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Dave Becker

For over 20 years, guitarist/composer David Becker has continued to define himself as one of the best and most unique voices in contemporary jazz guitar. Combining diverse influences and a passion for the new and different, Becker's latest CD "Where's Henning?" reflects his gifts as a player and composer, and his ability to play for the present while always keeping an eye on the past and future.

Joined by his brother and longtime collaborator, drummer Bruce Becker and bassist Tom Lilly, Where's Henning follows the trio into the studio for an impromptu recording session. Selected from over 6 hours of music taken from these sessions, the CD combines unique originals and some well-known standards for what is undoubtedly a great, solid jazz record.

We spoke with David about the process of making the CD, his dual existence in both the U.S. and Germany, and what keeps him going to make better music each day.

JazzReview: Tell me a bit about the process of putting together Where's Henning?

David Becker: That's a good question. We didn't really know it was going to be a record, truthfully. The idea was just to go in and play, and see what would come out. I think a lot of the records we have made were more calculated in terms of composition, which I wanted to do, but we haven't done one that was just about going in and playing. My brother and I figured we'd go in, try and see what we could do with that idea - we didn't even listen to anything we recorded, until it was all finished. A lot of the tunes on there were either 1st take or 2nd take.

We kind of sat on it for about 6 months before we listened back to everything, and the only thing I had heard was a rough mix of Footprints and another tune I took on a CD that we listened to when we got back from Europe. I sat down and though, 'what are we going to do with it?', and started contacting some labels and that was what took place.

JazzReview: When was this recorded, by the way?

David Becker: It was 3 different days in L.A., in November last year and then I came back a couple of months later after being in Europe and we did about a half day, like a few hours, and that was when we got Green Dolphin Street, That Man's a Legend, and I Could Write A Book.

JazzReview: I assume these were studio, not live?

David Becker: All studio, one was a home studio of an engineer friend of Tom Willy, and the second was done at a studio owned by a guy who is partners with Steve Lukather [guitarist, of Toto fame], which had this great Neve console. This was the console they took from the studio in England that did [Pink Floyd's ] Dark Side of The Moon.

We had worked there before, and we ended up mixing the whole record there, and even though he's not really a jazz guy, he did an amazing job. We had 6 hours of music, so I flew straight to LA from Europe, got right off the plane and needed to listen to CDs of all these takes, and the 3 of us picked out what we thought should go on the record. There are some tunes like The Monkey, which we had 5 versions of. All of them were very different, but we chose what we thought the best representation was.

JazzReview: Having done all of the record in the studio, how did you manage to keep the sound as "live" as possible, which is what I know you were probably going for? Being a musician myself, I know it can be difficult to achieve in a very controlled recording environment.

David Becker: Well, it's funny because we did a thing, a Sirius Satellite Radio today in their studio, which is basically like trying to play live. When you have headphones on and you're trying to make a record, it's a different mindset. The red light is on, but in our case, we just played. We didn't really care what happened. We were just like, "Let's give it a go and play." The first day was a long day, like 12 hours. By the end of the night, we were all exhausted. I said to Bruce [Becker], "Let's just go and do this one new one, and see what happens." That resulted in As We Speak, I think because we really didn't think too much about it. It kept the vibe alive.

JazzReview: When you take a tune like a Footprints, or any frequently covered standard, the idea is always to give it your own spin and keep it fresh. Do you have a formula for tackling songs like that, or do you just sit down and go and see what comes out?

David Becker: It's a hybrid, really. In a case of Footprints, which I've been playing for over 10 years, you really play the tune enough where you can more naturally bend it the way you want. With Green Dolphin Street, until I really got to know it better, I didn't feel comfortable doing much with it. But we just took it and played it, and that was first take for us.

I Could Write A Book I had never played before, and other than working on a little chord melody idea, I didn't know what we were going to do with it arrangement-wise. I think Todd was even reading it out of the Real Book. One of the reasons I had been waiting so long to put this record together was I just didn't want to do another clinical version of All Blues, what one of my German students calls "conservatory jazz." If there's a fresh touch to it, it's because we play with no borders.

We do what we can while trying to keep respectful of the original composers, and so far the response has been pretty positive.

JazzReview: I guess being an educator you hold a lot of responsibility; When you sit down with your students, how do you get around that "conservatory jazz" stigma and show them the difference between real creativity and playing vs. "mathematics?"

David Becker: My brother and I were very fortunate having grown up with many different styles of music and languages. And, we had Art Blakey next to Chick Corea, next to Buddy Rich, next to Ralph Towner. It was never a situation where we were just looking to study on, period. It's also important to find your own voice, which takes a lot of soul searching, a lot of research into understanding the idioms enough that you can work around them. However, one thing is certain; the roots are always the same and you can't deny them.

