It seems like it is the guitarists who are breaking the mold and defining new directions in contemporary instrumental music. Released almost the same time as Ken Navarro's Dreaming of Trains
, Chris Standring's Blue Bolero
is similar terms of being a groundbreaking work, but totally different in sound. Standring has recorded a series of successful albums that delivered hit singles to the smooth jazz radio format but he wanted to push the envelope and push himself deeper into more individualistic territory. The result is gorgeous and cinematic – a themed album that tells a story through a series of songs that sound wonderful individually but take on new layers of meaning when heard all together. He was gracious enough to take a short break from rehearsing and talk about the the album and the joy and challenge that come with moving beyond the boundaries.
SmoothViews (SV): Your previous CD's were very successful in the smooth jazz realm. You had a really original sound but those projects did stay in within the parameters of the format. Then you decided to do Blue Bolero which actually reminds me a lot Pat Metheny' s Secret Story as far as scope and emotion. It's not about delivering a type of music, it's about the music itself. When did the idea hit you to do this?
Chris Standring (CS):
I think the idea hit me right at the tail end of working on the Love and Paragraphs
CD when I realized that I had recorded a lot of pop sounding records. I always tried to do some different things but this time I felt like it was time to really to really push it as far as I could, for me as much as anything else. If I was totally honest with myself, the type of music that I've always listened to was not necessarily the records that I had been making. I wanted to do something a little bit more in the vein of what I listen to myself. It's funny that you should mention Secret Story
. That's one of my favorite albums. It's so intense and cinematic and I so admire the way he plays. I wanted to do something in a similar vein, but of course play the way I play and tell the story I'm telling. Frankly, I've always thought of myself more as a composer than a guitar player so I thought it was a perfect opportunity for me to step up my game.
SV: There is kind of another alignment with Secret Story because that was the musical impressions of a period of a person's life and in the liner notes you talk about Blue Bolero being the musical impressions of things that happened in your life.
That's true, and the funny thing is I didn't actually realize that was the way the album was going until I was about three compositions into it. Then for some strange reason I started having all these childhood memories. I thought it would be fun to set these associations into some type of cinematic movie-esque concept. I was just trying to write some new music in the beginning and it turned out this way in the process..
SV: I think that's called the cosmic nudge. You start something then the process leads you into new territory and your start was that were trying to go deep and explore a wider range of styles.
I was at a place where I was really starting to get frustrated - not necessarily with what I was doing but with what everybody else was doing and what radio was doing and insisting upon. I felt like the industry was becoming stagnant and it was up to me as an artist to get out of my own box and safety net. My feeling is that somebody has to jump off the fence a little in this genre. I also feel like it has got to come from the artist. It's not going to come from the industry. So I also feel quite strongly about this record in terms bringing some originality to this type of music.
SV: Was the composition process different from the way you did your previous albums?
It was a little bit different because when I was writing I would think of the obvious thing that I might do and tell myself not to do that. I was always trying to veer into other directions since I didn't want to do what I've already done or what everybody else has already done. It was a process of testing myself and pushing myself to go into different places. I was really trying not to fit into a format. What it comes down to is that I was really making a record for me.
SV: There are all kinds of different types and textures of songs here. I guess the continuity that runs through it is with the instrument and the player but you have things in here with a chill vibe, some acoustic stuff, straight ahead jazzy songs, world music and classical influences, smooth jazz - lots of different flavors. How did you create such beautiful cohesiveness with all these disparate elements?
I think I tied it together with the orchestration. That and my guitar playing are what unified the album. This is actually the first album I have written where I write the songs in sequence. On most albums the songs are sequenced after they are all recorded but this time the songs are on the album in the order that I wrote them. I was trying to feel out in my mind what the next piece should be. I probably felt like if I had done a little bit of one thing we needed to do something else with the next one.
SV: Two things really stand out on this besides the breadth and depth of the music. One is that you use live players and live drums and the other is the orchestration. If you go back and listen to your older stuff you can hear hints being dropped that that was something you liked to do but you've developed that further here. The orchestration even becomes symphonic at times.
CS: When I first moved to Los Angeles I came here under the assumption that I would be doing film scores. That's what I thought I would end up doing. I had done sessions, I'd taught, but I wanted to write movie scores even though I had never done it at the time. Then I got into doing the same things I had done in London. I started touring and playing sessions then I got a record deal and started playing festivals, so before I knew it I was back into having a career as an artist and the film score thing got put on hold. Now things have come full circle. This is probably the kind of music that is most honest to me and I will probably end up doing a film score before long.
SV: You used a core group of musicians that play on all these tracks rather than bring in kind of a rotation of big name session guys, which is again bucking an industry trend. Tell me about them.
