A conversation with George
I first met George Kourmantzelis at UMass/Amherst while I was living in the Mildred Pierpoint dormitory as a participant in the Inquiry Program. I don't remember the exact circumstances of how we met; I suspect that it must have been through the weekly coffee house that I ran in the dorm's first-floor lounge.
George and I became fast friends, united by our love of music. We have kept in touch on and off over the years, but had not actually met in person since college.
George has had an interesting life, having gone on to study philosophy, own and operate his own health food store, form a record label (Aeolian Music Works) to specialize in experimental, psychedelic and world-beat music, and write a novel about his life in and around Amherst. And that's just the highlights. George's home page goes into much greater detail.
Events in our lives conspired to place us within an hours' drive this past fall. We took the opportunity to spend most of a day becoming reaquainted at my mom's home in Manchester, MA. Although our lives have taken dramatically different paths, we still hold to very compatible views regarding art and creativity.
George was kind enough to bring along some drums and his Fender resonator guitar on his visit, knowing that I was unable to bring my gear from the west coast. We spent about an hour of his visit jamming and talking about music. George recorded this session on his Zoom H2 recorder - the unit's maiden voyage, by the way. The following lightly-edited transcript is an excerpt from that session. While this transcript is far less formal than most of the articles on this site, I think you'll appreciate - as I do - George's thoughtful insights.
D: [plays some improv]
G: Wow, that's one of yours, Dave, right?
D: Just ... improv. Just pulling stuff out of the air.
D: Y'know, what I do is: I have a bunch of little themes and themelets and I just sort of pull them together intuitively. I'm starting to develop this map - in my mind - of the fingerboard and what things go together. I just have little fragments that I play in different pieces and, either by design or by accident, I'll end up in one part of the fingerboard and say "OK, that doesn't sound bad" and I'll repeat that a few times. Then I'll say "OK, where should that go?" and then I'll go someplace else. It just sort of all fits together.
G: Sort of tangentially to that I've noticed: everyone who has ever played that guitar, and more people have played it than I, has said to me that that guitar makes them do things that they normally wouldn't do.
D: I don't think that's true in my case. This is pretty much the way I play my electrics. For me this is a little bit stiffer than my guitars, so I'm not as fluid on this as I am on my own guitars. I'm playing pretty much the same stuff I always play.
G: It sounds good, man.
D: Thank you. [pause] Do you remember the Charlie Brown Christmas special?
G: Vince Guaraldi, yah. Great jazz pianist.
D: I remember very fondly some of the music from that special, having watched it many times during my childhood. I sort of remembered that song "Christmas Time ..." [hums] Without listening to the original, I came up with this piece. After I wrote this I went back and listened to the original and said, "Oh, I didn't get it, but I like mine better." [chuckles] It goes something like this... [plays "Vince"]
G: That is an elegant piece of music. Very elegant. The chords, I would imagine ... Maybe not, but I would imagine it's very difficult to play some of those chords you're playing. Those wide stretches you're doing.
D: It gets easier. One of the things I've started doing since I started doing the solo guitar thing is ... moreso than playing the folky chords which are really easy to finger and get good volume and stuff out of that ... I've been playing more on the electric, so I rely on the amplifier and I play with a very light touch on the electric guitar. What I've been doing is thinking more in terms of individual notes in the chords rather than the chord forms themselves. When I pick up the guitar sometimes, as an exercise I'll throw my fingers down in some pattern and see what it sounds like. I'll say "That sounds like an interesting chord. Where's that go?" then think, well maybe if I move that voice up a little ...
G: Plus you're really strumming the fullness of every string of the chord. You can hear each individual string. You're not chopping wood quickly. You're slowly going through the chords. Though it is a chord, you're hearing those notes resonating amongst each other, but there's a short enough span between hitting each note that it has a chord. You can still distinctively hear each note. Depending upon where you're placing your fingers alters subtly the tone of the chord.
D: There are two ways that I play most often. One is that arpeggiated thing that you just described, and doing the voice leading internal to the chord. The other is, particularly when I'm playing in the trio and I want to comp behind the bass player while he's taking a solo, I'll play more pianistically, plucking all the notes at once. Rather than strumming, I'll ... [demonstrates]
G: Kinda rhythmically.
