Matt Marshak, Tim Bowman and Nick Colionne at the House of Stathopoulo
Since the early 1930s, Epiphone guitars have been the connoisseur's choice for jazz. And over the decades as jazz players moved from the classic "big box" sound to ES-style semi-archtops to Les Pauls and back, Epiphone has continued to hold a special place in the hearts of jazz musicians.
Today, three of the most successful and prolific jazz guitarists on the scene are carrying on the Epiphone tradition and are likely to influence a whole new generation of 21st century players, too.
Matt Marshak, Tim Bowman and Nick Colionne are on the cutting edge of jazz guitar. And they are each finding their voice with a guitar that represents all three of Epiphone's great eras--Tim on a Les Paul Ultra III, Matt on a Sheraton II, and Nick with an Elitist Broadway. The approach of these three jazz titans may vary but results are the same--inspired playing and great jazz.
Matt, Tim and Nick are old friends, contemporaries and friendly rivals. During a recent visit to Epiphone's stunning new headquarters in Nashville, we spoke to them about how they discovered their true voice on guitar. Though each conversation was held separately (with the other two jamming in the background), their attitudes about music were remarkably similar. They were also three of the kindest, open, and self-effacing artists we've ever had the pleasure to speak with. Matt, Tim and Nick also checked out our Epiphone showroom and took turns knocking us out with killer riffs on every instrument they picked up.
Long Island native Matt Marshak was born overlooking the mother city of jazz guitar, New York. His playing has been praised by Deep Purple's Ritchie Blackmore (not to mention his colleagues) and he's a prolific writer and session man. Though he's touring and working constantly, he's still a very active citizen of the eastern Long Island music scene. If you find yourself on stage with Matt, you're likely to find him an inspiring and challenging bandleader. But be prepared to play--and be spontaneous.
You're from New York--the virtual birthplace of jazz guitar and the first home of Epiphone. What was going on around you when you first started to play guitar?
There was a lot of rock music that I was first exposed to and blues so I was listening to that stuff. And slowly but surely, I would hear some jazz pieces that caught my ear. And I started gravitating towards those sounds I heard. Then I went to a few shows. I saw Larry Carlton and that kind of opened my mind. And Robben Ford. Some of the traditional stuff I got into as well. I was listening to old standard jazz, too. Being in New York, music is everywhere. And everyone's brother or mother or cousin is in a band. So at some point, I thought if you're going to speak music, you have to speak something that's perhaps your own voice or a take on it. 'Cause everywhere you go, you hear the most amazing this or that. It would probably be easy to get lost in the shuffle. So I sort of put together my own style--a little jazz, a little funk, a little blues. But jazz is the backbone of it. That was sort of my choice that I made.
I studied with a Berklee graduate for the first few years. I got a good foundation. But then I was going to the Blue Note listening to the players there. At the time, there was a really good contemporary jazz station in New York when I was a teenager and I was listening to it all day. And then, I just kind of connected the dots as far as theory. Even if I didn't know it, I was figuring it out in my head, what people were doing. But mostly I'm a street player--I learned to play on the street with a little foundation.
It used to be that jazz teachers and rock teachers didn't mix so well. Jazz teachers thought rock as beneath them. Kid’s stuff.
Since your playing style comes from jazz, rock, and rhythm and blues, did you have to grab your experiences from different places?
Well like you said, I love all kinds of music. So, I love rock like the 80s instrumental players. And jazz, of course, and funk and blues. And so I was always caught in the middle. I could appreciate both so I just kind of grabbed from each and put it together.
But I know what you're saying. Sometimes in the purist jazz circles there's an ideology of tradition and I'm probably on the outside of that (laughs). I like a little bit of everything.
Today you're here with two contemporaries, two friends...
And you share a lot of the same stages. Your paths often cross. What are your audiences like?
I've noticed a whole lot of younger faces in the audience-- everyone from teenagers to 20 year olds that I didn't see maybe six or seven years ago. I'm definitely seeing younger people in the audience. A lot of folks tell me they've never been to a jazz concert and when they show up they say, 'I didn't know what this was going to be like.'
