Interview with Guitarist Vic Juris
This is an interview I did over the phone with Vic Juris in 2011.
Vic Juris is one of the most in-demand and versatile guitarists in jazz, best known for his contribution to Dave Liebman’s group over the last two decades. The trio from his Omega is the New Alpha album, with Adam Nussbaum and Jay Anderson, plays at the 55 bar the first Sunday of every month. His latest album, Listen Here, is now available on Steeplechase. He is also featured on the new Tim Hagans record The Moon is Waiting, has a Hendrix Tribute band with Sheryl Bailey, and teaches jazz at the New School and Rutgers University.
The New York City Jazz Record: I’ve been listening to a bunch of your albums and they sound really beautiful. I really like the Remembering Eric Dolphy album and Omega is the New Alpha.
Vic Juris: Omega is the latest one that I have done. There’s a new one coming out in about another week. It's an organ trio. It's with Brian Charette and Anthony Pensiaty.
TNYCJR: What are you guys playing?
VJ: It's a combination of some standards and some originals. But I think it puts the organ trio in a kind of new light; kind of in a more modern setting rather than - you know there’s some traditional sounding things but there's also some freer-type things and some funkier-type things. I don't think it’s the typical organ trio thing, it's a little different.
TNYCJR: I was looking at your bio and you have played with a lot of organ players: Jimmy Smith, Wild Bill Davis, who else?
VJ: I was fortunate enough to get to play with some of the master organists, you know, when I was younger- Don Patterson, Shirley Scott and people like that. That was a really good experience to get early on.
TNYCJR: So you were playing at organ clubs or what?
VJ: We were playing you know some organ-type places but also some regular clubs. That was a really good experience to get early on.
TNYCJR: So you were coming up in Jersey in the Seventies, right?
VJ: Yeah. When I graduated high school there weren't that many opportunities to go to music school to study jazz in those days. Berklee was like the only place, really. So, you know, it was pretty expensive. I came from a kind of a lower middle class blue collar town in New Jersey and not everybody went to college. Nobody really had the money to send their kids to college in those days, so I started hanging out in the city, and then Pat Martino had recommended me to Don Patterson so I played with his trio for a while. It was great, you know, we played trio with Don and Billy James. We also got to play with Sonny Stitt.
VJ: And then, you know, I went to Jimmy Smith's trio for a while with Bobby Durham. The drummer had recommended me for that so I did that for a while; then the Wild Bill Davis for a little while, but I was also playing like, you know, fusion-type stuff too. You know, electric stuff also, like, the newer generation. What’s different now is people graduate college and they kind of play with each other, but in my time, [in my] early twenties, you were also apprenticing with all the masters as well as doing stuff with your peers.
TNYCJR: So you would kind of play one way when you were playing with the organ trios, and then you'd take it all the way out there with your own groups?
VJ: Exactly. The stuff I was doing was more electric. I was playing a Les Paul, and using effects and things. We were playing like, you know, Return to Forever was big then, with Mahavishnu and Larry Coryell, so a lot of us were gravitating toward that stuff. ‘Cause we were coming up in the 60's, listening to Hendrix, you know, all that stuff. So we were kind of bringing that into the jazz thing. The older guys, they hated that stuff!
TNYCJR: Were you playing for bigger audiences with those fusion projects?
VJ: Mostly jazz clubs. New York had tons of clubs in those days, like, it still does, but there were even more. Live music was really flourishing.
TNYCJR: There was probably a lot of different kinds of people that were coming down to check out that kind of thing.
VJ: Absolutely. Everybody was hanging out. So, you know, we were also checking out a lot of the rock stuff and folk stuff. It was kind of like one big community.
TNYCJR: So it was all part of that [Greenwich Village] folk scene?
VJ: Yeah, like the Bitter End and even Kenny's Castaways originally, when it first opened, it had jazz. Bleeker street had about 8 or 9 clubs and MacDougal street, The side streets all had clubs. There were piano bars. And everybody was sitting in and playing.
TNYCJR: It was more loose with people sitting in with other people's bands?
