Jesse Gress is the newcomer in the Tony Levin Band, lacking the twenty-year history the others have together, but he is the perfect addition to the group. His encyclopedic knowledge of music, great technical facility on guitar, and keen ear make it impossible to tell he is the new kid. As Tony mentioned, he's played with Todd Rundgren and is an editor for Guitar Player magazine. He's also got a book coming out called The Guitar Cookbook.
by Jon Davis, Published 2001-07-01
photography by Danette Davis
You've worked a lot recently with Todd Rundgren. How did you get involved with him?
Well, it hasn't been that recent. I've been working with all his live bands since 1991. I've been a big fan of his music – I grew up near Philadelphia, and I've been playing Nazz songs since I was fifteen years old. All the bands there covered Nazz tunes back in the late 60s and early 70s. He was real well known around there, so I thought he was like the American Eric Clapton, you know. I dug his guitar playing a whole lot, so I copped a lot of stuff over the years. And then it took only like 23 years later... I'd moved to San Francisco and hooked up with him out there [where] he'd done a record. You know, I figured what are the chances? Guy plays guitar, I play guitar. Stop dreaming, buddy. No, don't stop dreaming! That's the thing. I ended up befriending the guitar player he was using. [Todd had] stopped playing guitar and started sort of fronting his band around the Nearly Human time, I think it was '87. And he did a tour that was like a big Vegasy show band, which would have been really hell for me to get in on. The one I did, which was the Second Wind tour, the one after that, which was like we could wear anything we want. But [the show band] would have been the worst thing in the world to me, to finally get a gig playing with Todd, and have to wear an outfit like I would wear in the Poconos, you know, all these gigs I used to play that I hated in Pennsylvania. But I ended up hooking up with him in San Francisco for that Second Wind tour, and on and off over the years, like about four or five major tours. The Individualist tour in '95. Plus I go out and sit in with him whenever I can. We kind developed a pretty tight little working relationship over that With a Twist album. That's the only record I ever recorded with him, was With a Twist, and I did a lot of the arranging for that record.
That's an interesting record.
The melodies hold up great no matter what you do to them harmonically, which was the idea there. I have a background in jazz harmony, and Todd wouldn't know a flat five chord if it bit him in the butt, so I was able to adapt a lot of his progressions to that bossa nova kind of smooth jazzy [style] and it worked great.
The amazing thing about that record is that the familiar melodies are in completely different arrangements.
That's all in the arranging. You're changing the background; you're not really changing the melody as much. He did that Astrud Gilberto, cool vocal thing where everything was sung really flat, like hardly any vibrato in his voice. It all changed when we went out and played it live, but for the recording we went to Hawaii and recorded it in a house, and after the third day everybody kind of got into this Hawaiian flow, and we were pretty productive. We were banging out two or three basic tracks a day for about five days, I think. But he was cutting vocals live with us, although I think he might have redone a lot of them. But he fell right into that thing, laying back – Actually, the phrasing's really rushed, it's way ahead, it's that [singing] "It was late last night, I was feeling something wasn't right." You know, it's all pushed ahead of the beat. He just did it. Actually, I was amazed. We didn't know what we were doing when we went in there!
Well, if you ever want to do a follow up...
I love the whole thing, 'cause I love the whole faux Polynesian culture, you know, Tiki Culture and all that fake shit. I love that stuff, and I always have. But to go out and tour with that, with a set, that was- it was like playing the same place every night. Tear it down, pack it up, haul it somewhere else, come to the next club, and looks like the same place. Which was the whole idea behind that. We were acting as if the audience came to us on the island [singing] "Somewhere on an island." And we didn't pay much attention to the people out in the house. We had people up on the stage, and that was our little bar, and our crowd, so it was a little theatrical in that sense, like a little play almost, where we'd have the bartender come on and open up shop, and then the band would come out and do a song without Todd, and then we'd do three different sets. Three different shows, like a dinner bossa nova set, like a floor show set, then like an after hours jamming kind of set, you know. A drunk at the bar, and they'd steal his wallet at the end of the night! You see, I've played gigs like that, but Todd never has. That's the funny thing. His comments were like, "Well, we're practicing for our retirement." And I said, "You know, some of us are reliving our past." I don't think he ever had to do that kind of stuff to survive, so he's got a somewhat morbid curiosity about it.
So how did you get hooked up with Tony Levin?