I always encourage my students to go back and learn the history, to see the origins of all of these things that continue to influence the style to date, regardless of how much its evolved. It's easy for a student to go and pick up a video of Mike Stern, or of John Scofield, and kinda learn to do that. There are so many mediums for learning that you can kind of quickly learn to cop a style or mimic something, but not really get the depth of it.

There are a lot of 22-25-year olds I know in Germany who can play and sound kind of like Jim Hall, but there is none of the spark that you find with someone who is experimenting and trying to find their own voice.

Joe DiOrio didn't have a theme. He just said to play what's inside you. With all due respect to guys like Stern, Scofield and Metheny, I would never encourage my students to listen to them and try to play like them, ‘cause you can’t do it. You can learn from them, but you can see, 'oh they got this from Wes, or Jim Hall, or Miles' and start to put it together yourself. There are many guys out there who can play like Wes, and you hear them play with their thumb doing the octave thing. And it's nice, but it's like listening to Rich Little do his impression of Richard Nixon.

JazzReview: I want to divert for a second to your development, how your influences have shaped your sound and your own self-exploration that has led to who you are as a player now. You mentioned you had a great mix of influences, in terms of stuff outside the genre, like rock or pop, is there anything you 'd like to cite?

David Becker: Oh yeah, I remember the first record my father let my brother [Bruce] buy was a Glen Campbell record, and stuff like Beatles and Monkees’ records most of the Motown stuff of the day. One of the first records I bought when I was 10 was from a group called El Chicano. They did this version of Leaving Toronto, which was a big hit. They did some of these really Latin-influenced tunes, and their guitar player was a huge Wes Montgomery fan, you could really hear it. They were a great LA band that had a couple of hits, but that was cool stuff. I didn't think about it at 10. There was a band called Greek, the Norwegian composer when I was five, and of course rock 'n roll came in. I was a big fan of Bad Company and Led Zeppelin, and of these bands of that time.

Led Zeppelin for me was an interesting thing too because I can really appreciate them now. They weren't just a rock band, but a band with all of these influences. If you look at some of the live DVD stuff from Zep, John Bonham is playing some of these Max Roach grooves that Bruce plays on Footprints.

You can translate that into an understanding of what I wanted to do; to be a musician you have to be open to all things. You can't just listen to a certain period and understand what's going on.

JazzReview: When you listened back to this record, either for the first time or when it was finally mixed and mastered and ready to go, what's the first thing that comes to you mind? Do you hear yourself saying, "This is different than anything that I've done before," or "I hear some things in my playing that I've never heard?"

David Becker: Well, yeah, we're definitely older. Bruce and I have been doing this now for 20 years. I definitely hear the development in my playing, and certainly in how Bruce and I interact. It inspires me to keep going and trying to tap into being a better player. One thing Joe Diorio told me was that you don't get to the good stuff until you're past 40, or 50. I'm 42 now, and looking forward to another 25-30 years of developing my own playing. You look into it by saying, "What is it that I do," and "How do I perceive this?" Ultimately, it's about trying to always be a good student of music.

JazzReview: Did you sit down and initially know that this was the type of record we were going to do?

David Becker: We really didn't. My brother and I were sitting down rehearsing with Tom Lilly for a gig of standards we were going to do, and we were like, "Hey this sounds pretty cool, be great if we had a recorder going." I asked the guys if they wanted to go into the studi, and do a couple of days, and they were very into it. There were actually lots of different types of tunes we did that didn't make it on there, mostly because they didn't fit in context of what the rest of the songs sounded like. But we really didn't sit down and say, "It has to be this kind of record."

JazzReview: What are some of the things that inspire you to play, to write, on any level, not just musical inspiration? I've asked this question many times, and the answer always varies greatly, from art and family to travel. You are very well traveled, I would imagine that could be a big part of it.

David Becker: It's a couple of things. One of the things that keeps me going as a player is that I love to play, and when I have the time in between teaching and traveling I try and just play and learn new tunes. As far as writing is concerned, I am definitely inspired by being in different places, hearing different languages. I might be sitting at the North Sea, and just look at the sea and get inspired. Some guys need to get inspired by being in the mountains, but I think I just think about musical ideas. There are so many things out there that I think I have enough ammunition to keep going.

JazzReview: In conclusion, as someone who's had a long career, what is some advice you would always give young players to develop their careers and to keep going?

David Becker: Most importantly, stay focused. As long as you have the hunger to learn, you will continue to move ahead and find inspiration.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: David Becker
  • Interview Date: 7/1/2004
  • Subtitle: Inspired
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