Scott Stenten
Email List
Nine O'Clock MoonNine O'Clock Moon
2008 CD- $9.95

Free Shipping!
Or on iTunes
A Musical PortraitJuly Don't Lie
2010 CD- $10.00

Free Shipping!

“Memoir on Musicians, Teachers, and Friends ”

Scott Stenten 2002

I moved to Chicago when I was 19. I was a budding young photographer. It seems like alot of photographers were musicians then and the Chicago music scene had it all. I had alot of fun playing music with friends and checking out all the different shows in town. Eventually I was drawn to brand new styles of guitar playing that were just emerging. I saw the innovations of guitarist Michael Hedges and Stanley Jordan in particular as a direction to pursue in trying to develop my own original musical voice.

Growing up I was into The Beatles, Led Zepplin, Kiss, and Eric Clapton. I also listened to a lot of rock radio. After movng to Chicago I remember being swept away by hearing jazz guitarist Godfrey Viagos playing guitar and listening to records though the paper thin walls of a girlfriends apartment.

I took some lessons with Godfrey and he gave me recordings of Clifford Brown, Max Roach, Wes Montgomery and a Jamey Aebersold play along tape. I began hammering on and pulling off notes on the fingerboard of a guitar. From videotapes of Stanley Jordan and Michael Hedges, I was able to learn useful chords and get a feel for the style I wanted to develop. I watched Herbie Hancock ’s solo on Cantaloupe Island from the film “One Night Live with Blue Note” over and over again. It made me want to play similar two-handed chord grooves, but on a guitar instead of the piano.

In 1990 I began to study with pianist and saxophonist Jack Hubble. With Hubble I studied jazz piano concepts. I practiced on the piano and then tried took it back to the guitar. He patiently taught me aspects of theory, harmony, and the importance of intervals of chords. He made chord interval flash cards for me and introduced me to the music of Bill Evans, Charlie Parker, and others. He told me great anecdotes about Charlie Parker, Bud Powell and himself playing with Artie Shaw. He also cut me a break when I ran short of money, allowing me to continue to study with him.

In 1992 I took several lessons with jazz guitarist Bobby Broom. Broom had worked with Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, and Kenny Burrell and had recently moved to Chicago from New York. He helped me to see that playing jazz is not some great mystery or magic gift from god but it is more about listening and learning. I went to his many club appearances. He usually performed with the bassist Dennis Carroll and Drummer George Fludas. I taped his shows and would listen to the recordings over and over trying to understand this music better. Something kept me coming back week after week. Looking back I realize that it was great to be exposed to a musician with such a soulful and personal approach to modern harmony. Weather I knew it or not listening to such profound live music has left a deep imprint on the way I hear music. In talking with up and coming local guitarists I realize that he is one of the greatest influences on jazz guitar in Chicago.

I started listening to a lot of music and especially piano music. I bought hundreds of cheap used LPs of Bill Evans, Ahmad Jamal, Stan Getz, Keith Jarrett, Oscar Peterson, Bird, Bud Powell, Wes Montgomery and many more. I collected books, videos, and records of classical artists as well, adding Horowitz, Rachmaninoff, Gould, Bernstein, Debussy, Barenboim and others to my collection. Listening to piano music and seeing the similarity to the two-handed approach I was trying to develop on guitar made me want study with more pianists.

In 1994 I began taking lessons with multi-instrumentalist Howard Levy. Levy had just left the group Bela Fleck and the Flecktones. My lessons with him were as much inspiring seminars on world music as they were lessons about jazz. I first heard Levy through his recordings with saxophonist Paquito DeRivera and specifically on a song written by him and Manfredo Fest called Seresta “. With his help I learned to play a guitar version of Seresta based on his solo piano performances. He introduced me to Bach ’s Two Part Inventions, walking basslines, montunos, rhythmic modulations, and many ways to think about improvising. His ability to improvise with either hand simultaneously was amazing. Our very first and one of my favorite lessons was on the Major Modes (or Greek modes). One by one he would talk about them and give a musical example of how they are used. I periodically revisit the recording I made of this lesson and find it as refreshing as the day I was there. The variety of styles and emotions he was able to portray with the piano was very inspiring.

