Fusion guitarist, David Becker, stays one step ahead with his new, Tribune, "Germerica" on Silverline Records, a DVD six-channel surround sound audio, slated for release August 2001. This exciting new technology produced and marketed by the 5.1 Entertainment Group and DVD International offers the ultimate sound and visual experience, so David's new Tribune collection will surely enrich the language of jazz.
Enriching that language, David offers a diverse variety of sounds on this CD, gathering all elements into this creative exploration. It's an introspective album, one that gives you chance for thought and contemplation. It speaks of experiences, moods and colors, and brings together the old world and new. I'm not speaking about reinventing jazz standards; rather it's a delightful interplay of West Coast fusion and old world style. One such selection, "The Truth," is a mysteriously beautiful piece that could be the title song for a hit movie. In it, I hear Bach-ish bass lines, a modern day drum beat, old world Spanish flavor (in some of David's solo guitar work), and a synthesized violin and vocal inlay that combine to create a haunting improvisation. Mixing it up with a touch of blues and a tinge of swing, David's new DVD is worth adding to your collection.
David is extremely busy these days traveling between Germany and Los Angeles and appearing throughout Europe this summer. I was fortunate to capture three hours of his time for an in-depth, informative look into his life and music.
JazzReview.com: David, you live in Germany. With your busy schedule it must be hectic traveling so much.
David Becker: "I've been in Germany since 1994. I live in Wuppertal near Dusseldorf, about an hour from Belgium. I have been shuffling back and forth because I was teaching at USC (University of Southern California) in the studio jazz department. The last few years have been crazy. Every six weeks I'm on a plane going here and there. Basically, I'm homeless!"
JazzReview.com: It must give you a real sense of accomplishment to have your new release on DVD surround sound. Your selections all seem to flow so easily. How did the project come together?
David Becker: "I can sit down and play all these (jazz standards) tunes and I feel very comfortable with my guitar playing level now. I've definitely grown in the past ten years and feel there is a new horizon coming to me. But, it's always going to be about the music. When I sat down to write this record, I really had to think heavily about what I wanted to do. What did I want to address? There were certain elements of music I had been playing or hearing that I wanted to put down on tape. So, that's how I picked what I did for the project. I guess it works because I wanted to play drums on some of it. I've never done that on a record. We took this one piece that is sort of a ballad. It has a real swing style, but I was thinking I wanted to do this in kind of a 12/8 pattern and it just worked. That was a situation where it added something to the piece of music. Someone could have said, 'Well, you could swing with brushes,' but it didn't need it. At that moment it just felt right."
JazzReview.com: From where do you draw your inspiration for writing a song?
David Becker: "There are elements of rock and roll from my past that have to come through in some capacity. I can't say that I've never heard rock and roll. I'm 39, what am I going to do, bury my head? I mean, I love Wes Montgomery and always felt a pull to jazz music, even when I was twelve, but I use all those elements."
JazzReview.com: So, how did you get started?
David Becker: "I used to play trumpet in junior high school and had a music teacher who introduced me to Charlie Parker, Miles, etc. He was an old jazz trombone player who taught there at Woodland Hills (California). He got me to play in the jazz band simple charts, but enough that I learned about Lester Young, Mingus, etc. I even played Goodbye Pork Pie Hat. When you are twelve or thirteen, it doesn't mean much 'cause you don't have any connection to Young or Mingus. But, to know those names at that age was very important for me. It was his goal, regardless of the level of each player, to make us sound like a band. Instead of worrying about who was the best player, he told us to just make it sound good. That was important to me and I didn't realize the impact it had until later when I started to do my own music; how you put a band together, how you get that sound."
JazzReview.com: Did you grow up in a musical family?
David Becker: "My mother can play piano by ear and we always had classical music in the house. So when I was four or five, I was hearing Mozart and Brahms. It wasn't until I was about six that I heard my first pop and rock records. I remember the first record that my father allowed my brother to buy. It was like the Four Seasons or something really obscure. My brother used to buy 45s of the Monkees and Beatles. When I look back to then, there was a lot going on in the pop culture that was very interesting in terms of development. Even the old stuff from Motown-that was some serious music. Most of them were old jazz musicians. Then of course later, there was Zeppelin and Hendricks. We bought a wide variety of things. When I think about it, it sure was some heavy stuff for an eight-year old to be listening to, but I liked it. I remember buying an instrumental by a Los Angeles group, El Chicano. The guitar player seemed to be influenced by Wes Montgomery. I didn't know it at the time, but I hear that now."
JazzReview.com: Your older brother is a drummer and you have played and toured together a lot. You must have shared quite a bit musically growing up together.