VJ: Sure. I used to sit in with everybody. I remember even playing in front of the Village Gate one night, had a little trio, and Ornette Coleman came by and he said “Oh, I'm gonna come back with my violin.” I mean he never did but that’s the kind of stuff that was going on. You never know who you'd hear. You'd hear a band playing and somebody would sit in. It was a little more open in those days.
TNYCJR: Yeah, I feel like the country has gotten kind of conservative again.
VJ: Yeah, and the cover charges were really low, like I remember going to hear Keith Jarrett at Slugs with Dewey Redman, Paul Motion and Charlie Haden. I think it was 3 dollars to get in or something like that. There was never any problem. Sometimes if you didn't have the money you could just plead your case and they'd let you in anyway. But it was a completely different time. It was before the internet. It was really a transitional period because it was maybe 15 years after the whole bebop era. It was kind of like it is now, kind of. It seems like a transitional period.
I think right now, since a lot of the older musicians, unfortunately, are leaving us it’s almost like a rebirth, where a lot of musicians are graduating school and starting their own groups and laying the groundwork for the next phase. They will eventually become the older generation and the next wave that comes out of school will be apprenticing with them.
TNYCJR: I wanted to ask a couple of things about your playing. You have a really beautiful chordal concept and I was wondering where that came from; whether it developed in Liebman's group or what?
VJ: A lot of it comes from playing with Liebman. The last 10 years or so that I've been playing with him it’s been a piano-less band so I’ve had to take a lot from the piano score; He writes everything, basically, from the piano. I kind of try to get as close as I can to that sound when I'm working on it; and I’ve fortunately been able to bring a lot of that type of harmony to my own playing, my own writing. It’s really been valuable; he's a master musician and he's shown me a lot about harmony.
TNYCJR: Yeah, it seems like no one else can fit that many notes into one chord and have it sound good.
VJ: Well, you know, the thing you do is like: he has the melody and then the bass player will get the bottom and, you know, all great compositions throughout history are really from… you can go back to Beethoven, Bach, its all from the anatomy of the human hands at the piano, like the far left of your hand gets the bass function, the middle is the harmony and then the upper right hand is the melody. So that’s where a lot of guitar players miss the boat, they just think of the chord and the melody and [end up] neglecting the bass and the counterpoint function. The guitar is a great instrument in that it can function as a second horn or a chord instrument. It has that kind of timbre. Where a piano, it is limited, cause it’s a kind of a one-dimensional sound; but with a guitar you can do a lot of things, plus you have acoustic, you know, the nylon string. There’s a lot of colors that I bring in when I play with my own thing and Liebman.
TNYCJR: And your technique of comping behind your own solos, did you come up with that yourself?
VJ: That just kind of happened. I listen to a lot to piano players. Sometimes if you play two bars of chords and then two bars of lines it simulates the left and right hand at the piano. So that’s something I discovered on my own, so I would use that as an exercise. So then after a while they are kind of like training wheels - after a while I started to play that way naturally. A lot of young guitar players just play a lot of lines, they don't play any chords, but the guitar is a chord instrument.
TNYCJR: I was noticing you will bend a note, hit it, and then gliss down and do some kind of microtonal things. I was wondering if that came out of playing with Liebman where he bends stuff around a lot.
VJ: That kind of bending down really comes out of my early rock days listening to Chuck Berry. He used to do stuff like that all the time. He'd bend a note, then hit it and bend down. A lot of the early rock players like T-bone Walker, Bo Diddley they did that kind of thing. The first records I had were Chess records- Howling Wolf, Muddy Waters, a lot of those guys really tried to get a horn-like sound in the way they bent notes. You listen to those recordings and they're all playing in flat keys, they aren't really playing in guitar keys, they’re playing in horn keys.
TNYCJR: Why do you think that is?
VJ: They were picking up a lot of stuff from horn players like King Curtis. He was like one of the first blues/rock horn players.
Growing up in the 60’s at that time you had Miles' group, Herbie and Wayne, Coltrane's group, you had all the Motown stuff and the British stuff, the Beatles, and all that was happening in the same decade. And there weren't walkmans or, like, phones in those days, so you'd hear everything blasting out of storefronts. People had these little transistor radios and you could here the music coming out of buses. It was unbelievable.
