are very influential guitar albums. Why?

GS:  When I first heard Are You Experienced I didn’t understand how a guitar was making those sounds but I instantly connected to it. You have to understand that Wichita, where I grew up, and cities like it were relatively isolated; there was no internet, there was only the library. I heard a lot of music growing up, country music, soul music, blues, and rock, but mostly from local musicians and on the radio. George Benson’s It’s Uptown struck me in the same way as the Hendrix record; At my nascent stage I didn’t know that a guitar could be played that way, but I instantly connected to the sound of the organ group and to the style that George was playing. After hearing It’s Uptown I started investigating and began to draw the line from Charlie Christian forward to Wes Montgomery, Barney Kessel, Jim Hall, and others.

JB:  You prefer the guitar trio setting where you are the only chordal instrument.  Talk about the freedoms and constraints of the guitar, bass, and drum trio.

GS:  At this particular point in time, for my own group I prefer a trio. That could change anytime, but in the guitar trio configuration I like the space and the texture of the music when there is that space. I like being able to change the chord quality or chord extensions or do other things and not worry about clashing with another chord instrument. Also, as of late, the songs I’m writing are written and arranged on guitar in such a way that I would have to change a lot of things and play them differently if there was another instrument, especially a chordal instrument.  However, I’m not totally opposed to adding instruments to the trio. I’ve augmented the group occasionally with a horn, which is nice because the melodies can be reinforced, and having another soloist takes some of the heat off of me. I should also mention that one of the bands that I immensely enjoy playing in is trombonist James Burton’s organ quintet. So, I do still play in contexts other than the guitar trio. 

JB:  In making your new album Re-Up you wrote seven originals.  Talk a little about the process of composing this music.  Is it melody first, chord progression first, or a combination of the two? 

GS:  It could be either one or both, or something else. Sometimes it begins with a rhythm, as in the case of the song “Swerve”. That song began with just the bass line and I wasn’t expecting to make anything out of it but I kept hearing it in my head, and then I started hearing the melody on top of it. The beginning melody is a fingerboard pattern shape that I discovered and like. So much about the guitar is shapes.

“Faith” began with the fourth interval played at the beginning of the melody over an A minor chord. I was thinking of a iii-vi-ii-V chord progression in F minor, then I substituted C#-F# for the G-C. 

“Peace Place” did begin with chords. When I first was playing the chords, I didn’t know what key it was in or if it was in a key, I later realized the song was in the key of A. The interesting thing, to me at least, is that it’s in the key of A but it never goes to A. 

“Re Up” was inspired by “Tricotism”, the Oscar Pettiford tune. I thought it would be great to feature Ugonna playing the melody on a song, so I had him in mind when I wrote it. I was also thinking of the Gateway Trio, with John Abercrombie, Dave Holland, and Jack DeJohnette.

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

GS:  I always liked the deceptive simplicity of that song and we had been playing it on gigs for a while. Then, I figured out how to play the counter-lines at the same time as the melody so it became even more interesting to me. The challenge of playing both lines at the same time is to bring out the main melody, which is something I learned about when I studied classical guitar.

JB:  You play a wonderful solo rendition of the Duke’s 1962 classic “Fleurette Africaine”.  You also did a trio version of the song on your Soulmation album.  What do you find so satisfying about performing this great song?  

GS:  First of all, thanks for the compliment. I always liked the chord progression, and I always liked the version from the Money Jungle album. But what made me want to adapt it to guitar was the solo version that can be seen here in this old Duke Ellington video: 

It’s a lot easier to play with bass and drums so that’s how I recorded it on the record Soulmation but eventually I worked it out so I could play it solo. It’s a little bit of a challenge playing the double stops and the bass line at the same time in the second A section. I also wanted to re-record it because I came up with a more personal interpretation than the earlier version.

JB:  Bassist Ugonna Okegwo and drummer Jonathan Barber are a solid rhythm section.  What do you appreciate most about working with those guys? 

GS:  Over the course of several years we know each other’s playing and they know what I’m about I know that I’m fortunate to get those two to make dates because they’re both busy both as leaders and sidemen. In a fast-paced city like New York it can’t be expected for musicians to do anything more than show up for the gig and play. However, one thing that sets some players apart from the crowd is that they go the extra mile, whether it be suggestions about the music or something else that they see you need help with. Ugonna and Jonathan both helped me with arrangements and lots more. And, of course, I hold them in high regard as musicians. 

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

GS:  There’s a certain resonance that they have. When I play a note or chord I feel the guitar vibrate against me.  And the response time when I play. I’m also comfortable with those neck shapes. That being said, if I lost my guitars in a fire or something, I could make do with whatever I could get. In fact, when I was with Stanley Turrentine I had a beautiful Gibson L5 that I loved and it got stolen and I replaced it with a Schecter Pete Townshend model Telecaster because I couldn’t afford much else and I was happy playing that guitar for years. I don’t think it matters much what kind of guitar a person plays. What’s important is that they feel like their instrument helps them do what they’re trying to do or say. At this time there are so many great instruments and so many brilliant people playing them that it’s hard to say one guitar is better than others, it’s simply a matter of personal taste and what works for them. We have to remember that a lot of great music has been made with subpar instruments.

JB:  What do you appreciate most about playing in the Ron Carter Big Band?  

GS:  Sitting next to Ron and listening to and watching him play. It’s the best seat in the house. Besides that, every member of his big band are first-rate musicians who I rarely, if ever, get to play with anywhere else. Even though there are several guitar solos in the course of a set, I would be perfectly happy just playing the parts and playing rhythm and not soloing. So there are a lot of ‘perks’ of that gig, you might say.

 JB:  Practice and listening aside, can you pinpoint one or two ‘things’ that really boosted your profile and career towards where it’s at today? 

GS:  Tough question. Maybe that I try to keep growing and improving. Also, I keep an open mind to new music and players and I’m excited to be a part of the continuum of the vibrant jazz scene right now. It’s humbling to hear some of the musicians on the scene right now. 

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