One might say Bebop jazz has recently found a very unlikely home in the mandolin. Through the frets and apt fingers of Vermonter Will Patton, this is especially true, the experienced jazzer has plead a most convincing case that the blistering, harmonically fluid style of music makes sense, even on a "folk" instrument built four decades before the inception of the genre.
"General" Patton's signature sound vintage Gibson A mandolin not only reincarnates the souls of Dizzy, 'Trane, and Bud Powell, it croons marvelously throughout his now decade-long discography with other eclectic styles like South American Choro, and the sweet Gypsy sounds of Django Reinhardt and his Manouche kin. On the verge of releasing his fifth CD, the master has established himself as one of a handful of jazz mandolin global titans.
We took some time to pick the brain of this most innovative of musicians, one who started his professional career on the bass, and you might quip, worked his way up (register-wise) to the mandolin. We appreciate the way Will has innovated the mandolin, pulling (and picking) it in an exciting new and unconventional direction.
Bebop in Pastel, by Sonny Stitt. From Will's forthcoming recording Flow.
Ted Eschliman: You started your musical career as a bassist. Was this any kind of physical barrier, going from such a large instrument to the smaller frets, or how was the instrument helpful in understanding the mandolin early on?
Will Patton: Actually, about half my gigs are still on bass, both string bass and electric. I've always thought that "bass player logic" is a great way to understand tune progressions, the architecture of the harmony. I was very lucky to get to play for 20+ years as a bassist with some very soulful and accomplished older jazz musicians who never opened a book on stage but knew 1000 tunes. I assimilated lots of standards that way.
For some reason the difference in scale length and fourths vs fifths tuning isn't a problem. They just feel so different.
Photo credit: Debbie Patton.
Ted Eschliman: Along these same lines, how do you approach the "limitations" of 3- and 4-note chord voicings on the mandolin in a genre known for insanely complex chord extensions, and does your experience with the bass help in creating these voicings?
Will Patton: My experience having a great bassist in my group helps a lot. If he has the roots, I can play the glory notes, 7ths and up. Context is everything of course, and one of the advantages of playing with the same folks for years is knowing where they're headed harmonically and trusting they hear your direction and provide support. Most of my chord study was worked out on piano in years gone by.
Ted Eschliman: You run counter to the stereotypical MAS afflicted mandolinist in that most of your music is recorded and performed on one instrument, a sweet, vintage Gibson A. What are the playing characteristics and tonal qualities of that instrument that make it so universally appealing to you and audience in the music you play?
Will Patton: Oh, I've got the MAS syndrome, just not the bank balance! I do keep returning to the Gibson A for that full woody sound, but I've also been playing a nice JBouvier that has a radiused neck and sometimes feel some limitations on the old A. I've been fortunate to play a few of Joe Campanella Cleary's instruments of late and am trying to convince one to follow me home.
Ted Eschliman: You recorded with an Old Wave guitar-body octave mandolin in recent years. How do you use this voice of this instrument and what do you consider its potential contribution to a jazz ensemble? Any other mandolin family instruments?
Will Patton: I've been using both a '30 National Steel tenor guitar and a lovely new tenor made by Adam Buchwald when he was at Vermont Instruments. The new tenor provided the inspiration for two tunes on my new CD. Both these tenors and the octave mandolin provide a somewhat fuller sound for comping in an ensemble setting, but certain voicings are a bit of a challenge with the longer scale, and some rootless voicings can sound muddy. I've been playing a fair bit of Irish music lately and the tenor is great for that sort of modal John Doyle style rhythm. I'm experimenting with some open string voicings to try to suggest that DADGAD sound. As far as jazz, I can make it work with swing but not so much for more bebop stuff.
Will Patton with Ninine Garcia
Will Patton in the studio rehearsing the tune Caporal Swing with French guitarist Ninine Garcia, a regular performer at La Chope des Puces, a small bar in Northern Paris famous for hosting gypsy jazz performances.
Ted Eschliman: You have cited a quite a number of horn players as influences in your music. Who do you listen to and in turn, glean your own signature mandolin sound from?
Will Patton: Bill Evans, Cannonball, Clifford Brown, Stan Getz, Zoot Sims, Milt Jackson (some vibes licks really translate well to the mandolin!), Kenny Barron and Charlie Haden, to just mention a recent few. At this point in my playing, I don't think too consciously about my sound, it's just what comes out from playing a lot. I mostly listen for harmonic ideas, rhythmic nuances, touch, feeling, all that wonderful stuff the true greats do so effortlessly.
Ted Eschliman: In comparison, what mandolinists have influenced you, and what are the attributes of their playing you incorporate in your style?
Will Patton: So many amazing players!