Perhaps they had in their mind that jazz is only a traditional thing. And then they see contemporary guys like us, blending all kinds of different music in there. Maybe our writing styles have more of a R&B or pop structure. I think the audience is wide and diverse now. You'll have some core people that will just listen to jazz but a lot who will say they listen to everything.
So we've seen some big crowds at the festivals in the United States and Europe. People are following this music. They know the tradition, they know the cutting edge things. I'm always inspired, I think, despite the lack of coverage on the radio, I think that it's still popular and it's gaining in popularity.
That can be a conundrum for jazz. On one hand, it's all about improvisation. But getting on the radio sells records.
That brings up a good point. On one hand, to get on the radio, you have to make something that is structured and can be easily repeated. But people are drawn to jazz because it's not structured--it's up to you.
Like the sessions for Miles Davis' Kind of Blue where he gave the musicians a basic structure but the rest was left to the individual soloists.
I think 90% of what I do is like what you described. A lose framework but night to night it changes. And if there's a section that's going great and the audience is responding, I might not even go to the bridge. If I'm in the moment and everyone's having a great time...
That would drive rock players crazy! 'What do you mean we're not going to the bridge?'...
Right! And then I yell on the stage: 'Stay here!' And most people who play with me they get it. 'Ok cool, we'll stay here.' We might do the bridge when we're recording. But to me, recording is a different entity. Sometimes, you'll play for a really good listening audience and it will be just like the record but in the heat of the moment, if someone's taking a great solo, extend it. Or maybe someone is new in the band or filling in and they do something different.
My philosophy is go with them if they're doing something that's working. I'm able to bend. We'll work our way out even though on the recording or the chart says something different. I'm not married to anything. We've even just gone out and just started playing some new idea right in front of people. We might have a loose idea of what it's going to be, but allowing that spontaneity to happen. I'm always a big fan of that. The thing I'm most excited about is the thing I'm going to write next.
Do you have a set method to your writing?
Sometimes if I'm hearing some kind of rhythm I'll actually go and maybe just mess around with a drum pattern--program something and work around that. Sometimes I'll just hum something or plug in the guitar and see what comes out. The beauty of the digital era--I'll just press record, catalog stuff, and save it. I'll go back and revisit it. There's no real set way. If something you do sticks in your mind, I think that's something that could potentially be on the record so I'll go back and revisit it and develop it further.
But for the new record, we're kind of doing it fairly old school--next week actually--and we're going to set up and play. We have a chart and an idea but we're going to limit the editing and limit the takes. I want a live-sounding record and it's ok if it's a little rough. Sometimes polishing and polishing--the digital era and what you can do--it's cool but that human perfection is the perfection. That's what I want to capture--sliding into the note and there's some finger noise. Let it sound like playing live rather than taking it over. Just be happy with what happens in that moment.
What's the story behind your Epiphone Sheraton II?
I was going to buy an amplifier--this was about 10 years ago. I saw the amp and reached behind me to grab a guitar, not even paying attention to what I was doing. I plugged it in and within seconds I totally forgot about the amp. What is this? Epiphone?
And the person said, 'can I help you?'--you know, looking at the amp--and I said: 'I'll take the guitar!' And so I was playing that for years. And then met up with Nick Colionne and he introduced me to Epiphone and that's how the relationship began.
For a longtime, jazz guitar was about playing a big box strung with heavy flat wound strings. Were you told to have that kind of guitar when you started playing jazz?
Well I have the (Epiphone) Joe Pass, I gotta admit.
And you have .14's on that like Nick does?
(Laughs) Right! But it's great for certain things in the studio. You can get that big fat sound. When you play with .10s on a Sheraton, you have to work a bit to get that tone. But I like that.
I was playing a session with a pretty well known pianist, Alex Bugnon, and he--I guess--had done a series of dates with people playing hollowbody guitars. And when he heard me he said: 'Matt, if you ever get rid of that Sheraton and get a hollowbody... I'll be really upset with you.' I'm being polite... that's not what he really said (laughs).
