This morning I was listening to a sportscaster on the radio describe a team that had been on a tear recently and he said, "They are not hot, they are very good." The same words can be used to describe guitarist Stew Cutler who is a very good, and we might even say, exceptional guitarist from New York City.
In early April, Cutler took a few minutes to speak with me about his CD trio live recorded in live segments from the cities of Erie, Pennsylvania and Syracuse and Rochester, New York during 2004, but released on February 13, this year. The other two members of the trio are Garry Bruer (drums) and bass player Gene Torres.
Although at first glance, song titles such as "Spagetti Western," "Cole’s Mountain," and "Yippie-tai-yi-yo" would suggest a country music album, in fact, only "Spagetti Western," and "Yippie-tai-yi-yo" have country-tinged themes. On the whole, the CD trio live defies genre labeling, but might be described as a more avante-garde jazz/blues hybrid.
"Spagetti Western," however, is one song upon which the trio does agree that there are some western elements to the music. "It has a little twang to it and there is a bit of a shootout at the OK Coral. That is the way that all of us hear it," says Cutler.
Cutler is not sure of the origins of "Yippie-tai-yi-yo," except that he believes the music is based on a very old country song, probably predating the last century. "Cole’s Mountain" takes its name from a mountain in upstate New York, where Cutler maintains a small home. "That has been my place of solitude and where I go to get away from the whole New York scene," he says.
The soloing efforts of Cutler on the fifth track, "Ardells Theme," constitute some of the best guitar work you will hear north of the Mason Dixon line. Suggesting a blues-rock sound, the chord structures serve up reminders of early Eric Clapton.
In contrast to "Ardells Theme" stands "Whisper," an elegant jazz piece that has all three musicians sharing the limelight. Gene Torres’ bass work is particularly notable, and Bruer makes liberal use of his ride and hi-hat cymbals.
Cutler has recorded with and shared the stage with an eclectic and prominent group of artists that include Wilson Pickett, Meatloaf, David Sanborn, Fontella Bass and Bill Frisell. Combined with his experience playing venues as large as Madison Square Gardens, and as intimate as nightclub lounges holding no more than sixty patrons, it has allowed Cutler to develop many musical voices, including the very funky "Grindstone" from the 2005 CD release So Many Streams.
"I have been exposed to so much and put in so many different situations, that I have had to learn to adapt. I have been able to absorb so much from great people at a very high level in what (appear) to be unrelated genres. I just try to be myself in whatever situation I find myself. If I am playing funk, I sound like me playing funk. I have been on country, hip hop and straight ahead jazz records," says Cutler.
Continuing, the guitarman says, "My goal as a player is just to sound like me. I am able to do that at this point, and put it into whatever context is going on."
Just as his music cannot easily be defined, neither can Cutler’s approach to his compositions. On (the song) "So Many Streams," I sat down with the express idea to try and write something. The music in the trio came about in a more spiritual way. It came from having ideas going through my head, dreaming something, and singing it into a tape recorder that I left beside my bed," he says.
An earlier Cutler tune "Elizabeth," from the Insignia project (Naim record label) comes from an actual experience in the musician’s life. "I was on Elizabeth Street in Chinatown, New York City, when I heard some Chinese music. Then a car drove by with some Duke Ellington music blaring. I heard the two things together and I tried to come up with something like that (the combination of experiences)," he says.
Cutler continues, "A lot of times the songs for the trio end up being dedications of feelings that I had about a certain experience."
On the So Many Streams record, I do a version of "Put a Little Love in Your Heart," in which I use a horn section and background singers. It is all about the texture that you want to go for. In the trio, I allow myself to be the one creating all of that (texture). What makes an artist is creating the situation for you, one that showcases what you do. In the course of doing this you will need certain players or singers, but what they do doesn’t necessarily fit into a specific slot. I have been able to show up at pretty well any kind of session or gig, and fit what I do into a more traditional context that has certain barriers," he says in explaining how he has been able to define his own style, retain a signature sound and yet adapt to other artists with whom he has performed.
Although Cutler now plays a Fender Stratocaster until about eight years ago, he was styling on a ’57 Fender telecaster. "That was my first electric guitar. I got this in a really funny way. I was a teenager still living in the Bronx, when a friend said that he knew of a girl who wanted to sell an electric guitar. We knew it was a Fender so we figured it was pretty good. She sold me the guitar for twenty bucks which we figured was great because (he says laughing) we figured it had to have been worth fifty bucks. She didn’t know and we didn’t know," he recalls.
Cutler says, "The tele is now pretty old and delicate. The white strat is the guitar that I play on trio live. It is a great sounding guitar. It wasn’t expensive. I went to a music store downtown (New York City) and found it. I could not believe how great it sounded and how great it felt. There are people who will say that, ‘I have a ’63 this or that and got it rewired.’ I am not really like that. If it sounds good, it makes me happy."
Stew Cutler’s music sounds good and it will make you happy.