By Ted Eschliman for the Mandolin Cafe
December 15, 2009 - 10:15 am
Paul Glasse has always been somewhat of enigma to me.
Generally, when an artist is blessed with incredible, other-worldly talents, there remains the baggage of Prima Dona personality, severe behavioral eccentricities, and an ego that struggles to fit in even a large room. With Paul, you have none of these. Just a clean-cut, humble, emotionally-balanced and good-natured soul that quietly lives to raise two childern and create (and teach) great music.
I've had the privilege of spending time with him, seen him perform live (with a big band!), and observed his laid-back, approachable clinician style; I continue to be astounded that this amazing talent is not on the world stage.
Paul is one of mandolindom's living treasures, and the fact that he's one of a handful of those who've forged jazz frontiers on the fretboard makes him special to me personally, let alone he's been doing this for several decades already.
His hands-on experience with the previous generation's triumvirate greats in jazz mandolin, Tiny Moore, Johnny Gimble, and Jethro Burns has allowed him to carry their torch and assist in cultivating a new crop of players, as any who have attended his workshops will attest. I consider it a true privilege to introduce you to the words and wisdom of Austin Texas's crown jewel, Paul Glasse.
— Ted Eschliman, Jazzmando.com
Air Mail Special, from the 1993 Paul Glasse recording The Road To Home.
Question from SternART: Tell us about your Monteleone mandolin. Did you order it new?
Paul Glasse: This has been my primary acoustic mandolin for many years. John Monteleone calls the model his Style B. Yes, I ordered it directly from John, received it in 1986 and had a few minor tweaks geared toward my preference: the color of the sunburst (which is tri-color with a bit of red in it, darker than most he made in this period), a bit more figured maple on the back than was typical on a Style B, the fingerboard terminated after the 20th fret, negating the possibility of a pick guard but allowing me to pick comfortably in what some now call the "sweet spot."
John included the gold-plated hardware as a surprise upgrade. I added real pearl buttons later on. I really love this mandolin. It just suits the bulk of my playing in many ways. While it's not the "banjo killer" in terms of volume, I've found the tone very pleasing—to my ears very sweet and even sounding. Some instruments I find need to really be driven hard to give up their sound. Though this mandolin can be played with a heavy attack, it's not mandatory. The instrument sounds wonderful when played with a soft touch as well and responds easily to subtle gestures. These qualities are crucial to what I do. I like the sound of this mandolin enough that, when I'm properly tuned in, I can play more economically than I might with another instrument. That is, often I can just let the notes be—let the mandolin's voice carry me through. From a playing perspective, I really can't think of another mandolin that I'd rather have.
I learned very early on that this mandolin records nicely. There's an evenness to it that really works in the studio. A couple of brief anecdotes. For years prior to owning the Monteleone my primary acoustic was a late 30s Gibson A-50 that's been refinished and in the process probably improved sonically, due to what what might be referred to in the mandolin community as "random hippie sanding." Right after I received my Monteleone I got called in for an overdub recording session. I brought the A-50 because that's what I was used to and most comfortable playing at that moment in time. I also brought along my less than one-week old Monteleone, really as a backup. We spent some time trying different mikes and EQ settings on the A-50 trying to dial in the sound we wanted. It was taking up a fair amount of time. Finally I mentioned that I'd brought another mandolin we could try. I pulled out my new mandolin and within a few seconds the engineer announced that he had what we needed and was all set to roll. I asked him what he had to do to the EQ for that mandolin and he said "Not a thing. I'm running it completely flat." That's been pretty much the story ever since.
When I taught at the Mandolin Symposium each instructor was allotted a featured concert set at some point during the week. After my set Stephen Gilchrist met me by the edge of the stage and said "The microphone loves your mandolin." He told me that he talked about that instrument in his mandolin construction class the following morning. Really, we all love the instruments we play. This one has always performed well with a microphone and truly suits what I'm trying to do.