David Becker: "My brother started buying Louie Belson and Buddy Rich records when we were young. In those days my brother was playing drums in junior high school. Belson and Rich were an influence to every drummer. There was nobody else. I remember taking trumpet and guitar lessons at this music store in Canoga Park in the seventies. A guy who was friends with Louie Belson owned it. Louie Belson had a brother, Henry, who used to teach drums there. So, Louie would come in and sometimes bring his band to play there. Even Buddy Rich and Terry Gibbs would play there. Terry owned a piece of the music store too. All these New York guys would come and hang out there Mel, the drummer with the Benny Goodman band, and Freddie Grubber too. These guys had an indirect influence on my brother and me, more than we realized then."
JazzReview.com: What musicians influenced your style?
David Becker: "I remember seeing Stanley Clarke and Dixie Dregs when I was 16. That was one heck of an underrated, eclectic band. I met Steve later and told him that. They did some amazing things. Then, I heard Pat Metheny. At first I wasn't that knocked out about him, but I thought that I should go see him in concert. That was in '79 with Danny Gottleib and Mark Egan. The thing that floored me when seeing them in concert was they were so together as a band. For four guys, they had this dynamic, incredible energy. Prior to that, I discovered Wes Montgomery and used to go see guys like Milt Jackson in L.A. I grabbed as much as I could. I had all the Miles, Coltrane, and Jazz Messenger stuff in my collection. In my twenties, it was jazz or nothing. It might have been a little narrow-minded of me, but I think you have to go through all that to discover yourself."
JazzReview.com: What started you playing guitar and down the path to fusion?
David Becker: "Somehow I never thought about styles. If I liked it, that was it. I started playing guitar in high school. I was disappointed with the high school music program, so I thought, 'I'm going to quit playing the trumpet and learn guitar.' I wanted to play rock and roll. That was what my brother was playing in the garage. We played Zeppelin, Bad Company, etc. After 6-8 months playing guitar I heard Grant Green on the radio. I thought, 'Wow, that's really cool-I'd like to play like that.' I hadn't heard a lot of guitar and with most of the big band stuff I had listened to, the guitar was so buried. So, I started to investigate contemporary stuff like Stanley Clarke, Chic Correa and Al DiMeola. It was pretty exciting. It was high-level music at the time."
JazzReview.com: Your brother and you started out together. How did that all come about and how did you end up living in Germany?
David Becker: "When I was just 22, my brother and I put this band together. We were going to do a tour. We didn't have a record out, just a little tape recording. This was when I was living in Los Angeles. I had gone back and forth to Germany when I was 19 and played some basement clubs. That is were I met Joe Diorio. After graduation, I didn't want to stay in L.A. It didn't really represent the musical things that I liked. I wasn't into going to the Baked Potato, etc. It didn't inspire me. I was listening to Eberhard Weber and it just drew me to Germany. My mom was from the Netherlands and I had been back and forth to Europe since I was a kid. I have relatives there and I just decided to go. The European scene really grabbed me and I played with other jazz musicians there. After that, I started making my own music. I made a demo tape and ran all over the place trying to get a record company. I actually found a few people who liked what I was doing. There was a guy from Polydor in Holland who was interested and I went to his office. He thought my stuff was very good and that I should make a record. Ultimately, it didn't work out, but I continued to go to Europe for a couple of weeks each year to hang out, play if I could, and send tapes out. Ironically when back in L.A., we were playing monthly at this club in Venice Beach called The Comeback Inn. The owner loved our music and was organizing a European tour for other musicians. A month before the tour was to begin, the guy said he couldn't do the tour. Right then I decided I was going anyway."
JazzReview.com: How did you get gigs in Europe?
David Becker: "We lined up a bunch of gigs in Germany within a small period of time. For Germany, that was unheard of. It usually takes a long time to organize that. I was just lucky I guess, landing at the right places at the right time. I got us a gig in Berlin, some in Munich and Frankfurt. You know, I'd just call a club and say, 'Hi, I'm an American guitar player with a trio and we want to play your club.' They'd say, 'Yeah, we have a night open on the 16th, so ok, you can play for the door.' It was nice. We had this little EP that was produced with a couple of guys from Warner Bros., but it never came out. It was a live trio album, five cuts and at the gig in Berlin, they played it on the radio. In those days, the wall was still up so it was a pretty small community. We got some press too. I could afford to buy a new van because the dollar was so high there and we just drove around Europe playing.
