Interview Excerpts: Will Matthews
Periodical: Just Jazz Guitar
[Editor's note: The selected excerpts relate to Freddie Green.]
Will Matthews holds down one of the most revered guitar chairs in jazz, the chair that timekeeper supreme, Freddie Green, occupied for nearly 50 years in the Basie band.
"I did not get into four-to-the-bar rhythm playing until around 1983 or 1984. At that time I was a sub for one of my mentors, Sonny Kenner, who played with a big band around Kansas City. They had a lot of Basie charts in the book. I remember the band leader giving me a tape with some Basie band on it and telling me to listen to what Freddie Green was doing because that was what he wanted me to do with the band."
"I started with the Basie band in 1996. My best friend, a trombonist, had been subbing in the band, and Charlton Johnson had been playing guitar with them. Freddie had died in Las Vegas right after a gig. They had tried a few guitarists after Freddie passed away, but the one who stayed the longest was Charlton. I met Charlton in 1990 through my trombonist friend when the band was in Kansas City. We kept in touch through the years, and when he was going to leave the band, he recommended me for the chair. You know, the Basie band holds no auditions. If a chair becomes available, someone in the band or associated has to recommend you for the chair. If they like what you are doing, you get the gig; if not, then they move on."
"One of the first things the bandleader said when I joined the Basie band was that he did not expect me to sound exactly like Freddie Green. This made me very comfortable from the beginning. But I took it upon myself to study his playing as much as I could to try to figure out exactly what he was doing, or at least get the essence of what he was playing. It is very difficult to play exactly what he played on every song, but I try to get as close as possible and play the style in the correct manner."
"Several things made Freddie's comping great. There is a lot more to it than just playing four beats to a measure. His comping has a consistent pulse and tempo that just feels good. That could be due to his use of all down strokes with the right hand. I've experimented using up and down strokes with the right hand, and it does not swing or flow as well as using all down strokes. Playing all down strokes can be very challenging at fast tempos, but Freddie made it sound easy and relaxed by accenting beats 2 and 4. Placing a little more emphasis on those beats helps to make the rhythm swing. On slow or medium tempos he would vary the emphasis on beats 2 and 4, sometimes using the full value of the quarter note by strumming the chords a little more legato. But, most of the time there is a little bit of space between the strokes."
[Editor's note: Bassist Lynn Seaton and drummer Butch Miles state that Freddie played an even four and did not accent beats 2 and 4; both performed in the Basie band with Freddie. Read the Seaton interview and the Miles interview at: http://www.freddiegreen.org/interviews.html]
"Freddie was the catalyst between the bass and drums, and his comping style kept the rhythm section glued together. I don't think he was thinking along those terms, but he was keeping them glued together. Musicians would say that if Freddie was sick or missed a gig, the whole rhythm section just fell apart. I can't imagine it being really bad, but there was a difference between when he was there and when he wasn't. There were times when the Count would break up the band and form a smaller group that did not include Freddie, and Count himself said that he missed Freddie in the group and he had to have Freddie back. So, he would call Freddie and invite him back."
[Editor's note: Here are Freddie's words from a 1954 Downbeat interview about keeping time in the rhythm section: "The rhythm guitar, I've found, is very important, though I didn't think that way in the beginning. For one thing, it kind of smooths out the beat. The rhythm of a performance has what I call a 'rhythm wave', and the rhythm guitar can help keep that wave smooth and accurate. Being a rhythm guitarist, I have to concentrate on that beat from beginning to end, listening for how smooth it is. If the band is moving exceptionally smoothly, then I can play whatever comes to mind, but that doesn't happen too often. Almost all the time I'm concentrating on the rhythm wave."]