Trivia tidbit: Monteleone numbers his mandolins sequentially; by the luck of timing my mandolin's serial number is 123.
Question from Chasray: Do you have a different mindset when you play an 8-string as opposed to a 5-string?
Paul Glasse: Yes, there's quite a bit that's different between the two instruments, the settings that I play them in and what I've come to believe they both require. Truthfully, at this point, I approach many of these issues intuitively, which serves me well. A few thoughts... Prior to moving to a 5-string electric I'd had most of a year of gigging experience playing on a 1957 Fender electric mandolin, generously loaned to me by fiddler mentor Evan Stover. Through that experience I'd begun to deal with some of the issues: single strings versus double courses, bending notes, picking with a lighter attack, getting away from the bluegrass "motorboat" right hand picking, playing frequently in closed positions, the ups and downs of having more sustain. When I finally moved to a 5-string electric I went through the same issues many of us do. At first I thought of the bottom strings "in another key"—that is "I can move all my G-position stuff down to the bottom four strings and now it's C stuff." While that approach can get you started, you've really got to get past that and see all five strings as a complete thing—an extension of the fingerboard you knew before. At this point, even if I'm just playing the bottom strings, seeing all five strings there helps me conceptualize where I am. Oddly, mandola or 4-string mandola tuning (like Johnny Gimble uses) confuses me more than the 5-string.
Question from Brad Weiss: How have you tried to incorporate the playing of Wes Montgomery into yours? How, in general, do you absorb the playing of the giants who have influenced you? How should WE do that?
Paul Glasse: Wes is my all-time favorite jazz guitarist. I went through a period of listening to him a lot—still never grow tired of his playing. I particularly admire his distinctive personal voice, really grooving sense of time, and blending of blues and bebop vocabulary, that he was great at both soloing over the chord changes and letting them slide or ignoring them when a soulful bluesy riff seemed like emotionally the right thing. Yes, I'll even play the occasional phrase in octaves—but it's really not the same. Mostly I just find him to be a very unique, soulful voice.
For any music you are inspired by and want to learn I'd suggest... really listen... a lot. I find that one can do a lot of different kinds of listening. A few questions one might ask while listening: can you hear each instrument and if so what's it doing? What is its role in the group? What's the form of the tune (AABA, AABB, blues)? Can you hear the chord changes in terms of intervals—perhaps call them out? What are qualities of each chord—major, minor, altered in some way? Where is the soloist placing himself rhythmically—on, in front of, or behind the beat? If Wes plays a cool note or phrase, what makes it cool? What's the overall arc of his solo? How does he create excitement or build energy. If you wanted to play the phrase you just heard on the mandolin, where would it "live" on your fingerboard? Really, this is the tip of the iceberg. I'm also a big believer in more passive listening—just enjoy the stuff even if you don't understand it at all. Listen to something that challenges you and don't worry about it. Let it wash over you. Listen while you're concentrating on something else: driving, doing chores around the house. Try listening first thing in the morning or right before you go to bed—just intuitively try to get it into your system and start hearing that way. Can you improvise solos in your head on a given tune? Can you imagine how your musical hero might sound playing that same tune—even if you've never heard him play it? Give it a try. You've got to start hearing cool stuff in your head before you can play it on your instrument. Listening to the greats, I think, can only help. Don't worry, it really shouldn't keep you from eventually playing just like yourself.
Question from Shaun Garrity: Of the living jazz greats, who would you most like to play with and why? Same question for anyone you didn't get to play with that is no longer with us?
Paul Glasse: Wow, those are tough questions. Of living players... not really a jazz guy... but I'd love to play with drummer Jim Keltner. I'm a big fan of the round, mushy, grooves that he creates—in particular the way he can artfully split the difference between shuffle and straight eighths time. I've really enjoyed hearing Peter Erskine and Mark Johnson play together and particularly like the great interaction they have with their fellow band members. I'd like to play with pedal steel player Buddy Emmons because I'm a big fan of that instrument in general and think he's been a major musical talent. I'd like to sit and discuss music writing with Tord Gustavsen, because I think he's writing with a unique, personal, voice. In truth, there are so many great players around today...
