Scott Henderson, legendary guitarist and founding member of fusion group Tribal Tech in conversation with Sandeep Chowta, about jazz, Jimi Hendrix and Joe Zawinul
Scott Henderson doesn’t like to be called a jazz musician. And he’s not. Last month, at a one-night-only gig in Mumbai, he opened a lot of minds and ears to his incendiary music that’s influenced by jazz, rock, blues, funk and more. Musician Sandeep Chowta, who was also the promoter for this concert, sat Henderson down for a freewheeling chat.
Jazz has become a pretty misunderstood genre of music right now. Even you sometimes say, ”˜We’re jazz musicians, I don’t know if we’re going to have a lot of people coming to see us’. Jazz is very hybrid these days, everything comes under that. And if people were to know that this was the kind of music that they were going to hear, it would become easier, for me, right now, to explain to a lot of people. And the 900 people in the auditorium will go and tell other people that ”˜Shit, this is jazz, not the jazz that we thought that was’.
I think that people, due to their different experiences listening to music, pigeon-hole all different kinds of music for what they are. Some people have their own definition of what rock is. To some people it’s Led Zeppelin, to some people it’s the White Stripes. For jazz, when some people think of jazz they think of Kenny G and others, they think of Billy Strayhorn or Duke Ellington. When I think of the band that I play in, my band, I hardly think of it as a jazz band. It’s a jazz-influenced band, but it’s by no stretch of the imagination a jazz band. We’re not a jazz band.
But I like the way you put it across to somebody, ”˜We play dance music also. We’re not playing music for the musicians only. It’s not music for the intellect.’ I think that’s what came across in your trip this time.
I would never want to play that kind of music. Not only would I not make any money, I wouldn’t be happy. And it’s not even about the money – I don’t even enjoy listening to that kind of music. I’m not even a big of a bebop fan. I can play bebop and I love playing standards, it’s really fun, but that’s not really the music that I listen to. My favourite band is Weather Report, and they’re not a bebop-jazz band, they’re a modern music band. I would say they are influenced by funk, by rock, by jazz, by ballads, by R&B. That’s how I like to think of my music too.
I’m just a musician, with many different influences and I can be influenced just as easily by Miles Davis as I can be by BB King. Or by Jimmy Page, for that matter. I don’t like to pigeon-hole my music and I hate it when people pigeon-hole my music, because all that does is lose my audience for me. Someone says, “Scott Henderson’s coming to town, he plays jazz.” That means there’s that many people that are not going to come because they don’t like jazz. And that sucks, because if they knew what it was, they would come and have a good time.
I really believe that there’s something in our music that’s fun for everybody. Almost anybody can relate to my music. We see long-haired rockers, we see grandmas and grandpas. The one thing I’ve always strived for as a musician is to have diverse albums and diverse concerts. Because I think that variety is the spice of life. If I had to play in a bebop band all night, I’d kill myself. Or a Texas blues band, or a rock & roll band. There’s no way I could make it, because I’m way too interested in different types of music to stick with one. The music world is way too big and [there’s] too much enjoyment to be had. Painting myself into a tiny idiom of the music world, that’s not for me.
Every guitar player thinks that since you’re a professor at GIT [Guitar Institute of Technology] teaching guitar and you play jazz, your influences would be Joe Pass, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane. And since I’ve spoken to you a lot and we’re talked a lot, I know you obviously need to tell them where your influences lie.
Anybody that really knows me, knows that I started playing rock & roll. The first thing I ever played was rock & roll and you never ever lose your roots. If Joe Pass was my influence, I would be playing hollow bodies and polytones, and I play a Strat to a Marshall. I’m hardly a jazz guitar player in that sense.
