Chicago Guitar

I’ve been living in Chicago for nearly a month, staying in Hyde Park with Steve Coleman’s band during a residency on the South Side. We’ve been doing concerts almost every night, workshops during the day, and hanging. It’s been some long hours in the shed, but I’ve been trying to find some time to venture out and explore the great variety of guitar players in this town. Here’s some thoughts on four generations of Chicago guitarists.

I met Mike Allemana about 8 years ago through Steve Coleman while doing a project in Michigan. I had heard Mike’s name a lot because he was Von Freeman’s guitarist at the time. He ended up working with Von for 15 years – some serious experience. Mike is a historian of the Chicago scene – he drove me around and showed me where all the old clubs used to be, relating stories about Gene Ammons, Johnny Griffin, Julian Priester, Eddie Harris, and other Chicago legends. Mike can handle the L-5 – an unflappable, soulful and mature player, having come up with veteran players, internalizing the history of the city.

with Mike Allemana, Logan Center

with Mike Allemana, Logan Center

A living piece of history is Von Freeman’s brother, George Freeman (born 1927). Mike took me to George’s house three times, and we sat and played and listened to stories for hours. These included getting turned on to guitar from Bo Diddley, hanging with John Coltrane in the late 40s, and playing with Charlie Parker in the early 50s. George grew up with the sound of the saxophone (coming out of the closet, where Von practiced), and his approach to the guitar seems to emulate horn-like slippery gestures and phrases. His setup is the most bizarre I’ve ever seen – an old 335 with frets filed flat, strings of strange gauges, a homemade pick, a strap drilled into the bottom of the body. George launched into tune after tune without hesitation. We played well worn stuff (Stompin’ at the Savoy, Indiana, Sunny Side of the Street, Lover, Cherokee, etc) and some things that I didn’t know so well (The Second Time Around, Fine and Dandy, some originals). George is a kind of trickster, often taking left turns on purpose – “those wrong notes come in handy” he said a few times. Most of our talk was about “bebop guitar,” but he kept threatening to “turn on the grease knob.” He did that on our last visit, cranking up and bending strings, playing a dirty blues.

at George Freeman's house

at George Freeman’s house

I heard about Henry Johnson (born 1954) years ago from my teacher Rodney Jones, who is about the same age. Then Steve Coleman (who is also the same generation) kept telling me I should look him up. So I called him and asked if I could come by his place and hang out. He generously spent the better part of a day with me, talking shop, playing, and telling stories. Henry is a link to a specific tradition of guitar playing in the Charlie Christian / Wes Montgomery / George Benson lineage. He has a serious resumé (Jack McDuff, Dizzy Gillespie, Stanley Turrentine, Jimmy Smith, Ramsey Lewis, many others), and plays with a light touch, relaxed and in the pocket. We talked a lot about Benson, who is his mentor and who I have a lot of questions about. My picking style is modeled on Benson with some science fiction thrown in, and I wanted to ask Henry for some right hand secrets – “you’re doing it already, just lighten up a little and you’ll be good,” he advised. I’ve been working on that for a long time – the light touch is key to so many things (speed, relaxation, etc). I have to balance this with my own aesthetic of heavily accented, rhythmic playing. We talked about gear (specifically, Thomastik 13s and heavy picks), 3-fingered playing, tunes, and how there aren’t many young guitarists carrying on in the line of plug and play – clean tone, dealing with the naked instrument and what you can do with it. Henry came down to a Five Elements gig and sat in. The band played “Recordame” and “All the Things You Are” in some different rhythmic cycles and Henry swam through it like a fish in the water.

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with Henry Johnson

Strings: with Anthony Tidd, Henry Johnson, and Mike Allemana

Strings: with Anthony Tidd, Henry Johnson, and Mike Allemana

I had been hearing about Bobby Broom (born 1961) for many years, but I neglected to check him out until he came out with a record of Monk tunes  in 2009. After I heard his time feel on this record, I was a fan. He’s a rare guitarist with a relaxed sense of rhythm and a conversational approach to phrasing, combined with a heavy sense of the groove and the blues. A restrained player who can whip some ass if necessary. Bobby has a long list of credits, most notably as the guitarist for Sonny Rollins. Lately, his band has been touring with Steely Dan. I came to meet him a couple of times at Andy’s, where he was playing in the house band. We sat talking and watching the jam session. A lot of notes flying around. Bobby showed noticeable relief when the air cleared out for a bass solo. You can tell from his playing that he values space. His patience in the process of improvisation holds your attention – there’s suspense involved, and storytelling. New York tends to be a more “in your face” vibe, so for me this kind of approach is like fresh air.

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with Bobby Broom

I met Scott Hesse around 1997, when he was an ex-student of Rodney Jones, and I was just arriving in New York. We had some marathon guitar nerd sessions with Rodney, trading choruses of rhythm changes or Giant Steps for hours and that kind of thing. Rodney taught (and still teaches) a skill set that is very versatile. Focus on time, groove, picking, accuracy, fundamental stuff. Some of his students went on to commercial or pop music routes (most notably Lukasz Gottwald a.k.a. “Dr. Luke”) and some took more esoteric routes (Scott and yours truly). Scott is a phenomenally talented player – his fundamentals are rock solid. Tone, articulation, repertoire, time. He moved to Chicago in 2004 and found like-minded folks at the Velvet Lounge, where he spent a lot of time working with Fred Anderson and musicians associated with the AACM. When I called him, he was in the middle of moving his family to a new house and getting ready for a recording session the next day, but he made time to hang for the night and catch up. (By the way, this place has an incredible burger). Being about the same age as me (Scott’s from ’70, I’m from ’74), we talked a lot about choices that we’ve made, and where we’ve arrived so far. “I don’t get called much for straight ahead gigs any more, but I’m doing almost entirely stuff that I want to do,” he said. It’s a big accomplishment in our field, to find a unique direction, follow it, and still manage to stay afloat.

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with Scott Hesse

Tomorrow I’ll play in Millennium Park with Steve Coleman, finishing up this Chicago adventure. I’ll be thinking about what I’ve gathered from these practitioners of the guitar. As musicians we deal with a lot of areas – theory, composition, repertoire, business and logistics, etc. Sometimes I get so involved in this stuff that I neglect research into the instrument itself. There’s no end to improving your craft – sharpening the tools and seeing what other people are doing. The age of the internet hasn’t been able to defeat the geography of the music scene. There is no substitute for physically going somewhere and getting into it – like all places with a deep history, Chicago has a specific vibe. I’ve tried to catch a piece of it. Thanks for the hang, folks, see you next time.

with Steve Coleman

with Steve Coleman