Exclusive Interview with Gideon King

Today, Rogue Planet interviews musician, Gideon King. We learn about his early beginnings, his passion for guitar, and the amazing collection of musicians he has enlisted for his new band, Gideon King & City Blog.

How did your musical career begin in New York City?

My musical career started unconsciously from what I heard not from what I played. When I was a little kid I would listen for hours as my older brother played piano. He is an awesome jazz piano player and composer. I remember we would play this game where I would sit with him at his piano and I would call out different players and styles and he would start playing like those players or in those styles. I would say “Herbie” and he would play like Hancock. Then I would say “McCoy” and he would shift gears. I would say more “more chops” and he would play faster. Then I would say “more out” and he would whip out his vocabulary of avante-garde phrasing and lines. And so it went. I heard music constantly.

I started playing as a little kid but didn’t have the maturity to really attack harmony till much later. I started playing with bands in college, with varying degrees of little success, if you get my drift. Then as the years went by I started to get more serious about learning harmony from some great players in NYC. When I was confident enough to actually share my compositions with musicians that were better than I was by a margin so big you could drive a truck through it, I felt a little better about really bringing together bands and communicating with them musically. I started putting together studio projects in the fusion genre. Then I started doing some producing and collaborating with jazz and pop guys. I was very fortunate to be involved in some studio projects with big names. It was all pretty gradual and stepwise until now. Gideon King & City Blog is certainly the most involved and engaging project for me ever. Can’t see stopping now.

What attracted you to Jazz as opposed to other forms of music?

Well to be honest I am very surprised that some reviewers are classifying Gideon King & City Blog music as jazz; certainly it has tons of jazz influence, but I feel as if it is crossover music, almost the way Steely Dan was, with elements of pop and funk and folk music. But maybe things are what people say they are and that’s the end of that. To be totally honest I don’t feel attracted to Jazz more than any other form of music. I just feel attracted to musicality, as pretentious as that might sound(sorry for that).

For me fusion(or jazz to some) answers the complex call in so many ways. The sonic quality of guys like Pat Metheny and John Scofield and Wayne Shorter(in his later fusion projects) sounds at least as if it is acknowledging that the world is not totally acoustic anymore. Rock got that before jazz, with over-driven distortion tones and bizarre sonic experimentation from folks like Pink Floyd and Hendrix. I mean let’s be honest, reverb, if not abused, kinda makes things more beautiful. There is something elementally satisfying about a distorted guitar tone, with all the sustain and power. Sometimes straight-head jazz lacks this fun stuff that you might hear from U2.

And yet fusion/crossover music still has a certain exotic beauty and harmonic complexity that sometimes pop and rock might lack. Properly allocated complexity is the genius behind great composers if you ask me. This is why I so love John Scofield’s playing. The guy plays beautiful and complex stuff harmonically, swings like a jazz guy, rocks out like a blues guy, and does it all in one solo. Which brings me to solos. Fusion has solos. What happened to solos? It is like they are gone except for a few acts out there. There is no way I am gonna listen to music if there are no solos in which the musicians get to reveal their personalities.

Maybe pop and rock has gone too far in relying on computers and drum machines and auto-tune and other toys that approximate reality. I mean I hear people from 15 year-old kids to octogenarians complaining that there is no “real” music.

Flipping to the other side for a moment, great rock and pop tunes get under your skin in a way that jazz can’t sometimes. Bono just writes very cool and engaging lyrics, if over simple chord progressions. It just works beautifully. The lyrics or the simple emotions expressed are sometimes just perfect and devoid of all the complexities of jazz, which can be intellectually inaccessible. This Sixto Rodriguez guy writes such cool lyrics that I don’t even care about the music…..kinda like Dylan.

So I am firmly entrenched in no camp at all. As long as the music is musical, the way Stevie Wonder was and is, the way John Mayer is, the way Adele is, the way John Scofield and Pat Metheny and Chic Corea are, then I am attracted to the music. I am attracted to any form of music that can somehow mix complexity and exotic beauty with some simple melodies or phrases that hook you. For lack of a better word, the folks that have done that are “crossover” musicians as I see it. How’s that for a rambling sort-of-answer to the question?