I think that there were quite a few guitar players that were on their way to doing what I do before they died. Like Jimi Hendrix was starting to jam with John McLaughlin. Just about any creative guitar player who has his roots in rock, because rock is such a creative music or can be”¦ Well, actually these days rock is getting more and more corporate, which is a drag”¦ But in my day when Led Zeppelin was around and Deep Purple, and Jimi Hendrix, and Jeff Beck, rock was a very creative music. And usually a creative mind is always searching out different things. The Beatles searched out music in India, to expand their vocabulary of songwriting. Jimi Hendrix was searching out John McLaughlin and jazz. Eventually these guys would have turned into fusion-jazz guitar players. I have no doubt that Hendrix would have started listening to Coltrane and started learning some of those lines, because there is no way that someone can be that creative and not start to push his way to other territories. Whether that be classical music or jazz or ethnic music from different countries, but they’re never just content to stay put playing the same old shit.
You do quote Jimmy Page, Ritchie Blackmore, Jeff Beck and Jimi Hendrix as some of your biggest influences.
Definitely. Huge influences. They’re the guys who taught me how to play guitar.
So you were a complete diehard Blackmore fan. How did you feel when Steve Morse took his place in Deep Purple? Was it the same for you again?
No, hell no. I like Steve, he’s a nice cat, but I can understand the guys of Deep Purple wanting someone completely different from Ritchie. I totally understand that. But the band could never sound like Deep Purple of old with Steve Morse, because he doesn’t play anywhere near that British style. A better choice would have been Yngwie [Malmsteen] if they really wanted to keep that sound of Deep Purple. But I think that was the point, they didn’t. They wanted to go in a completely different direction and they thought that by getting a guitar player that played a completely different style, [they could]. So in a way, it was a smart decision, if that’s what they had in mind.
A lot of musicians who very fascinated by jazz and modern fusion jazz, they start listening to a lot of musicians that are more contemporary. How important is it for all of them to go back to the roots? Is it important for somebody to go back and listen to Charlie Parker and Miles Davis?
I think it is, especially the people that are learning, because I don’t think I would want to learn sax and have Chris Potter be the first sax player I ever heard. He’s one of the best saxophone players in the world, in my opinion, but his style is so modern that I think it would be good for a student to listen to some John Coltrane and Charlie Parker before they tackle Chris Potter.
Are you saying that from the person’s approach to the instrument or is it just that he needs to know the music and understand that this is where that music came from?
Exactly. I think it’s important to learn the basics. It’s like a baby; you need to learn how to crawl before you walk. So if you go into super-modern territory without any of the foundation of where that music came from, I think you’re asking for trouble. For me, I think it’s a really good thing that I listened to Jimmy Page before I listened to Joe Pass. Because I think that if I had heard Joe Pass, I wouldn’t be the person I am now.
That’s my question. If someone listened to Joe Pass, would you recommend that they go back and listen to Jimmy Page?
I would, only because I think that diversity and variety is the spice of life. I don’t want to say anything to make anybody mad, but some of these jazz guitar players that play hollow bodies do polytones and that’s all they do. Dude, you’re missing out on a lot of fun. Playing a guitar through a Marshall with distortion, that’s what an electric guitar was built for, and if you never allow yourself to do that then you’re basically a piano player, not a guitar player. A guitar player gets to experience the thrill of distortion and playing loud and also the sensitivity of harmony while playing beautiful lines. So in a way, part of me feels sorry for these jazz box guys who play pop, because they miss out on so much of the experience of the electric guitar, because there’s so much fun to be had. Not that they don’t allow themselves that fun – they are basically piano players that just happen to play the guitar. And I would say the same thing about a piano player. If you’re going to play the piano and only play acoustic piano your whole life and never allow yourself to experience the incredible beauty of some of these sounds you can get from synthesisers these days, there’s a whole sonic world out there that you’re missing.
Tell me Scott, the music that you’ve been playing over the years”¦ Was there a lot of music to learn? Tribal Tech is some very tough music and even when it was with Jean-Luc Ponty or Chick Corea or Joe Zawinul, there was a lot of phrases. And now you’re playing your own music. If you were to go back to doing the same thing”¦ are you done with it?
