Bill Connors Interview: Forever Returning
Enigmatic jazz guitarist Bill Connors has once again resurfaced from his somewhat self-imposed recording hiatus. Throughout his career, each time he’s re-emerged from relative obscurity, Connors has surprised listeners by moving into new directions during the years he wasn’t recording.
Three decades ago (has it really been that long?) Connors emerged as a wunderkindt guitarist when Chick Corea launched his heralded forays into electric jazz/rock fusion with Return to Forever. Connors only played on RTF’s debut album, Hymn of the Seventh Galaxy, and almost overnight helped created an entire genre of fusion-flavored guitar. During the group’s first year of touring, “artistic differences with Corea added impetus to his growing decision to leave the group. He played electric guitar on RTF’s bassist’s Stanely Clarke’s solo album, but after that, Connors did a complete 180: he retired his heady electric and began studying classical guitar.
Connors played his nylon-string guitar on several albums produced by ECM, “Theme to the Guardian, “Of Mist and Meeting and “Swimming with a Hole in My Body. He also recorded with a few of his label mates, among them, Paul Bley’s “Quiet Song Guitar, Jan Garbarek’s “Photo with Blue Sky, White Cloud, and others.
Then he was back in the shadows, not releasing an album until five years later, emerging once again as a blistering, soulful electric guitarist, playing with bassist Tom Kennedy and drummer Dave Weckl. The trio released three albums on the Evidence label, “Step It!, “Double Up and “Assembler. All are must-have’s if your penchant is intelligent, chops-driven jazz/rock fusion. True to form, Connors then “retired again, and focused on his teaching career, performing on only one album in 1995, Greg Piccolo’s “Acid Blue.
The philosophic guitarist released a new solo album late last year, this time with drummer Kim Plainfield – who played a key role in making it all happen – keyboardist Bill O’Connell bassist Lincoln Goines and percussionist Myra Casales. Many were once again delighted to discover anew this masterful musical shape-shifter. Consistently inconsistent, this album finds Connors playing a warmer sounding Gibson L5, sans heavy distortion and other F/X, with material that is modern, yet still firmly rooted in the jazz swing tradition. Like all of Connors’ albums, “Return is a statement of his continuing musical quest and personal evolution.
Abstract Logix: I know we’re probably going over some old ground here but I just have to ask: What was it like to have your first “in the public eye gig with Return to Forever? You were only 23 at the time…
Bill Connors: Right. It’s hard to explain how exciting that was for me. And Chick was kind of my favorite jazz musician at the time, he was the guy I was listening to all the time. So it was kind of a “sick experience.
AL: But then, after getting that gig, when the band began to work on its second album, you decided to leave. Was that a difficult decision, I mean given how prestigious it was and given how much you’d admired Chick’s work at that time?
BC: When I decided to leave it wasn’t an overnight decision. It was something that had been building up in me over time. But yeah, that was hard. It was very hard. For some years after that I was kind of spoiled because I was coming from one of the best rhythm sections you could imagine. So to play with other people, it took me a while to adjust. And then I kind of side-tracked… I took all that into this acoustic thing that I was interested in and had to make kind of a change, really.
AL: That’s been indicative of your career over the decades, really. From electric to acoustic, to electric, to semi-acoustic. It’s almost like it’s a kind of “purging. But it also seems like it’d be refreshing to dance back and forth between those different camps.
BC: I’ve a met a lot of people that have wanted to do that; but I don’t meet many who are able to do it.
AL: I can think of only a few. John McLaughlin, for example, Bill Bruford as well.
BC: Yeah, John’s gone into a lot of different directions. But to be fair, I went quite a bit farther to another side than he did. Because I literally… after I left the Corea band, I decided I’d rather be a Classical guitar player. It was like a completely different instrument. So I had to learn completely different techniques and also ascribe to completely different sensibilities.
AL: Drop the pick, learn right-hand finger picking… all your sound comes your hands, your not reliant upon pedals to change your timbre…
BC: That’s right. And I also redid my left hand as well. I don’t think with McLaughlin at any point that you could say he redid his hands. Whereas I’ve reworked both my hands, and I’ve done that now a number of times. You know, completely, change my technique.
AL: Did you have to change your technique just as significantly when you returned to the electric guitar in the late ’80s?
BC: After I’d gotten going on the electric for a couple of years, and then moved directly to the acoustic, then I began exploring extended playing with left hand. I was doing double and triple extensions on the left hand later with the electric.
AL: Extensions… in terms of chord tones?
