Michael Gauthier is a Montreal-based jazz musician who teaches guitar at the University of Montreal and at McGill University. His guitar sound is characterised by a warm, earthy bluesiness with the technical skill of a jazz master. A longtime fixture of the Montreal jazz scene, his memory houses a vast firsthand knowledge of the history of jazz in Montreal since the sixties. Recently he took the time to answer Wanda Waterman’s questions about learning music by ear, entering “the zone,” and accompanying spoken word performances. After viewing the first and second parts of this article, his music can be sampled and purchased here.
“… you improvise from an expanded consciousness, you discover that, in fact, there are no wrong notes! Appropriateness and correctness are products of the mind. Trying to live within those imaginary guidelines inhibits the flow.”
-Kenny Werner in Effortless Mastery
Extrapolating from an Incomplete Guitar
I didn’t rationalize this, but I thought that if I could learn the Third Man theme at 10 years old on a guitar with just two strings, then I could just extrapolate and eventually learn how to play anything I heard on a record, and that’s what I did. To this day, I will only reach for music sheets in dire desperation in the event that I can’t figure something out.
It really is just basic logic that I’m a guitar player with six strings, four fingers, and one thumb, just like any other. But it’s a skill that develops over time. When I listen to music, for example, I pretty much know what the guy is doing without even picking up my guitar?that is, if it’s of the type of music that I play.
Most blues and jazz stuff I can listen to and either know that I’ve done it before or that it’s from a place where I’ve been. You have to be able to jump into the language, so to speak. It’s like learning the Egyptian language in Egypt as opposed to buying a book.
That’s the way it’s been ever since and it’s the way I try to teach my students. I feel as though I need to redress them and fix their bad habits. The kinds of bad habits I’m talking about are things like reaching for the book instead of learning things by heart. I’m old school.
In the Zone
Do you tend to enter a zone wherein you’re somehow, in some mysterious way, more capable of making beautiful music?
For sure. There are people out there who automatically go into that zone the minute their fingers touch their instrument. For me the zone is more elusive; I can be in the zone for a couple of weeks and then out of the zone for a couple of weeks, for no apparent reason.
I can tell my students about the existence of that zone but I can’t actually depend on that zone myself. I think that most of my students have a handle on the zone, because I can see that they will notice it at brief intervals. I think that that zone is probably the second biggest reason people get into music in the first place, rivaled only by the fact that they love music. Even when a person is playing something like “Gloria,” or “House of the Rising Sun,” it’s the same zone, you know?
What conditions are more likely to bring on the “zone” for you?
A good drummer and a good bass player! This is true in jazz and blues, especially, because it’s a collective musical experience. I disagree with a lot of musicians who always blame somebody else if it doesn’t go well; they blame poor performances on their drummers, or bass players, or what have you. It’s just their egos.
I, on the other hand, believe that any of the musicians, including myself, could be at fault for a performance going badly. For the sake of professionalism, however, I feel that I have developed the ability to produce an acceptable product even when I’m not in the zone. My worst days are kind of at the low range of acceptable, the better days are a gift, and the great days are miraculous. I hope that audience members are paying close enough attention that they know when it’s a good day or a bad day.
Let’s talk about accompanying the spoken word performances. You seem to do it amazingly well, and it all comes together so well with no rehearsal. When you and your trio did the accompaniment for the Hundred Thousand Poets for Change event last year, was it the first time you’d accompanied spoken art?
Yes, it was the first time. I felt a little bit inadequate due to my unfamiliarity with the emotional expectations of the poems. It’s one thing to simply read a poem on a piece of paper; however, if you were to read a really good William Butler Yeats poem, the emotion would be right there in the writing. The thing is, I didn’t even have a chance to read the poems beforehand.
Another indication for me is the rhythm of the words. It’s funny, because the last couple of people I’ve asked about what they wanted from me have either asked for something bluesy or something sad. They never ask for something chipper. In other words, it seems like most people’s poems deal with morose issues.
A Bluesy Kind of Jazz
In that sense, I kind of have the upper hand, as I’ve played a lot of bluesy music in my life. Mind you, I still consider myself a jazz musician as opposed to a hard-core blues musician. On that same token, I am more on the bluesy end of jazz music, as opposed to the intellectual end of it. These poems were not just bluesy in the blues music sense?they were also bluesy in the melancholy sense.
(to be concluded next week)