It’s not that I don’t enjoy the wow factor. I mean, there are one or two tunes we play where there are some difficult passages to play. When I look back on the music I played with Chick Corea and with Jeff Berlin a lot of it, sounds like musicians who want to show off that they can play a bunch of fast notes together in unison. “Look, I’m playing the fast notes that he does and we’re playing them together!” [Laughs] To me, that can be an interesting aspect of music”¦ But I remember the Chick Corea Elektric Band”¦ I thought the music was pretty much horseshit. I really didn’t like it. I just thought it was a bunch of unison lines, with not much substance and I’m not doubting Chick Corea’s composing or anything.
We loved ”˜King Cockroach’ [on 1985’s The Chick Corea Elektric Band]. I didn’t even know there was a song called ”˜Silver Temple’”¦
”˜Silver Temple’ was actually the best one on the album.
It wasn’t on the vinyl when it came out, but it came out on the CD much later.
Chick Corea is a really great composer. Or actually I should say that Chick Corea can be a really great composer. But he has these times when he goes into his commercial state and unfortunately, that was the time that I played with him. I played in his Top 40 band.
Have you heard the subsequent records that Chick made?
[I have] and I haven’t liked any of them. Except for a few of the Trio records he did, jazz records. I really liked the record [1982’s Echoes of an Era] that he did with Chaka Khan, Joe Henderson and Freddie Hubbard. Beautiful record, [I] really liked that. Anything he does with synth, I won’t listen to it. To me, he’s one of those guys who shouldn’t come within 100 feet of a synthesiser, he just doesn’t know how to get a good tone out of a synthesiser. As an acoustic piano player, he’s one of the best there is and one of the best there will ever be. A true genius, on an acoustic piano. It’s just a shame to me that he had to take his career into such a commercial direction. But he did and I was sorry that I never got to play with him when he was playing what I call his best music ”“ Light as a Feather, and that one beautiful record he did, about Spain, not the song “Spain”, but something like ”˜Sketches of Spain’? I don’t remember the name of the album now, but it was a beautiful record, with really really nice writing, nice string arrangements and stuff.
My Spanish Heart”¦?
My Spanish Heart was a great record. But I was just unfortunate to play with him at the wrong time, that’s all. He’s a beautiful composer, but he just”¦I even overheard him saying once that the Elektric Band wasn’t serious music and that bothered me.
How did Joe Zawinul happen?
I actually knew one of Joe’s techs really well, he was one of my best friends. When Jaco left the band, Joe was looking for a bass player and I was playing in Jeff Berlin’s band. So Joe actually came to check out Jeff and it was between Jeff and Victor Bailey and he actually ended up hiring Victor Bailey. But he heard me play in Jeff’s band and he liked my playing and he remembered me because my friend in tech told Joe, “You remember that guy you heard playing with Jeff? He would love to play.” And so Joe hired me.
The guitar was never a big feature in Joe Zawinul’s band.
No but he had already hired a guitar player in Weather Updates.
How come the guitar factor happened there?
I’m pretty sure from what Joe told me that no saxophone player could ever replace Wayne Shorter. So he said that instead of trying to replace Wayne Shorter”¦ I remember his exact words, “Rather not play than replace with Wayne Shorter with a clearly inferior sax player”. Because he thought that Wayne Shorter was the baddest sax player that ever lived and I have to agree with that. And he said, rather than replace him with a sax player that couldn’t fill Wayne’s shoes, I’ll just get another instrument, I’ll get a guitar player. But he didn’t like Steve Khan, and the only reason he didn’t like him, because Steve Khan was more of a jazz, more of a pianistic guy. More clean-toned kinda stuff. And Joe’s favourite guitar player was Carlos Santana back in the day. He loved Hendrix, so he was looking for the same kind of singing voice that Wayne had, only as a guitar. He was clearly looking for a rock guitar player, not a jazz guitar player. But he was looking for a modern rock guitar player, not Billy Gibbons. He was looking for a guy that had some harmonic knowledge, with a rock sound. And Joe used to tell me, “What you are is a modern blues player.” He wouldn’t even call me a jazz guitar player, even though he knew I could play bebop and stuff. And that’s what he wanted. And that’s why he kept me as long as he did, I guess. Because I was in the band for four years, that’s why we had that kind of thing.