But he said, 'I won't let you hear the end of it if you give in.' I was able to get that funky sound, that jazzy sound, that mix. I just feel comfortable with that sound. It has the whole spectrum of tone.
Detroit native Tim Bowman's "Seaside Drive," the title cut from his soon to be released album, was named Billboard Magazine's #1 Smooth Jazz Song of the Year for 2013. But during his visit to Epiphone, Tim seemed even more excited about playing a brand new Epiphone Les Paul Ultra III. Though Tim had been an archtop player for much of his career, he recently decided to move his Les Paul Ultra III to the front of the stage. And since Mr. Les Paul originally designed his trademark axe with jazz in mind, it seems like the perfect fit.
So here you are with an Epiphone Les Paul Ultra III, which Les Paul imagined as the ultimate jazz guitar.
Hence this (laughs)!
When you perform on the Les Paul, do you have to change your approach compared to when play your Broadway, as you did at the Seabreeze Festival last year?
You know what? That's a good question. The approach might be a little different. It's hard to say. I can get the same feel with the Ultra III as I do if I play the Broadway. I don't know if it's the neck but I approach things the same way as if I was playing the Broadway. But, if I play a Masterbilt acoustic guitar or nylon string guitar, I have a whole other frame of mind. If I'm going to write something intimate, I'll pick up a Masterbilt. If I want to play something that's a whole different vibe--something that's groovier or aggressive--I'll pick up this (Les Paul) or the Broadway.
What kind of guitar did you start out playing?
I played a solidbody. I played a replica of this (Les Paul Ultra III). It was a Kona. They probably only made two guitars (laughs). Then I started playing a hollowbody. But what I notice about this Les Paul is that it sounds so fat. I told my manager (who also plays), we have to figure out a way to bring in both of these pickups (Pro-Bucker™ and Shadow NanoMag™) on stage and bring out some of the acoustic abilities in this guitar--see if we can bring in some of that archtop sound. I'm going to start doing dates with this. I'm not a big person so it just fits right in there for me.
What is inspiring you now?
To me, I'm always trying to think of something that nobody is doing. And there's so much out there, that's a very small lane to drive on. You keep searching--you're always searching. You're always trying to get better. I hear things in my mind all the time but you know to make it really different--that's the thing. I can write a song--that's easy to do. But you have to push that extra effort to find a lane that nobody is in.
How do you put yourself in that frame of mind?
I listen to different styles of music and see if I can incorporate that into what I'm doing. I'm always trying to find that lane to separate myself but that's a hard thing to do because there are so many great players out there. But then, I'm a big believer that everybody has their own individual sound and an individual way of writing a song. You know, we can all play the same scale--the same notes, but we will all play them differently. I think that's just inherent in our DNA, our personality.
Do your mentors still figure in your playing?
Oh yeah. Roy Clark--that was the first person I ever saw play guitar. I was just a little kid watching Hee Haw. I didn't know any of the jokes but I wanted to see Roy. And I still like him--he was the first big influence on me--and then George Benson. And I still use some of the things I learned from those guys. Many, many years ago.
Today, when you listen to artists who inspired you, do you notice things you didn't notice before?
I think one of the things is you understand it. You can hear the old guys and think, 'that is nice' but as you get older, you understand what it is and then you appreciate their frame of mind--'Oh, I hear what he did over that 7th chord.'
Jazz guitar is based on improvisation. But before you get there, you have to learn the mathematics, what your options are, chord substitutions...
That is so true! Well you know, you can talk about mastering the guitar but you can never master the guitar. There's just so much. You can master that lane you're in. But when you get to a certain point, you just know the instrument, you know the things that can happen. You can feed off the audience. But then with guitar, you're always trying new things. I can play a lick over a 7th and then I can hear another guy do the same thing and think: 'wow! I didn't look at it like that!' And he's looking at you and thinking the same thing.