CS: I've worked with many of the same artists for a long time. We've sort of grown up together musically and we 'get' each other. The idea of recording with people I don't know when it comes to realizing my music doesn't make sense to me. I need somebody who knows where I am coming from. Especially with this album. I have David Karasony on drums, Rodney Lee on keyboards - he mixed the album too, Mitchell Forman, who is a wonderful player, is on a track. There are a bunch of bass players because Andre Berry is my usual guy and he has gotten very busy. There's Larry Steen who is a wonderful player and has been on most of my albums. Tim Landers who is an old friend, Smitty Smith is on it too. Eric Valentine is the drummer on a track, Katisse Buckingham plays flute and Barbara Porter, a wonderful violinist who has played with everyone from U2 to Barbra Streisand, plays on almost all the tracks.
SV: When you get all the tracks together and everything is done, how does it feel to realize that you really do have something that is in line with your vision. Something that really is new, different, and doesn't have boundaries.
CS: Throughout the process I did keep asking myself if I was absolutely crazy or not but when I was getting to the end I started thinking that maybe I did have something. Once you get to the finale and it has started to come together it started to make sense. I'm very proud of it actually.
SV: As you should be! One interesting thing that at least happened to me is that my first take was that this sounded really dark. The CD cover is deep blue and shades of gray and a lot of the songs seem to be in minor keys. Then as you listen to it more it has a lot of warmth but you even said in another interview that while it could be perceived as being a bit dark it was supposed to also be fun. So the question is why so dark?
CS: I think it's dark because as human beings we are not all light. I know for a fact that there is certainly a dark side to me and I felt like I needed to bring that out on this album. I also think I have written a lot of light music and I wanted to venture into different territory and this darker musical territory is where it gets to be really fascinating and interesting. The light side is feel good stuff which is great but I wanted to go into different territory and I also wanted to do something that was representative of me growing up which was all sorts of turmoil and ambition and torture and all that stuff you go through. The whole album couldn't be light when it was about me growing up.
SV: Turmoil, ambition and torture...
CS: (laughs) Well I did go through that. I'm sure it sounds much more intense than it really is but we do go through these heavy times of not knowing what we are supposed to be doing and making assumptions that we are doing the right thing or the wrong thing. It's never straightforward with artists because as artists we live in our heads.
SV: Since this CD is based on the theme of your experiences as you were growing up and into adulthood, turmoil, ambition, torture and all (laughs) what was it like when you were growing up?
CS: We lived on a farm out in the middle of nowhere in England and it did rain most of the time. The day I moved to Los Angeles and saw a bright blue sky I remember thinking that I didn't remember seeing that in quite a time. There was a gray lid that existed over England 24 hours a day. You get used to it but it does get under your skin a little bit too. We had a wonderful childhood, don't get me wrong, but it was a rainy one.
SV: You were playing in England and made the decision to get rid of most of your possessions and move across the pond. Was this abrupt or was it a process over time?
CS: There was a series of reconnaissance trips, so I didn't just jump on a boat and sail. I even spent a year here in the early 80s working at a sandwich shop and getting to know people. I came back for a few extended stays after that too. It was a planned thing.
SV: There are so many musicians in LA. How do you bring yourself to the point where you get some visibility and start getting gigs.
CS: When I moved over here I told all my music friends I was going to do it and they would say things like "What are you moving to LA for? There's a guitar player on every street corner." My reply was to ask what they were doing on street corners. I was going to have a gig! I came over with quite a naive and hugely ambitious drive. It was actually much bigger than me. The naysayers had to go away eventually because my feeling was that they might be right but what if you're not. I came over here and did what I had to do. It wasn't straightforward and it took time but it worked out.
SV: You were new in town and had to approach people who had never heard of you. Was that scary?
CS: I've never been scared to do that
SV: You are so lucky. That's a big obstacle for a lot of us.
CS: In fact, when I wanted a record deal I would call up the president of the label and basically put on my best British accent and charm them and I got signed so I got lucky with it. I actually made use of the fact that I was English. I actually became more British as time went on.
SV: But you obviously had to have the chops to back it up because you signed by three labels that were strong at the time you signed with them and you've gotten airplay and climbed the charts with each of them and now you are in the next chapter. I heard that you worked on these songs for over a year after they were originally finished just polishing them up?
CS:: I actually took my time while I was promoting the Love and Paragraphs CD and I wasn't under any pressure to get something out real soon so I basically took a year and a half and worked on the songs and arrangements.
SV: What about the sound effects that you put in some of the songs that are like snippets of voices in the background or environmental sounds?
CS: I wanted to make a piece of music more really catch your ear so you would not just listen to the background but your ears would kind of perk up and you would go "what's that?" and you would pay a bit more attention. Also having these sound bites of real things going on makes it more alive.
SV: How do you veer off into such a place of originality when the industry pressure is to deliver formula and sameness.