I live in Woodstock, New York, just down the street from Tony. I've lived there for about nine years. I'd been trying to figure out, "How am I going to get to play with Tony?" for about nine years, and we play together in a bar band called Uncle Funk – R&B covers and blues, you know, just jammy stuff – and Tony and Jerry have both been doing that for years. But until about a year and a half ago I never played one of the gigs with Tony. It's always sort of a revolving rhythm section, depending on scheduling and stuff. I did a couple Uncle Funk gigs with Tony, and the next thing I know, he was asking me to do this tour, which was great. But I had to blow off the last Todd tour to do it, because that didn't come up until days or weeks later. That's why Todd toured with a trio. I made it a quartet a couple times at the end, but it was mainly the trio thing.
So aside from Todd what other guitar players were your influences and idols growing up?
I came into music through easy listening music more than any kind of rock and roll. Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass – I didn't have any rockers in my family to show me the way – and operettas. My sister sang in The Sound of Music, so I'm intimately familiar with all those melodies and stuff. And then the twangy sound of the guitar is what got me. I don't know, it might have been on Zorba the Greek or some Tijuana Brass thing. I sort of missed out on the Ventures and all that instrumental stuff. I've gone back and rediscovered it all now, though. Early on, the things that really nailed me were like Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton, the early wave of British blues artists in the late 60s, Peter Green. Then I discovered who they were listening to. BB King and Albert King, pretty much all blues. Beck is still my hero. To this day, he's still one of the only guys that I'll drive halfway across the country to see, or totally gets me writhing every time I hear him play. I got into jazz later on, and all the greats of jazz are my particular favorites: Pat Martino as much for his learning concepts as for his playing, guys like George Benson, John McLaughlin. Mahavishnu Orchestra is probably the best band that ever existed.
You copped that little lick from "Birds of Fire" there in sound check.
I'm a music editor at Guitar Player magazine. I've been there for nine years, or eight years, and I just did the transcription of the "Birds of Fire" solo, so it's sort of fresh in my mind. I went back and listened to all that stuff and I'd forgotten how truly frightening and great it was. That I think was the best band that ever existed. I have a really wide tent when it comes to listening to music. I was out buying vinyl this morning, and I look for incorrect music as much as correct music for my own entertainment purposes.
(Later, when the tape wasn't rolling, he elaborated on "incorrect" music. He enjoys hearing records by bands that aren't very good, but are trying to be, and don't realize they're actually inept.)
The jazz arranging thing, did you come by that by studying it or did you just pick it up?
I always studied on my own, but I actually studied formally with Howard Roberts and a bunch of people at the third GIT class back in 1978 when it was just a little jazz school with 30 guys in it. That's where I got to meet Pat Martino and play a little bit with Pat Metheny. People like Joe Pass were in and out of there. It was pretty much still a jazz school back then, so I still don't consider myself a jazz player, but I know a lot about jazz harmony and stuff. I don't consider myself a great jazz improviser. No "Giant Steps" for me!
Well, Tony sure likes a lot of your arranging capabilities. He can ask you to come up with something right away.
He just happened to ask the right questions! That was pretty circumstantial. The same thing happened with Todd. Like I taught myself these things years and years ago for my own enjoyment, like "Never Never Land." When you sit around and just play the guitar by itself, and you just play single notes or strummy chords, you don't get much music out of it. So that's what got me interested in jazz more than single line solos, was harmony and being able to do what I would call "chord melody" arrangements, where you sound like a piano, you've got all the harmony and melody going at the same time. So I started doing that with Todd, too. I did it with "Never Never Land" like twenty years ago, and that's the arrangement we ended up using on the record. So Tony just happened to call up, and he wanted to do a Hendrix tune and I said, "Which one?" and "That's a good idea!" And he wanted to know if I'd ever heard of a song called "Elephant Talk." I used to play Adrian Belew's solo in a dance band in the mid 80s, like in the middle of a Germaine Jackson song when everybody was on the dance floor! It's like right after "Beat It" came out with Michael Jackson and guitar, when all of a sudden [in] all of those lounge bar club gigs, it became possible for you to play anything in the world on guitar. It opened the door, and nobody whined, "Turn that down!" Well, they'd still go, "Turn that down," but they wouldn't bat an eye at funny notes, which was a big, big turning point. And I'd done a lot of those gigs; I'd played in lounges and clubs for fifteen years, everything from gospel churches to the Pocono and Catskills circuits. Traveled around, shows in Asia, Singapore, you know, playing Prince and the Pointer Sisters songs.
On cruise ships...
No, I never did a cruise ship, thank god! I look for those cruise ship records though, some of those are pretty good. Depends on the material...
(Later, when passing in the restaurant, Jesse said, "Gentle Giant! I forgot to mention Gentle Giant! I love them.")
Related artist(s): Jesse Gress
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