Your own personality is always coming through. So there's always something to learn. I'm always trying to get better. But you do reach a certain point, like you say, where you know the X's and O's. That gives you that comfort level. I know where I'm at. Let's take this somewhere else now.
From your perspective as a touring and recording jazz musician, what's the state of jazz guitar these days?
You know what? I was on the internet and I went to YouTube and I typed in 'guitar players.' There are some awesome young fellows out there who can play. You've never heard of them--just sitting in the bedroom and going crazy. And you look at it and think: 'what is this?' You probably never will hear from them. But they deserve to be heard. All over the world. Just amazing guitar players. I think guitar is always going to be an instrument that people love. You can do anything with it. Some of the legends are still around. Jazz guitar or all styles of guitar are in a good place right now.
What's the music scene like where you live in Detroit? Do you go out and sit in at the clubs?
I don't do that a lot but there are some awesome musicians in Detroit. And now that the downtown is starting to make a comeback, there are a lot of good places in Detroit to play. A lot of people you haven't heard of but you listen to them and think: 'man, where have you been?' They just got off work and grabbed their guitar and they are just tearing the place up. There are some rock bands there that are just unbelievable.
Do you think you’ll stay in Detroit?
In the summertime, Michigan has to be the most beautiful state. Everything is just lush. Whether you want a green yard or not, you're gonna have a green yard (laughs). The golf courses are amazing. But in the wintertime, it's another story. I would live in Ft. Lauderdale in the winter. I can see why people move to Florida. But I'll stay there. I like it. I just don't like the winters.
Do you have recording plans this year?
Yes. I just put a single out that's going to be on my new record and we're still working on the record. It's going to have some vocals and my jazz things. And the single did very well for me.
Thank you. So we’re recording and writing some new material and I’m really excited.
What’s the studio experience like for you? Do you rehearse and then try to cut everything live or is it a slow, methodical process?
Probably a mixture of both. I want it to be perfect. You know with a guitar, you're going to get some odd sounds. That's the nature of guitar. But I want to make sure to give the best performance. If I know I'm going to try a new song in the studio, I might sit and I'll just play with it a few times for a few days and figure out where I want to go with it and so when I get into the studio, I have a direction. I don't necessarily sit in the studio and start from scratch. I at least start with an idea of what I want to do and go from there and get it right. I might do a blues album this year.
Playing your own material?
What I say we'll probably do is get the band together and rent a little small club or something and probably make up the songs on the spot. Blues is blues. Most of my band lives in Detroit. And we'll just count it off. I remember I did a show once and we kept having to do encores and we ran out of material. So I just started doing this Bb minor groove and the band picked it up, and that was the hit of the night (laughs)! And now, everywhere we go, people want that song.
A lot of great hits were made that way...
Do you have a sound in mind for your blues album?
When it comes to blues, I grew up listening to B.B. King. But that album with Stevie Ray Vaughan and Albert King--Sessions--that's amazing. It's on my phone right now. Man, those guys are playing! I love that record. Love it! And the thing was, Stevie Ray Vaughan did all that bending on .13s! I mean like--how are you doing that? That guy could play. It's just phenomenal. When it comes to blues, it used to be B. B. King but now it’s Stevie Ray Vaughan and Albert King.
I think the best thing to do is just to invite people in for free and let's just make up some songs and record them. Just play and we'll take the best 10 songs. The ones with the least amount of mistakes!
For many, Chicago native Nick Colionne is the ultimate jazz guitarist---articulate, soft spoken, "the best dressed man in jazz," and a teacher and player who eagerly mentions legends like Wes Montgomery and Barney Kessel to demonstrate a point. But his roots are as varied as any artist. In fact his first two jobs as a support player (while still practically a teenager) were with soul legends Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions and Staples Singers founder Pops Staples, two of the most original American guitarists in any genre.
Nick never let go of his guitar during our interview and used it often to illustrate an idea. But his focus never wavered even as he occasionally picked up on some terrific playing going on in the background. ("He's one of my students back there. He's 22 now. I've been teaching him since he was 9 years old"). During his visit to Epiphone, Nick talked about his heroes, his students, and the future of jazz guitar.