In 1995 I started a 3-year job as leader of the house jazz quartet at Chicago ’s Navy Pier. We performed four sets a day, five days a week. We played bebop, funk, Brazilian, and jazz standards. Playing music consistently helped me in many ways. For example, early on the job, I would loose track of where I was in a song. I had to count the measures in my head and keep reminding myself of where we were in the form. Eventually I began to feel it more internally. I also had to learn new chords that would not clash with the bass player. I was also amazed at the difficulty I had trying to play my style of guitar in a group. The touch I had when I played solo seemed to get lost in the bass, drums, and sax setting. My hands soon developed more endurance and slowly I began to project my sound more.

I learned a lot from the different players that came through the group at Navy Pier. Many of the sax players would glance at a chart and play it flawlessly. If they had a problem, they would feel around on the horn until they found the right notes. Bassist Chuck Hosch, or Chuck-a-luck as he was called, was able to quote melodies and feel his way around different chord changes by ear. This aural aspect to improvisation was very difficult for me. It was not until later that I began to understand how important it is. Bassist Adam Johnson could play amazing chord melodies and wrote out wonderful charts based on classical compositions We also had a blast. Playing music up and down that pier, hanging out with all the other performers/entertainers and cracking jokes it was like one long situation comedy.

For me, performing is essential to my development as a musician. This is why I busked on the streets of Chicago for hours on end and why I loved the gig at Navy Pier. Playing day in and day out helps the music flow from within naturally. I had to play all the time in order to get the dexterity needed to develop a physical relationship with my instrument. With that said it can often be difficult to find situations where you can play.

Here is something Philip Glass said in a radio interview with Ira Glass on NPR.

“It has nothing to do with business, in fact I could stop working right now. It has to do with understanding what the nature of music is. For me its only through the constant immersion in the process of creating and recreating music that I begin to understand what music is really about. I’m talking about what the essential nature of what music is. I find that the experience of performing music in front of people is the essential experience for the composer. It ’s at that moment when we see clearly what it is. It’s not a conceptual activity. Music doesn’t exist in a library it exists in the air; it exists as something we hear. If you go to a library and you see hundreds of scores your not actually looking at music your looking at notation of music. The actual music exists when you play it. Art exists as a transaction between people. Music is a kind of sublime currency that ’s passed among people. “

In 1996 I began to take hour-long, usually monthly lessons with jazz and classical pianist Laurence Hobgood. Hobgood is musical partner with singer Kurt Elling and they have since toured the world and been nominated for several Grammys. I would attend Hobgoods performances and be in awe of his intense concentration. I would tape and sometimes video tape his shows and lessons and try to hear as much as I could of his music. He is one of the great jazz pianists .
The loud smokey jam packed Green Mill of the 1990’s was a Lion to be tamed. I mean there were a certain amount of people there to listen but this was often a loud room of hipster Chicagoans out having fun, drinking, smoking and partying and more often than not this pianist would blow them away. After his solos the crowd would erupt with screams and applause because they knew they had just heard something incredible. Whoever he was playing with Elling, Mintzer, Coryell, Davis, these guys would play magnificently and then Laurence would take over and take it to a whole new place. To this day I rarely see someone create such excitement in an audience.
His independence was the 1100 pound gorilla in the room. Improvising sometimes at break neck speeds through the most challenging of compositions he would start a phrase or ostinado with either hand and incorporate it into his solo with flawless, rock solid conviction. Against this he could play anything. And Just when you thought he would finish an idea and start a new one he would continue his line through what ever def defying time signature, chord change or poly rhythm he was playing on, building the solo and inspiring the bass and drums, creating something electrifying taking the listener on a journey.

My lessons with Hobgood have had a major impact on how I play and practice music. He taught me how to teach myself. He expounded on the concept of leaving no stones unturned. He showed me how to “break down” aspects of what you are trying to do musically. He taught me to refocus and strive towards the goal of becoming a great musician that no longer “plays guitar but plays ideas. ”

Hobgood showed me how to approach musical problems from different angles and how to see the different questions that would come up if you were looking for them. Through these questions there would be several more ways of thinking about or playing a musical idea. He explained that you don’t get better by just practicing one musical concept over and over again, that there is a better chance for accomplishment by working on a variety of musical ideas, even if they don’t seem to relate. He showed me how to plain scales and arpeggios through complex chord changes. He used countless analogies in order to shine a different light on the various concepts. He pushed me to work on ear training, site reading, and above all, to play with accurate rhythm. He also demanded that I practice my hands separately until it was second nature.

