Interview with Sonny Greenwich for Just Jazz Guitar, May, 2001, issue #27

There are a few artists whose work established an immediate paradigm the first time that I listened to them perform; Jim Hall, Bill Evans….a few others that I was so fortunate to have heard, and of course, guitarist, Sonny Greenwich. The first time that I heard Sonny was around 1979 or 80 playing with Claude Ranger. The sheer power of his performance with the band, infused with spiritual energy and brilliant clarity stamped an indelible imprint on my own musical consciousness that has never left. Good fortune allowed me to have seen Sonny play on many occasions  and in 2001 I interviewed him for Just Jazz Guitar magazine. Here is the text of the interview.

Interview with Sonny Greenwich for Just Guitar Magazine, issue #27, May 2001 by Roy Patterson

R.P. I was wondering Sonny if you can remember your very first
impressions of music.
S.G. Well, my father was a jazz musician. He played the piano, and his
favourite musician was Art Tatum, and…. he had a big record collection.We
had Dizzy Gillespie’s big band, Art Tatum, Sarah Vaughan, Roy Eldridge,
Erroll Garner, Coleman Hawkins; so I grew up on all these people around
the house.
That’s what I’d hear all the time. My father played guitar, just sparingly, but
my uncle played guitar too, and they would have jam sessions, and my father
would take me to them. That’s where I started listening to the guitar.
R.P. Did your uncle give you any guitar lessons or pointers?
S.G. He showed me three chords, (laughs) and they were to the song, “I’m
Confessin,” which Pat Martino put out on an album with Les Paul. I didn’t
know what the names of the chords were. I just played them without
knowing their names. I started out there.
R.P. How did you start working professionally?
S.G. O.K., so I was listening to these things and listening to Charlie Parker
too, ‘cause I remember my father wanted to take me to the Massey Hall
concert, and he came back from the war with a German guitar and gave it to
me. I started fooling around on it and learning some things as I was listening
to the radio, to things that Charlie Parker played in particular. I was sitting
on my porch one day in the west end of Toronto playing the guitar, and these
guys were driving by and backed up and then got out of the car and asked
me if I wanted to play a dance gig. That was Connie Maynard, the pianist. I
said, “Yes, but I don’t have an electric guitar.” I knew these two guys who
played all kinds of music, Country & Western…. you know…. and one of
them loaned me his guitar, and I played the dance. That’s how I got started.
They were playing Rhythm&Blues, and when I came on stage they were
surprised because I had been listening to Charlie Parker and played all those
licks.
R.P. Were there any band leaders that you worked for in the early stages
that you think of as being important in terms of your early development?
S.G. Well, Connie played like Wynton Kelly at that time, and he was the
one that really got me going. And you see, I read some things about Charlie
Parker, and he said to always think in minor sevenths. So I asked Connie,
“What is a minor seventh?” He would play a blues and I figured out what
minor sevenths fit over the chords, and after that I was always playing this
way while they were playing that way. That’s how I got started hearing
things differently.
R.P. So you were superimposing one structure over another.
S.G. Yea, that’s how I really got started playing a different way. So, a minor
seventh. (laughs) I still think that way today. I’ll put them over majors too. I
had a lot of problems with that when I first started playing. I’d be trying to
do this stuff over the top and we had some real clashes.
R.P. At what point did you get interested in modal music? Was it from
listening to John Coltrane?
S.G. Yea, Miles and Coltrane. Since I was self-taught I didn’t know what a
mode was. Actually, it was an extension of the minor seventh idea. I didn’t
know modally what I was playing, but it was modal music.
R.P. It seems like the guitar is a really difficult instrument to think on and
get organized. The piano is very graphic, and horns have basically one set of
fingerings, but there is this finger board that is like a maze. Do you have any
particular way that you view the instrument?
S.G. When I was in school I was studying art and playing mostly R & B,
and a bit of jazz on the side. I didn’t want to play R & B anymore because
all the R & B licks were coming into my jazz thing. I had known of this
artist , Paul Klee, who was a cubist. So I sat down and looked at the finger
board and thought that these diagrams and the finger board are very similar
to cubism. I thought that I should be able to play these forms on the guitar
and started studying to do that. I spent a lot of time playing the guitar by
using these forms. Then I came out to this club to play and they were
playing “Love For Sale”. I played these forms over it and was able
to continuously play inside and outside using these forms. That’s where I
got my ideas of construction on the guitar.