Who were your biggest influences growing up? How did they shape your own style?

So many influences for me its hard to even answer the question. My biggest influence was Steely Dan. Their post-modern lyrics and the hilarious images they paint with their words are genius. Their mix of funk and pop and jazz really got me at a young age. I also loved the fact that the band was an ever-changing beast, incorporating all kinds of different players. I have the same model; I like to bring in different musicians for different musical reasons. That fluid band composition is a big part of Gideon King & City Blog. So much fun to work with different players and singers who I think are so great and virtuosic in their own ways.

In terms of my guitar style, without a doubt Scofield and Metheny and Kurt Rosenwinkel and Ralph Towner are my biggest influences. They meld jazz and rock against the backdrop of their technical excellence. I am super envious of their ability to play through chord changes and I work on that stuff till this day. Certain rock guys like Peter Frampton also proved that they can play through chord changes. There are tons of other great players who I admire like Mike Moreno and Wayne Krantz(best rhythm guitar player in the world if you ask me and an amazing soloist as well). On the other end of the spectrum I really like some percussive guitar players like Andy Mckee and some fingerpickers like Stephen Stills and James Taylor. On the classical side one of my favorite albums ever is Manuel Barrueco’s Cuba. Whenever I listen to this album I am moved to break out the Nylon String and compose some classical stuff. That’s not to imply I am a good classical guitarist because I am most certainly not anything of the sort. The good news is there is no shortage of amazing players to listen to.

In terms of compositions, I worship at the altar of Wayne Shorter. His albums like High Life and Phantom Navigator are insane examples of genius. His arrangements and harmony are interesting and exotic and deep and scary beautiful. His earlier tunes such as Witch Hunt are amazing examples of seemingly simple but harmonically complex melodies over somewhat atypical chord changes. Listening to those compositions backed by players like Herbie Hancock and Ron Carter and Elvin Jones is a special opportunity in life. Herbie Hancock’s solos on those albums are amazing examples of virtuosity, drawing from classical and jazz concepts.

I also really admire through-composition, where the tune starts in one place and ends in another. The Eagles and Queen and Pink Floyd did a great job with that. Pat Metheny has composed some breathtaking tunes that continue to climb to a new place right till the end. I am thinking in particular of his tune Third Wind, which I submit I have listened to more than any human on earth.

Neil Young is also one of my favorites. Such strange and ethereal lyrics. Truly a beautiful composer. I loved the fact that his lyrics were not so literal.

You are sort of a guitar renaissance man. Can you tell us why you feel guitar is so important in terms of jazz, and what it personally means to you to have more guitar in music?

Well the vibration of those six strings over a wooden box is endlessly fascinating to me. Every guitar has its own flaws and points of greatness. There is no perfect guitar. I love the way guitars look and feel in the hand. When you have one that plays great it’s like having a best friend(tells you a lot about my social life I guess).

The guitar was in some ways an outsider in early Jazz. Although guys like Charlie Christian and Wes Montgomery and Grant Green and Renee Thomas and George Benson were of course huge contributors to the evolution of jazz, it wasn’t the same contribution as Charlie Parker and Coltrane. Somehow it just could not sonically lead the charge the way horns and pianos and orchestras could. I am not sure why. Maybe just wasn’t loud enough.

Then some guys started to change the tones guitars were generating. The rock guys made it happen first. The energy and anger that was bursting out of the axes of guys like Hendrix and Pete Townshend changed things. The fact that Pat Metheny started culturing his sound differently using technology made the guitar more relevant in jazz and popular music in my opinion, although I fear some would take issue with that comment. All of a sudden a guitar could reach out and grab you in the same way a horn could. It was off to the races. Guitar became the center in many ways in popular music. Who can forget Stevie Ray tearing into his Fender Stratocaster with those massive 13 gauge strings to create that killer tone or Van Halen playing those loose and cool solos with that distant weird smile on his face.