TNYCJR: Did you feel like there was just more music around?
VJ: Well, that decade was a total decade of change. ‘Cause jazz had gone to another level with Miles' group and Coltrane's group, but you also had people like Albert Ayler, Ornette and Cecil Taylor, Eric Dolphy especially. I was absorbing all that at the same time, as well as Aretha and the Temptations and the Beatles. It was a pretty amazing decade to grow up as a teenager. We were just soaking it all up, you know.
TNYCJR: So you’d just come hang out in the city and hear all this different stuff?
VJ: It was unbelievable. I remember as a kid I’d take the train over; I remember one night I walked from the Village Gate, I heard Monk play, and then I walked from there over to hear Keith Jarrett and then I heard Sonny Rollins all in the same evening.
TNYCJR: Holy shit!
VJ: Talk about jazz. Holy shit! [laughs] But you know, that's just what was going on, you know.
TNYCJR: That’s amazing.
VJ: You know it was pretty amazing. I was an 18-year-old kid hearing this stuff. It was so inspiring; and these guys didn't mess around, they were hitting hard, you know.
TNYCJR: What's it like teaching- you’re teaching at the New School, right?
VJ: Yeah, I’m teaching at the New School and Rutgers University.
TNYCJR: What's it like working with some people that are just getting into jazz now?
VJ: Well, it’s really great. A lot of people are bringing in arrangements of the standard repertory, as well as original compositions that are, you know, there are a lot of young players showing a lot of promise. I had a lot of great people go through my ensembles. I’ve had cats like Robert Glasper, Mike Moreno and Becca Stevens.
TNYCJR: Do you think there is a trend of people shying away from stuff that swings?
VJ: I saw this whole thing on YouTube, they're calling it some kind of jazz-nerd thing, I don’t know. I think it’s just a reflection of the time. Everybody wants to be the hip new person, and somehow swing is getting lost in that. It’s not considered to be hip anymore. But I think it’s really important for people to learn how to play the tradition, because its really the foundation of the music.
It’s really a lifetime thing. I think everyone’s in too much of a hurry to make their own CD. I remember in the old days, when I started, you didn't make your own record till you played as a sideman on at least 10 other records before a company would at least consider you, and now its like people have a CD while their still in high school or college. I’ll go on the road and I come back with 10 or 15 CDs in my suitcase of people I’ve never even heard of. People hand them out like business cards.
TNYCJR: Yeah, The recording environment is not as selective as it used to be.
VJ: The market is saturated with jazz records by people you've never even heard of. But that’s just the way it is now.
TNYCJR: But I think its hard because a lot of people just want to be playing and there’s not that many gigs out there.
VJ: Sure, there's 10 times as many players and not enough gigs, and everyone's really in a state of desperation. If you’re not established and a club doesn’t know who you are its really hard to carve a place for yourself. You know, fortunately I’ve been around for a while so I’ve managed to work a good amount, as much as I want to. But there's a lot of people who are up and coming and, you know, they'll get there its just… there’s 5-10 schools in New York that have jazz programs. When I was coming up there wasn't even one. You could go to Julliard or Manhattan, but you'd have to study classical. There was no place to go as an electric guitarist.
TNYCJR: I think of you as a really great accompanist. What do you think is important to do in order to become a really good sideman?
I played with a lot of vocalists, sometimes duo gigs, sometimes with a trio, and a lot of times we played for dances. So you had to be a good rhythm guitarist, you had to have a good harmonic concept to back up the singer. Playing with vocalists, learning to play rubato with the bar lines being taken away, is a good way to learn. But that’s what a lot of us did, we played with singers.
TNYCJR: You played with Mel Tormé?
VJ: Yeah, I played with Mel Tormé, Sarah Vaughn, Nancy Wilson, a lot of good singers.
TNYCJR: Was it fun playing with them?
VJ: Absolutely. And in those days a lot of singers didn’t bring charts, you had to know the tunes and you had to be able to play them in whatever key they called.
