The importance of musical literacy
In his new book, Jazz Études: Studies for the Beginning Improviser, guitarist Joshua Breakstone takes a stand on a somewhat controversial topic among guitarists and students of the guitar. The lessons are presented in standard musical notation. There is no tablature, a “shorthand” form of transcribing guitar music that typically indicates notes but not rhythm. “So many people today rely on tablature,” Breakstone told Pasatiempo. “Maybe I’m hurting myself commercially, but we decided not to have tab.”
In late November, six weeks after its release by Cherry Lane Music Co., Jazz Études was doing well. The author said he has had positive feedback from as far away as Russia and Hungary, as well as from the United States.
Breakstone’s chops will be on display in several New Mexico concerts, starting at the Taos Inn on Friday, Dec. 11, with Earl Sauls on bass and John Trentacosta on drums. The trio plays the Santa Fe Art Institute Saturday, Dec. 12. The SFAI gig is part of the jazz-concert series begun by Trentacosta in August, hosted by the institute, and sponsored by KSFR-FM 101.1. Sauls and the guitarist play as a duo on Wednesday, Dec. 16, in Truth or Consequences, and then Breakstone is back with the trio for a performance in Albuquerque at the Outpost Performance Space on Thursday, Dec. 17.
“This will be a reunion of sorts,” Breakstone said with enthusiasm. “Earl is also from New York, and he’s someone I’ve played with since just about the beginning. We go way back with John, to when John was on Staten Island, before he moved to Santa Fe.”
Breakstone is known for his mellow tone, singlenote playing style, and inventive improvisations. And improv— not basic guitar instruction— is the main focus of Jazz Études.
“They called them ‘ études,’ but that just means a study, and in jazz this means a solo over a set of chords to a pretty well-known standard,” Breakstone said. “So you have the études, but also you have lots of more in-depth looks at different parts of the études to see what we’re doing melodically, what we’re doing with developing the melody, and dealing with issues like how to pick these little passages and how to finger them, where to play them.”
These things can be hard to get from the page alone, and the publisher wisely opted to include a compact disc on which the author demonstrates all 12 études and gives dozens of musical examples. This book is the first in a planned series of three.
“The difference between each one will be ... in the level of reading of the student,” Breakstone said. “Each one has 12 études, but the first is called ‘ Beginners,’ because every étude reads in just one position on the guitar, just one place on the neck. It’s not as easy as you might think to write a full étude, a full solo, in just one position, because in jazz, even the most basic standard song goes through many keys and many harmonic centers. In the second book, there’s a little jumping around, and you get into how to move between different areas of the guitar and why and when to do that. The third I wrote with no reservation. You’re going to have to be able to move around the instrument to follow the lines of the études.
“These books will be really great aids to reading [music]. So this is another interesting thing I have going on. I went back to teaching three years ago, so now I have this other life with private students and the books.”
Breakstone also has a new album out. No One New, his fifth recording for the Capri label, was released in August. It’s a trio session with bassist Lisle Atkinson (who played with Nina Simone and Betty Carter) and drummer Eliot Zigmund (Bill Evans and Gary Peacock) that features more of Breakstone’s pretty, improv-rich guitar work.
Two covers chosen by Breakstone are Joe Henderson’s “The Kicker” and the ballad “The Peacocks” by Jimmy Rowles. “That Rowles song is one of the most beautiful songs I’ve ever heard, and ‘The Kicker’ is really interesting— Joe Henderson’s take on the blues— and also a song that was associated with Grant Green, one my favorite guitar players,” Breakstone said. His musical inspirations also include pianist Barry Harris, the great horn players Charlie Parker and Lee Morgan, and guitarist Kenny Burrell (although when he was coming up, he was into Jimi Hendrix and Frank Zappa).
Breakstone first recorded with a star-studded band: saxophonist/clarinetist Glen Hall, pianist JoAnne Brackeen, bassist Cecil McBee, and drummer Billy Hart on Hall’s 1981 debut The Book of the Heart. Since that time, Breakstone has led 19 album sessions, some of which offered guest spots for late greats Jack McDuff, Pepper Adams, Tommy Flanagan, and Dennis Irwin as well as living master Kenny Barron.
The guitarist has a long and jazzy relationship with Japan. He first toured the country in 1986. “I go once or twice a year,” he said. “I recorded four records over there for a Japanese record company and developed somewhat of a following. It’s a very good audience; it’s a beautiful country; and there are many places to play. They’ve always been interested in jazz, and the people have a love for culture. When you travel there, you see groups from Jamaica and African groups and groups from Russia. They seem to have a very high regard for other cultures.”
Breakstone, who composes songs on the guitar, offers five originals on his new disc. It opens with his “Over-Done,” a tune based on the harmony to Dizzy Gillespie’s “Bebop.” “Usually I write songs quickly,” he said, “but on this one I kept coming back to it for over a week, and finally, when it was done, I wrote on the page, ‘ Over-Done.’ It wasn’t really a title.”
Another Breakstone song on No One New that bears a referentially obscure title is “The Unknown One.” “People have asked me if that means God or whatever, but it’s just a song,” Breakstone said. “I was looking through my notebooks before we did the recording, and I found a song I had written in France a few years ago, and I thought it was nice. It was fully written. I’m always writing, composing and transcribing, and coming up with little phrases. That’s exactly why being able to write music, rather than just being able to read tablature, is so important. The whole idea of writing music is to have a way to hand something to other people so they can play it, and it’s also for us, to write down an idea or a song, and you can come back to it years later, and you know exactly what it was.”