Mike Marshall for everything he does. Don Stiernberg and Paul Glasse for their elegant tone, chops and great ideas. Dawg for re-inventing the mandolin and his amazing compositions. Chris Thile! Don Julin has great feel. For Irish feel, Mick Moloney, John McGann and David Surette. Tone-monsters: Adam Steffey, John Reischman, Butch's beautiful sound. Tim O'Brien is so great. Somebody stop me! I could go on...
Will Patton Ensemble
L-R: Clyde Stats, bass; Steve Blair, guitar; Will Patton, mandolin; Skeeter Camera, percussion, David Gusakov, violin. Photo credit: Glen Moody, 2006.
Ted Eschliman: A mandolin fronting a jazz ensemble is a bit of a rarity. What barriers do you see in public perception of the mandolin as a legitimate jazz instrument, and how do you/we get over them?
Will Patton: Great question, one I've given a bit of thought to. First off, I've found that context again is important. The mandolin as a lead instrument is just going to sound better surrounded by violins, flutes, guitars, string bass and the like than by trombones, trumpets, sax, Hammond B-3 - it's just in the nature of the timbre. I once sat in on a blues with a happening jazz group, played what I felt was a cooking solo, but when the tenor player came in with this big, rich tone out of the Coleman Hawkins school, I felt a bit silly. Not my context.
Secondly, I think if most large cities had 8-10 mandolin players who knew 200 standards off book, could read and transpose, solo convincingly in any key and lay out changes behind other soloists, the perception of jazz mandolin would be some different. We expect this of jazz guitarists, but it's the exception for a mandolin player. Could be the pay grade is a disincentive!
Will Patton Ensemble - Le Marais
From Will's forthcoming recording Flow, his original composition Le Marais, copyright 2011 King's Hill Music).
Ted Eschliman: You're based out of New England, particularly Vermont. How do you feel this region has shaped your musical aesthetic, in terms of physical geography, culture, and playing opportunities?
Will Patton: I moved up in the late '60s, not so much for the copious jazz opportunities as the quality of life. Each year I feel more and more that this is where I'm supposed to be. The landscape, the quiet and the folks that live in these parts just feels right. But I love the cities as well, especially Paris, New York and San Francisco, and am trying to spend more time in each. There is a lot of driving involved in gigging in New England but I suspect it's the same almost anywhere. Playing summer festivals and town green concerts in Vermont is great fun. Burlington is a great music town as well.
Will Patton Ensemble - Caro Raul (Toquinho)
Live at the Hooker-Dunham Theater, Brattleboro, Vermont. L-R: David Gusakov, violin; Will Patton, mandolin, Clyde Stats, string bass; Skeeter Camera, triangle; Anna Patton, clarinet; Steve Blair, guitar. From the YouTube account of Larry Sherman.
Ted Eschliman: The French Connection: you've done some recording in France, and spent some time researching the contemporary legacies of Django Reinhardt, including several marvelous tracks with Ninine Garcia. What is it about this music that draws you, and how do you think the mandolin fits in the genre?
Will Patton: Well, I'm always a bit reluctant to set myself up as a Django style player. There are some great string players out there that can really nail the style. I'm more influenced by the general feel, the harmonic minor scales, the pomp style of comping, in a general sense. When I first met Ninine I didn't think of the music we were playing as gypsy jazz, but more of a very intense and soulful style of jazz/swing playing (I think he's a bit of an atypical player in that tradition anyway). There's a tune of Ninine's on the new CD that we played live, first time through the tune, that I think just nails the energy of his music.
The more I listened to the style the more I dug it... Angelo Debarre, Tchavolo Schmitt, Biréli LaGrène. The soloing seems less "schooled," more from the heart and not the book, if you know what I mean.
And I absolutely love the French style musette tunes - Jo Privat, Gus Viseur. I got to meet R. Crumb in France, he has this incredible collection of the old, old musettes. Something about those lickety split waltzes does me in. I guess I'll let others decide how the mandolin works in that context, I'll just keep trying to play it :).
Will and Anna Patton
Will with daughter Anna Patton, an occasional Will Patton Ensemble member on clarinet. Photo taken at La Chope des Puces in Saint-Ouen, northern Paris, a small but lively bar that regularly features gypsy jazz.
Photo credit: Debbie Patton.
Ted Eschliman: You regularly include Choro and music from South America in your CD tracks. What other ethnic styles have influenced and shaped your sound?
Will Patton: Again, I'm not really a musicologist but I listen to lots of stuff all the time like most of us get to do these days. I do love choro but am equally influenced by Brasilian MPB (Toquinho, Vinicius), bossa nova, Tropicalismo (Gilberto Gil, the great Caetano Veloso). We did a Cuban Charango groove on the new CD as well. My daughter Anna sometimes plays clarinet with us (when we can get her!) and she is adept at Balkan and Klezmer styles. This can really warp a swing tune in a delightful way to my ears.
