Interview: Michael Fath

Dan McAvinchey: Let's talk first about the new CD. When you first started writing and recording Le Jazz' "The Chase Is On", what were your objectives?

Michael Fath: I was an all-state trumpet player in high school. Even though I was mostly a classical player, I always found myself listening to the jazz players, such as Louis Armstrong, Al Hirt, and especially Harry James. I then started playing in a couple of my school's jazz ensembles and really got bitten by "the horn sound"! After high school, though, I stopped playing trumpet, as there was no real love affair with that instrument, but continued with my guitar (I started at age 13), which I truly adored. Fast forward many, many years, numerous group, performance and recording experiences, etc., and we come to a place where I felt truly compelled to expand my own "jazz experience", and career. As my current professional focus is solo jazz guitar, I also needed "the band thing" again, hence Le Jazz! I recruited a local well-known pedal steel player (yes, once again "borrowing" from my favorite guitarist Danny Gatton), and we wrote the record, with a horn section in mind. I also enticed my favorite arranger and tenor player from here to write the charts for five horns: trumpets 1 & 2, tenor and alto sax, and trombone. This way, with only five horns, versus the traditional thirteen found in big bands, we could approximate "the sound". Hopefully, we did!

Dan McAvinchey: For someone unfamiliar with your past work, are there songs or albums that foreshadowed, in some way, the musical approach you took on "The Chase Is On"?

Michael Fath: Yes, there have been "past glimpses into the future". "Shake" came out in 1989, and was reviewed as "a metal-fusion masterpiece". Well the very first track ("Shake") is a slamming blues type of thing that featured a small horn section of trumpets and trombones. I think that cut speaks for itself. Dan, you mentioned "Le Jazz Metallique", the opening track on "Flick Of The Wrist", which was released in '88. While no horns are here, the "B" or chorus sections are decidedly jazz, thrown into the mix of a very heavy tune. Obviously, I love crossing genres and creating a surprise blend. "Country Squire", my "Dixie Dregs-ish" recording that was released in '95 features many country/jazz fusion tunes, and the track "Take Eleven" makes a very significant case for my jazz personality! I am sure there are several other examples. Harmonically speaking, I've always tried to stay ahead of the curve. As far as major rock acts that influenced me with their horn sections: Chicago (especially the early stuff), Blood, Sweat and Tears, and definitely Edgar Winter's White Trash! Their live version of "Tobacco Road", with Rick Derringer on guitar, still is a monster track!

Dan McAvinchey: What would you consider the 'non-guitar' highlights of the album?

Michael Fath: I believe that the horn arrangements, backing tracks and solos are stellar. These guys are some of the mid-Atlantic's finest players: Navy Band, Army Band, Air Force Band, Shenandoah University professors, acclaimed sidemen for major acts and productions, etc. Usually I cannot listen to my own records after they are finished, as I've heard quite enough of my playing during the recording process; but, in this case, I have yet to tire of the brass, they "Make Me Smile" (Chicago II). Also, this is even more of an eclectic type of project, with the pedal steel guitar, ala the "Texas Swing" type of thing (Asleep At The Wheel, Bob Wills' Texas Payboys, etc.), and our guy sparkles throughout, especially tracks four and seven.

Dan McAvinchey: The new CD shows yet another side of your guitar playing. Tell us about that, and also, how many more sides do you have?

Michael Fath: Sides? I do not see it as that way, although I totally understand the question. Very succinctly, I just love to play, obviously in a variety of styles, but not necessarily as "planned events". Roots genres, classical music, and jazz all have their myriad of idioms, and I am lucky enough to have been playing long enough to explore many of these.

Danny Gatton's younger brother Brent is a very good friend of mine (no, he does not play guitar, but is a fan), and he has often said that Danny hated being categorized or labeled as "such and such" guitarist. His records and moods spoke for themselves, and I kind of fancy myself following in similar footsteps.

Are there other "sides" for the future? You bet. I cannot wait to do a jazz-fusion trio record with the same group that recorded "Yesterday's Child", maybe my finest progressive rock-fusion CD to date. For this, I would use my cherished Gibson ES-335. I have not lost my "rock and roll spirit", and in fact, I truly believe that energy helps me greatly, especially when I am performing and recording my solo jazz thing. I am really trying to break new ground here ("All Of Me", "In My Life"), and am honestly focused on this particular genre of jazz. Look for many more of these solo CDs, including a Beatles tribute, and a few Christmas recordings. I would also like to start recording more with other artists, as the past has kept me so busy that I've not been able to do so. I still do sessions, but I am talking about projects. Recently I was asked to join a nuevo-flamenco-jazz project, headed by percussionist Victor Williams (John McLaughlin fame). I would be playing nylon string guitar. Maybe?