I think that the biggest thing we had in common, me and Joe, was one, that I knew his music so well because I’d been listening to him for years and the other was that we were both toning freaks. My whole thing was about tone and getting tones and that was Joe’s thing about getting tones. I remember Joe listening to my guitar solo one time on a tape someone had made and he’d go “Great tone, man,” and it was almost like something one of your fellow guitar players would say to you ”“ “Yeah man, you were getting some kickass tones from that Marshall” ”“ that’s the same kind of shit that Joe would say. He was a really kindred spirit when he came to that kind of stuff. He appreciated a good tone from the guitar. And I’m sure that Michael Landau would have been great in his band or John Scofield or any of those guys that really know how to get great tone out of a guitar. Joe would really appreciate those guys because they’re modern, they know some jazz and they also have that rock singing guitar thing Joe really likes. Joe would never play with a jazz guitar player. Never.
There was a rumour that you got an offer to play with the Miles Davis Band.
Yeah, there was. At least I got to talk to Miles on the phone. That was a real treat.
So did you want to do it just for the heck of it?
No. I didn’t want to do it, because I saw the band and it totally sucked.
But you like Miles’ music.
Well, Miles”¦ I love Miles and the last time I saw Miles Davis, it was a really terrible band with a good trumpet player. It was like seeing a Top 40 band with a good trumpet player. I didn’t want any part of it. Scofield was in the band and I’ve seen Scofield play so many times ”“ he’s always such a positive guy, always looks so happy when he’s playing – and he looked like that was the last place he wanted to be. Miles was making him play a Strat and they were playing like five Cindy Lauper tunes and I was like, “What the fuck is that about?” Then I was hearing stories about Miles pouring beer on guitar players’ heads, during the show, and I was like “Fuck that, I’d rather play with Joe any day.” Because first of all, the music was 20 times better, the compositions were 20 times better. It wasn’t like Miles was playing the great music he wrote back in the day, he was playing bullshit. It was like 15 minutes 1 chord vamps of pop tunes by Cindy Lauper. I remember at the concert, there wasn’t one piece of music that I liked. You hear Miles play and you go “Goddamn, he sure is playing his ass off like ever,” but the music they were doing was just crap. And Joe Zawinul was playing really bad-ass tunes and even the stuff that he had just recently written had serious harmony and beautiful music and I’d say, “It’s a no brainer. I’d rather play that music any day.” I don’t care how good of a career move it is to say “I played with Miles Davis,” because I couldn’t give a fuck. I want to play some good music, and I don’t give a fuck about that other shit.
There was a whole discussion on your forums that you’re cutting out a new Tribal Tech record. Tell us about it. Everyone’s looking forward to it.
There really isn’t much to tell. We are looking forward to it too. I think it’s going to be a fun record. But it’s not much of a composition record, it more of a jam record like Rocket Science and Thick. We’re taking a much different approach this time. And I don’t want to give away any secrets about how we’re going to do it. But I think how it’s going to end up is the tunes are gonna sound more like compositions than jams.
Are you writing any of the music?
No, it won’t be written at all. It will be overdubbed after we jam. But the way we’re going to jam this time is going to be different from the way we do in Rocket Science and Thick. Because we listen to those albums now and we think “Okay, the last album we did, we think there’s too much of a stylistic change between Reality Check and Thick. Because Reality Check is the last album we did before Thick, it was a heavy composition album and Thick was a total jam record. We want to be in the middle somewhere. We don’t want it to sound like Thick and Rocket Science, where it really sounds like jamming. We want there to be more composition and I think the way we’re going to approach the jamming this time it will lend itself in the final product sounding more like composition than jams. That’s all I can say. I think that it’s going to be our best record. I have a really really strong feeling that this will be it.
Why, because you’re meeting after such a long time?
No, because of the way we’re going to do the jamming.
So this is how you would actually like to do it?