BC: No, physically. Like not having any of my fingers play on adjacent frets – unless that’s what was diatonically called for. So if you’re playing a G Lydian Mode on the E-string, you’re playing G with your first finger; A, a whole tone up, with your middle; then B, another whole tone up, with your ring finger, and then, C#, yet another whole tone, with your pinkie. Most guitar players will usually hit three notes of scale on one string.
AL: So you’re stretching a major second or more with each finger, usually.
BC: Right. It’s kind of like violin fingering only it’s tuned in 5ths and the guitar is mostly tuned in 4ths. That was like a general thing, and sometimes I’d try wider stuff than that. You can hear it on those electric albums I did in the ’80s. And at that time, I was using a combination of techniques. When I started down that road, I first started playing with a pick again, but then I started using my right-hand fingers. So on “Step It! there was some picking, but from then on, I was using finger picking from my Classical background, experimenting with what I could do there using distortion, but still using Classical right-hand techniques. And I was also using a lot of muting with my right-hand fingers; something you can’t usually do with a pick; I would keep my fingers on the strings individually as kind of mute. In other words, actively playing silence on a string, which is one of the challenges when you’re using a lot of “dirt in your overall tone.
AL: Agreed. So on “Double Up and “Assembler, you were mostly using your right-hand fingers and not a pick?
BC: Right. But I wasn’t trying to do what a lot guitarist refer to as “i and m, referring to index and middle fingers of the right hand. For example, Paco de Lucía is a very good “i and m player, he can do 16th notes with that technique quite rapidly. A Flamenco guitar is built more for that than a Classical guitar. But when I switched back to an electric guitar, I found that technique to pretty much be useless for me, as far as playing very rapid lines. So I was primarily using a lot of legato lines, yet playing them with my fingers.
AL: Using the “i and m technique, you mean?
BC: I was using “i and m but not in the precise pizzicato way. Because it was very important that the lines didn’t sound stuttered. I wanted them to flow really smoothly. So it was using those fingers on the right hand and what I call “hammer and “snaps on the left hand.
AL: I know what a “hammer is. What’s a “snap?
BC: A snap is what a lot of people tend to call “pull-off, but I strongly disagree with the use of word “pull-off. So I pound it into my students they must learn to call it a “snap- off because the word “pull-off I find is very deceptive. Some people that are self-taught find themselves find themselves in total left field when it comes to learning legato on the guitar. They don’t understand you’re supposed to snap off the string versus pull it. Speaking in kinesiology terms, the fingers are doing a flexion motion, versus an extension motion. That’s the physiological description of the action; the way the finger should flex. It means the fingers curl in towards the palm. I had worked for years and years on getting the “snap. After I left RTF and got into Classical, based on my observations of Julian Bream, I began to explore all these techniques that I presumed he was doing based on the appearance of his hands, which was something of a primary influence on me as a guitar player.
AL: Both hands?
BC: Right. I really listened and watched his hands. That had a profound impact on my understanding of guitar playing. I started to understand what technique is and what the hands are for, based on what I’d perceived. His hands were virtually immobile. He’s clearly in a class by himself, highly sophisticated. The guitar, you know, is still in its preliminary stages, although I think Bream has had a profound impact on his entire field. I think players are gradually developing more serious types of technique.
AL: So you used that as a foundation to develop your Classical guitar technique.
BC: I did, but I’ve found that’s affected everything I’ve done ever since. You know, I was like an athlete that had never been trained properly. If I was supposed to run fast I’d just faster, but totally unsophisticated. Serious musicians have to go into training and they eventually learn that can’t ignore technique either.
AL: And ideally you can find a coach or mentor that can either teach you personally or with whom you can carefully observe and strive to emulate.
BC: I saw Bream and I heard… It was the importance of well he could play the music on the guitar that gave me no doubt that there was something important as to how his hands looked. It was similar to when I’d heard [pianist] Bill Evans, I sensed there was something important going on there, too. And both of those primary influences have affected everything I’ve done in music ever since.
AL: And from what I’ve read, Eric Clapton, John Coltrane and Joe Pass.
BC: All of those people were important influences on me, too.
AL: As Pat Thrall mentions in liner notes on “Return you focus on “artistry over celebrity. As I said earlier, your career track reminds me somewhat of another musician whom we featured on the site and I’ve admired most my life, drummer Bill Bruford. He eschewed the big arena limelight of Yes to pursue his own artistic vision, whether if it was King Crimson or eventually his own jazz groups, most recently Earthworks.
BC: I don’t really know what celebrity has to do with playing music. It has an impact on your professional life but not necessarily with your artistic life.