CS; It's the willingness to want to do it, and in my case the desperation to want to do it (laughs) . I know it sounds awfully intense but I was at a place where I just couldn't take it anymore and I was to a point where I was thinking that I don't care if it just sells five copies, I can't stay inside this genre the way it's going. It was tearing me up. That's enough to make anyone do something original, I'll tell you that (laughs).
SV: The big secret here is that listeners feel the same way. Who wants to pop 10 bucks on a CD that sounds like 20 that you already own? Record companies haven't come to that conclusion yet for the most part though so a lot of artists are going indie to get out of that trap. You started your own label.
CS: I did. I started my own label for the Love and Paragraphs CD and had quite a good amount of success doing it. I really learned the ropes while I was doing that record and I really learned the ropes in the process. There is so much change going on in the record business right now. There are a different set of opportunities and restrictions with every CD you put out. I have no interest in signing a record deal right now.
SV: Did it give you more freedom to do what you want to, even though you're facing the fact that if you sink on this sink or swim venture then I did the sinking all my myself?
CS: Look at it this way. If you have a record company A&R guy breathing down your neck you aren't going to make a record like Blue Bolero. Because I had done Love and Paragraphs on my own I felt like I could take a chance and still feel like I could sell it. It was the perfect timing for me to make a CD like this.
SV: The other part of doing it on your own, which is a reality for all musicians now is that it is up to you to get it out there. You and a few other forward thinking artists are taking a really proactive approach to getting your music to the audience. Some other artists are creating outstanding music but relying on others to get the word out and their work isn't surfacing.
CS: It's a tough thing even when you are trying to reach the people. It's an expensive process and we are in a situation now where people don't want to spend a lot of their money on music so at what point do you stop spending money marketing to people who aren't going to buy the music.
SV: That could be lack of excitement over the most visible part what is out there - the generic stuff that gets airplay and makes the high profile charts. They will spend money when they hear something different and it grabs them. The big key there is getting it heard.
CS: I'm hoping that's the case and time will tell. The problem is that there are a lot of artists that are going to fall by the wayside now because the aren't prepared to jump into this new model. They see it as too overwhelming and don't think they are qualified to do it. That includes record companies as well.
SV: When it comes to being proactive you are really working it. Your website is constantly updated and even has a sub-site for the new CD, plus you have a website for your instructional videos and programs for guitarists but the interesting thing is that you've taken a step beyond artist websites and created JazzMatrix.com - a social networking site for fans and musicians that also has a group of streaming radio shows programmed by different people so fans can actually hear the music. Why did you decide to add that project to your already huge list of things you do?
CS: I felt like as all the retail stores were disappearing and the radio stations were dwindling and flipping formats there were all these fans, industry people and artists but they were too scattered. What if there was a place where they could all connect in one place. The artists could market their music, the fans could discover the music, the industry could promote and discover artists. And the fans could go directly one-on-one with each other and with the artists. We started it at a point when social networking was just starting to come into play. It's still early in the game but I feel like if the whole genre is under one roof everybody wins.
SV: I can't help but get a little cautionary because that one roof has to have a lot of rooms in it that can all be decorated differently otherwise we end up with a new version of what we are just now emerging from.
CS: I totally agree. Not just within JazzMatrix.com but there could be lots more websites like it that are their own roof too. Being scattered makes it hard to keep up with what is going on or get word out, so the important thing is giving people places where they can collect and connect.
SV: Pat Metheny takes his concept albums on the road and plays the whole thing but a lot of artists prefer to play a variety of songs from all of their CD's instead of playing any one straight through. Are you going to tour with Blue Bolero or add songs from it to your regular set?
CS: That's what I have been doing. We've been playing the entire album from top to toe and I've been coming out with rhythm sections and string quartets to back me up. We've done three or four gigs already and I've got several set up so every single date is going to be the album straight through.
SV: So you are trusting that your audiences will be open to this new work instead of going into a play the hits mentality?
CS: Yes. And they have been. I was playing the JazzTrax Festival at Catalina and we thought that would be a great place to try it and see if it worked. We brought in the string section and did the whole album. Between the songs I talked about the stories behind them. We got two standing ovations! I thought that was really encouraging. Since then we have done it several times with the same response. It really is connecting with people and I find that very exciting and I'm encouraged about setting up the rest of the year with a series of concerts that will include a return to Catalina.
SV: That is so wonderful! Audiences do connect with really strong, heartfelt music and the album and the reaction people are having to hearing it live affirms that. So as you return to your rehearsal we look forward to hearing this groundbreaking music preformed live.
To buy Blue Bolero and find out more about it visit Chris Standring's website, www.chrisstandring.com, or the Blue Bolero site at www.bluebolero.net
JazzMatrix.com connects fans, musicians and industry people as well as having some excellent on-demand streaming audio shows. Visit www.jazzmatrix.com
Guitarists and aspiring guitarists can find out more about Standrings instructional videos and programs at www.playjazzguitar.com