I've been playing more and more contra dances, with my daughter's groups and others, so I'm learning Irish, Quebecoise and fiddle tunes. Great for the chops. I've also been messing with Quebecoise style foot percussion. Very aerobic!
Will Patton Quartet - Cafe Manouche
Will Patton Quartet on the Instant Coffeehouse (public access television in Vermont) performing their original composition Cafe Manouche. Will Patton, mandolin and tenor guitar; Clyde Stats, bass; David Gusakov, violin; Dono Schabner, guitar.
1920 Gibson A, JBouvier Heritage F-5, Vermont Instruments tenor guitar, National Steel tenor guitar, 1920s Epiphone string bass, 1974 Fender Fretless Precision bass, Old Wave octave mandolin. I use D'Addario J74 strings on my mandolins.
I have pickups in my mandolins but much prefer to play through a good condenser mic. I lean in and out of the mic for dynamics and have gotten used to this over the years. There are some limitations (I'm always tied to the mic stand) but the natural sound of the instrument is just better than anything I can get by cables, boxes, preamps, etc. In some of the old opera houses and wooden churches we play in New England we play acoustically, or very lightly amplified.
I use a tortoise shell pick, something about the grain of the pick really pulls the tone out. I use only material from turtles that have lived long productive lives and have expired while surrounded by loved ones at an advanced age.
Thanks, Ted and Scott, for the opportunity to talk about mandos and music, and for all you do to create and nurture
this amazing community of like minded folks.
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Thanks Ted, and it's great to hear from Will! I wish it was 200 questions.
I remember sitting with Ted at Rigelfest some years ago watching Will play with his ensemble, and later Ted pointed out that Will seemed to be playing with mostly downstrokes for fuller tone (when possible), which I think surprised even Will. But it's techniques like that that give such a great tone to jazz mando players like Will and Don Julin.
I can't wait for the new CD, and hope to see Will again sometime soon. He's terrific live (as is Anna too!).
April 24, 2011 08:13 PM
Awaiting the new CD! Great profile, Ted. WP plays "under the radar screen" great music... love it!
April 24, 2011 09:25 PM
A+ Ted; thanx.
April 24, 2011 09:37 PM
Will, sounding great as ever! We need to figure out how to be in the same room at the same time again. It has been too long.
April 24, 2011 09:47 PM
What a great interview, and really nice pics, too. Will has been on the staff of our last couple of March Mandolin Festivals, and I have become a huge fan. He's also a really first-rate guy. Be sure to check out his CDs; I am looking forward to the new one myself!
April 25, 2011 02:26 AM
What a nice interview, w great clips and pics. A real pleasure!
April 25, 2011 05:59 AM
Excellent stuff from a great musician and fine fellow!
Salmon Falls Strings
April 25, 2011 08:09 AM
I have seen Will at the March Mandolin Festival concert for the last couple of years and have been blown away each time. He is also a down to earth guy, we had a nice conversation about his National tenor. Can't wait for the new CD.
April 25, 2011 09:20 AM
One of my favorite mandolinists, period. A great interview, Will!
April 25, 2011 09:40 AM
Thanks, Ted, for a great interview. Thanks to Will for some great music.
I have been a fan for awhile and think I discovered Will through Mandolin Cafe. He inspired me to try more jazz standards on mandolin.
April 25, 2011 09:46 AM
It was very cool seeing you in the SF Bay Area last July Will.......come on back!
Rickey Noel Mitchell
April 26, 2011 08:31 AM
Mr. Patton the music that comes from you gibson A is excellent. One of your CD's will be my next one. All right it's been driving me nuts. What does MAS syndrome mean?
April 26, 2011 08:34 AM
Mandolin Acquisition Syndrome
Too late now. You have been exposed.
Rickey Noel Mitchell
April 26, 2011 09:14 AM
Quote from pickloser: Mandolin Acquisition Syndrome
Too late now. You have been exposed. End Quote Well of course that's what means. Thanks pickloser. Every time I start feeling MAS I write more music.
April 29, 2011 08:21 AM
I saw and listened to Will the first time this early March at Dave Surette's Mando Fest in Concord, NH. I took my 80 year old mom to the Saturday Night Concert. She grew-up in the swing era and she just LOVED Will's playing (as did I). As she said of Will's playing, "I like that muisc." High praise from the discriminating critic my mom is.
I got his String Theory CD and often play it while cleaning the house - its great sounds keeps you inspired to keep moving doing a job that's a pain. There you go Will, just what you want, an endorsement for bebop and swing music to clean by : -) . Looking forward to more CD's!
Oh!, and I forgot to add, great interview, loved it-thanks!
May 01, 2011 08:03 PM
I only wish the article had mentioned what a great teacher you are, too. I look forward to the new CD. I wish you'd come down and play in Easthampton MA again -- or stop in at the Black Sheep.