So the full power of the guitar in popular music was born through technology. When you couple that technology with the fact that the guitar is a chordal instrument you have tremendous presence. And then on the other hand there is something very special about a singer-songwriter playing and singing alone with no band. Something very earnest about that. Something also very special about the elegance of a wonderful classical guitarist working a nylon string in an auditorium.

For me in the last 50 years guitar finally has the relevance it should have. People have figured out how to play them with lightning speed and to produce all kinds of frightening and beautiful sounds. One of my favorite things is to work in the studio with my guitars. In one sitting I can go from playing quasi-classical to fusion to folk, simply by switching guitars and mindsets and settings on my machines.

For me personally there is nothing more exciting than a guitarist in full flight. In the few moments when I feel like I am playing well it is truly special. Watching Kurt Rosenwinkel play an incredible solo is for me one of the most exciting exploitations of any machine or instrument in the world.

I will always incorporate different guitar concepts into Gideon King & City Blog, whether from a solid-body electric, a hollowbody jazz axe, a multi-string classical, or some wacky guitar rigged-up with synthesizer software. It’s just too much fun and too interesting.

How did you decide to create the band, Gideon King & City Blog?

I had been doing a number of fusion projects with no lyrics. One night my wife and I listened to a young and talented singer-songwriter at a hotel. My wife suggested I write lyrics since I always liked to write stories. I started to write lyrics over tunes with certain jazz progressions and I was hooked. Since my voice is sort of boring and lame I write tunes for others to sing most of the time.

I wanted to create a free-flowing concept, almost like a blog, which could accommodate a core but slowly growing group of musicians coming and going as the music demands. I felt there was a hole in the market, an unsatisfied desire for a jazz/rock or crossover band. It was always my dream ever since I was a little kid to meld different styles the way Steely did it. Honestly I felt qualified to do it since I knew and understood jazz guys and the way they think but also noticed this hole in the world where this type of music was supposed to go. People like to be in on a secret and in this case the secret is that rock and jazz can live together in a way that people can relate to. Once I heard pop and rock and soul singers sing over these tunes I knew the mixture of those types of vocalists over jazz-oriented chord progressions would work. And so it went.

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Can you tell us who each member of the band are, how you found them, and what you personally feel they bring to the band?

You are the first interviewer to ask that question and it’s the key to the whole thing! I’ll gladly answer this one. Let’s start with Bass. The primary bass player on the cd is James Genus. He has played with everyone from Herbie Hancock to Daft Punk to Stevie Wonder to Wayne Krantz to John Scofield. He is rightly acknowledged as one of the world’s top bass players. Simply, he is super musical, has tons of soul, and seems to get what each tune is about. His playing is totally unselfish but virtuosic at the same time. He is exactly the opposite of what I don’t like about most pop and rock bass players. He is not too literal. He bounces around the chords in a relaxed way and locks in with the groove seamlessly. Really, he never sounds like he is trying too hard. You don’t have to tell him what to play. Makes life much easier. Oh, and he likes sports a lot so I have someone to talk basketball and tennis with at the studio. He is an old family friend and I have heard him live many times, so getting in touch with him was no issue. The other bass player, only on one tune, is Matt Penman. He is a well-respected Jazz bass player with a beautiful tone and great taste. Can’t go wrong there and his acoustic tone was perfect for the tune Glide. I contacted him out of the blue and he said he was cool with playing.