Hobgood said, “players seem to think they are saving time by practicing with both hands at the same time, but the truth is you are never going to play the way you want until your are able to play each part separately. The majority of our work was on improvising melodic lines with the right hand alone. He had five steps as a basis for working on music and “leaving no stones unturned ”:

1. The Content of the Idea: in your mind, identify note for note, rhythm for rhythm, what the idea is that you’re trying to work on.
2. Correct fingering
3. Rhythm
4. Phrasing
5. Inflection

Hobgood ’s constant preaching about time also made me realize that the key to great playing is the time feel. He taught me to work with over the bar line figures that have the illusion of displacing the beat. I had naturally tried to play these figures on gigs over and over. All too often I would get confused, turn the beat around, and disrupt my solo. I had to break down these ideas in order to begin to feel them internally. I began to notate the rhythms I was struggling with and slowly count along while playing them. By working on this rhythmic displacement, I was able hear it with more clarity in the music of musicians like Bill Evans, Brad Mehldau, Arron Copland and Marcus Roberts to name a few. Bill Evans discussed his concept of displacement with Marian McPartland on the NPR radio show “Piano Jazz ”. McPartland said that it sounded like someone swimming against a current. In his Harvard lecture series, Leonard Bernstein called it “rhythmic ambiguity ”. Bernstein played examples of Stravinsky and showed that it ’s a way of creating tension in music. I witnessed Hobgoods own personal approach to this rhythmic displacement in his many club appearances.

Hobgood would say “If you have a weakness attack it ”. “Most young musicians don’t take the time to answer the many questions the music is rich with “. “This is not something that you’re supposed to be able to do tomorrow, it ’s a life long study ”. “Don’t let your urge to sound good now keep your mind from getting in gear “. In the film “Bill Evans The Universal Mind “ Evans said all to often players try to imitate the top flight players and end up playing something that is so general they can’t build on it. If they do they are building on confusion and vagueness instead of playing something simple and real.

I also worked on easier piano music, cello, violin music, and transcriptions of jazz solos. I began to work through the books Speed Reading at the Keyboard. Reading different kinds of music pushed me to become more aware of different fingering possibilities for my instrument. I also took a few lessons with classical pianist. Olga Slobodyanik was getting her masters degree in music at DePaul University. She had grown up and studied piano in the former USSR. She made me very aware of the “unevenness “ in my attempts at playing Mozart piano music. Her ears were so fine-tuned to hear deviations in touch that it was impossible for me to play more than a measure before having to stop. She demoted me from Mozart to works by Anna Magdalana Bach. After a couple of lessons she informed me that it would be better to study with a classical guitarist and then (maybe) come back to her for further lessons.

I took here advice and had a lesson with musician and classical guitarist Shinobu Sato. Much to my surprise, Sato was very encouraging. He walked me through the Bach Two-Part Invention #1 in C major and discussed its harmonic layout as casually as someone glancing at a menu in a restaurant. He emphasized how important it is to get to the spirit of this music. He pointed out the use of a pull off of the strings to achieve a legato line in descending passages. The concept of a string pull off became something I have used in all my playing from that time on. He also instilled in me the idea of practicing certain things very slow; so slow that there is no audible melody. This allows you to play the first note while looking ahead to the next note and thinking about the exact fingering, while still being in tempo. The pianist Walter Gieseking wrote about a similar concept for developing the ears and hearing unevenness. This slow and disciplined approach is often the only way to work out complicated music with two or more parts, as in the Bach Two Part Invention.

Sato had a deep understanding of music. I asked him about the Bartok Microcosmos piano works. He thought they were good but suggested the Duo pieces for violins as possibly being more musical. Later I began to work on site reading all the Bach Two Part Inventions. Everyday I would slowly run through one or two of them leaving out most of the trills and ornamentation. I used them as exercises and worked only one up to tempo. Eventually I drifted away from these types of works and began to concentrate on jazz and improvisation.

I took seven private lessons with jazz guitarist Mike Allemanna in 1998. The perspective of a good jazz guitarist like Allemanna was very enlightening. Among other things he showed me how to use arpeggios to create tonal colors. This helped to add a more vertical sound to my playing. He also helped to work my swing feel. To do this, he encouraged me to sit in at the famous New Apartment Lounge Jam Session that he was a part of. After hearing me play he said “you seem to lose your feel when you don’t articulate the notes. “ It was a rhythmic epiphany for me: I played legato too much. He suggested listening to Pat Martino and transcribing more solos. Later I purchased an informative video from saxophonist David Liebman called “Understanding Jazz Rhythm the Concept of Swing. ” Now I can hear lack of articulation much better. Articulating the notes gives my lines a more rhythmic pulse and helps to make the music “swing ” or groove more. There is all too often a lack of articulation in players who use the two-handed tapping style.

