Alex Machacek is one of the few guitarists on the jazz fusion scene who is as revered for his writing as he is for his playing. Through his solo albums and collaborative recordings, the Austrian-native – who currently lives in Southern California and teaches at GIT – has always displayed a knack for writing harmonically rich pieces that put (at least) as much emphasis on the composition itself as any improvisation it may include. Yes, he’s a gifted soloist with Holdsworth-like chops, but his writing is as big a part of his overall musical voice as his playing is.
Machacek has often employed the compositional technique of writing around, or over, a pre-existing piece of music, such as a drum solo. Machacek did just that for his latest album, “24 Tales” (Abstract Logix), but this project was far more complicated than anything he’s taken on in the past. The bedrock of “24 Tales” is an amazingly diverse 51-minute drum solo, performed by Marco Minnemann – a frequent Machacek collaborator. Machacek composed his own music over the solo, which he divided into 24 individual pieces. The 24 tracks are presented without gaps on the CD, which reemphasizes the fact that each song works as it’s own stand-alone piece, and as part of the big picture 51-minute composition. The final result is one of the most incredible albums of the year – an ever shifting cornucopia of styles and moods, peppered with Machacek’s searing guitar playing. I asked Macachek recently about “24 Tales”, his approach to composition, and his upcoming plans.
Abstract Logix: “24 Tales” has got to be the most unique album you’ve ever made. You’ve composed over drum solos in the past, but never one of this magnitude. Is it safe to say this was the biggest challenge of your career so far?
Alex Machacek: In certain aspects – definitely.
AL: You’ve mentioned that your original intention was to compose over only a small section of Marco’s solo. When you first decided to write for the whole thing, what were your initial thoughts or concerns?
AM: Yes, initially my plan was to make a drum recomposing CD with different drummers. (I still am planning to do that eventually) Later on Marco came up with his Normalizer 2 idea – giving the same solo to different musicians / composers. My main concern was the fact that there is no pause in the entire solo. I just pictured the listener and was a bit worried that 51min of music with no gap could be a bit overwhelming.
AL: “The Improvision” album with Jeff Sipe and Matt Garrison was similar, in that it too consisted (mostly) of music you composed over a pre-existing backdrop. Describe the differences between composing over improvised studio jams as you did for that album, and writing over a drum solo as you did for this one.
AM: “The Improvision” is a completely different story – we were in the studio together and we jammed. I always had a good idea if I already had enough material of a certain jam / mood. And then we moved on to the next piece. Plus Matt Garrison gave me so much material to work with on a melodic and harmonic level. And not to forget the interaction between bass and drums – so that was already there when I started doing my stuff around it. But with Marco’s solo I had no influence at all – I think he recorded it before we even met. And when you compose to a drum solo your harmonic and melodic canvas is empty. Of course the drums can also play “melodies” or “melodic curves” but it is a bit more vague (naturally…).
AL: You’re really at the forefront of this compose around style of making music. Is it more challenging for you to compose that way; where you have a pre-determined boundary you need to work with? Or is it harder when you’re writing something completely from scratch and you have an open canvas.
AM: It depends on the material you are composing around. Obviously it can be very inspiring and get you to do stuff that you wouldn’t have done otherwise. I guess this is the part that I like. But after finishing this project I am really enjoying the open canvas approach too. Both approaches have their pros and cons.
AL: Which approach do you prefer?
AM: I couldn’t tell you…
AL: When you first hear a drum solo that you’re going to write over, do you hear melodies in your head to go along with it right away?
AM: Sometimes. While listening to it I made notes of what I thought could go well with it.
AL: You’re well known as a great guitarist and improviser, but I think your writing is what really sets you apart from the pack in the jazz fusion scene. Do your GIT students ever pick your brain about composition or arranging? Or are they mainly interested in your playing and improvising techniques.
AM: Some students ask me a bit about my approach to composition but that happens rarely. The most common question I get is the good old “how to play over changes?”.
AL: How long did it take you to write and record “24 Tales”?
AM: This is hard to say because I didn’t do it in one go. I started in 2007 but I got interrupted with so many other things.
AL: During that time, did you ever reach out to Marco to get feedback on what you were writing, or ask him questions about his solo?
AM: I called Marco while I was “beat mapping” the solo because I needed some help with what the hell was going on rhythmically. But since Marco did his own version as well we decided on not listening to other versions while working on your own. This could have been some unwanted influence and we wanted to avoid that.
AL: Can you explain what beat mapping is, and why you need to do it for a drum solo like this?
