Experience is the best teacher: A few questions with Giacomo Gates
Giacomo Gates, and his velvety toned baritone voice will grace the New York Jazz Workshop teaching a masterclass on May 19th. As a supplement to the profile piece just published, I had the opportunity to ask him a few brief questions. In this very rich interview you’ll find the wisdom experience is the best teacher, and the qualities that make great solos to learn for vocalese. My thanks to school co founder Marco Chelo, and Christian Dowd, Giacomo Gates’ publicist, for setting up this interview and Mr. Gates for taking time out of his busy schedule.
CJ: In a recent interview with Mark Rowe, you discussed the importance of on the band stand apprenticeship with great players to truly learn the in and outs of the music. You’ve been incredibly fortunate early on in your career to sit in with personal heroes like the great Billy Mitchell, and perform with the legendary Jon Hendricks. Truly the on the bandstand training approach of Art Blakey, Miles Davis, Rashied Ali and many others is a lost art. Today musicians like Wallace Roney, Terence Blanchard and Pat Metheny uphold this tradition in their bands fostering young talent. I know you’ve discussed witnessing young players on the band stand and being taken aback by conversations in which they feel they know everything from just attending a music school. Talk about the differences between an apprenticeship vs. purely academic approach in terms of learning this music.
GG: I’ve had a few vocations, and tried very hard to excel at them, because the level of what I did would have an effect on how long I was on the job. There was no seniority that kept you working, it was how well you performed, how much you produced and what kind of attitude one had. When I showed up for a job, I’d look around for the person who seemed the best among the rest, and I would ask questions, ask reasons, ask why. There always seemed to be a protocol in what one did, and that too, is important to me. One can learn from a book or school, then the hands on experience with a mentor brings it to a higher level. For me, experience is the best teacher, although the tuition is very high. Also, in order to teach a dog tricks, one has to know more than the dog.
CJ: And now a two pronged question: Your recording of Gil Scott Heron’s music in 2011, is certainly one of the most important records in your career. You took the music of an icon that truly spoke about issues in society that demanded investigation and utterly transformed the material in your unmistakable manner. What are the inherent challenges in re contextualizing music from other genres to time tested jazz components like swing, and interesting harmony? In his famous article on Black American Music, Nicholas Payton said that all great African American music has an element of swing. Heron’s phrasing to my ear has it’s own unique swing, so does an observation like that make the music easier to adapt to a classic jazz vocal format?
GG: Thank you. Gil Scott-Heron was quoted that he came out of Jazz and Rhythm & Blues. Gil had a lot of important things to say…and some were said with a sense of humor. I was a fan of Gil’s music in the 1970’s and I sang what I could relate and connect to. Musically, it wasn’t much of a stretch to sing his songs…they are certainly rhythmic and lend themselves to swing and a ‘jazz feel.’
CJ: Vocalese has to be one of the most challenging formats our music has to offer. Unless one truly knows the history of the music it’s hard or nearly impossible to seem authentic to a music is so rich in history, particularly with the various standards albums made by artists not typically associated with jazz. My own introduction to vocalese as a fan was when I was given a tape at 4 or 5 years old that had a live recording of “Poppity Pop” featuring Lambert, Hendricks and Ross backed by the Basie rhythm section. I was blessed to be raised by my mother who also fostered my passion for music at a young age. I’d always try to sing along with Hendricks’ great solo. What are great solos for serious or even semi casual singers to learn, especially in terms of vocalese? (i.e. the Dexter Gordon Columbia sides with Eddie Jefferson)
GG: One has to like the solo and the song it comes from…I’d call it, ‘being able to connect with the solo.’ It’s easier to sing a solo that is played by a lyrical and melodic player, as the notes do translate into words, after hearing it many, many times. A blues might be less complicated, as there are less changes and most likely, no bridge. Hearing something over and over, listening carefully, and noticing nuances, hearing when to breathe, and matching the ‘right words’ to the ‘right notes.’ It’s also very important to have something to say.