Of the jazz players who are gone, to even name the names seems presumptuous. Wes Montgomery, Charlie Parker, Clifford Brown, Bill Evans, Wynton Kelly... I mean why not aim for the top? While I'm dreaming, I'd love to get to play with the Count Basie Orchestra or do a small group date with Basie's so-called "All-American Rhythm Section." Keep that time travel machine running—I'd like to play a dance with Bob Will's Texas Playboys, late '40s or early '50s please!
Have I used up all my wishes, Genie?
Question from Perry: What note choices or avoidance thereof do you find helpful in designing hip sounding bebop lines? Are there particular "snippets" of note patterns that you find always seem to come up? Is there a method you use when first attacking a jazz standard? i.e. find all the 3rds and 7ths in the chords, etc... I'm looking for the fishing pole and net here so I can try and come up with my own fish.
Paul Glasse: I think when I first started trying to play swing, and bebop that I tended to err on the side of playing too many roots to the chords, spelling things out too literally and just naturally trying to neatly tie up all the melodic loose ends. As I've played and listened more I've become more familiar with jazz vocabulary and in the process become more comfortable with melodic ideas that unfold gradually and don't always resolve themselves neatly right off the bat. I think that it's OK to pose a melodic question.
When first attacking a jazz standard I really don't use one specific system. I try to learn the chords and melody. I look for how the two work together—that is be able to play the melody and understand how it relates to the chords and vice versa. I generally try to solo over the chords a few times and deal with things in a few different positions and or registers, making sure to hone in on any unique harmonic moments of the particular tune.
While I don't have a system for it, I guess I do, at any given moment of a song, want to be dialed in on what's going on harmonically—yes, 3rds and 7ths are really important. Idiomatically, the drop from a root to the 3rd below it crops up a lot in bop lines as does the overlaying of blues vocabulary with various other approaches, such as chord substitution or alteration of extension tones. If the original tune has lyrics it can be helpful to know those—just another route to really getting inside the song.
In an ideal world we could all just create endless, inventive, melodic variations on tunes without thinking through any kind of technical filter. I think, while we might have times that this actually works, in truth, most of us are aided by some technical stuff. The technical thinking may help us figure out some safe things to play, or might help us identify (and find on the instrument) what we're already hearing in our head. I find that I play best when I'm able to bring several of these levels to bear—either at the same time, or at least rapidly transition between approaches. Within a given tune there may be sections that I can approach very intuitively, without much conscious thought, and other points when I may have to play more deliberately to technically negotiate a harmonic hairpin turn in the tune. Invariably, the more any of us plays, the more we just hear "better" and can increasingly trust our ears and instincts.
Question from Kevin Knippa: What was the catalyst that lead you to go beyond musical genres that are more commonly associated with the mandolin (like bluegrass and Old Time) and explore swing and straight ahead jazz/bop? And, in particular, how did you initially get into post-swing forms (who were you listening to, for example)? Finally, how did you come to know and study with Johnny, Tiny and Jethro?
Paul Glasse: When I took up mandolin I originally played bluegrass and Old Time music. As I explored those interests I began to love many other kinds of rural and roots musics. My discovery of western swing and the playing of mandolinists Tiny Moore and Johnny Gimble helped nudge me toward other "non-western" swing music. I fell in love with the guitar playing of Charlie Christian and the small jazz combo settings that he often played in. Really, at that point I just followed the history of jazz. Charlie Christian led pretty logically into Charlie Parker and the world of bebop. From there Wes Montgomery and Clifford Brown were not much of a stretch to enjoy.