D: It's like when you're comping on a piano... same thing on the guitar. In that thing I tried to play before ... [plays a snippet from "Take Back"] ... in the middle part where we play the solos, it's basically the changes to "Babe I'm Gonna Leave You". When some other person's soloing I'll play, instead of ... [plays chords arpeggiated] ...
G: I always loved that song.
D: Instead of playing fingerstyle like that I'll play more like ... [plays block chords]
G: Dave, what gauge strings do you use on your custom guitar?
D: They're 10 through 44. If you buy D'Addario nickel-wound strings, it's like having a set of 10s on the top and a set of 9s on the bottom. The bass strings are a little bit lighter than most people play them.
G: That gives you a little more flexibility with the bends.
D: Mainly it evens out the tension between the strings so you don't have to play the bass strings harder than the treble strings. It feels a bit more natural to me.
G: Do a lot of guys do that?
D: No. I started doing that eight years ago. I spent about six months experimenting with strings. I changed my strings three or four times a week - different brands, different gauges, ... and finally settled on this mixed ...
G: Wow, man. All that experimentation paid off ...
D: It really did.
G: ... because it works for you.
D: It works for me. Other people pick up my guitars and they say, "This feels weird". I say, "That's alright". It feels fine to me. [laughs] You don't have to play it."
G: That's what I did with my Les Paul. I actually play only five strings. I took the D string off and I put the low E where the D goes. I tune the guitar to open E. I only play barre chords with one finger. I mean, I'm a musical illiterate, Dave.
G: I'm into the rhythm and the basic root note, which is totally opposite from where you're coming from. It's not from lack of intent, it's from lack of ability, not having ever trained myself to play chords. I found that taking the D string off and putting the E string where the D goes and then tuning the whole thing to open E gives me a tone, in that style of playing, that appeals to me. So I know what you're saying when you say you change those strings, on the low strings, to a lighter gauge. It allows you not only hear in your head what you're tring to express, it also allows your fingers to maneuver in the way that you want.
D: Exactly. It's hard to separate cause from effect. You listen to a lot of guitarists, electric guitarists in particular ... The pros don't tend to go in this direction with the possible exception of Eric Johnson who's a nit picker about everything. Most pro guitarists can pick up any old guitar and sound great, whereas when you get into the ranks of the hobbyists and the amateurs, more often than not you'll hear a guitarist say, "Oh, I can't play without this guitar or that amplifier and that pedal." I adopted that stance when I started picking up the guitar again, then I realized that it's not so much the individual pieces but rather how I use them. I'm getting to the point now where I'll play my material no matter what guitar I pick up. Some people will say "When I play a strat through a tubescreamer into a Fender Twin and I go like this ... [bends a note] I get a sound that reminds me of ... whatever, and I'll play in that style." What I tend to do is say, "OK, I'm going to play this way no matter what I pick up. I'm going to spend fifteen seconds or thirty seconds to turn a few knobs get a sound close enough to the way I want it to sound, then I'll forget about the sound and play."
G: So you don't change your style of playing to accomodate the equipment? You keep your style of playing the same; whatever the equipment can do, if you can adjust it to the point where you get it close, then OK. But you're not going to change your style of playing.
D: That's right.
G: I think that's very wise. It's a consistency that defines you and your style and your tone. Something Pip once said when we were jamming. He used to work with Bad Brains as their back line manager, roadie, whatever you want to call it. He controlled what was happening with all the stuff in the back. Up until Conan O'Brien went to California he did lights for Conan O'Brien. He still works for NBC. He's one of the greatest musicians I've ever met. I learned a lot from him. He's a bass player and a guitarist and a songwriter. He used to say to me, "George, y'know what's very important with any instrument is, like ... when you hear Eric Clapton he keeps his style of playing the same. He doesn't change it." You're right. I think it's more important to maintain your integrity of how you express yourself, and try to accomodate whatever the equipment is.
D: I think there's a dichotomy at work here. I have a lot of respect for people that can pick up a guitar and play in five or a dozen different styles and do it well. That is real musicianship. To be able to read something on the page or hear something and play it back or play in that style ... I know people who can pick up a guitar and play country licks and heavy metal licks and the Eddie Van Halen tapping and bluegrass and jazz and do each of those styles very well and very convincingly. You wouldn't think it was necessarily the same guitarist. They've studied music enough that they can have this flexibility. I think of myself as ... I'm starting to think of myself as more of an artist than a musician, in that there is some music that I want to compose and play. That's my thing. That's what I do.