R.P. When I hear you play, what you are talking about makes perfect sense
to me.
S.G. I can play this way right through whatever chords are being played.
R.P. So you think about getting from point A to point B through a series of
these forms.
S.G. Yea.
R.P. Of course you would have a sound associated with each of these forms,
right?
S.G. Yea, that’s right. I have a particular sound in mind for the guitar too.
When I heard Sonny Rollins when he was doing “Tenor Madnes” and those
things I thought, “Wow, what a sound!” I’ve got to try and get a sound like
that on the guitar.” And when I heard Coltrane I thought the same thing too.
I heard Miles Davis say that if he couldn’t have his sound he couldn’t play.
Its the same with me.
R.P. I was always curious as to how you came to record with Hank Mobley.
S.G. Well, when I was in new York I was doing these things with John
Handy and some extra things as well, and getting an underground name. I
played a concert with Bobby Moses and was really playing wild then, firing
these things way up on the strings……When I finished my solos the audience
would just sit there thinking, “What is this guy doing.” So my name got
around. (laughs) Also, I had played in Toronto with Wayne Shorter and Lee
Morgan, so they took my name to Alfred Lyon at Blue Note. So that’s how I
got that thing with Hank Mobley. I was supposed to play with Larry Young
too. There I was standing on the corner with my guitar waiting and waiting,
and he didn’t show up. So I never got to do that, and I REALLY wanted to.
R.P. How long were you in the U.S. for?
S.G. I was there for a year with John Handy and came back. Then I went
back down to play with Charles Loyd at the Vanguard and for a week there
with my own group. But I had all kinds of trouble crossing the border with
my papers and all that stuff, then I dropped it and sort of got put in the
background. When I played with Miles Davis he said that he could get me in
there with no problem, that he had a good lawyer, but he never did call me
about that.
R.P. You played with Miles in Toronto, is that right?
S.G. Yea, I played with Miles in Toronto, and that was interesting too. He
had me sit with him all the time if I wasn’t playing with the band, and he
would talk to me about the musicians while they were playing.
R.P. These were the guys in his band that he was talking about?
S.G. Yea, Wayne Shorter, Chick Corea,….you know….and he would say
things like, “What’s that shit that Wayne Shorter is playing?” He’d be
looking right at Wayne while he was playing and talking about him. (laughs)
I’ll have to tell Wayne about that sometime. (laughs) I played opposite Miles
in Toronto as well, and he would come over and tap me in the chin cause we
were both interested in boxing.
R.P. Composition has been an important part of the music from the
beginning, and it seems like it is an important part of your music as well. Do
you have any particular way that you approach writing music?
S.G. I was reading what you said about your approach, and then I was
trying to think, “What IS my approach?” Sunshower, on that “Standard
Idioms” recording, and Memories of Miles…….I wanted to do that kind of
album, and I was sitting in front of this window, looking out, just after a
rain, and I had been toying with these different sounding chords, and out of
that I got Sunshower. Memories of Miles……I listened to Bill Evans “Blue &
Green,” and was trying to do the same kind of voicings on the guitar that
you can get on the piano, but trying to do them in a different way, yet with
the same kind of sound. I think of them as having a very pure sound. When I
played it in Toronto with Brian Dickinson on piano, he naturally played the
chords exactly the way they were written on the guitar.
R.P. Piano players often voice in a way that reinforces the overtone series,
and they can get a very “ringing” sound.
S.G. That’s exactly what Imm talking about. If you could get that sound
recorded that way on the guitar….you know? Even Lenny, when he was
recorded, was playing piano kinds of things, but they still recorded it like a
guitar sound. I’m working on trying to get a piano kind of sound.
R.P. Your sense of time has always been very impressive. I’ve been amazed
at how much can be going on in the band and how adventurous it can
become, yet you always seem completely relaxed with the time and the
form. I saw you play with Claude Ranger once, and the other musicians were
counting bars on their fingers during the drum solos and trading, but you
always knew where it was.
S.G. I think it is a natural thing, but it could be from seeing my father and
uncle tap dance. They were good tap dancers. I don’t know, but I always had
a good sense of rhythm, and I listen to that in other players, like Miles….I
heard them play Round Midnight at an up tempo, and these chords were
going by really fast…. and I was wondering how they were keeping the
structure, but I guess all good players have a good sense of time. I can keep
my concentration no matter what’s going on.
R.P. So you have always had that ability? You didn’t have to work on it?