One of my biggest influences was composer/guitarist Michael Hedges. He died in a tragic auto accident in November1999. He released several albums on the Windham Hill label. I was inspired by the way he created textures on the guitar by pulling off and hammering on chords like in “Aerial Boundaries. ” His composition “Breakfast in the Fields ” was inspired by a Bartok piano concerto. Hedges took a chord that is played by the orchestra and tuned the open strings of his guitar to that chord. He composed this short and very creative piece around these tonalities.

I saw Hedges in concert a half dozen times. The last time I saw him perform was at the Navy Pier Skyline Stage in Chicago, summer of 1999. I went to soundcheck and witnessed him fine tune the live sound with the help of his sound man and guitar tech. He walked to different parts of the stage, played some notes, and called out the frequency numbers. “Knock 5K off the stage monitors – Knock 15 off the house. ” I later found out that he had memorized how each note on the guitar neck corresponded to its appropriate EQ value. The sound he produced with an acoustic guitar in concert was amazing. The intonation and sonority of his chords were distinctly open and clear. He is the main reason I have strived for a acoustic guitar sound.

I was also taken by his intense concentration and rhythmic feel. His dramatic stage presence and theatrics were riveting. Much like pianist Ahmad Jamal, his rhythmic approach to music would draw you in and stay with you for days after seeing him live. His originality reminded me of Thelonious Monk. He seemed to come out of nowhere with a totally unique concept.

Later I would drive to Racine, Wisconsin to take a lesson with fingerstyle guitarist and educator John Stropes. Stropes was a personal friend of Hedges. Together they had published the magnificent book Rhythm, Sonority, Silence. Stropes showed me how Hedges used a technique called “string stopping ” to control the vibrating of the strings. During the lesson he pointed out meticulous musical details from the transcriptions of Rhythm, Sonority, Silence. He showed me how to approach playing some of the complex polyrhythms that were apart of this music. I worked on Hedges “Breakfast in the Fields ” and “Ariel Boundaries ” but was never able to play these at a performance level. I found that practicing fingerstyle was taking to much time away from my work with improvising and jazz. I hoped I would be able to return to this music and some day incorporate some of his concepts into my own music. In 2002 I returned and had a couple lessons dealing with the song “Rickovers Dream ”.

In 2000 I continued studies with Laurence Hobgood and Mike Allemanna. I also took a lesson from both drummer Dana Hall and guitarist Fareed Haque. With the encouragement of Hobgood, Allemanna, and Haque I worked more on playing by ear. I had transcribed solos and riffs in the past, but it was always very difficult for me. The difficulty made me stay away from it longer than I should have. So I started to learn little riffs and play along with recordings. I also purchased a small sampling device that enabled me to slow down music so it is much easier to transcribe.

Around the summer of 2000 I began working with a method book and video by jazz pianist Barry Harris. Harris is a legendary teacher of jazz and his long career involves work with many bebop masters. I had heard him talking about Monk ’s music in the film “Straight No Chaser ” and in several radio shows on jazz like “The Making of the Music series with Wynton Marsalis. ” Harris had worked with John Coltrane and is often mentioned in the excellent book John Coltrane His Life and Music, After working with the book and video “The Barry Harris Jazz Workshop ” I realized that it was very difficult for me to play what Harris calls “the basics ” or the ABC ’s. I came to a drastic realization that the standard tuning I had used all my life was holding me back. I began to tune the bottom neck of my DoubleGuitar? to all fourths.

Although I knew that Stanley Jordan used this tuning, I felt too invested in standard tuning to give it a try. I retuned the strings of the bottom neck of my guitar to B, E, A, D, G, C, F, B flat. Needless to say, it was not a fluid transition. Retuning my guitar meant I had to relearn all new fingerings for music I had been playing for years. It was difficult and often scary to play in public and fumble for the right notes. But it also made it possible for me to play things that I couldn’t play before. By tuning in fourths, there were less mechanical things to learn. For example, instead of having to learn a scale with nine different fingerings, there were now only three.

Harris say many players make the mistake of playing chords when they should really play scales while improvising. He breaks apart scales to have a very chordal sound and offers many more possibilities than just playing one or two chords. Here is an example: You can arpeggiate the chords B major seven or D# minor seven over a B major seven chord. That will sound nice. But if you know the B major scale as the 7 chords that make it up diatonically you have many more sounds to work with. His explanation of using chromatic notes to help rhythm is also very insightful. These chromatics are very helpful in breaking up or connecting phrases.