I think that there's really quite a bit involved in understanding a style of music such as bluegrass, swing, or bebop. It takes a lot of critical listening and, at least on my part, humbling attempts at trying to play authentically and passionately within a style. For me, it really helped to expand my own harmonic ear gradually. That is, I didn't decide I liked jazz and immediately jump into the most modern thing. I've just gradually nudged myself along and tried to settle in with the parts that speak to me. It's amusing to me that, in the mandolin world, some of what I do might be considered harmonically adventurous but in the jazz world those same ideas are based in vocabulary that's over a half century old. There's so much unexplored jazz territory on the mandolin—lots of room for innovation and unique voices.
My experiences with Tiny, Johnny and Jethro are each unique. I consider those three guys the giants of jazz mandolin for that generation of players—real monster musicians with really distinct musical personalities. I'm honored to have had a chance to be around each of them. Basically, in each case, I sought those guys out. Tiny, who I met first, I'll detail below, in answer to another question. Johnny moved back to Central Texas from Nashville after retiring from full-time studio work. I used to get to see him play local dances and concerts in the Austin area. We had some mutual music friends. I'm sure that at some point I just introduced myself to him. We crossed paths off and on for years, either ending up on stage together at a western swing show or my band opening for him then backing him up for some local concerts. There's a wonderful non-profit organization called Texas Folklife Resources geared toward promoting and preserving various aspects of Texas folk culture. They approached me about being a "master" in their "master/apprentice" program. I told them that instead I wanted to be the apprentice and study electric mandolin with Johnny Gimble. So, I wrote up a grant proposal that was approved by the organization's board and once a week for six months I went to Johnny Gimble's house for mandolin lessons, which were underwritten by Texas Folklife Resources. As far as I know, I'm the only mandolinist who's studied for any length of time with Johnny. I think he's one of the great American instrumentalists.
I may have first met Jethro just through booking a mandolin lesson with him as part of a trip through Chicago. We later ran into each other at some NAMM shows around the country, when he was endorsing Washburn mandolins and I was demoing my Stevens 5-string electric. We did a couple of mandolin workshops and performed together at a festival in Nacodogches Texas and I would always visit with him when he taped Austin City Limits. I was there for rehearsals and the taping of the famous Austin City Limits mandolin special with the David Grisman Quintet followed by Tiny, Johnny and Jethro along with the great Eldon Shamblin on guitar—a wonderful day of music.
Question from AlanN: Can you tell any funny Jethro stories (keeping in mind the family nature of the site)? Did you have much time to jam with him?
Paul Glasse: On all things Jethro I, humbly defer to my amazing colleague Don Stiernberg, who was truly Jethro's protege. As mentioned above, I knew and did get to jam some with Jethro but my influences and experiences run deeper with Tiny and Johnny. Still I do have very fond memories of great Jethro stories. As you suspected, many of them aren't for family ears. A couple of thoughts though... After a jazz mandolin workshop that Barry Mitterhoff, Jethro and I did at a festival in East Texas a young picker asked Jethro to look at his mandolin. This involved the fellow making some disclaimers about various aspects of his instrument. Jethro was very gracious. Afterward he said to me "Paul, I'll get these guys who tell me that they'd sound a lot better if the top of their mandolin was a bit thinner or the neck was shaped differently... sooner or later you've got to play the damn thing."
Years back I ran across someone selling vintage movie posters. One of these posters was for a little known B picture called "Second Fiddle To A Steel Guitar," involving the Bowery Boys crashing the "Cavalacade of Country Stars." The poster includes modest sized photos of various country stars of the day, including Bill Monroe and, at the bottom of the poster, a pretty large photo of Homer and Jethro—Jethro holding his classic Gibson two-point. I bought all the remaining copies of this poster from the dealer. At one point I told Jethro that I had this poster and he laughed. He said that in the 1960s Audrey Williams (Hank's first wife) made some movies in Nashville and got any number of folks to perform on film for the promise of very little money because they wanted to be in a movie. Rumors were that often performers had trouble collecting their money from these ventures. So, when Homer and Jethro's booking agent approached Jethro about a slot in "Second Fiddle To A Steel Guitar" (one of Audrey's movies) he wasn't very interested and asked the agent to quote an astronomical fee. The agent called back confirming that the fee had been met... well, Jethro said "No, tell them we want even more money," not really wanting the gig or believing they'd ever see their check. Again, the agent called back and said the new demand had been met. So, Homer and Jethro performed in the movie.
