7 Questions with Jason Vieaux
From Piazolla to Metheny – with detours through Jay-Z and Mastodon – Grammy award-winning guitarist Jason Vieaux records, plays, and appreciates it all. Join us to learn more about this fascinating and incredibly talented musician!
Tell us about the recent work you completed with Pat Metheny, and what it was like to work with him
In March or April of 2021, Pat released a record called Road to the Sun, which is unlike anything he’d ever done in his very long, storied career. We’ve known each other for a long time and he’s been to many of my performances in the tri-state area. Sometime around maybe 10 years ago, he floated this idea of actually writing a solo guitar piece for me. Just by email, he said, “you know, I’d like to write a piece for you. I’m not really sure when or if it’ll ever happen, and it might just be a very short thing and just show up in your mail, because if I do it, it’s all going to kind of happen quickly.” I thought, well, you know, I’m not really gonna hold my breath! Then about three or four years ago, after working with the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet, he said, “I’ve got it. This actually creates an opportunity for your piece”.
That became Road to the Sun. Now Road to the Sun is the name of the quartet that he wrote for Los Angeles Guitar Quartet, about 30 or so minutes long. So for my piece, I was kind of expecting this five minute thing. But I’m looking through it – and there are lots of pages here! He said, “It’s gonna be around 20 minutes.” And then he said he’d figure something out to fill out the rest of the record, which ended up being his own arrangement of Arvo Pärt: Für Alina on his 42 string Pikasso guitar.
This was around 2019. I met him at the College where his son, Jeff, was really interested in going and I had a residency; we had a little bit of time to actually go over the piece together. And then three months later, I recorded it with Pat producing and David Oakes, his longtime engineer, engineering. It was an amazing experience. I mean, he booked a studio in Midtown Manhattan for three days and I’m pretty sure he used all 27 hours of that time, over three days, for the piece. It was a lot of takes; a different way of doing that recording than we would have done in a sort of a traditional classical recording setting, but it was great.
You recently released Bach Volume 2: Works for Violin. What specific challenges are posed for a guitarist playing music written for an instrument tuned in 5ths and capable of infinite sustain?
What the guitar is able to do (with a lot of work) that the violin cannot do with those pieces, is to more fully realize the polyphony. We can layer more of those voices, sometimes three or even four at a time – so in a way it presents a different listening experience. Of course you’re going to lose the sustain per note, and some of the more vocal qualities; the guitar being essentially a part of the percussion family, it’s really a percussion instrument; but there are things that you gain. And I got so much feedback from violinists over 20, 25 years on this, and my experience was that they really enjoyed it, and in some cases didn’t know that it was possible to hear that much of what was going on. It’s one thing when you have to imagine those three or four voices, sustaining together. They have to imagine that and there’s an ear proficiency they need to hear it mentally. But you can actually do that in a lot of ways on the guitar, not unlike a piano. That feedback from violinists in particular was really great. Most of it was overwhelmingly positive for me, so I think a lot of the confidence I had in continuing to work on it and record those pieces came from so many of the great violinists I’ve been able to befriend over the years.
As a primarily classical guitarist, what elements are important to you when it comes to amplification, and how do amps factor into your live scenario?
For me, live, I mainly use it for concerto playing, with orchestra, and sometimes with a modern piece. In many cases you can reduce the strings, and you don’t need a really loud amplifier, or at least I don’t – my guitar really projects well, and I play concerto & solo parts in a different way than I would in solo recital. Even if you’re in a big space, like a thousand seats or more, once you start playing, people’s ears adjust and then they kind of get inside that sound wall. With orchestra, you’ve gotta kind of be out front at least a little bit, the way a soloist would. But sometimes the problem with amplification is that the more you turn the amplifier up, the less natural it sounds; the less like you it sounds, and you hear more of the electronics of it, or the unnaturalness of it.
How did your introduction to Henriksen Amplifiers come about?
I was really struck by Henriksen when my friend Jeff LaQuatra, a great guitarist in Colorado, said “You’ve gotta try this Blue Six that I have – It’s really small!”, Because he knew what I’d been traveling around with before. There are many other good things on the market, but I had never heard something like this where you could really turn it up live, and it didn’t lose your sound – like you would be playing and it didn’t have that distortion level that goes up when you turn it louder. You turn it up, and it seemed like that ceiling didn’t hit with the Henriksen, and it was amazing. And also, it’s so light! I mean, you can put it in a small suitcase and pack for a week, so that part of the travel thing for me is really, really important.
The classical world can be very austere. What is one of the funniest or strangest performance or recording moments in recent memory?
Well, a strange recording moment would’ve been the 2010 Piazzola recording that we did with Azica Records, which is here in Cleveland and whom I’ve recorded with for 20 years. And this was one of these situations where you have two days to record an all-Piazzolla album, plus two performances at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, which is a great venue to play in. I’d wanted to play there since the beginning of my career in the mid 90s. It was a well known venue to play, and we were playing/recording with A Far Cry, a terrific chamber orchestra based in Boston.
So this all got set up by A Far Cry and my producer, Alan Bise of Azica Records (along with engineer Bruce Egre), where we would do these two performances and then we would have a recording session at a church in Boston, to record the Four Seasons of Buenos Aires, arranged by Julien Labro. The soloists were myself and Julien Labro, the great jazz bandoneon and accordion player who I’ve had a collaboration with for many years.
The date of the performances was, like, mid-December, and we only had two days to get the whole record done. So it was Four Seasons of Buenos Aires, which is about 35 minutes, and History of the Tango, which is 20 minutes. And then we also did the Double Concerto, which is an original work for bandoneon and guitar. So, we’re recording three major Piazzolla concert works. But it was the dead of winter, so the string players were wearing gloves with the fingers cut out, because it was a church, with noisy radiator heating, so we had to shut everything down. We couldn’t have heat in there. I remember my strategy for that whole thing was just to keep playing so my hands didn’t get cold or freeze up or anything. I was wearing like four layers of stuff with a jacket, and there’s pictures of it where we’ve got winter hats on and everything! That was probably the strangest recording session.
What are you involved with right now that you’d like people to know about?
I’ve got a great collaboration coming up with Sasha Cooke, Grammy winning mezzo soprano, and a regular with the Met and San Francisco Opera. We’ve done a few things together before the pandemic, but we wanted to continue and pick that stuff up after. So we’re going to play Round Top Festival in Austin, which is nice. And then we’re going to play the Herbst Theater for San Francisco Performances, where I have an annual residency, so that’s exciting! And then I just finished a concert on Tuesday for the String Theory series in Chattanooga, with probably the greatest classical saxophone player from the Prism Quartet for a long time, Timothy McAllister, also a Grammy winner. We have a wonderful duo program together. The rest of the spring, I’m just doing concertos and solo recitals around that.
What music would your fans be surprised to hear you like to listen to?
Uh, I’m not sure they’re surprised by anything at this point. I don’t even know if he’s still making records anymore, but I was a really big fan of Jay-Z, from like ‘98 when the real breakthrough came – Hard Knock Life and stuff like that, all the way through whichever retirement it was…Everything that came out. And I picked apart the Easter eggs and stuff in the verses, and all of that. It was fun! And Mastodon, and Deftones; I’ve always liked the later, more recent Deftones stuff. I thought that was really some very good music. I don’t have any kind of particular bent towards a genre, except for maybe jazz. I mean, I can really listen to a lot of different types of artists, but when it comes to something more like, say, country, metal, or hip-hop, it’s really a handful of artists that resonate with me or I just feel like their art is really special.