For jazz guitarist Steve Herberman, playing music isn’t about copying the masters, but learning from them and developing one’s own style of creative expression. Throughout his teaching career, he has encouraged students to familiarize themselves with the roots of jazz, to respect its masters, and to learn from its large repertoire based in American, Brazilian and World cultures. Jazz is a form of music that has evolved from the multitude of cultures out there, and to know them is to know its people. Herberman makes such a connection with people through his solo albums. His latest release Ideals features four original compositions and seven covers, but even when Herberman is covering the masters, his fingerprints are impossible to miss. The opening track "This Is New" from Ideals is one such case.
He reveals, "Ed Bickert recorded this tune and another favorite guitarist, Ben Monder, likes playing this one in his gigs. I wanted my arrangement to be a little different so I put a Lydian vamp as an intro and interlude. There is little in the way of arranging besides the vamp section, which is usually done by others as a Dorian vamp. So, I really just used a different scale for the vamp. It turned out to be a high energy rendition in the studio that day, played a bit faster than we normally play it, and I liked the brightness of it. I decided to program it first because I wanted to grab the listener’s attention right away. The second track, "Let Go," takes it to a special ‘ECM’ type of place."
The songs chosen for the recording of Ideals appealed to Herberman’s leaning towards warm esthetics, an inclination to try out different musical concepts on familiar tunes. He tells, "I wanted to feature four of my new compositions mixed with standards and jazz classics that I’ve been playing for a while. A few of the standards are from the American Popular Songbook. There is a Mal Waldron standard and also one by Jobim."
Joining Herberman on the recording are bassist Tom Baldwin and drummer Mark Ferber, who share Herberman’s sense of melodic beauty. Herberman explains, "I’ve known Tom for about 15 years. We first met at a gig booked by a fellow musician doing the gig as a duo. Musically and personally, we got along great and we’ve been playing regularly ever since. When we first met, Tom had just finished up with the Thelonious Monk competition that he placed second in, which is no small feat. He knows all the tunes, has great ears, time, and intonation. He’s also a skilled composer and arranger. Tom has become a good friend and colleague I can count on to bounce ideas off of. We’re in similar situations in that he is a college instructor and is married with a child, actually he’s ahead of me with two," Herberman beams.
Herberman extends, "I wanted to record with Tom to document some of the things we are about musically. Mark Ferber played on Action: Reaction, and with Tom and me at that CD release party a couple of years ago, the chemistry was really good. Mark was the obvious choice for the Ideals CD, and Tom was in full agreement.
I met Mark a few years ago in Manhattan at La Lanterna while he was playing a weekly gig with guitarist Jonathan Kreisberg. I had previously heard Mark on a couple of Anthony Wilson CD’s and knew that he was someone I wanted to work with. Both Mark and Tom know instinctively what the music needs at any given moment. They can take the music to many places, possessing that rare combination of listening and responsiveness, feeding new ideas into the mix at the right times. They are both masters of swing, all the way up to the newer styles."
Herberman describes that the songwriting process for Ideals was the result of performing these songs live before recording them in the studio. "I played all of the tunes that are on Ideals with Tom months before the recording, on local gigs we were playing. We had a couple of steady weekly gigs at that time. Tom gave some input, sometimes just a suggestion here or there, but it was mostly my idea for the arrangements and tunes."
He extrapolates, "One exception is Tom’s fine arrangement of the Gershwin tune ‘Soon.’ My composing process is pretty varied, but often comes from a melody that I sing while going about my daily routine. That gets me over to my guitar to realize it further, and I begin adding harmonies to it and tweaking it until I have something written to take to a gig and to play it with the group. Other times, I’ll taken an existing set of chord changes and write an original melody line on it. That happened with ‘She’s For Me,’ which is the chord changes to ‘My Ideal.’ That gave me the idea of using ‘Ideals’ as the name for the CD. Later, I wrote a waltz and called that tune ‘Ideal.’ ‘She’s For Me’ didn’t sound like it should bear that name, so I felt I needed to write something that did."