Since Homer and Jethro had demanded top pay they ended up getting better billing than the other performers who were in the movie and on the poster. Jethro told me that they still never really thought the movie company would pay up. But in the winter of 1967 Chicago had a giant snow storm and folks didn't get their mail for about a week. Jethro said one day the mailman arrived with a giant stack of mail that had backed up. He remembered he and his wife sitting on the living room floor going through all the mail and finally coming across the check for the "Second Fiddle" movie. They just laughed and laughed.
So I sent him a copy of the poster—never did get to talk to him after that but friends told me that he put that poster up in the music room where he taught mandolin lessons in his latter days. He was, of course, a brilliant and original player and a wonderful, profoundly funny man.
The movie: Second Fiddle to a Steel Guitar, from 1965
Question from John Dillon: How did you approach the jazz band when you sat in "first chair" guitar spot? Did you work at all at trying to sound "guitarish", or fly in the face of what the average ear thought it should be? In similar vein, how did the arrangers that were not tuned into mandolin ask of you and your instrument in that context? You don't have the strings of a guitar, so I expect your inversions and chord offerings were a challenge to some preconceived ideas.
Paul Glasse: I played 5-string electric mandolin in the UT Jazz Orchestra (University of Texas at Austin). That was long time ago and I wish I'd known then what I know now. For the most part I was just given the guitar charts and left to find my own way. I don't think my chord inversions really ruffled anyone's feathers. In retrospect I think I sweated trying to play more of the fat chords on the charts than were really needed. In reality, in a big band situation, you've got whole horn sections spelling out the chords and their alterations. With a band that big everyone doesn't have to play every chord alteration; often one just has to support what's going on and not conflict. Seeing Freddie Greene live with the Basie band had certainly been an inspiration. The better part what I pulled off with that group involved really trying to lock into the groove of each tune, play tightly with the rhythm section and catching the various kicks and accents that each arrangement called for. The language was very much adapted guitar vocabulary, something I was pretty at home with by that point, trying to figure out where it all lived on the mandolin... well, that was another matter. Of course, it was an absolute blast to stand up and take a solo in that big band setting, sometimes with horn section figures interlaced through one's solo—a great reason to play the electric mandolin.
Question from Scott Tichenor: Didn't you used to get the call to play electric mandolin for occasional Bob Wills band reunion gigs? Am I remembering this correctly, and if so, can you share that experience with us? You studied extensively with Johnny Gimble under a special grant. I always thought he was one of the great jazz mandolinists most people never had the chance to hear. What impact did he have on your playing? When will it be public where Tiny Moore's mandolin is and do you think it ever be played by anyone again—or is it even in playing condition? and of course, who makes the best BBQ in Austin?
Paul Glasse: I've never played a gig as member of the Texas Playboys. But I've done lots and lots of gigs, over a period of many years, with any number of former Texas Playboys, including Johnny Gimble, Eldon Shamblin, Herb Remington, Leon Rausch, Tommy Allsup, Smokey Dacus, Bobby Koefer, Bob Boatright and Billy Briggs. As a kid growing up in upstate New York I never thought I'd even see these players in my lifetime, let alone get to play on the bandstand with them. These guys are all remarkable musicians, many of whom were and are real stars in that musical world. They've all been very glad to see some comparative youngsters taking up western swing. Every one of them has been very gracious.