Yeah. Due to me playing in (Scott) Kinsey’s band, we’ve come up with some really cool musical formulas that work really well and I think that when Tribal Tech gets together and when we apply these things we’ve learned in the last five or six years of me playing with Scott, it’s going to be a killer record. I’m really looking forward to it.
I notice that you have a lot of vocalists in most of your blues records, obviously you tour without them. You have a fantastic band. [Drummer] Alan Hertz is a revelation – everyone was blown away by him in India. Are you going to do a record with him?
Oh yeah. It’s me and [bassist] John [Humphrey] and Alan.
You have a blues record coming?
Well, it’s not a blues record, but you’ve heard the three new tunes and I’d hardly call them blues.
It’s definitely different from the last three records, because the last three were pretty bluesy.
We’ll put it this way. I haven’t finished writing for it yet, so I will write some blues tunes. They want vocals, but they’ll be bluesy. It’s hard for me to write without being bluesy. Those three new tunes I wrote, one of them is blues-oriented, the other two are not. But the way it always works for me is that by the time I’ve written a tune that isn’t very bluesy, I’m ready to write a bluesy one. And then after that I’m ready to go in and write one that isn’t very bluesy. There’s always a mixture of about half and half, there are real blues-influenced tunes and tunes that are more jazz-influenced. I don’t think it’s in me to do another Dog Party. The reason I did Dog Party was that we were doing these really complex Tribal Tech records where it was all complicated with a million buttons to be pressed and I just wanted to do a record that was go record it to tape, no over-dubbing. Dog Party was just a way to do something completely opposite from Tribal Tech. I don’t want to put out another straight ahead blues record, unless I get really inspired to do that. If the inspiration hits, I’ll do it. But right now, the fact that we don’t have a vocalist and the fact that I’m playing guitar in a trio is really inspiring me to learn more about chord-playing on guitar and it’s actually making me a better guitar player because I have to cover so much more territory. And it’s also something I’ve never done in my life. I’ve never done a guitar trio record where it’s just me, bass and drums and no other melody instruments and I’m out there all by myself, we’re covering everything and it’s challenging Â as hell. So I’m diggin’ it.
What do you listen to? You obviously don’t listen to a lot of guitar players. Are there other instrumentalists that you’d listen to rather than a guitar player?
I listen to everything. I do listen to a lot of guitar players. I did listen to a lot of Kurt Rosenwinkel, he’s fantastic. I’ve been listening on this whole India trip to Mike Moreno, and I think he’s fantastic. I listen to a lot of old jazz guitar players. I love Jim Hall, Joe Diorio, West Montgomery and many of the traditional jazz guitar players that I love. And of course, the modern ones we all love like John Scofield, these guys are incredible. But I do listen to a lot of rock and I still listen to Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple and I listen to ZZ Top, Allman Brothers, Derek Trucks, Sonny Landreth, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Jeff Beck”¦ There are so many guys out there, there are literally hundreds that I would put on my favourites list. It’s such a big world out there and there are so many amazing guitar players, that’s what keeps me humble.
Any last words? You’re coming back to India?
I hope soon. I just had a fantastic time here, I’m so grateful to the people of India for accepting my music. It’s almost impossible to believe. I have to tell you, to be honest, we’re nobodies in the States. I go into school and there’s Scott Henderson and most of the students are young and they’ve never heard of me. I’d probably have to say that 90 per cent of the students at GIT have never heard of Jeff Beck, so I don’t think they’re going to hear of me. They know The White Stripes, whoever’s current now. They don’t know Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page. They’ve heard of them from their dads. A lot of these kids, who just bought their guitars the other day, have no idea of where rock music came from. Basically most of the music schools in the States have gone from teaching musicians to be better musicians to teaching non-musicians to be musicians. These are kids who have no experience with music whatsoever. They’ve never heard Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck and certainly not heard of Scott Henderson. I’m basically a nobody. So when I come to India and I’m playing for 900 people, I’m going, “This can’t be happening.” [Laughs] When I’m in LA, I usually play for about 25-50 people. So this is amazing.