Our gig in Berlin was amazing. We showed up at this place, set up, and there were only about three people in the audience. We thought, 'Oh well, let's just play and have some fun.' After we started playing the first tune, pretty soon the place was packed. We didn't see anyone when we set up. I guess they were all upstairs. They were a great, great audience. At the time, I was working with the Martin Guitar Company and doing demos for them at tradeshows. I was playing some jazz stuff with the guitar and Chris Martin said, 'Great, I like that, go do it!' We started doing clinics and I got more exposure-a few articles in magazines, etc.
I have a lot of endorsements and work with the Bose Speaker Company near Amsterdam. In 1992, they opened up a few offices in Russia. I told them I'd love to do some clinics there. Next thing I knew I was on a plane! I thought it was just going to be a few clinics... going to a store and talking about the speakers. We did six nights three in St. Petersburg in Leningrad and three in Moscow. Our concerts were in these huge theaters and I got to play with David Goloshokin. He is one of the most popular jazz players there. He plays trumpet and runs this theater in St. Petersburg called the Jazz Philharmonie. We did one night on television with him to an audience of two hundred million people. Unbelievable! It's funny, but four years prior to that, I had done an interview in Washington D.C. at the State Department on Voice of America. The guy asked me, 'Have you ever thought of going to the Soviet Union?' I said, 'I'd love to because I have a song called Siberian Express and my grandfather had been all through there.' Then four years later, I was playing there. What a great experience that was."
JazzReview.com: Going to Europe and making your own way sure was a bold move, David. I guess it all worked out well, leading to the release of your first album.
David Becker: "When we got back from Europe, we ended up in Pennsylvania. We just called around and started booking colleges. Since we had just played Europe, they were really receptive. Colleges put us in every conceivable room you could imagine. We didn't get a lot of money, but enough that we could get to the next gig. They would put us up, feed us, etc. It was very funny. We would end up playing in a college lunchroom with some guy right in front of us eating spaghetti. We played every college we could all through the area, even up through Vermont. We headed west and within three months we were doing non-stop gigs. Sometimes we did two gigs a day. I would love to have a tour schedule like that today. Anyway, we were out on the road getting exposure and we had our little EP we could take to local campus radio stations. Ultimately, this led me to recording my first album and then I were picked up by MCA. I did two albums with MCA, then moved onto another label and did two more albums."
JazzReview.com: What was your first big gig and tour?
David Becker: "My first big jazz festival was opening up for Miles Davis and Chick Correa in Long Beach (California). It was Jack DeJohnette's band, Steps Ahead. I played my fifteen minutes of fame, then Chick performed, then Miles. I got that gig last minute too. This guy called and said, 'You're gonna open for Miles next week.' I said okay and quickly started practicing my solo stuff. Naturally I was very nervous. It was raining the day of the concert and everything was chaotic, but when I got onstage and played, the audience was very receptive. It was so great.
Later we toured up and down the west coast and basically opened for everybody we could-the Yellowjackets, Spyro Gyro, George Howard. We knew them from MCA. In fact, I did a tour with Spyro in Germany a few years ago. We were their special guests for the whole tour. They are a great bunch of guys and we had so much fun together. We toured all over the place between 1981-91, even in Mexico. That was a weird gig. I never knew you could go to Mexico and have any fans there, but our performances were sold out.'
JazzReview.com: Along with cutting this new DVD release, what have you been doing in Europe lately?
David Becker: "I recently worked with a trio in England. I worked with them before and I'm considering recording with them. Their rhythm section is a generation older than I am. The drummer is Trevor Tomkins; the bass player is Jeff Clyne. They are well known and have worked with everyone, but I didn't play with them because of that. We had a musical communication. We got on stage and everything just jelled. It was a great feeling. I've played with my brother for years and I've always been selective about drummers. Suddenly with Trevor, I could do whatever I wanted to and he was right there. Other times he backed off and Jeff and I did our thing. Ultimately, it's that chemistry and how the playing affects the music and the audience.
I was in Antwerp last weekend. It was sort of a last minute gig that my brother booked, so I just drove out from Germany. It wasn't a big gig, mainly for people that knew us. We will probably play there again next year. I'll either play solo or with Joe Diorio. Joe is my mentor and we've spent so much time together. I studied with him a little, but mainly have just hung out with him. We've known each other 20 years. I did a European tour with Joe about a year and a half ago. He's done a lot of recording and has been a big influence to Pat Metheny and me. Everybody knows him. Joe has definitely taken the guitar way into the 21st century way before anyone else did. Anyway, we were supposed to do a tour this year, but he got sick and the doctors wouldn't let him fly. We had to push everything aside. I did the gig as a trio and it worked out fine, but it would be nice to play with Joe again. We'll have to see what happens in the next year or two once Joe gets back on his feet. We will be able to do something again."