Dan McAvinchey: Where and when could a listener experience Le Jazz live?

Michael Fath: Good question! My tenor player and arranger passed away a couple of months ago, which makes this particular CD even more significant. Previously, Le Jazz had several very successful headlining shows at Blues Alley (Washington, DC's legendary jazz venue) and The Kennedy Center. Now, do we continue, or not? Certainly there are many fine tenor players, but arranging, that's a different skill. I am contemplating this as we speak, and will let everyone know via my web site.

Dan McAvinchey: How are you approaching marketing, publicity and promotion for your new CD?

Michael Fath: I am currently getting great reviews, for my solo jazz stuff, from some of the major music magazines, especially the jazz and guitar trades. "The Chase Is On" is also a part of the Shenandoah Records catalog, a label started by a close friend of mine, and me. I've had eleven other record deals so far: majors, independents, foreign, regional, etc., and am very "burned out" by most of those previous scenarios. Having said that, the last thing I want to do is deal with this end of the business, but many times we simply have to! My solo jazz thing is going well, and will continue to do so. Hopefully those "powers-that-be" (distributors, other labels, agents, trade publications, manufacturers, etc.) that are recognizing this, will also be aware of my other projects, and duly react. In the meantime, I perform frequently, which for me is a wonderful selling medium for my CDs. I am also getting serious traffic through the website, which will send buyers to Guitar Nine. So, hopefully this new release will "piggy-back" with my others!

Dan McAvinchey: Given the current state of affairs in the music industry, how can one survive actually "being a guitarist"?

Michael Fath: Outstanding question! I still teach privately, and, while most of my clientele are very established in their respective fields (attorneys, computer programmers, doctors, graphic artists, radio personalities, gov't techs, etc.) several of my students want to take a shot at seriously becoming a "professional" guitarist - which means actually earning a living doing this. I believe that there are three main areas one can focus on, and of course there are many sub-categories of each. 1) Playing live, either group or solo, but when one is out there performing, others "see". I do encourage my students to become proficient in classical guitar, because there are so many opportunities to gig, and the pay is good. Not that this is the pinnacle of one's career, but how much money did your rock band make last year? The other side of solo performance is jazz, but that takes years to develop. I am not pushing the solo thing, but it's a great reality when one looks at their tax statement for the previous year. 2) Teach! And, study with someone great, so as to become a better player and teacher. This can be extremely lucrative (I currently get up to $100 an hour), and there is literally no overhead. Plus, teaching will keep one very "sharp". 3) Try to become proficient in marketing, and develop a keen business sense. This includes your recordings, music book publishing, other merchandising endeavors, etc. One of my younger students (17 years of age) will have his first classical CD finished by the end of this year, and he's a progressive rocker. Another (19), has cornered the teaching market in his local area, and is doing solo acoustic singer/songwriter gigs, when not performing with his band, who marketed their first CD last year. The music industry is a very, very tough one, and it takes serious dedication and an unbelievable work ethic to survive. And, survival is not necessarily the cat's ass either. I mean I like nice things, and these aren't cheap. Nevermind that my 17 year old daughter will be in college in a year, and my 14 year old daughter in three. All said, one has to be smarter than the rest, and I coach that very intently to my students that want to succeed in this arena. Look at how many previous "stars" are no longer in the business, or have fallen from grace. Being a great player is only the beginning!

Dan McAvinchey: What are your major profit centers as a professional guitarist?

Michael Fath: Live performance (I do at least 150 gigs a years), teaching, record sales (most at these live performances), book royalties, sessions, and consulting. I had written for several guitar magazines for many years, but guitar trends change, budgets get cut, and the time frame for these gigs is usually two years (sometimes longer). I remember when I left Guitar World Magazine; there were 100 vying for my job there. The same goes for clinics. There was a time in the late 80's that one could, with a very good endorsement deal, do 50-150 clinics a year. Those days are gone, except for someone like a Michael Angelo, who is a marketing genius, wonderful player (I think he's the king of shred) and expert clinician. He will always be in demand, because of his skills in these areas. Most likely, I'll get back into the clinic scene, as I truly love performance, but under the guise of solo guitar! And, as well with the magazines, but in due time. I also had produced several other acts, which was very profitable, but production budgets, too, are vanishing!