Everyone here today is admiring the colossal tone you make on your Epiphone Elitist Broadway.
Thank you. My approach is entirely different when I'm playing a thin body guitar. The Broadway is such a fatter sound and I use .14 gauge strings! But I like that richness. I like playing thin body guitars, too but I don't feel them like I feel the Broadway. The Broadway is more like a feeling than just a touch. I speak softly, so I want the guitar to speak softly. Although it will bite when I want it to. I like the more rich tone of the Broadway--that heavy sound. Because I like to play big chords. When I'm playing a thinline guitar, they sound great to me but they don't sound the same.
When you were getting your style together, did your mentors play archtop guitars like the Broadway?
My stepfather played guitar--not professionally but he could have. I was indoctrinated to guitar listening to Wes Montgomery and Kenny Burrell. My whole style of playing came from them. That's where I got into playing octaves. Playing octaves is where I'm at. A big body guitar like the Broadway is very similar sounding to the L-5.
It’s more like a voice...
Yes! For you to say what you want to say musically, it has to have a voice--your sound. If your sound is not what you feel it should be, your approach is different, because it never feels right. If I don't feel right, the sound is not right. When I hit the string, I want to fill up a room.
Just like if you have three piano players and they each play the same chord, each chord will have its own personality.
That's right and it will sound different. It may just be a minute fraction of a tone difference. I had a friend of mine who was a percussionist who told me, 'man, that guitar sounds great.' I said, yeah, but it's just a guitar. And he said, 'no, if somebody else played it wouldn't sound exactly the same.' It's all in how you touch the guitar and how you touch it that makes your feel the sound. When you hit it and you know that's your sound then you feel it a lot differently. You really feel it.
How did you find and shape your sound?
You know, I played a lot of different types of music growing up. I played everything from rock and roll to blues, jazz, and r&b. And I think when I started to do my own solo career, I had kind of already started to feel where my sound was. I knew it was kind of gritty but it was also really smooth sounding. When I started doing my own records--and at that time I was playing the (Epiphone) Joe Pass--I started feeling that I could get a bite but still have that mellowness. Not as mellow as Wes Montgomery but somewhere in-between. And I was spending my life trying not to sound like Wes Montgomery (laughs) and trying not to sound like George Benson--trying to have a sound of my own. And it started coming and developed over a long period. I'd say 'oh it's too bright or it's too muddy'--trying to find that happy medium. Your sound is an extension of your personality. I'm not passive and I'm not aggressive--I want to be right in-between.
Did you always plan to have a solo career?
My late manager, who passed away a couple of months ago, when she met me I was playing in a band. And she told me, 'you could do your own thing.' Really? I had always considered myself a backup cat--a musician. It's not that I never thought I could be a front man or the lead person, but it wasn't my ambition. I was always a part of a band. The group had a name. But then, the more that I started to record demo stuff on my own, I thought, I need to do this. Because I believe I have a story to tell and the only way I'm going to tell my story is to play my own music.
How do you translate jazz to your students?
With kids, the first thing you have to do is be interesting because their attention span is like (snap his fingers) voom! And kids are into all kinds of stuff. I got kids who want to add five or six effects pedals, you know? And I'm like: learn how to play the guitar first before you start adding all those effects. You're just going to disguise what you're doing by adding a bunch of distortion.
I have parents that tell me, 'well, I can't get him to practice' and 'how long should he practice per day?' And I tell them to pick up the guitar and play every time you have the chance. When you're watching tv, pick up the guitar. Just sitting around the house? Pick up the guitar. I don't say that I'm going to practice for two hours. You play the guitar until the guitar becomes a part of you. Like when I'm laying down on the couch--maybe watching something on tv--the guitar is right beside the couch and I just pick it up and start playing. Not anything in particular, but seeing where it takes me without thinking about it. And I find if you practice that way, you'll get a lot more practice in. Because every once in awhile, you'll play something cool and go 'hey, what did I just do?' And you'll try to figure it out again.