G: Like Joni Mitchell with all her open tunings. Nobody can play like her. She invents her own things. That's why only she sounds like she does.
D: That's kind of the direction ... Even back when we were in school and were doing the coffeehouses... After a couple years of that I finally got to the point where I was saying to myself, "This is enough of playing Neil Young and playing Joni Mitchell and all the folkies. It's time I started to carve out a style for myself." I started doing that, then got married and got distracted and put the guitar away for twenty years. When I came back I picked up where I left off.
G: I'm personally very glad that you did.
D: [chuckles] Me, too! This has made a huge difference in the quality of my life: being able to get back into music and do something creative rather than doing the same old thing every day.
G: It's important to carve out your own path and follow your vision and express yourself in the way you feel most comfortable and is most pleasurable to your ear. I know that I miss jamming with my friends. My dream had been to be in Maryland with Rebecca and jam with her and perform with her and record with her ... She does her stuff and I help her record it and I do my and she contributes to it ... We do stuff together and do cover versions and do a beautiful thing together, whether we jammed with other people or not. It never happend. She was so jealous that I couldn't jam with other people or go out and record people and make a little money. That led to the problems I told you about. It's not surprising that I'm here right now in your living room. I think a human being needs to be able to open up like a plant, to reach for the sky and the sun and the air. If a human being is compressed and repressed and prevented from being able to express oneself using whatever ability one has acquired, then it does damage not only to that human being but to the relationship. I need to play music. I need to, to be happy; to be sane; to be healthy.
D: That's what I realized when I started getting back into music. My younger son started playing drums and I started ... I bought a cheap guitar and I started playing with him and said, "I forgot how much I like this, and I'm not going to stop this time."
G: Thumbs up, Dave!
D: This is another thing I wrote a while ago. This was literally an exercise in voice leading. I started by playing a chord and asking, "What happens when I move the notes?" I sat down one day and grabbed a chord shape ... [plays first chord of "Kate"] ... and said, "OK, that's interesting. Where can I go from there?" I went through this sequence of changes ... I went to ... [plays second chord] ... the next chord that sounded good, then looked around for another chord ... [plays third chord] ... and so on ... [continues to play and talk].
G: It sounds a bit like "Amazing Journey" from "Tommy". Some of those chords that Pete Townsend played ...
D: Yah, a little bit of that. Some people hear a little bit of "Hotel California". It came together from going through the motions of trying to figure out, "Once I end up here, where can I go from there and have it sound good?" It came out something like this ... [plays "Kate"] That's the whole cycle, then it repeats. [plays as block chords]
G: So you can either strum it as a chord or you can fingerpick. You can incorporate both within the song.
D: Yah. I'll play that as a solo piece. The trio knows that tune as well, so we can riff on that for a while.
G: It's fascinating how you can just sit there and pluck one chord, maybe that you've never plucked before, and it inspires you to do something that is totally original.
D: It reminds you of something, then you say "OK, well... what if I go here or what if I go there instead?"
G: Dave, you have an adventurous, explorative, improvisational, free-form kind of spirit and mind about you anyway. Of course that would come through in your music. I would be very surprised if it didn't.
D: That makes sense. Like I said earlier, I haven't played a song in years. [laughs] It's always either something I write or something that I string together out of fragements.
G: Once Dennis McNally wrote somewhere ... I forget where he wrote it ... He was talking about the Dead as their publicist ... He said, "In reality, these guys are the greatest jazz band in the world." I never thought of the Dead in that way before. When I thought about it ... and I thought about it a lot ... He's right. If you really think about what jazz is, the meaning of jazz, getting beyond the early, primitive, funky sexual connotations ... They really encompassed that ethos as a band, much more so than any other band I can think of from our generation.