AL: It may give you more financial freedom to do some things artistically because you have wherewithal to pursue them…
BC: I’ve never been interested in celebrity. I was born in L.A. and hated it. When I moved away from there it was one of the happiest days of my life. And I’ve never wanted to revisit it. So I’m very sad that a lot of those very same people have moved into my neighborhood in Manhattan. The musicians that I’ve admired, the celebrity issue is almost adverse to what they’re saying as an artist. If they were acting as celebrities… See, a musician, number one, is an artist, and they need to make an impression upon the listener that they mean what they say. Even a good entertainer who would be very concerned about celebrity, they need to convince their audience. I guess years ago Michael Jackson, for instance, was able to convince his audience about what he was doing, but I don’t want to lecture about that too much.
AL: It was really just a compliment saying how much your career path and your vision remind me of Bill’s.
BC: I thank you for that. I also thank your for opening up the door to that issue. It’s good to emphasize – some people don’t – so they’re surprised that most of the excellent musicians I know are not at all what people think of as celebrities. And any musician that thinks otherwise is probably not one of those.
AL: Okay, changing course a little bit. On your new album, are you using your right-hand fingers or a plectrum or a combo?
BC: At this juncture, I’m pretty dedicated to using a pick. I guess the picking is one of the big issues right now.
AL: In that it’s a change for you?
BC: It’s something important in that my attention is now “there, whereas it might have been someplace else in some of my other periods. Because I’m concerned about the time and the rhythm of what I’m playing. The whole issue of swinging. So all this time that I haven’t been around, I guess probably I’ve been finding ways… I’ve putting my energies into developing my picking and issues around that. The time, and how it swings. And how to get the lines out. Because with this kind of archtop guitar that I’m playing, they don’t play themselves. You have to make it go.
AL: So you’re not using any type of pick and finger combination presently?
BC: A lot of people have asked me about that because particularly the last time they heard me, I was doing a lot of this finger stuff on the electric. The people that saw me noticed that. But now I don’t. I mean it’s rare if I do any finger stuff. I’m kind of obsessed with the pick in a way now. I just find ways to pick things, as opposed to fingers. I haven’t been trying to play as many notes as I’ve done in the past. I haven’t been trying to do a lot of the chord/melody things. My focus hasn’t been there. And with my students, almost all of them, I’m teaching them about picking. It’s where I’m at, essentially.
AL: Then you’re not currently teaching any right-hand Classical techniques either.
BC: Since, as you’ve mentioned, I’ve done all these different things. It’s one of the odd things about my career, the different directions I’ve pursued. So when my students ask me, I feel that I do have something to offer, having some knowledge about all these different areas that people do think about. Should I learn Classical? Should I play with a pick? At one time or another, I’ve done most of them. Not just done it, but kind of staked my whole career on it and became kind of obsessed with each of those techniques. So when I see guys that are somewhat interested in finger styles, I try to steer them away from that unless I feel they’re unavoidably committed to doing that. Because I don’t think it’s a wise thing for a guitarist to try something other than picking unless I see that he’s really going to get somewhere going down the other road. The finger technique, unless you’re a very exceptional talent, you’re probably not going to become a professional guitarist using it. Now if you’re a singer, that’s a different story. But as a guitarist, using that technique, your chances of making it professionally are very slim. It’s very hard to be rhythmically precise in finger style; you really have to know what you’re doing. Whereas with a pick, even if you don’t, even if you just have a good feel, you can be rhythmically acceptable. And you can do most of the popular styles that would be required and most of the work that might come your way. However, using finger style, you’re going to be a novelty act. And unless your gas can run on your own fuel, your car’s going to break down quickly. Because I’ve been somewhat independent and somewhat of a loaner, I know a lot about self-motivation and trying to be different and trying to have your own voice. And I know that you kind of have to be born into that inkling.
AL: You have to have the “right-hand stuff for it.
BC: Yeah, because otherwise you might be really successful and have a really good career if you have a good teacher that’d teach you solid fundamentals that have been more or less proven, rather than trying to be the first innovator, with a radically different technique. There are very few finger style players. We mentioned Paco de Lucía. There are very few players who can do what he does that well. Who can keep up with a jazz guitar player like he can. And there are jazz players that could leave him in the dust, too. Even as talented as he is, he wouldn’t be able to swing. He wouldn’t be able to do–what we call in jazz– he wouldn’t be able to “get up. He wouldn’t be able to swing in an up tempo.
AL: Because of his technique or because of his Flamenco background?