"Freddie could play four beats to the bar and not get in the way of the piano or the ensemble. The way he voiced his chords kept him out of the way. He often played only two or three notes in a chord. He didn't voice them in the upper structures and kept them very simple. A lot of times it sounds like he is playing only one note! [Editor's note: Because he was only sounding one note clearly!] Especially on the recordings, you can hear what you think is the top note sticking out and you really can't hear anything underneath it. It's not really the top note. [Editor's note: I respectfully disagree.] It's usually the 4th string, the D string. In a three note voicing, the 4th string is between the 6th string and the 3rd string. When playing a blues, the I7 chord and the IV7 chord will carry the third or the flat-seventh on the 4th string. These notes usually stand out over all the others. He could have been deadening the other strings. [Editor's note: He was. See the Diane Schuur DVD for confirmation: http://www.freddiegreen.org/other.html] But I think the reason that the D string stands out is due to the height of his strings from the fretboard. They were very high. He was able to have only the strings sound that he wanted to stick out. It sounded to me that he was creating, in his comping, a counter-melody that he was placing against the melody. It is very interesting."
"Another thing that was unique about Freddie's voicings is that he used only the last four strings to voice his chords. [Editor's note: This is true for his rhythm voicings, but not true for his solo voicings. On the rare occasion, Freddie would play a brief chord solo.] One exception was the 13th chord at the beginning of Li'l Darlin'; he used all six strings for that one."
"One of the songs that I really worked on to see what Freddie was playing was 'April In Paris'. First, I make sure to stay out of the way of the ensemble. Second, I am listening intently to the drummer's high-hat and I try to lock in on beats 2 and 4. Of course, I am thinking about my voicings, often giving emphasis to the D string, and sometimes voicing the chord so that the D string is on top."
"Up around the 12th fret on Freddie's guitar, the string action was so high that you could almost put your finger between the fingerboard and the strings. The higher you have the strings off the neck, the louder the volume from the guitar. I think he was just trying to get the maximum volume to be heard in the band. He started playing before the amplifier was invented. I understand that he has deep, permanent indentations in his fingers, and when he placed them on the strings they just fit in the groove perfectly. Guitarist John Collins tells of Freddie handing him his guitar, and the strings were so high that John could not play one thing on it. He said it almost broke his arm. So John just handed it back to Freddie. Freddie was just standing there laughing because he knew John wouldn't be able to play it. No one else could play Freddie's guitar because the strings were so high. So think of all those voicings, and those incredibly fast tempos Freddie played, and all the time with the strings as high as they were. How can anyone match something like that?"
"Freddie preferred an unamplified guitar because when you plug the guitar into an amplifier you now longer have a purely acoustic sound. As good as modern amplifiers are, they change the whole characteristic of your guitar's sound. I think he wanted to the keep the sound and tone as natural as possible. The amp can make your rhythm voicings sound chunky unless you get the volume and tone settings just right. I try to do the same thing. I can't play with my strings as high as his but I use a microphone on my guitar."
"Harry 'Sweets' Edison tells that Freddie did take solos for a while with the Basie band and that he experimented with an amplifier. But the guys in the band thought that when Freddie soloed, the band did not swing as well. His comping was obviously missing when he was soloing. We come back to what was said before - - Freddie was the glue that held the rhythm section together and when he wasn't comping the band did not swing as hard. Using the amplifier is what enabled Freddie to solo and be heard. Different guys would sabotage his amplifier. One night someone would cut the cord and another night someone would pull out a tube. Freddie was always repairing it or dealing with a problem. Freddie finally got the message. The guys wanted him to just play rhythm and not use an amp. The rest is history."
"When a person like Freddie dedicates his whole career to just playing rhythm guitar, he can explore all aspects of rhythm and time. The time and feel are most important. I also think that he was born with a special gift for playing rhythm and keeping time. Count Basie called his music "pat your foot music", and people loved to dance to his band. I think watching people dancing to the music played was another reason why Freddie's time was so good."
"Freddie had impeccable time. Everybody is keeping time in the band, especially the drummer. But musicians who have played with the Basie band tell me that they listened to Freddie for the time. If you didn't know where things were, listen to Freddie, because he has the beat."
"Here's a story that drummer Butch Miles and bassist James Leary have told me. If you were playing with Freddie and your time got bad, Freddie would slowly turn his head and glare at you to get it together. If you didn't get that look, then you were alright. He is certainly one of the most revered names in jazz guitar. I've seen charts in other band books that say 'Play in a Freddie Green style.' That says it all."
Edited by Michael Pettersen
Will Matthews' solo CD may be purchased at: http://www.willmathews.com