Mark Whitfield is a New-York-based jazz musician and composer who has played guitar for 27 of his 30-something years. Though young, he's already considered a jazz veteran and has recorded eight albums. Drawing on a style that came from the Wes Montgomery/George Benson school of jazz guitar, Whitfield was discovered by Benson and launched his solo career on the Warner label ten years ago. He then recorded "True Blue" and others for Verve before his recent switch to Transparent Music.
"Raw," Whitfield's latest album, is everything its name implies. The disc captures the energy of a live performance and the raw power of Whitfield's wide-ranging guitar improvisation. The label Transparent Music is itself still new, but holds great promise since it involves the versatile and legendary Herbie Hancock. Earlier this summer, Transparent released the unconventional duo "Soul Conversation," featuring Whitfield jamming with R&B guitarist JK.
We spoke with Whitfield about "Raw," his experiences with live performing, and his hopes for the future.
JAZZREVIEW.COM: Hi, Mark. Thanks for talking with us today. I've been listening to your new live album all week. It's fabulous.
MARK WHITFIELD: Well, thank you.
JAZZREVIEW.COM: The first piece on "Raw" starts with so much energy! Is this how the evening really started, or was there a warm-up number?
MARK WHITFIELD: I believe that night that was the very first song we played. When you come into the club and the place is packed and you've been playing there for a week and you're so keyed up looking forward to an idea, that you can just go right into a piece like that which demands such concentration and energy -- and you're ready for it. That was just one of those times.
JAZZREVIEW.COM: Do you enjoy playing live?
MARK WHITFIELD: Yes, I enjoy it very much. The studio still seems to be somewhat artificial. You don't have the warmth and the interaction with an audience. I miss that when I'm playing. I like to feel the people's presence, to know the music we're playing is moving people right away. And also, in a studio you tend to look at what you're playing as though you're looking at it under a microscope. You become way more analytical than you need to be. When I'm at my best, I'm not thinking about it at all.
JAZZREVIEW.COM: Do you ever find the audience distracting?
MARK WHITFIELD: No, not really. Certain situations can be distracting. I was playing once at Catalina's in L.A. (three or four years ago) and we had a woman get up in the middle of the show and start dancing. But not just dancing -- she was doing a modern dance interpretation, she was leaping through the air, long runs down the aisle. That was a little bit distracting! We just kept playing. She was inspired. She must have gone on for about five minutes, and then finally she just sat back down.
But in general, I always like to hear the audience tapping their feet, clapping their hands responding to the music. Then there are moments where you could hear a pin drop, and that's a great feeling also, that everyone is paying attention. It tells us we're doing something special.
JAZZREVIEW.COM: How is "Raw" different from your earlier releases, say, "7th Avenue Stroll"? What risks are you taking here?
MARK WHITFIELD: My ability to explore my emotions and express myself as a composer and as an improviser has grown quite a bit with this project. Much of "Raw" is pure improvisation, which is always a challenge. A lot of the things you hear we really didn't have planned, not just the guitar solo or the piano solo but moving from section to section. That's not something you can just do the first time. You take a great risk that as it begins to unfold it won't come together and you'll have a train wreck in front of 600 people. But by this performance we were getting to feel so comfortable that we took more chances that we expected, especially on 'Ducktones.' When the group is feeling good together, the ideas seem to bounce from one guy to another almost telepathically.
JAZZREVIEW.COM: How do you practice that? How do you work up to that point?
MARK WHITFIELD: In a performance together, you have to stop doing the things you do most often and consciously put them aside. The best way to accomplish that is to introduce a new repertoire, new concepts and compositions that will force the ensemble to approach each performance differently. And you do that in rehearsal and take the sections apart and see where the music takes you. Hopefully we're all in tune with one another enough so that we all go in the same direction.
JAZZREVIEW.COM: Are there other composers in the band?
MARK WHITFIELD: I encourage everyone to write. That's very important. My drummer Donald Edwards actually is the principal composer for 'Ducktones' and 'A Beautiful Intuition.'
