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JGT Talks To Seattle’s Michael Eskenazi



Jazz Guitar Today contributor Joe Barth talks to guitarist Michael Eskenazi.

Michael Eskenazi is an exciting guitarist who has recently returned to the Ballard area of Seattle.  Though young in age, Michael has a mature warmth to his sound and a deep pocket and sense of swing like a seasoned veteran.  

JB:  Growing up in Seattle, what inspired you to play jazz guitar?

ME:  I grew up around music and I think I was always interested in it from a young age. Nobody in my family played music but my dad is a huge music lover. Though he wasn’t a musician himself, he went to Franklin High School in the 1970s when the Franklin Jazz Lab was great, and most of his friends played music. Some of them went on to be professional musicians and became influences in my life. So, I grew up listening to all the great funk, R&B, and soul music of the 70s. When I started playing music, I got really into the blues and Jimi Hendrix. But after about three years, I wanted to expand my horizons. I was reading an interview in Guitar Player magazine with Vernon Reid, of Living Colour, one of my favorite guitarists. He talked about being influenced by Eric Dolphy and Charles Mingus. So, the next day I left school early, went to Easy Street Records in Seattle, and bought Out to Lunch and Mingus Ah Um. Pretty much forward from there, I was obsessed with jazz. 

I was going to Ballard High School at the time, in my senior year, I decided to join the jazz band. Gary Hammon taught saxophone there and he ended up being a huge musical influence for me, and one of my best friends. I would skip class and just talk to him about music for hours. He ended up giving me one of my first gigs and some of the most valuable musical advice I’ve ever gotten. We have been playing together ever since. He also encouraged me to go and study in New York.

JB:  Talk about the things you appreciated most about your guitar studies at New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music in New York City.

ME:  The thing I appreciated most was getting to be around some of the greats in jazz. When I first got to New York, musically I was way behind everyone else. It was only in my senior year of high school that I began to seriously study jazz. So, when I got to New York and saw how good everybody was, I had a lot of catching up to do. But having guys like Vic Juris, Charles Tolliver and Jimmy Owens teaching and believing in me, as well as just being around them really inspired me. Those were the guys I listened to on records, so becoming their student and friend was like a dream come true. Other than that, I hated school and left to go out and pursue playing music as soon as I could. 

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

ME:  This is a very hard question for me because I have way more than three. But I’ll give three of my favorites. The first would be Idle Moments by Grant Green. That’s one of the albums that really got me into the guitar in jazz. This album is a great example of how Grant can make his guitar sound like a horn. Some of the sweep picking that he does on the song “Nomad” really perked up my ears. It just sounded so creative and outside the box. There is also a lot of feeling on that record. 

Nathen Page Plays Pretty for The People is another one of my favorites. When I first heard Nathen Page I couldn’t believe my ears. He was one of the first guys on the guitar to play more intervalically but he also could swing his ass off. This record is just a great example of his playing. He phrases like nobody else. I also really love the sound he gets out of his guitar.  It’s completely unique. He played with a thumb pick and also did a lot of sweeping in his single-note phrases. I really like that. I love every album he plays on.

Barney Kessel’s The Poll Winners would be my third choice. This album is what a good guitar trio sounds like. Creative arrangements, interesting chord melodies, and they are all swinging their butts off.

JB:  You have studied with some “heavy hitter” guitarists in the New York area.  Talk about the impact of some of them on your playing.

Bruce Edwards?

ME:  When I first saw Bruce play my jaw probably hit the floor. He has everything in his playing that a great guitar player should have. He can fit into any situation musically from the avant-garde to the most straight-ahead swinging thing you can think of, and everything in between. That stood out to me because that’s what I strive for. I don’t like only one style. Bruce has a bag for everything and that’s what I want to have as well. He has helped me more than just about anybody else to become the player I am today.  I am happy that I can call him my friend.

Vic Juris?

ME:  I got assigned to study with Vic when I entered the New School, which I was absolutely thrilled about. Vic was a monster player and an even better person. He was a great teacher as well. When I entered the New School, I didn’t know how to read, or any music theory. All I wanted to do was play. I remember one time I had a lesson with Vic and he sat me down and told me that if I learned how to read, that he would have me sub for him whenever he needed a sub. I was shocked and I asked him, why me out of all the people? He just looked at me and said, “Because Mike, your playing has heart”. Of course, I didn’t learn to read better because I’m an idiot. But having someone of his caliber believe in me is something I’ll never forget. 

Ed Cherry? 

ME:  I remember going to see Ed play when I first got to New York. It was so swingin’. I fell in love with his playing, and I started studying with him. Ed has great taste in music and listened to a lot of the same stuff I did. We would talk about all of these deep-cut records that nobody’s ever heard of. He would always let me, and any other guitar player who showed up to his gigs, sit in. Ed is an amazing player and a great guy. I will always appreciate everything he has helped me with.

JB:  What do you appreciate most about the Ibanez George Benson model guitar you use?

ME:  It plays so easily. It’s small. It doesn’t feedback. What’s not to love?

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

ME:  I would say I’m not really a member of the Seattle jazz scene yet. There are some people here who have been really nice and welcoming but for the most part, I am not really included. It’s a goal of mine to get something of my own going soon.

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