Harris’ teaching also made me realize that I did not know my scales well. I dug out a recording of a lesson with Howard Levy from 6 years earlier and explored some of his ideas on playing modes. I reviewed a section on modes from the video “John Scofield On Improvisation ” This helped me to realize that I was missing out on many wonderful musical colors. Finally I went to Bobby Broom to get his take on how to articulate the notes so that I didn’t spend all this time working on the right notes but playing them the wrong way. He talked about accenting the two and four slightly, locking the metronome up with your internal clock, and not over exaggerating the swing feel. I recorded him playing the C major scale with a metronome on beats two and four at several tempos. For a while I would even play along with this recording and one from David Liebman before I practiced scales.

All this research helped me to realize that articulated notes, over exaggerated swing feel, laying back, playing notes legato, staccato, or straight were all just colors on the musical pallet. They can all be used to give the music variety and nuance.

Some musicians have a wonderful rhythmic feel that really sets them apart. The four artists that come to mind are Ahmad Jamal, Michael Hedges, and Sergio and Odair Assad, who make up the duo The Assad Brothers. I was turned on to The Assad Brothers by John Stropes. I first saw them in concert in 2000 and then a year later. After the second concert I was so taken by their music that I called Sergio Assad and asked about taking a lesson. He was unavailable but I was able to take a few lessons with his daughter, Clarice Assad. Clarice Assad is an accomplished Composer/musician in her own right. She has performed music since childhood and had studied with Egberto Gismonti and many others. She was in Chicago studying composition. I went to her graduation recital and it was fantastic. She showcased several works for classical ensembles including works for duo guitar. She also performed a hilarious duet with a singer that broke up the audience and showed us that things don’t always have to be so serious.

During our lessons, she told me more about her famous father and uncle and how they had grown up in Brazil playing Chorino as children. She played me recordings they had made when they were kids. She also played me the music of her aunt, Badi Assad. For subsequent lessons, she showed me different Brazilian rhythms and gave me some suggestions on playing Bossa Nova. She also gave me the music for a work by Astor Piazzolla that I had pestered her for. Zita is part of Piazzolla ’s Suite Troileana and I loved the Assad Brothers version of it. As a result, I spent the good part of a year working on my own version of it. I used a combination of the piano music and my own transcription of parts from the Assad recording. This work has great rhythmic vitality. The many repeated notes made the use of correct fingering essential. Playing repeated notes with the tapping technique is to me much more difficult than using both hands as a traditional guitarist would. Instead of keeping your finger on one note and picking it repeatedly you often have to use your first and fourth finger spread across six frets in order to play the same note and be able to control the articulation. I broke apart different sections of the Assad recording, slowing them down. I then looped them so they would repeat over and over. I would play along with them day after day trying to internalize the different nuances. Transcribing the beautiful and moody lento section took me the longest time.

In 2000 I was very inspired by a film of a master class from violinist Maxime Vengerov. I saw it on the Bravo Channel. I had read a book called “The Great Masters of the Violin ” and I loved the recordings Rachmaninoff made with Kreisler and the Copland Sonata for violin and piano to name a few. This film and another called “The Art of Violin ” re-ignited my interest in this music. I went back and revisited some other videos and recordings from people like Heifetz and Midori. What ’s interesting about the Vengerov master class is the way he forgoes all technical aspects and goes right to the idea of “story telling ” in music. It ’s amazing to watch Vengerov play these demanding works, while at the same time telling animated little stories that correspond to the music.

He tells the “stories ” or little scenarios he ’s made up about a certain passage in order to illustrate the emotion or essence of the music beyond its technical necessities. For example, he very animatedly describes a couple fighting as he plays two different melodies that seem to argue with each other in a work by Sarasate. Or describes climbing a wall and then floating down with an umbrella for a flowing descending line in a work by Kreisler. As the harmonies slowly changed during a section of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto he says: “close your eyes and just dream… listen to the piano speak to the piano…. and suddenly their you are in the paradise ”. It is interesting to me how many prodigies use such images to help give their music life. The jazz pianist Sergio Salvatore talked about little stories he made up to go with music he plays. Classical pianist Helen Huang talked about playing piano at five years old. She would sit down at the piano and just play little melodies and think of a story or colors or weather. She said she would make up anything that would help her to get the music to sound the way the wanted it to.

Scott Stenten 2002

© 2006 Scott Stenten All rights reserved.

©2008-2011 Scott Stenten. All rights reserved