Horn players would do that too, Sonny Stitt would play, when I worked with him he wouldn't play any standards in their conventional keys. He might play the same tune five nights in a row, and play the tune in a different key every night just to keep it fresh and interesting. And he would expect sidemen to be able to play in those keys. I wouldn't really trade the way I learned for anything. It was allon-the-job training, learning on the bandstand, and it was really invaluable. But you know I wouldn't mind studying arranging, learning how to write for large ensembles- I think music school is really good for that.
TNYCJR: And at least for just bringing together a lot of like-minded people and giving them a couple years to work on music together.
VJ: Exactly, ‘cause a lot of times I was really frustrated. There was information I needed that I really couldn't get on my own, and there weren't that many books around either. There weren't a lot of people teaching jazz privately either. And a lot of guys, Liebman and his crew, a lot of them studied privately with Lennie Tristano. There was another piano player named Hal Overton that also taught a lot of people.
TNYCJR: What about Charlie Banacos?
VJ: Charlie Banacos, I ending up studying with for over 10 years, and I think he was the best teacher that ever lived for jazz. I studied with him for 10 years and never met him. We did everything through correspondence.
TNYCJR: You just wrote letters or what?
VJ: We just sent a tape back and forth, and he would give me the lesson, I’d put it on the tape send it back, and this went on for over 10 years and I learned so much from him.
TNYCJR: You must have met him at one point.
VJ: I never met him, no, never met in person
TNYCJR: I'd love to hear some of those lessons.
VJ: Incredible. I'm still going back over all the information he gave me over all the years, but the way he taught was in really small doses. That's really the way to get it. A lot of time you get too much info at once and it's hard to assimilate it, but he was just like a spoonful at a time and it really worked for me.
TNYCJR: That seems to be the problem with a lot of education these days with the top-down model, trying to jam as much as possible into the curriculums.
VJ: The brain is not that big. You know, you can’t fit a suitcase into a human brain.
TNYCJR: It seems to have a function that it shuts down if there’s too much info going in.
VJ: Exactly, and plus, everybody's so young too. They don't have any playing experience. But I guess it's good. When you go to school you should write everything down and then you have the rest of your life to sort it out. Life becomes a natural editor.
TNYCJR: When I was in school I didn't see it as just the beginning of something, after getting out of high school it felt like, this is the real thing now.
VJ: Learning how to solo- a solo is supposed to tell a story from point A to point B. It’s not about blasting through the changes with each chord. If you're going to play three choruses you should have a beginning, a middle, and an end. That's what Wes was so good at. If you go back to those solos, every one tells a wonderful story. Those players, like, the players I listened to were like Wes Montgomery, Kenny Burrell, Tal Farlow, Barney Kessel, Herb Ellis, George Benson, Grant Green, Johnny Smith.
VJ: I haven't thought about a lot of this stuff in a long time, Ryan. Watch out man, the years fly by! But you know, I think the music is in good hands. There's a lot of really great guitarists- a lot of good players coming up. I think its really a transitional period though. I think in another ten years something new is going to evolve from all this. You know what you might want to mention is that I have a trio with Adam Nussbaum and Jay Anderson, you know the Omega [is the New Alpha] band. We play the 55 bar the first Sunday of every month; its a really good show.
TNYCJR: What about the Hendrix tribute with Sheryl Bailey?
VJ: Yeah, that's starting to evolve. We just played the Syracuse Jazz Festival and we’ve also been playing the 55 bar, and there's an album coming out of that pretty soon. Its gone be on vinyl, actually. That'll be released shortly, and the new organ trio is called Listen Here, that's on Steeplechase records
TNYCJR: Like the Eddie Harris tune?
TNYCJR: I’ve been listening to the new Tim Hagans record The Moon is Waiting and it sounds really good.
VJ: You got that? I don't even have that. That's a hell of a record.
TNYCJR: It sounds amazing.
VJ: Yeah, I'm really excited about that record. I think that’s gonna do a lot of good for all of us. We're gonna do a gig at Birdland in October, an early set.
TNYCJR: Thank you so much for doing this.
VJ: Thank you so much, it's nice of you to keep me in mind for this. Every little bit helps.