JazzReview.com: Where do you think fusion fits into jazz today?
David Becker: "I think the things that Al DiMeola did at that time in his career were milestones in terms of what he was trying to get across. He really composed a very percussive sounding music that bridged a gap between rock and roll and jazz. That opened up the doors for all that screaming, heavy metal guitar playing that came afterward. McLaughlin was more experimental than what Weather Report and Larry Correll with Gary Burton were doing at the time. It wasn't as slick and refined. When Return to Forever came later in 1976/77, Romantic Warrior had reached the peak of using recording technology to make everything sound big, using all those different sounds. It didn't have a future because I don't think it had a direction. It came to a place and that was it. If you listen to that stuff today, there is no comparison.
Today, Heavy Weather still sounds good in terms of it being new and innovated, while Romantic Warrior sounds dated because of the way it was recorded. I think that was the death of it. It had its place. I mean Chick Correa had a huge vocabulary of what he could do. He is one of the great jazz players of our time. He can do anything he wants. At that time, this is what he wanted to address. For me, it outshines anything he did electrically in the last ten years. He never became stagnant. At the same time he was doing Return to Forever, he was out making duet recordings and solos with Herbie Hancock. He definitely kept his hands on a variety of things. Some of the other players who came up during that time didn't do that. They stayed with the same thing. Chick is a genius. He doesn't play electric keyboards anymore, but he doesn't have to. If you know Chick, at some point you discover Ahmad Jamal."
JazzReview.com: What about the transitions from then to now?
David Becker: "Jazz is always being reinvented, but it always goes back to the roots of jazz.
Certainly there is a whole vocabulary that was developed and has to be adhered to. It's part of where it all comes from. I had this conversation with Pat Metheny not long ago. I guess it depends which side of the music you wish to address. Obviously, there are so many different things going on."
JazzReview.com: You keep control of your creativity and stay true to your art. Do record companies have an influence on the type of music you release?
David Becker: I have a problem with a lot of what record companies put out as jazz. I think they try to put out something that sort of molds a certain period of time, but it doesn't live up to what it was. It's a mediocre attempt of putting out what has already been done. You are letting the record companies dictate what's hip and what isn't. It's true. I look around and see all these things being put out by various record companies. For my personal taste they are completely unnecessary. They want to take a player and put him together with somebody, but there isn't anything happening chemistry-wise. Oh, there is on some records don't get me wrong, but there tends to be some that you scratch your head and wonder, 'why was this record put out?' They're trying to substitute for something that has already been done. For me, it doesn't have any addition. If somebody wants to go with a dual record, it's perfectly fine with me, but, sometimes they want to put out ten of them. You know, the covers look a certain way; they sound the same, etc. I don't think it does any justice to the artist. They aren't giving themselves a chance to express the music the way they want to. That happened to me at Impulse when I was with MCA.
Guys with Impulse would end up doing recording dates they didn't feel comfortable doing. The company didn't dictate 'do them,' but rather suggested heavily that they do. The artist feels, 'What am I suppose to do?' In the end, there is no justification to the music. It tends to put a bridge or a border around it. Many think this is traditional and should be done. Others say, 'We should go that route, it sells more.' I think it's all a bunch of nonsense."
JazzReview.com: So, how do you stay true to your art?
David Becker: "You have to do what you believe and not worry about what other people say. I think we are in a situation now where so many people are looking to what's going to be more successful. What is going to sell? Let's face it, anyone who makes a CD and records his or her music is commercial. If you don't want to sell it, you should just go sit in a shed, that's fine. I have the same problem with that stuff as I do with Smooth Jazz. A lot of it sounds like bad, regurgitated George Benson. George Benson is great. He can sing and play his butt off. He doesn't have to prove anything. But, a lot of what they call 'smooth jazz' is stupid. They are just chasing after a certain thing. The thing about my music is, and I hate this word, it's always had this crossover. Some of it is crossed over to the contemporary hearing ears. People will say to me, 'Oh that sounds good, that sounds like' I don't want to go after that. I would never want to do an album of songs all sounding like one particular bag. It isn't what I do. I don't want to have to chase after it. I say, do what you want to do."
JazzReview.com: It's hard to find a good variety of jazz on the radio nowadays. Many stations play smooth jazz that seems more like a commercial venture encompassing everything from Phil Collins to Barry White. This doesn't really reflect the jazz we know to a younger generation does it?