I tell the story of the Johnny Gimble apprenticeship elsewhere in this interview. I agree that he's one of the real mandolin greats. He's arguably the most modern sounding of the three swing mandolin giants of that generation (Tiny, Johnny, Jethro). He's a smart, quick-witted, guy and I find those things reflected in his playing. In learning his tunes you can see how he's put things together in technically advanced and clever ways. Though he's not known for playing fast, some of his stuff is physically very challenging to play. Some of his right-hand picking technique is unique to him and, as far as I'm concerned, impossible to pull off. He'll hold the pick between his thumb and index finger and pick "away" with the backs of the fingernails of his second and third fingers at the same time as, or alternating with the flatpick—during moments of chord soloing or chordal backup. There's a great, grainy black and white video on YouTube that shows him doing it. For clues to Johnny's playing I'd suggest listening to legendarily eccentric fiddler J.R. Chatwell and also to the guitar playing of George Barnes, both of whom influenced Gimble's playing.
How did he influence my own playing? Well, I've learned a fair amount of his stuff through the years, certainly quote him out of homage. Some of his stuff is just too good not to use. Johnny, like other players of that generation, has that unerring sense of swing that's just always available to him. It's part of who he is as a musician—a real thing of beauty. I aim for that in my playing but that's a tough one to pull off ALL the time, even in adverse circumstances. I love that he's respectful of his own musical roots (what other fiddler's have brought to the dance) but also, so clearly, a unique voice that's grown naturally from those roots—the balance of tradition and innovation.
I don't really have any reliable information about the current status of Tiny Moore's famous 1952 Bigsby 5-string electric mandolin. His widow Dean had it for many years. I'd sure like to see it in a museum or being played by someone who respects it for what it is.
Who makes the best BBQ in Austin? Couldn't we discuss something less controversial, like mandolin capos, who makes the best mandolins, or who's the best mandolin player in the world?
OK, my personal favorite BBQ in Central Texas for the meat, sauce and side dishes is the Salt Lick in Driftwood, Texas, just outside of Austin. An honorable mention for great BBQ (especially baby back ribs) and for supporting live music for years is Artz Ribhouse. That said, in this part of the world, there are a lot of great independent BBQ places—people take that stuff really seriously around here. If you stay away from the big chain places it's hard to go too wrong. I'd suggest to anyone, come down to Austin for a visit; check out some music and discover your own favorite eating spot and take a mandolin lesson while you're here.
Question from Aaron Woods: I really enjoy the freshness of your tunes. How do you approach composition?
Paul Glasse: Thank you. Composing has always been, for me, one of the most lastingly rewarding parts of being a musician. The first song that I ever played on the mandolin was something I made up. It's just something I've always done. I try to "find" tunes however I can. I'll take them however I can get them. I write more if I'm actively trying to do so—thinking about it, setting aside time, being deliberate about it. I'll use a variety of tricks to get something accomplished.
Sometimes a melody will occur to me away from the instrument. "Slow Fall" is one example of this. I made up the melody to the A sections while driving in the car—came home, made up chords for a bridge and composed the bridge melody by singing along with those chords. Though the melody to the A section can work with only two chords (Bb to Ab) I wanted something different and played around with things until I worked out the current harmonization. I think part of what makes the chord choice for that tune successful is that, while the melody is largely diatonic, the chords are not. Also, initially, quite a few of the melody notes fall on chord extensions, landing on "stronger" or more primary notes later in the phrase. Incidentally, another (perhaps) superstition that I usally run with: if I've come up with a new melody while away from the instrument, I usually keep the song in the same key; I figure that it wants to live there. That's why Slow Fall is in Bb.
Many of the tunes or sections of tunes that have fewer notes I've made up by singing, either singing a melody and finding chords or finding chords and singing a melody along with those changes—sometimes an interactive combination of these two approaches (examples: "One More Night," the A section to "Samba Talk", the bridge to "A Bit Of Good", the bridge to "Both Sides Of It."
Other tunes have been very specifically developed out of a discovered melodic phrase on the mandolin: "The Tilt", "Paper Bag Rag," "Up and At 'Em" are examples of these. I'll find a phrase that speaks to me and work to expand it into a tune.
Listen: The Tilt, from the 1991 self-titled Paul Glasse recording.