D: I heard them called that before. The more I think about it, the more I tend to agree with it. It's kind of interesting because that's something I'm personally wrestling with all the time. When people hear me play they say, "Oh, you play jazz." At first I said, "Not really...", because jazz has become so codified based upon the music from the twenties up through the sixties ... and if you want to get into fusion and modern jazz and stuff like that through the seventies and eighties and nineties ... In the pedagogical sense, people think that jazz has to be a certain way. You have to play jazz standards. You have to play stylistically adhering to the conventions that were established decades ago. That's nice if you want to honor the jazz tradition ... if you want to play old jazz standards or even more modern stuff. When jazz was being born people weren't thinking in terms of having to play a certain way, people were thinking "Let's take this song and do something different with it." The way I'm starting to think about what I play is that I have all these influences: I have the folk-rock from the late sixties through the early seventies; I have a little bit of blues-rock from that same period; I have the classical music that I grew up with; I have a little bit of jazz, in terms of harmonic structures and other bits that I've been trying to pick up for the last ten years. Putting all those together and playing improvisationally ... what do you call it? People who hear it call it jazz. I like to call it psychedelic folk jazz, honoring some of the core elements of the music.
G: I agree. I was going to say, even before you said all that, that it's a blend. When I hear your style of chord changes and the style in which you play those changes, and your phrasing and sense of rhythym, and the individual notes within the chords ... To me, I hear a combination of folk, classical, and the improvisational, experimental, free-form flow that exists within jazz. Jazz in and of itself - not all forms of jazz, but the bulk of jazz, whether it's pre-bebop or post-bebop - is an outgrowth of blues phrasings in a different tempo, but with classical structure, in a way. There's a lot of classical in jazz. Much more than, say, traditional folk music. The fact that jazz is primarily instrumental lends credence to the fact that ... blues doesn't have to be sung, it can be played. When you incorporate the blues with classical and then change the beat around a little bit, change the rhythym, you have a hybrid. That became kind of a form of jazz.
D: You add the swing feel to it ...
G: Right. And then when you throw in that far-out psychedelic fusion like when Billy Cobham was drumming and John McLaughlin was playing guitar with Myles ... even before he really got wacked out ... during the "Silent Way" and "Bitches Brew" period, they pushed it. They pushed the envelope. They didn't just make it louder and faster and more rhythmic and more percussive. They altered the whole form of it being blues mixed with classical and combined more of the classical with the rock. But it's still considered jazz. It's not rock music. So when I listen to you playing this instrumental stuff that you're playing ... to me, it comes closest to the spirit of jazz. Even though it's not jazz. It is what you said it is. It's like a psychedelic, folk, jazz kind of blend.
D: Even digging down into that, the folk that I think of myself as playing ... I tend to reach beyond the academic definition of folk where there's this folk period where you had ... going from the beatniks up through Jefferson Airplane or whatever ... The way I think of folk is: it's music of the people, literally. So my folk music is different from the folk music of the people that I'm drawing it from. In other words, ...
G: Well, jazz could be folk music depending upon the audience.
D: Exactly. If you look back to the whole sixties San Francisco scene, those people were drawing from folk. They were drawing from Woodie Guthrie and all the folk singers and songwriters of twenty or thirty years earlier. But I'm not going back there, I'm going back to the sixties. That's my folk.
G: Your launching pad is that ...
D: Yah. But it's still folk music, right?
G: Of course.
D: It's an adaptation and a retelling - in a musical sense rather than a lyrical sense, in this case - of that period of music.
G: Well it's certainly not rap, and it's certainly not opera!
G: So it falls in that range in between ... I'm sure, because it's a living, breathing entity, it fluctuates. If you look at a color spectrum, it might be more red sometime if red was jazz or it might be more blue sometimes if blue was blues or it might be more yellow sometimes if yellow was folk, but there's an ethos to it. There's a vision within it of an improvisational, free-flowing structure that's not pinned down to any one thing. You feel free to express yourself in the moment however you feel that day or that time. When you pick up your guitar you might even play the same song in a different way because of how you feel that day. That might color it to be a more bluesy tone or a more jazzy swing tone ... or feel, I should say ... than how you might have played it many times before. Then you listen back to the tapes years later and you say, "Man, that night we played it differently. What did we do? We changed it, and it was good!" It's different, but it's still good. And it's still jazz, if you want to think of it in that way. Again, it's your music, Dave. Y'know, it's not jazz. It's Dave's take on a blending of jazz with other stuff, which makes it unique and which makes it original in the sense that when people hear it they think of you instead of thinking of you trying to sound like somebody else. You're not. You're just trying to express yourself. See? And that's important. That's very important.