David Becker: "Why let the radio stations start dictating to you what they think they are supposed to play. The most successful radio stations I know who promoted jazz music over the years were the ones who held to an eclectic format. KKGO was a good example of such a station. You would hear some contemporary sounding artist and then you'd hear Charlie Parker. People liked that. That is sadly missing on the airwaves today. It's really a shame. When you go hear jazz artists in concert, they're not going to play this one particular sound throughout the whole thing. That would be completely boring. Perhaps my perspective is a little unwarranted to judge since I haven't really lived in the U.S. for the past eight years, but what I hear on the radio when I am in Los Angeles or New York is really sad. There are so many good things they could play, but all you hear is a bunch of junk. They are second-guessing what the public wants to hear.
The public only knows what they hear. You could take a poll. Demographically, you'd find people are interested in all kinds of different things. Let them hear that! Allow them the freedom to choose. At one time, even the rock stations would play the more progressive sounding jazz, like Chick Corea's thing and the more electrified sounds. Suddenly it's all about style. That's the problem. Record companies and radio stations want to give something a name, label it. Doing this, they segregate themselves as well. It's like a closed community. It's done with contemporary and traditional jazz as well."
JazzReview.com: What advice do you have for keeping jazz alive and passing its heritage and appreciation along?
David Becker: "I remember something that Tony Bennett said at the Grammy awards. He said, 'Jazz music and baseball are the two biggest cultural exports that we have in this country.' We need to support that idea. I hope more people become aware of that. The media thing is always going to do what it does, but I believe there is still a community of people who help to make jazz survive. There has to be a uniting of the jazz community and we have to stop getting into a fistfight about what jazz music is. Look at Miles. I don't think anyone ever touched a larger spectrum of music as he did in his life. It would take someone else five generations to do so. We can learn from that. We have to push it forward while looking back and support jazz. That means going out and seeing live music. Don't say oh I'm too tired go!
There is common ground when you go to a jazz festival and have a mixture of music. With the media it doesn't exist. Jazz encompasses so much; you can't just leave out all the bits and pieces. You're not doing it justice."
JazzReview.com: What is your own personal idea of jazz?
David Becker: "For me, jazz is and always will be improvisation that utilizes this language to communicate something. Regardless if it's a ballad or complicated improvisational piece, it has to be a part of the music. Above and beyond that, you can do whatever you want with it. So, if it has those elements, it's jazz. It's up to the individual to figure out what they want to say.
If you look at my latest DVD, I could talk about each piece of music and say, 'Well this is the story I want to tell.' Each piece is going to have a different thing. I could play Stella by Starlight all night. I'll play that the rest of my life, but I always find new ways to approach it. When I'm writing pieces of music, I always draw from some place. I won't always draw from Stella by Starlight. I'll draw from James Brown, Led Zeppelin, or whatever I listened to as a kid. Today we have a cross-section of jazz musicians who have much more they can draw from. For instance, when I buy CDs, I'll go out and buy records from Blue Note that are the real deal, not something from a guy who plays really well, but is trying to recapture something like putting some guy on a recording with Jack DeJohnette. You can hear he's not comfortable playing with him. It's a great experience for the guy, but the real idea of communicating is he has to be able to put himself in an environment where he feels comfortable."
JazzReview.com: What challenges you David?
David Becker: "It is always a good idea to challenge yourself and play with people who are better. But, in trying to make a musical statement, you need to think about with whom you play and what you play. It has to flow. Again, the record company wants to have those big names on the label, except it might be better to play with your own trio. There has to be that chemistry.
I'm not a household word, but my initial desire as a musician was to have my music reach a wide spectrum of people. I feel very lucky to have that at this stage in my life because a lot of guys haven't even had the chance to record anything. It's not about sales. It's about having the opportunity to put your stuff down. Today, musicians have a whole new medium with the Internet. A guy can record his own music and market it without a record company. It is a really cool time in terms of putting your creativity into something that will reach so many people. That wasn't available 15 years ago. All you need is an audience and you have that on the Internet.
My philosophy is when I sit down, I try to play for the fan inside of me. That is something Pat Metheny always said 'Trust that voice.' I try and give people what that fan inside of me is hearing. I never lose sight of the fact that the audience is an integral part of the music. They give you something to play off of. I enjoy playing live. There is a certain magic you get from an audience. It's the best."
JazzReview.com: It is seldom I interview a jazz musician who isn't afraid to tell it like it is, but David is very passionate about his music and convictions. This speaks well about the man and his music. It is totally refreshing! We wish David every success with his new release and I thank him on behalf of JazzReview.com for giving so much of his time for this personal interview.