BC: Yeah. There are techniques like in jazz, when you get into issues such as swing, a lot of these odd techniques that people try, they’re just not going to work for you. You could be a fusion musician or you could be a rock musician, but you’re not going to be swinging and you’re not going to “get up‿ and you’re not going to be able to… You just physically can’t do it. There are certain natural principles that this music has come out of. It’s fascinating how, in our culture, we challenge the fundaments and original sources and we build upon them; but there are always limits. When it comes to being an innovator, that’s when the players get separated. You have to have some ridiculous God-given talent, or in Coltrane’s case, you have to be driven almost insanely driven. But like I was saying, I try to get guys to pick, because I know if I can get them to learn good picking techniques, they could play good rock, they could play good funk, they could play jazz, they could play country, you name it. You could even fake some Classical music. With a pick you can do some amazing things and you don’t have to practice eight hours a day to maintain it, once you’ve developed a good technique. So I try to explain that to them. I even used to tell them put on your Hendrix videos and how I can tell you, how instinctually, the fundaments of good technique are there, as wild as he was. The principles of good technique that were somewhat natural, self-taught talents [laughs].
AL: You’ve been teaching regularly for the past decade. What were you able to take directly – or perhaps indirectly — from your teaching and apply directly towards your own playing? Was it, as we’ve been discussing, the picking?
BC: The picking; that’s kind of a particular thing, because I hadn’t intended to use a pick again. But the reason I do now, in a way, did come out of my teaching. Trying to show guys – even though I wasn’t a “picker any more – I was still trying to get guys to be use a pick, for the reasons I just stated. But in the process of … You know when you teach you have kind of have to firm up an explanation, even your own mind. So I ended up teaching myself a lot about picking in the process of teaching others. And over time it became more and more interesting to me.
AL: I know guitarists like Frank Gambale use techniques such as circular picking. Have you incorporated some of that?
BC: No. I’m dead set against those techniques. I don’t think you can swing with them. It makes a sound that I just don’t care for. I really try to dissuade guys from doing it. I’ve seen guys who’ve picked up the Gambale video and started incorporating those techniques. Basically I think it takes guys that have talent and ruins them. Now Gambale can somehow do what he does, but I’m not sure how it holds up in swinging circumstances. But I have some solid explanations… I think I have physical proof that shows you shouldn’t invest yourself in that direction. I think it’s a mistake. I think it’s kind of against the principles of… Good American principles, which is swinging and rhythm. If you want to have rhythm and swing or rock or sound funky or have any kind of rhythmic strength whatsoever, don’t do that. [Laughs] Don’t do that circular technique. You know, those techniques… George Benson uses those kinds of things for what he calls “flourish. Same way with Charlie Parker, it’s a kind of ornament. But if you’re swinging eighth notes or sixteenths, the techniques there, like Benson, he’s doing solid up and down picking. But not just that, he’s doing what I call solid up and down that’s “rhythmically placed. And that’s what makes it swing. Any ways, I’m going too far. But like I said, I hope someday that circular – which apparently people do discuss this technique – show me a good player who can swing who does that. Usually, they always sound like another kind of white guy that doesn’t swing.
AL: Let’s talk about “Return. Did you make a conscious decision to make another album, or did the opportunity present itself kind of serendipitously? What prompted the return of “Return?
BC: Kim Plainfield, the drummer on the album, had played with me on a couple of previous recordings. And he’d spoken with me about trying to do another album because it had been a while. For a couple of years we’d been trying to do that. So he took it upon his shoulders to do the footwork and set up the arrangements for the album.
AL: So he was very instrumental in the process.
BC: Yeah, he was more than instrumental, he basically made it happen. I wanted to just play and do some recording, but I don’t like to get too much involved of all the hassles of the “biz. But it was essentially that. It was his determination to get it going. So we finally ended up recording it last September.
AL: Did you have free reign to choose what musicians were going to play with you on it? For example, was it your decision to use Lincoln Goines versus Tom Kennedy, whom you’d worked with on some of your earlier albums?
