By MIKE CHAIKEN
Tony Purrone is best known in Connecticut and New York jazz circles as a guitarist.
And as a jazz guitarist, improvisation comes with the job description.
But improvisation is more than a skill set for his musical talents.
Improvisation clearly permeates his DNA because a conversation with the Waterbury resident (via Bridgeport and Trumbull) is like a set at a jazz club. Once he begins to speak, a flight of fancy of words follows.
In a question and answer session, Purrone is offered a prompt. Initially, he begins his reply with a direct response to the query. But as he speaks more, the thoughts expand. The tangents appear. He moves further and further away from the original question. He weaves to the left and right, back and forth. Eventually, he reels it in, returning to the original question, either due to another prompt from his conversational partner or when he realizes that he flew out far enough and needs to return to the interview nest. And with the next question, Purrone begins the improvisation yet again.
When the guitarist speaks about how Miles Davis left the jazz world when he recorded “Bitch’s Brew,” and you interject the jazz fusion album was Davis’s response to what Jimi Hendrix was exploring, Purrone is on his way to a tangent.
Hendrix was a “martyr,” said Purrone. Purrone also adds the rock guitarist wasn’t as great as his reputation.
“Jimi Hendrix was creative within the blues,” said Purrone. “He wanted a little something extra but his technique stayed within the realm of the blues…. (H) e expanded the sounds with effects and things.”
“But at the same time, he was overrated as a guitarist.”
Purrone said guitarists such as Andre Segovia, John Williams, and any flamenco guitarist that you want to name blew away what Hendrix did on the guitar.
“After hearing (those musicians), everything I heard in popular music was like a cartoon, like a nursery rhyme,” said Purrone.
Purrone has made the rounds in the jazz world after an early start. (He entered the University of Bridgeport at 15 to study jazz until he was told by his instructors he had learned all they could teach him.)
Purrone spent many years performing with saxophonist Jimmy Heath, who took the place of John Coltrane with Miles Davis’s group in 1959. Purrone spent time with jazz luminaries as the Benny Goodman band and Gerry Mulligan. He also spent an extended musical stint leading his own trio. And he’s recorded several jazz albums.
As someone known for improvisation, Purrone said he sometimes relies on his technical knowledge of music when figuring out where to take his solos. Chords and theory come into play. Sometimes, he takes the lead from his bandmates and he’ll build on the musical pathway they have provided. Sometimes he feels the hand of God pushing his fingers where they should go.
“It’s supposed to be about communication,” said Purrone of improvisation.
Solos, he said, are about “improvisation, raw emotion, technique plus lyrical, plus (you have to) tell the story not just (play) random notes”
“The reason why I can tell a story,” said Purrone, “ was I was brought up on very old fashioned jazz where every note meant something, where you play off the melody, you don’t stray too far.
“But, of course music progresses,” said Purrone, “from the point of view of the music, (as time went forward) things got more technical.”
“Older jazz, straight ahead jazz, has warmth and lyricism,” said Purrone. These days, said the jazz guitarist, “the humanity is missing.”
“Jazz is the sound of surprise,” said Purrone. “It’s not just running notes.”
Having been taught and taught a few classes himself, Purrone said, the worst habit of young musicians is their failure to learn “the old, old melodies enough. I mean go back… back to old Hebrew chants, back to Gregorian chants, back to folk music.” Young musicians also don’t listen to composers like Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, Henri Mancini, and Richard Rodgers. Purrone said jazz is about knowing the melody.
Besides failing to listen to melodies, Purrone said, “They don’t learn the songs deep enough with the chords.”
“When I hear so-called popular jazz guitarists… I can tell right away… They’re not going deep enough into the song. They’re skating the surface.”
The public can’t tell, said Purrone, “but I can.”
Purrone agrees the general public often shies away from listening to jazz music.
“Jimmy Heath went into a club and they didn’t know who was,” said Purrone of his former bandmate. “A guy came out and goes to Jimmy, you don’t want to go in there.”
“They’re playing jazz,” the man told Heath.
The story makes Purrone laugh and he repeats the kicker.
“They’re playing JAZZ.”
Purrone said the problem is that the general public doesn’t under jazz. “They’re not exposed to it,” said the guitarist, “if they got into it, they’d say, ‘Wow.’”
Shifting into improvisation mode, Purrone said, “The mind set now, I’m sorry to say… (is) society’s attention span has been severely shortened.”
Purrone places the blame on music videos. “To listen to music you have to make up the video yourself.”
Although his skill level on the guitar is better than ever, Purrone saidfinding places to play jazz in Connecticut is a severe challenge.
Most clubs want dinner music, said Purrone. “They want wall paper jazz.”
And with the few live jazz opportunities there are in the Nutmeg State, Purrone said politics often comes into play when clubs book acts.
If the gigs were booked based on talent alone, Purrone said his skill set would blow away most jazz musicians that have been taking the stage.
So these days, Purrone doesn’t play many gigs. But it’s not for lack of desire.
Comments? Email mchaiken@BristolObserver.com.