The main drummer for the project was Willard Dyson, another guy that has played some high profile gigs. But that’s not why I love his playing. I find his playing chunky and artistic. He keeps a heavy solid groove and plays tasteful unselfish fills that are cool and fitting. He also has a truly open mind. I don’t want jazz snobs around who are no fun. Willard is perfect for many of these tunes which require good “pocket” and the tasty fill here and there. By the way he is also a super nice guy which is great when you are doing many takes of one tune in order to get it right. Great drummer, plain and simple. We don’t stretch his abilities much, which is cool with me, as I love over-qualified people doing a job! I met Willard through a wonderful jazz guitarist named Freddie Bryant, who plays with Willard all the time. The other drummer, only on one tune, is Donald Edwards, a jazz staple in NYC who has played with tons of great jazz musicians. There is a particular reasons that I love this guy’s playing. There is a certain delicacy to his fills and his interpretations of the tunes that can be heard on the tune Down on the CD. I love those delicate moments in his work against the backdrop of his great “pocket.” One other cool thing about him is he is a great composer of music and knows harmony really well. He was perfect for the tune Down which is about the indelicacy of modern music. met him through a jazz singer friend.

I chose Kevin Hays for piano because he is just plain musical. What is really cool about his playing is that in addition to playing great solos he “comps” very beautifully, meaning his acompaniment is very deep and adds so much atmosphere and color to the music. He responds to the lyrics in his playing. Kevin is very unique in that he has tremendous classical influence and also writes tunes with lyrics so he gets the eclectic vibe of the project. Like the others he has played with great musicians for decades now. One reviewer of the cd said Kevin Hays was his favorite part of the cd. In many ways Kevin’s playing is my favorite because it really adds to the whole crossover nature of the music. There is something about jazz guys that like to sing too that makes them fit in well with crossover music. Again, no jazz snobbery there. Just a great jazz and classical player that I became aware of by going to clubs and listening to music.

Donny McCaslin plays tenor sax and flute on the cd. Once again, this guy gets that jazz is only part of the musical landscape. If you listen to his most recent cd’s you will hear some of the most beautiful fusion created lately. He has so much to his vocabulary that he can barely wait to pick up the sax. He is super creative, high energy, open-minded, and simply one of the most respected jazz sax guys around. I just know I am going to get killer solos when he comes to the studio; he has the “it” that certain people have that puts him on the higher plane.

There are five vocalists other than yours truly on the cd and my vocals are best left unmentioned. Grace Weber (featured on the cd) is one of the most excellent vocalists you are gonna hear anywhere. She is quite well-known for a good reason. She is dripping with talent. She comes to the studio, gets the emotional content of the tune, does something great with it, and then goes home. It’s that simple. Not very cool on my part but I really like listening to the divas who have so much technical control and such powerful voices. I love Houston, Streisand, Adele, and many others. Looks like I just shed my last ounce of manhood by admitting that I love the divas. Oh well….so be it. Grace has that type of voice. She just kills it on the tunes Glide and What Say You. Grace came through a friend in the music industry.

The CD also features Marc Broussard. Most music fans know of this guy, as he has had a great career and he is still young. He has the “bayou soul” thing down, with a deep raspy voice that anybody would be envious of. I wish I had some deep musical reason why I chose him, but basically he has an undeniably soulful voice that is just plain awesome. It’s kind of a joke how good it is while still being super bluesy. No brainer to have this guy sing on tunes if you ask me. Nice guy too. Funny and unpretentious. I discovered him while watching old black and white videos of Ray Charles singing Georgia. The search engine also put me onto Lonely Night In Georgia, one of Marc’s great tunes.

Carolyn Leonhart is a true jazz singer. While she is known for her work with Steely Dan, I actually picked her because of her solo Jazz work. There is a particular standard that she does a great job on called I Should Care. I contacted her because her voice has this cool textural nature to it that makes it almost like another instrument in an orchestra. She adds to the vibe of the whole thing and if you need big pipes she has those too. She is a great singer and fits parts of the cd like a musical glove. I found Carolyn by watching Steely Dan and because she is a friend of a guitar player I know well.

Saul Kurtz is a folk/indie music singer that has a very distinctive voice. It is very percussive at times, very vulnerable, and super unique. Check out the tune See In Double; he is perfect for that tune, as it is a vulnerable kind of ballad. The guy has lots of talent and an open mind. We did another project together called Saul Kurtz In Collaboration with Gideon King that came out great. I played lead guitar on that project and he wrote the tunes. That is how I got to know him.