You started out playing with Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions, right?
Yeah, that was back when I was a teenager. A lot of the stuff that he (Curtis Mayfield) did, especially the passing chords and licks, cats are still doing that today. In Chicago, they called it that "West Side Willie." Playing with them, I learned a lot and then I had the opportunity to play with the Staple Singers. Which was a whole other kind of thing.
Pops Staples had a style that combined grit and smooth.
Right. Those are things that you listen for. I listened to everybody, you know? When you're a kid, you're like a sponge. Today, kids have a big advantage--they have YouTube--they can actually see people do stuff, show them how to adjust your amp. In my era, you just had trial and error. Trying to get this sound or that sound. I've always played semi-hollow body guitars or big guitars. I went to the bigger guitars when I was by myself. I never was too much of a solid body guitar player--the whole single coil thing. That sound is a little too thin for what I want to do so I always played semi-hollowbodies.
How did you get your Broadway?
I was playing a Joe Pass and Jim (Rosenberg, President of Epiphone) said I should try the Broadway--this was before the Elitist. And I said, 'this is me! I'm happy now!' Then, they came out with the Elitist which was a little step-up from the regular Broadway and I've been really happy with it. I have guys out on tour and they say 'man, love your tone.' I tell them that they could get one of these, too (laughs). I can make a couple of calls and tell you where to go.
What are your plans this year?
I got a new cd coming out in March--it's being mixed now.
And you're still based in Chicago?
Still in Chicago--the big windy. I got a heavy tour schedule this year and it's still coming in. I'll also do a couple of overseas things this year. I'm doing the Mallorca Jazz Festival in Spain, going back to London, Alaska, and Canada.
Do you find that teaching students helps to balance your life as a touring musician? Each requires a different kind of discipline.
That's right. You have to focus or the kids, they will run you nuts. The cool thing with my teaching the kids is that I'm a mentor. I volunteer my time. And I've been doing it for almost 19 years and so it's a big kick for me to establish these relationships with these kid and watch them grow, whether they turn out to be real players or not. I still have kids from when I first started, calling me up and asking me things, still doing things musically.
You've seen the world of jazz guitar go through a lot of changes.
I think it's coming back. It was getting very pushed to the side--getting smaller and smaller. One of the things about going to the schools is you're getting kids interested in it at a young age. You know I understand--if I knew I could make a few million just talking, maybe I would have been a rapper. But I'm seeing kids starting to play instruments again which makes me happy.
I tell them when you're playing jazz, you're giving yourself a chance to expand your mind and expand your musical vocabulary to an extent you start to hear things differently and then you start to approach things differently. It's more than just three chords in a song. With instrumental music, I try to instill in these kid's mind that just because you're playing an instrumental piece, you're still telling a story as if you were singing words. You still get kids who want to play every note on the guitar in six bars. Ok--you're talking loud but you're saying nothing. You have to play as if you're singing the song or telling the story to someone--their pauses, their commas, their periods. And once they figure out I'm trying to say something and I'm using this instrument instead of using lyrics, then they get it. And it's like a light bulb goes off in their heads--'oh, ok!'
Today, when you listen to your mentors--your favorite players--what do you notice?
Sometimes I can hear Wes Montgomery now and tears come to my eyes because I hear it differently. I hear the story now and I appreciate not only the eloquence of his playing but the chances--the directions--that he took. Sometimes, I'll stop and think: I wonder why he chose that particular note in that phrase? Why did he end on the 6th? It's way over there... but it's so cool!
I now I have a deeper appreciation of the knowledge these guys had. I watch videos of Wes Montgomery and Kenny Burrell and Barney Kessell and Herb Ellis--these cats weren't jiving around. These cats were serious! And they're not even thinking about it. That's what I tell kids all the time: don't even think about it. Play from your heart. Because when you start thinking you're going to mess up. I know I do. Even in recording, some things should not be heard. Some things should just be felt. And you know it's back there--it's so faint--but you feel it. It's there.