After decades of working in music, you’re still making strides in your career. What are some challenges you face making a living making music?
The same challenge for every human being trying to make a living with music — balancing my musical endeavors with my family life. Sometimes I feel like I know certain airports way too well….
You’ve taken the reins from Larry Carlton in Fourplay, what’s it like filling the shoes of a legend?
From the beginning, Bob, Nathan, and Harvey have made a point to say they don’t want me to emulate Larry or Lee; they want me to be myself. That said, and being a big fan of Larry and Lee Ritenour for many years — the most difficult thing for me is to keep myself from thinking, ‘what would Larry play,’ or ‘what would Lee play here…,’ and to just trust my instincts. To be myself, as the guys want me to be.
What is your typical creative approach to writing; how do you get from idea to finished recording?
There are a few ways this happens. Sometimes a melody or idea pops into my head, and then I rush into the studio to record it, or at least jot it down so it doesn’t fade away into the ether. Usually, I have a project to write for i.e., the Fourplay CD. That inspiration comes from imagining the styles and personalities of the musicians I’ll be in the studio with, and that leads me to ideas which I’ll work on using the guitar and piano until I have it right. Then, in the studio, the players bring their magic and it all comes to life — usually much better than I imagined. Doing demos on my home system is a good way to prepare for the recording, but beware of demo love. Sometimes I’ll sit and try to write a song — which almost never works!
A lot of people think jazz players don’t make money, discouraging a lot of new players who want to take the reins — leading some to say jazz guitarists are a dying breed. What’s your take on the jazz player’s scene today?
People said that to me, too, but you shouldn’t listen to that. I believe there will always be great jazz and great jazz musicians. I’d like to say to the people who think ‘you’ll never make money playing jazz’ is that it is a terrible thing to say. Look at the amazing and successful new musicians that have surface in the last 10 years: Esperanza Spalding, Hiromi, Chrisitan Scott, Lage Lund…there are many. Just play your heart out and you’ll be fine.
You’ve produced dozens of albums, and worked with a diverse group of artists. What are a few tricks as a producer you’ve picked up that help make a better recording?
Keep the mood light. I start out by saying, ‘Everything will go smoothly if everyone does exactly what I want!’ That lightens the mood pretty well so we can jump in and get started. Another trick is to find a great and easy tune to record first, something you think will turn out great — setting a good mood and vibe for the rest of the sessions. I always try to put the artist in the best possible light, and position them in a way that allows their creativity to flow. I will quote someone (not sure who said it), but to be a producer, you need to have both an eye for detail and be able to see the big picture. You want the artist to be happy with the way the finished product sounds.
The influence of Jim Hall’s subtle playing style and his approach as an arranger has had a lasting effect on modern jazz. You studied with him as a high school student; what was the most important thing you learned from that experience?
Just the fact that Jim (the ultimate gentleman) took on a green, seventeen-year-old guitarist was amazing. I don’t think a week goes by that I don’t think of something he taught me. He was a humble man, and a true master.
A lot of people think smooth jazz is elevator music, or they can’t connect the dots between smooth jazz and more traditional forms. Could you help explain, or address that perception?
I think the radio format helps that perception to exist, but dig around on the internet and satellite radio, folks are able to hear the deeper cuts from our projects. It’s a fusion of many elements and different styles of music: pop, R&B, folk, new age, world, classical, etc., but with jazz improvisation. It’s perfect for me. If you think it’s all elevator music, I suggest you come to a few live shows and hear us smooth jazz cats burn!
What’s the recipe for a great jazz solo?
A good rhythm section grooving under the soloist. Years of practice. A beer.
Best advice you’ve ever gotten?
Put that computer and iPhone down, and go play your guitar.
A prominent figure in the music world for many years, Chuck Loeb is known for his genre-spanning versatility as a guitarist, knack for commercial success, and a successful stint scoring soundtracks for feature films. Having first picked up the guitar at age eleven, Loeb studied under jazz giants Jim Hall, Pat Metheny, and Joe Puma. Read his full story.