Elliot Skinner was introduced to me through Grace Weber. She said, “he is a real singer” and frankly she would know. He has become quite well-known for his band Third Story. He has musical essence, this great ability to sing falsetto, and beautiful and laid-back timing. He sings lead vocals on the tune Dirty Bastard and absolutely tears it up towards the end of that tune. He is perfect for projects like this because he can sing soul, pop, jazz, and crossover music. Once again he is dripping with talent.

I play guitar on the cd. I chose me partly because it is cheaper that way and because that is what I do…play guitar. There are other musicians on the cd like Andy Gravish(great trumpet player) and Matt Powell(great all-around musician and engineer) but the above are the more prominent players in the project.

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How was it recording the album, “City Blog”? Can you explain the process a bit, and tell us what you enjoyed most about the experience?

There is one part of the experience I genuinely enjoy. It is when you come back months later and listen to a fully finished tune. It makes all the madness worth it. The process is long. I think it may be like producing a play. You start with excitement over the creative process, get bogged down in the drudgery of doing the work, move into panic mode as things are not shaping up as you envisioned them, compulsively edit and re-edit(driving everyone to hate you for your inability to be satisfied with the product), give in to the idea that nothing is perfect, engage in one last fit of shaping the sound of the music with your engineer, move through the pyrrhic victory of completion of something that you know is not perfect, and then move on. Then months later, when you have some distance from all the noises and words, you listen and forgive the whole process because it sounds pretty good. In terms of actually recording you know we track like other people do but my hope is we do it with the best and most prepared musicians, absolutely great equipment, and no compromise over the ultimate product. That’s why certain tracks never made the cd despite the effort. The truth is the more time spent in the studio without timelines and rushed fixes, the better the music.

You once said that “City Blog” brings forth New York City as a character itself. If you had to describe that character to a casting director, how would you do so?

I would describe the character as Bipolar.

In the age of digital streaming, where do you think the music industry is heading? Do you see it heading in positive or negative directions? Both?

I guess I would join the popular refrain that the economics of the industry are in an extreme state of inequity. I mean it is truly sad that it is almost impossible to make money by producing a holistic expression, a well-crafted cd with a theme. The economics have been fractionalized, decimalized. And along with this decimalization comes a different listening experience than the old days. The experience is less patient and appreciative of the body of work of an artist. People frenetically bounce around the streaming modalities without stopping to listen to an entire cd from beginning to end. It’s sort of like reading ten paragraphs in a row, each from a different book. Madness really.

That being said digital streaming has wonderful elements to it. I confess to using Spotify all the time. I even pay for Spotify Premium, cementing my hypocrisy and relegating me to the above madness. What I am hoping for is that this extreme condition does not last. Many have jeered Jay Z for his attempt to change the economics of the industry with Tidal. Perhaps he won’t be successful , but he is a trailblazer to the extent that he has taken at least some concrete actions to countervail the death of the value of music.

Is the music industry heading in a positive direction? There seems to be less musical effort nowadays although as always there are some great musicians around. If less effort is demanded then less effort will be put out. If people don’t want epic tunes like Free Bird and Stairway To Heaven, then they won’t get them I guess. Bummer. I love that stuff. If they don’t want albums like Asia and Dark Side Of The Moon, then they won’t get them. One of the reasons I love Jagged Little Pill so much is because it was a complete expression about something. If people don’t want that they won’t get it.

All that said, once again, there are some amazing acts out there so desperation seems premature and people can like what they damn well want to like at the end of the day without anybody trying to set an objective standard.

What major theme or message do you hope people will take away from “City Blog”?

I am not really trying to make any lasting commentary. Who in their right mind would listen anyway? I hope people like the tunes and that there is still room for full expression in music, for songs longer than two minutes, for arrangements, for thematic content, and for improvisation.

What is next for the band, and you as an individual?

I don’t know what is next really. I know we will make more music and see what happens. For me as an individual? I want to learn not to give such long answers in interviews!

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