Herberman cites, "I recorded it (Ideals) to document what Tom and I have been doing on our gigs, and also to get some of my original music on CD. The goal is usually the same, to continue putting my music and playing out there [and] to let people hear what I’ve been up to musically. I want to introduce new listeners to what I do, and give the folks that know my work more of it. I strive to make the trio sound full with contrapuntal textures and chordal work beneath my melodies. In my own way, I’m trying to further the guitar trio, and get it close to the jazz piano trio realm, augmenting my single line work with chordal elements."
Herberman’s aspiration for the recording is modest. "I’m looking for listeners to be drawn in and to elicit an emotion or emotions. Of course, I want people to like it, which is why I put some familiar material in there to give a point of reference. I think there is a wide variety of material, hopefully something for everyone."
Herberman applies a contrapuntal style of playing in his compositions that infuses counter melodies by Ferber and Baldwin, forming harmonious patterns that blend everyone’s parts into one cohesive mold. Herberman has honed this distinctive style of playing over the years, steering compositions in this direction on his 2001 debut album Thougthlines, and his 2006 sophomore release Action: Reaction. He admits that this style of writing allowed him to communicate on these recordings with the musicians, bassist Drew Gress and drummer Mark Ferber, on a genuine level as he comments, "I learned that I could have a relevant musical conversation with some players I greatly admired, and that I was making headway in my quest for being a contrapuntal type of guitarist/composer and having my own voice. Strengths from a technical point of view were that I could manage the majority of the session with a finger style right-hand technique. From an emotional point of view, I was happy with the overall organic vibe of the music - the communication between Drew, Mark and me for Action: Reaction. The solos seemed to really capture a mood and stay musical throughout the 60 minutes."
He adds, "To address the flaws, I hear the imperfections in my playing, but I’ve learned to accept them. Music, like life, isn’t perfect and when it gets too close to perfection, the music sounds stilted as in fewer chances being taken. That goes against my core values as an improviser. But I do continue to work on achieving a clean technique. All musicians must keep on top of that one."
The five year lapse between releasing his debut album and his second solo record was mainly due to what was going on in his private life, and not due to feeling stifled musically, as he addresses, "The recording hiatus was due mostly to the birth of my son. Between teaching gigs and being with him during the day. I was pretty maxed out time-wise. I did write a bunch of music during that time. The tunes that were more guitar-trio-friendly were what made up my CD Action: Reaction. Not saying they were all easy to adapt to the guitar trio, but I picked contrasting types of originals to make up that CD as I did more recently with Ideals only with the standards added in."
Ideals shows a shift in Herberman’s playing, being more animated and experimental in a way that jazz masters such as Sonny Rollins and Joe Pass initiated. Though inwardly, Herberman confesses that he does not notice a shift in his playing from Action: Reaction to Ideals. "I don’t see much of a shift, but I suppose Ideals is a little more straight-ahead stylistically with both CD’s. I wanted to record a lot of different feels such as ballads, uptempo, straight eighth, jazz waltz, etc. The major differences to me would be that Action: Reaction was all originals and that Drew Gress played bass on it beautifully. I might add [that] Drew and Mark have a special rapport and I feel they really brought some new things out of me on Action: Reaction."
Herberman’s reason for embarking on a solo career was a now or never choice. He recalls, "I hadn’t recorded anything of my own and wanted to get something out there. My wife was pregnant at the time, and I knew I was going to be busy being a new parent so I needed to do it before the baby came along. I feel I’ve grown a lot since Thoughtlines as a musician and as a human. I’ve grown as a composer since that time, and I feel a lot freer rhythmically now when I listen back."
Of course, before becoming a solo artist, Steve Herberman, himself, was a music student whose hunger to learn to play musical instruments was unyielding. The voice in his head was quite persuasive, veering him towards making music to find gratification as a youngster. He claims, "I took piano lessons when I was 6-years old," pleading with his parents to pay for piano lessons for him. He recollects, "At that time, I was more interested in playing outside and eventually gave up with the lessons. I came to the guitar on my own when I was about 12, and instantly fell in love with everything about it. My parents let me take private lessons right when I started, which was really helpful, and I took theory classes in school. Basically, I put most everything aside to study the guitar and music. Looking back, I had aptitude for the guitar, being able to pick out melodies fairly easily and physically able to play the basic rock and folk chords with little trouble. I got the jazz bug when I as about 15, and became enthralled with everything about it, the culture, the personalities, and all of the styles within jazz."
