Jay Azzolina was my fellow student at Berklee back in the 1970s, where he knocked everyone out (including our teacher Pat Metheny) every time he picked up the guitar.
He earned a Grammy nomination for his work with Spyro Gyra in the 1980s and went on to work with Michael Brecker, John Pattituci, Herbie Mann and Chuck Mangione. He has also worked with singers Michael Franks, Donna Summer, Rickie Lee Jones, Manhattan Transfer and Carly Simon. His CDs as a leader include Never Too Late 1989, Past Tense 2000, Live At One Station Plaza 2002, The Rolling Stones Project 2005 and Local Dialect 2007.
These recordings show Jay to be an imaginative guitarist, never afraid to explore the unexpected. He changes sounds and genres from straight-ahead jazz to hip-hop to latin to rock, but his own personality is always strong as if to say to the listener, “Here’s what I think about this style. Now listen up, because this is something you might not have noticed!” Jazz Improv Magazine has called Jay “one of the finest and most talented guitarists on the planet.”
I caught up with Jay for an interview and asked about his musical life.
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RN: Describe the moment when you decided to become a musician.
JA: It was definitely a result of listening to the Beatles and later Hendrix. My dad owned a music store and I was down there every weekend listening to whatever was big on the charts all day. The Beatles and especially Paul singing Yesterday pushed me emotionally to pick up the guitar and have a go at singing…Disclaimer, I won’t be singing at the Express
RN: Describe the Berklee experience.
JA: For at least a year or two I resisted the Berklee experience. I attended a classical college directly out of high school but soon realized I couldn’t get the information I needed to play and write jazz. Berklee gave me a great deal of that info.The writing and theory classes were invaluable and I loved meeting and playing with some really gifted students. The place was a treasure chest of talent then. I was also very fortunate to study guitar privately with Mick Goodrick. He soon became my guru as well as many other of my contemporaries. Studying with him was a more holistic approach using some very unorthodox approaches. I often think it would be great to be at the other end of the stick again with Mick… Nah, actually I’m too old to be in that kind of pain.
RN: What were your strongest musical influences at the beginning of your career.
JA: The first jazz guitar player that really caught my attention was Lenny Breau. The album was The Velvet Touch of Lenny Breau. It was just trio with Lenny playing all this intricate stuff. Bass lines , melody improvisation, harmonics and great chords….sometimes all at once. I just couldn’t understand how he did it all. Listening to him definitely pushed me along harmonically, away from basic one four five rock changes. Then of course hearing and seeing Miles while still in high school was a milestone.. It was with Keith Jarrett, Jack, Dave and maybe Liebman. It blew me away because I loved it but at the same time I didn’t really understand it. The vibe was much too strong for me to resist. I had to enter the sordid world of jazz…sorry mom and dad…
RN: How did the Spyrogyra gig help your career? What did you learn from it? Why did you leave?
JA: Working with Spyro was my first major touring experience. It was a high profile gig that gave me the opportunity to play large venues all around the world. On the one hand, I received a certain amount of attention with offshoot gigs, recordings and endorsements but after a few years I really felt the need to play more acoustic and open jazz. It was at this point that I met Mike Brecker and John Patitucci.
RN: What were your most enjoyable ‘sideman’gigs?
JA: Working with John Patitucci was an eye opener. John is a unique combination of a great human and a great musician. Every gig we did was about really going for it. I especially liked being the only harmonic player giving me the freedom to go where no man has gone before. Each and every band that he put together was stellar. I got to work with a multitude of great drummers who sometimes literally had me hanging on for dear life.
RN: What were your most painful ‘sideman’ gigs?
JA: A few singer gigs are definitely in this category, but you know the saying, ‘if you don’t have something nice to say…’
RN: Who are your favorite musicians you’ve worked with?
Well as I mentioned John Patitucci and of course Mike Brecker. Both these guys were neighbors of mine. In addition to playing, we would just hang out, catch a movie or go out to dinner. Mike was similar to John in being a really great guy. He was open and we could talk about anything, including his musical process which was always fascinating. The reason these guys are so amazing is because while playing they are constantly dealing you their music and at the same time receiving your music back and instantaneously making it theirs again. To me this is real group improvisation that is possible only with exceptional, giving players.
RN: What are your strongest musical influences now. Have they changed?
JA: In terms of guitar players, my main guys for the past 25 years or so are John Scofield and Pat Metheny. Both these guys offer me almost everything I need to hear in a guitar player. ‘Sco’ has got the blues, the grit and power while Pat has the lyricism, beauty and touch. Now if you add the greatest guitarist who ever lived, Wes Montgomery, to these contemporaries you’ve got it all. You really don’t need to hear much else…or do you?
RN: Discuss your guitar process.
JA: My guitar is not formulaic. I basically play through tunes and think about melody, motifs and time. I usually use a metronome and practice phrases at different tempo’s etc. but as John Abercrombie says “practicing is greatly overrated.” You have to be on the gig to see if what you’ve practiced is useful and really makes musical sense. The ideal situation would be to be working every night and to not have to practice at all. Life would be so much less boring!
RN: And your compositional process?
JA: Simply put, you have to have a germ, or “an idea that is pregnant,” as a Julliard teacher of mine would say. Once I have that phrase, or that motif, I’m good to go. Then the tune pretty much comes along easily. If there isn’t a pregnancy then I’m pretty much in trouble. I’ll spend an inordinate amount of time ‘polishing a turd’ as we say. Not a happy camper…
RN: If you were forced (at gunpoint) to verbalize it, what are you ‘saying’ with your music?
JA: I really haven’t figured that out yet. I expect I may have a glimpse of that on my deathbed. You know in your last moments you supposedly see your life with great clarity. I expect to understand all the unconscious motivations for why I’ve expressed myself the way I have through my music. While still breathing it may be best for me to just do it. I sort of hate the critic within.
RN: What can the audience expect to hear at your upcoming Pizza gig with Gary Husband and Laurence Cottle?
JA: This gig is going to be great fun. We’re going to play a bunch of my tunes which vary from latin, funk, swing to rock and since it’s just trio I’m expecting Gary and Laurence to really put their unique stamp on each song. They are going to burn it down! In addition to my originals I’ve got a few British covers that have been revamped which should be a lot of fun…no, not Tom Jones sing alongs! Anyway, I’m really looking forward to playing with these brilliant musicians and I hope all that come will have a super musical evening.
RN: Thank you Jay
Pizza Express Jazz Club, June 3rd and 4th. With Gary Husband (drums and piano) and Laurence Cottle (electric bass). Bookings at pizzaexpresslive.co.uk
Dr. Richard Niles is a composer, guitarist, producer and educator.