Dan McAvinchey: At this point in your career, from where do you feel you draw your greatest creative inspiration?

Michael Fath: This may sound pompous, but my inspiration comes from myself. Yes, there are established players (jazz guitarist Jimmy Bruno, organist Joey DeFrancesco), new players (country guitarist Johnny Highland), groups (no one new here, though), etc., that I really admire, but I dig deep inside for my motivation. Things change when one has a family to support, and this is where my focus lies. I am intent on developing into one of the finest guitarists on the planet, but that's for others to decide, not me. I am a very spiritual person, and music in one of my extensions of that inner fire, as well with my Martial Arts. My relationships, with those that I love, though, are the most significant aspects of my spirituality. When I am getting ready for another recording, much creative energy goes into the planning of that record: concept, tunes, graphic themes, etc. Ditto for concert performance, of which I hold in the very highest regard. Plus, I am all too aware of stagnation, which I believe is the biggest enemy of most guitarists. I am very blessed (thank you God), with many friends and skills, and have not forgotten the magic I felt when I played my very first tune on the guitar. I am honestly still that excited to this day!

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Dan McAvinchey: Have you heard any new jazz or fusion artists that have really caught your ear, in the past couple of years?

Michael Fath: Because of the radio format these days, no I have not. I've done several shows with many established jazz and fusion artists, but where does one hear the new stuff? I mean I've yet to hear a straight ahead player better than Jimmy Bruno; or a better roots/jazz player than Danny Gatton, period! I previously mentioned country guitarist Johnny Highland, who is awesome. You must realize that I am not being cynical, just factual. I am sure that there are several new players out there (someone let me know), but as far as rock and jazz-fusion guitarists go: Mike Stern, Scott Henderson, Alan Holdsworth, Steve Morse, Eric Johnson, Jeff Beck, Steve Lukather, Al DiMeola, John McLaughlin, etc. I love flamenco, but the real stuff: Paco de Lucia and Paco Pena, not the "nuevo thing". I still listen to my favorite classical guitarists: John Williams, Julian Bream, Segovia and Christopher Parkening. The same goes for my bluegrass guy Tony Rice. The shred players have kind of vanished (and I explained why in my last interview with you), but I mentioned Michael Angelo earlier, and he's still tops in my book.

Dan McAvinchey: Finally, the Internet. You jumped on the Internet a number of years ago with your own site, and have also been associated with a number of other sites and projects. How do you feel guitarists today can best take advantage of what the Internet can offer, and how does that contrast to what you may have thought when you were first exposed to its possibilities?

Michael Fath: Obviously the Internet has leveled the playing field for thousands of guitarists. I mean there are only so many record deals out there, and these are vanishing with the wind. Unfortunately it has also "diluted the gene pool" greatly, but everyone who truly puts in the effort, deserves "a shot"! I've had the luxury of previous record deals, but not so much for vanity, as for the real business sense of marketing and selling CDs, and seeing how it was done. The Internet is a necessary concept in today's global economy, but I believe that most overrate it. Still, many find a way to truly capitalize, as, obviously, Guitar Nine. One needs to be creative here, as well, and this, mi amigos, is where one will succeed. I mean, how many titles, Dan, do you now carry? My guess is nearly 1500. That's a lot of competition. One thing is an absolute fact, though, and I always drill this home to my students and in seminars: "You gotta be in it, to win it!" Peace, and God Bless.

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Washington DC area guitarist Michael Fath never stops recording and releasing CDs, and recently two more albums have been added to his discography. The first is his second solo jazz recording, entitled "In My Life", while the second is by Michael Fath's Le Jazz, an ensemble that have put out an original jazz/fusion CD, "The Chase Is On". Fath has played on dozens of recordings, has toured extensively throughout the United States, is a former columnist for Guitar World Magazine, and currently teaches, plays live, writes, composes and produces!

Dan McAvinchey caught up with Fath to get the inside scoop on Le Jazz, and talked about his experiences as a full-time, professional guitarist.