BC: I’d worked with Lincoln, too. But I believe Tom is still in St. Louis and gigging a lot with Dave Weckl. I love playing with both bassists. Lincoln and I played a lot together in the past. Actually it’s funny: I’d played a lot with Lincoln within a similar point when I’d come out of my… when I decided to play electric again, before “Step It! around 1980. I actually started back again right out of the box playing with Jan Hammer’s groups. I bought a Les Paul almost like the day before getting on the plane to go to Europe, I didn’t even have one lying around the house. I couldn’t play it too much at first, after having played strictly Classical for many years, it felt completely foreign. And I’d been playing a lot on this 10-string Classical, which was almost a completely opposite feel. But I was so happy to play with Jan, because he’s such a great musician. It was really a thrill. And he let me play a little acoustic here and there, too. So I kind of forced myself to get back into it. So when I came back to New York, I started to do a lot of work, and that’s when I was playing with Lincoln a lot. That’s when I was playing lots of different guitars, and experimenting with finger-style. I didn’t know what to do, I’d invested so much of myself in learning finger-style, I figured there had to be some way to do something with it on electric guitar. But electric guitars, the strings are too closed together and the steel strings are too thin and too tight and kind of “naily sounding.
AL: There haven’t been too many guys doing finger-style on electric although I surprised when I saw Jeff Beck about four years ago that he was using a lot of right-hand finger picking. A lot of thumb work, too.
BC: Yeah. He’s able to really make that work for him. But when he first established himself, he was playing with a pick. But back when he was playing with Rod Stewart, he was using a pick.
AL: I wonder why he made the transition? Perhaps it was after his motorcycle accident. I’d heard that he had injured his hands…
BC: I don’t know. A lot of guys, for whatever reasons, who go a way for a while, often when they come back they’re playing with their [right-hand] fingers. Picking is something that’s not very self-entertaining, whereas if you’re by yourself and guitar a lot, the finger-style is kind of a more fulfilling thing to do. Whereas the picking is much more oriented towards playing with people, in time, in a group situation.
AL: In preparing for “Return, did you compose songs specifically for this project or did you have a backlog of songs from your decade-long hiatus?
BC: I had a pile of songs, because I had been thinking… I had been wanting to do something. So we actually had an excessive amount of material. It started by me getting together with Bill O’Connell, the pianist.
AL: I love how you guys are frequently doubling the complex melody lines; very cool.
BC: Thanks. He brought over the same three tunes that are on the album: “Mind Over Matter,‿ “Mr. Cool,‿ “On the Edge‿]. And I had a lot more, of course. He writes a lot, but those were the three he brought over. We had more than twice the amount of material that ended up on the album. That’s where Kim did more the decision making in terms of what stays and what goes. There were a couple of songs I insisted on, like “Brasilia.‿ There was a tune, “It be Fm,‿ which is a remake of a tune I’d written earlier on “Assembler,‿ and I’d never done that before.
AL: What were some of your goals in creating this record? It’d been at least a decade since you’d produced anything. Did you feel there was a lot of pressure or was it more like, “Good. I’m recording again; let’s go have some fun?
BC: It was kind of in between. I was kind of interested in the fun idea. But I hadn’t been in the studio for such a time. And I didn’t like being in the studio, really. I don’t like being separated from the other musicians either in time or space. I still kind of have a problem with that, because I still think of playing as something that you do, right there.
AL: Right. On the inside Step It! there’s a photo of you, Tom Kennedy and Dave Weckl recording in the same room together.
BC: I’d always used to be in the old situations where you essentially record live, where they’d just put up some dividers around the drums or what not. But on that album, I don’t think we even had any of those, we were about 10 feet apart or so. That’s like playing more “normally.
AL: Which I would think would lend itself to more energy and spontaneity.
BC: Yeah, because that’s what jazz is about for me. I’m not into this production business. I don’t enjoy that too much. It’s just not jazz-like for me. You want to feel things going on around you. But in this instance, Lincoln didn’t even an amp, he went directly into the board. Everyone was in a different room. I know it’s technically ideal to record like that, but I honestly don’t know if I’d do that again.
AL: Perhaps there’s a live album in the making?
BC: I just haven’t had that situation presented to me, I guess. I think that I will keep things along that way in the future; that is trying to record everybody in the same room at the same time. It’s makes for a more, as you said, spontaneous dialogue.
AL: Or just do a live gig and record it.
BC: That’s one of the things I haven’t been thinking about, not having done any recording for a while. It didn’t even occur to me. I always think about playing being about listening to the other people that you’re playing with. And so I’d kind of forgotten that there are these recording techniques and things. But now that it happened, I can see that I have gone through this process before, it’s just that I’d forgotten what it’s all about. I have to kind of get going on things; it takes me a while before I know exactly… become a little more demanding about precisely how everything is. I have a tendency to stay out of stuff. Now I’ve reminded myself, so in the future I’m going to insist on some things being a particular way. The last time that I came out and started playing electric guitar again, it took me a few years before I settled in and knew what I was going to be doing. And think that’s the case now. I have to do some adjustments here and there.