What can you say about Jimmy Bruno that hasn’t already been said by adoring peers in the Jazz guitar world (or disgruntled students challenged to reassess their beliefs)? Jimmy is a wonderful friend to Henriksen, an outspoken teacher, and an excellent human being. Let’s find out a little more about him:
1. We’ve heard your teaching style is somewhat unique, in your approach to modal theory and modern harmony. Can you tell us more?
I’m anti-modal and anti-scales! Theory only exists in a book; people are putting the cart before the horse. Theory was developed only after somebody played a thing. I usually go and say, “look, here’s a Charlie Parker solo – find me a Dorian mode.” You can’t, it’s not there! People will play chords to a certain tune, and it’s one way in the book, another way in the classroom, and then when you go to play it with live musicians it’s completely different. The bad thing is the Real Book; if you keep relying on it, you’ll never remember any tunes – it becomes a crutch. The best thing to do is to play with guys that are better than you that have been playing this music for a very long time. My father was a musician and I would play with his friends as a kid, and I’d ask them what they’re doing here or there. That helped build my ear, playing with people in real time as a kind of street education. When you only have an academic understand of the music, you’re not really playing music.
2. What was your first experience with Henriksen amps, and which do you use?
I knew Bud, that’s how I met Peter. I was a guitar show, might have been NAMM but I’m not sure, but Bud was the new amp guy on the block – had just started I think. And I still have that first amp! It still works, and it still sounds good. It’s so old! I used that for years and years. What I think is that you can have the best sounding guitar ever, and if you don’t have a good amp, it’s meaningless. The new Henriksen amps are instruments, just as important as a guitar! I use the Bud now, and it’s been the finest one I’ve come across in years. I’ve even played in a big band with it. To me, it’s a remarkable feat of engineering. Being able to have headroom and volume to solo in a big band is one of the hardest things for a guitar player, but I was able to do that and the thing didn’t even distort!
3. What, in your opinion, is the most important thing for a modern jazz guitarist to do (or not do) in their playing?
First thing to do is to get your head out of the theory books, that’s Number 1. And as soon as you do and play with real musicians, you’ll realize how true that is. One former student told me, “the best thing you ever told me to do was to burn the Real Book.” This was a 17 year old kid, a bass player who later played on one of my CDs, and he told me, “you know, I thought you were such an asshole when I had you for improv class, but 10 years later, In New York, you know… the Real Book wasn’t cutting it!” And now he’s a great, in demand bassist.
4. What work (recorded material or live performance) would you say you’re most proud of?
Oh man, that’s a hard one. It really is. Right now, at this moment I would say Polarity, with Joe Beck. Tomorrow it could be something different!
5. What players or concepts do you feel have challenged you most in the last 10 years?
Classical music. Stravinsky, Ravel, Debussy, Bach… You see when I listen to a jazz record, some of the magic is gone because I can hear and know what the chords are. I recognize the sounds and shapes and have played them all before. But if I listen to these composers, I can’t do that. I’m not sure what I’m hearing at all times. I have to go get the score! I’d really like to know more about that kind of music. For me, it started with Stravinsky. I was arranging for string players in Las Vegas, and a violinist turned me onto some Stravinsky that really changed my approach for writing and arranging for that section. Then I went backwards and started listening to Mozart, Beethoven, Bach. And for me, the most jazz-like person out of those was Bach. He outlined harmonies with single notes, using four independent voices that meshed and kind of made their own harmony – sometimes the lines are only a half step apart, but in taking the whole line and its movement into account, when it goes by, you don’t hear any dissonance. Amazing.
6. What’s the most interesting (good or bad) gig you’ve ever played? Give us the details!
Me and Jack Wilkins had just made a duo record and were on a little tour of the Midwest, and our destination was Traverse City, way up in Michigan. On the way there, the booking agent said, “another gig came up” – so we take this other gig in Holland, MI. We get to the place and we’ve told the owner that we needed two Fender Twin amps, because that’s what you can typically get on the road. We get there, and the gig is in the back of a lunchmeat store, swear to God. The most bizarre place I ever saw. The owner said, “hey check those amps out”; he’d rented us two Fender Champs – the smallest Fender amp possible – and they both had blown speakers! Then he says, “oh by the way, two of my friends are gonna come play with you guys.” So it’s about 4 degrees and we’re standing outside, miserable, and the bass player shows up in a refrigeration repair work truck, with a custom amp that’s about as big as a refrigerator. And the drummer pulls up in a plumbing truck, with a drum set that’s all welded together, proclaiming how much he hates the drums… great! So we’re trying to figure out what to play, and I say, “well, let’s play a blues.” So the bassist takes out his Real Book and starts looking in the A section.. Trying to find ‘A Blues’! So we just do ‘Straight, No Chaser’ – the bass player is counting the frets trying to hit the changes, the drummer is playing a completely different tempo, and we’re playing through two broken amps! And here’s the killer – people clapped after every tune. It was the most godawful cacophony you could ever hear, it was horrible. That had to be the all time worst gig ever. This was about 20, 25 years ago.
7. It’s 2019! What projects, work, or services would you like for people to know about?
Having been recovering from a pretty serious traumatic brain injury recently and going through the process of getting my strength back in my hands (and really enjoying the time I’ve spent with a Telecaster with lighter strings during the process), I’m just happy to be alive and happy to be traveling, and playing the music that I like! I would like to make a vinyl record – I’ve never done that, but I’d love to make a vinyl record and record it on 2” tape; maybe do a couple of tracks with a string quartet, one day. I’d also like to write a book, like Bruce Foreman, one of my favorite players and another recent interviewee, did!
Learn more about Jimmy Bruno and catch up on his latest goings-on here: https://www.jimmybruno.com/