JAZZREVIEW.COM: What's going on rhythmically in 'Ducktones'?
MARK WHITFIELD: In the first section you hear a bar of six [beats] and a bar of seven. The bass line takes two bars to resolve, or 13 beats. It's easiest to feel this as a 13-beat meter rather than to count every beat. Once you begin to feel the phrase and become comfortable with playing in 13, it's like playing in four [4/4 time].
JAZZREVIEW.COM: What do you think the role of the guitarist is today?
MARK WHITFIELD: I just did a lecture yesterday at NYU about the role of the guitar in jazz history. With the invention of the amplifier, guitarists have been able to stretch the role of the guitar from playing purely resonant strumming to fronting an ensemble and playing the melody and taking solos. And now I think the guitar has become as versatile as the piano, or even beyond that with the advent of electronic music, in terms of being able to create new textures and waves of sound.
JAZZREVIEW.COM: What's an example of a texture that you're working with now?
MARK WHITFIELD: For years I plugged my guitar into a very simple amplifier until I felt I was comfortable enough with the instrument. Lately I've been using a combination of modulation effects (phase-shifts and envelope filtering) to create a synthesized type of sound. I used that on the melody in 'Ducktones.' I also used a lot of sweeping delays to give the single notes the breadth and depth of, say, a tenor saxophone.
JAZZREVIEW.COM: What advice would you give to younger guitarists?
MARK WHITFIELD: Keep yourself in perspective. It's very easy as a young musician to take your devotion to music, to jazz, to your instrument a little too seriously. Music is supposed to be personally and spiritually fulfilling, a vehicle for expression. All the time you spend honing your craft should only help you to focus more on those very things. You can never practice enough, you can never be diligent enough.
JAZZREVIEW.COM: Are you encouraging your kids in music?
MARK WHITFIELD: Yeah. They were born and raised around it. So all I have to do is provide opportunity. My oldest son Mark is 10 and he plays drums and piano quite well. My other son David is seven. He plays guitar and piano, and he's also very accomplished.
JAZZREVIEW.COM: At what age can one learn to play the guitar?
MARK WHITFIELD: At seven years old, I'd say. That's a good time to start, depending on the size of the child's hands. My hands were pretty big even when I was that age, big enough for me to start playing the guitar and the bass. My son David, his hands are kind of small, but they're strong. He really wanted to play, but his hands would hurt, so I just kept encouraging him. And the more he tried, the easier it was to play. But you have to hang in there and it's also a matter of training your hands to stretch, something that takes a little time.
JAZZREVIEW.COM: Are you going to tell us how much you practice per day?
MARK WHITFIELD: I think on average I have the guitar in my hands two, three hours a day. And I've been playing the guitar now 27 years. I still find that my playing suffers if I don't spend time doing textural exercises every day. Being creative is something I think you have to practice as well. I'm always trying to cut down the time it takes to translate something I hear into a good musical idea. It's not intuition -- it's more like trial and error.
JAZZREVIEW.COM: Do you think the guitar is your best instrument for self-expression?
MARK WHITFIELD: Yes, without a doubt. I was probably a lot more naturally inclined as a bass player, but guitar was my favorite and at this point I've gone a lot further on the guitar than I could have on bass. When I was about sixteen I had an idea that if I could put in the time and get the proper instruction and the information I needed, that I could go pretty far with the guitar. It was hard to think of it as work because it was something that I really enjoyed doing, and as I saw myself improving that was all the inspiration I needed to keep on going.
JAZZREVIEW.COM: Do you have other creative interests you'd like to explore someday?
MARK WHITFIELD: I would like at some point to get into creative writing.
JAZZREVIEW.COM: Would you write about jazz?
MARK WHITFIELD: No. I would write about Life.
JAZZREVIEW.COM: Mark, thank you for sharing a part of yourself with our audience.
MARK WHITFIELD: You're very welcome and thanks for listening.