S.G. No, no I didn’t. It’s funny that you mention Claude Ranger though,
cause the first time that we played together he ran off the stage. That was
here in Montreal. But later he discovered that I was playing the right time.
(laughs) Maybe some questions about guitar players?
R.P. O.K., sure.
S.G. My father also had a really nice Charlie Christian record called “Solo
Flight.”
R.P. Oh yea, a very famous recording.
S.G. I was interested in how he played, but it just wasn’t my way of
thinking. Then there was Johnny Smith, who I liked in the beginning. Tal
Farlow used to amaze me with the chords he was playing behind Red Norvo,
and Barney Kessel was a heavy player back then. So those people did have
some kind of influence on me too.
R.P. Are there any contemporary guitar players that you like?
S.G. Well, I like John Abercrombie. I like a lot of stuff he does, and I like
his sound too. I think one of the best guitarists in the world right now,
overall, is Ed Bickert. I listen to some of the chords he plays and it just
really impresses me.
R.P. He always seems to come up with something fresh, and what he plays
seems so right.
S.G. Yea, as a guitarist it’s hard to beat him.
R.P. I understand that a recording that the two of you did a number of years
ago has just been issued. What is the title of that?
S.G. It’s called, “Days Gone By.”
R.P. When was it recorded?
S.G. In the late seventies, and the rhythm section is Don Thompson and
Terry Clarke. Its a real good rhythm section. We were all in the John Handy
group together.
R.P. Don Thompson mentioned that you played a session with Wes
Montgomery once, is that right?
S.G. Yea, that was at the Half Note in New York, with Wes and his
brothers, and Don, and my amp konked out, so I played on Wes’ amp, and it
sounded like him and me together. (laughs) After we played he said that he
was going to tell Coltrane about me, and a few months later there was an
article in a French magazine where he was asked who he liked on guitar, and
he mentioned my name. I’m really sorry that I lost the article.
R.P. Some Eastern traditions hold that music and some other art forms
should have an infusion of spiritual energy before it is considered valid.
During one period in Chinese history for example, the view was held that
for a landscape painting to be of any value, there had to be an infusion of
universal energy through the artist into the painting. I was wondering if you
have considered that in relation to your own music, or performances.
S.G. That’s exactly my concept. At the time that I was studying those forms
on the guitar, I was also studying different religions. I was reading the Gita,
the Upanishads….different texts, and I would directly relate this to my guitar.
I would read the books at night, then play the guitar, so it was totally a part
of my playing, and still is to this day. Before I play I meditate, which I can
do as a moving meditation, I don’t have to sit still, and I build up this energy
and then come out on the stage, and the energy is there. That’s really what is
behind my playing, and the reason why sometimes I didn’t play for a long
time. Sometimes I felt more like studying those spiritual things than actually
playing. I left the guitar for several years at one time, and when I picked it
back up I had advanced on the guitar because of what I had been studying. I
studied a lot of the religions, like Jainism, the Zorastrian religion, Sufism, …I
took years studying them, until I came to something that was there all the
time, a universal thing. I found that all these religions were basically one
thing. I would take my guitar out to a park at night and play to the stars, and
I thought that this is really what it is all about, the cosmic thing is what its
about. So, after years of studying, I put it together into one thing that is my
belief, and that is what I live by too. That’s the basis of my music. I don’t
just play for myself. There has to be a spiritual thing behind it, that’s why I
play music.
R.P. Well, I’ve really enjoyed this opportunity to chat. What is in the works
for your next project?
S.G. I want to try and do a solo guitar thing, and I have another sextet
recording similar to “Standard Idioms” lined up for the spring.
R.P. That sounds great. I’ll look forward to hearing it.
S.G. Well, lets get together with our guitars sometime.
R.P. I”d like that very much. Thanks.

Copyright Roy Patterson, Used by Permission

2 Comments

  1. greg packham says: | Reply

    Nice article. I saw Sonny a few times in Montreal. We had a few laughs when I told him about my recording at Van Gelder studio in New Jersey a few times. A couple of sessions with Elvin Jones, and another time with just my group. Rudy wore white gloves, and did not want anybody in the control room. And no eating, drinking, touching anything in the studio.
    Sonny told me how they nearly got thrown out during the Hank Mobley session when somebody started eating in the control room. Sonny thought that was it ! no session !!
    I love Sonny’s tone and approach. Very open and fresh.

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