Herberman attended Berklee College of Music, which is where he traded a 6-string guitar for a 7-string, and he never had a reason to reverse his decision. "I played the 6-string guitar through my years at Berklee and was very happy with it," he reminisces. "After I graduated, I embarked on what I call my masters degree in jazz guitar, the George Van Eps Harmonic Mechanism series. These books took some 5 years of dedicated study, and I began to be seduced into wanting what George Van Eps had, a 7-string guitar. The books were written for 6-string, but I was listening to a lot of Van Eps, and between the recordings and his books, I began to see how the 7-string could open things up beautifully for solo playing for composition. It gets closer to the wider range that a pianist enjoys. Though it’s true, a 7-string is not a necessity for my trio playing, I’m so accustomed to it now that it’s hard for me to play a 6-string and be happy. It’s easier for me to play this guitar in every situation, and its become an extension of me as a result."
After graduating from Berklee College of Music in Boston, Herberman budgeted his time between playing live with other jazz musicians and being a music instructor. He became a professor at Towson University in Baltimore and has taught master classes at Virginia Commonwealth University, James Madison University, and Duquesne University. Additionally, Herberman offers online guitar lessons at www.mikesmasterclasses.com. He remarks about the lessons, "The online sessions have been very successful. I teach students from all over the globe that view the monthly classes. I enjoy corresponding with them, and they give me ideas for future classes. It’s great to meet other people that love music, the guitar, and expanding their knowledge. It’s not unusual for a new student to go back and pick up most all of the archived classes once they take one or two. The students tell me that they enjoy the material and that it’s challenging. Some tell me that they can’t find material like this anywhere else."
Some tips that Herberman provides to aspiring musicians include, "Study with a good teacher and transcribe melodies, solos, basslines, and comping as often as possible in your practicing, tying that in with learning tunes. My latest topic in my online master classes is how to develop a practice routine that will get results. Find a regular duo partner to play with every week, and go to as many jam sessions as possible to learn and to meet other musicians. Memorizing the great standard tunes and jazz classics along with some of the solos to learn the language of jazz that will certainly influence you as a composer. Of course, also check out the great classical composers where it all began."
Spending his time between teaching and being a performing songwriter has enabled him to nourish one with the other as he expresses, "For me, being a player and composer helps me to be a better teacher. I couldn’t even imagine teaching without the other two. Playing and writing lets my creative juices flow, and that can carry on into my teaching. I always play a lot with my students, especially the ones in college looking to be performers. I also have trouble imagining myself not teaching music since I’ve always done it since before high school. At the end of a day of teaching. I can’t wait to get to my gig, and do what I’ve been talking about doing all day long."
He reflects about what he has learned about himself from his experiences as a teacher and performing songwriter, "It has made me examine the elements of what I play and understand them more clearly. Sometimes I’ll take on a new subject and then pass it along to my students, and we are both learning alongside one another. I learn a lot from the questions the students ask. If they ask me something I’m not sure about, I’ll put in some study and learn something new to put into my music while teaching them at the same time. Many times, the subject matter I’m giving to my students are concepts that I get into when I play, some of which I’m constantly expanding on all of the time."
Between exposing students to the music of jazz masters and developing his own contrapuntal style of playing, Herberman’s learning process is never-ending. Roots jazz is the lifeline to the past, and as Herberman has shown, new creative expressions bring jazz music into the present connecting it all together in one continuous stream. Through his teachings, Herberman is passing the reins into the hands of future generations and watching where they will take it. The evolution of jazz is like the evolution of a culture, one does not grow without affecting the other and no one may understand this better than jazz guitarist Steve Herberman.