AM: Beat mapping is “telling” your sequencer the tempo of an audio file. It is basically some sort of tempo detection. Once you have the tempo and the meter right you can easily input midi events with the mouse on a grid. Meaning you don’t have to search where the “1” is, etc.… And since I am not a piano player, this came in really handy! All the piano / synth and bass parts were done with my mouse – note by note.
AL: Were there any particular sections of the drum solo that gave you fits, where you just couldn’t think of what to do or how to approach it?
AM: Of course – “Sweet Torture” for example. It’s a fast 9/16 ostinato with lots of stuff over it. It’s one of the longer pieces and it was very challenging for me… And also every time I finished one “song” it was very challenging to start a new one – there I was with my empty canvas again…
AL: You touch on a wide variety of styles on the album – jazz, fusion, metal, funk, prog-rock, etc. Did you go into the project with the intention of throwing in all these different styles, or did it just come out that way based on how you were interpreting Marco’s solo?
AM: That just happened while I was working on it.
AL: There are several spots on the album where you revisit melodies that were introduced earlier in the piece, even though the groove may be totally different from when the melody was first heard. How did that process work? Were there themes you knew you wanted to find a place for? Or was it more nonchalant like Hey I bet I can reuse that melody here.?
AM: The latter…and once I started doing it I started looking out for more opportunities. I see those quotes as “musical glue” that connects the individual pieces in the bigger picture. This concept has been around for a while…
AL: Anamika has some of the best examples of your writing following every nook and cranny of the drums. In particular, there’s a crazy line that starts around the 3:06 mark and ends with a cool 5-note augmented pattern that works off the drum accents perfectly. How do you go about writing a line like that? Do you start at the end and map it out backwards?
AM: Kind of… I wanted to play the 5 note pattern with Marco and just wrote a 2 1/2 bar “lead in” where I don’t double Marco…
AL: Another piece that really stands out is Air – It’s pretty short, but I love the sound of the layered guitars and piano. What’s going on in that track?
AM: I think it might stand out because it is the only piece that leaves so much space. The instrumentation is: drums, fretless bass, piano, a pad sound, some occasional synth swirls and then I have 6tracks of artificial harmonics (so that they can overlap and sustain), 2 acoustic guitars and 2 clean electric tracks and finally 2 guitar loops for the high notes which play through the entire track. The only “trick” on this one is that I am using the 2 acoustics and the 2 clean tracks in small segments to double the piano. Let’s say a phrase has for example 10 notes, acoustic 1 plays notes 1-3, clean 1 plays 4-5, acoustic 2 plays 6-8, clean 2 plays 9-10. I guess this would be called “cascading”? You can hear the same concept at the end of “Sweet Torture.”
AL: Did you improvise anything on the record? There are a few guitar solos here and there, but I’m curious if you worked them out ahead of time.
AM: There are some improvised solos and some comping but the majority of this album is composed. And that was done intentionally – I always thought of this record as a compositional project.
AL: Tell me about your recording setup for this album (such as your computer and software, mixers, etc.).
AM: iMac, Logic Pro, MOTU 828, KRK monitors
AL: How about guitars, amps, and effects?
AM: Main guitars: Bill Delap, Godin Freeway, Steinberger and Yamaha acoustic. Amp: Mesa Boogie Rectoverb with a Port City 2×12 cabinet (which is a fantastic cab btw) FX: Xotic RC Booster, BB Preamp, Arion Chorus, Line 6 DL4. Also Fractal Audio Axe FX. Sometimes I used the amp simulations of Logic Pro. And of course a slide and the EBow.
AL: Marco gave this same drum solo to several other composers to write over (John Czajkowski, Trey Gunn, and others). Have you heard any of the other versions? What are your thoughts?
AM: I heard Trey’s and John’s version and I enjoyed both of them.
AL: In other news… you’ve got some dates booked in India this August with Jeff Sipe on drums, and Neal Fountain on bass. Any other plans for this trio? “The Live Triangle Sessions” album you guys did was great.
AM: Besides the India dates we will play at the Abstract Logix festival in November. This gig will also be filmed and later released as a DVD.
AL: What else do you have on the horizon?
AM: In early September I will record with my Austrian trio. Raphael Preuschl on bass and Herbert Pirker on drums. The band finally has a name: FAT – which stands for Fabulous Austrian Trio. We will also play a couple of gigs in Austria. I am definitely looking forward to this. I still do have the intention of writing an instructional book but I don’t know when that will be. I am also working on a new duo program with my wife. Once we have enough new material we will record it and play live again.
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