late 2016, Lap steel guitar ace Mike Neer released his tribute
to jazz legend Thelonious Monk, Steelonious. Playing
lap steel guitar, ukulele, bass and percussion, Neer is joined by
a top flight band. On the 12 track Steelonious, Neer sounds
inspired by greats like Les Paul and beyond, well into the legendary
jazz / country music steel guitar pioneers of the postwar era. Theres
an almost Wes Montgomery-like depth to Neers guitar-centric,
noir-like approach to Monks linear and lean melodic concepts.
His bands take of Monk's originals sounds very jazzy at times
but Neer is also a master of 21st century, eclectic Americana and
that Nashville twangy type sound thats so popular now and forever.
Speaking about the genesis of his Monk instrumental guitar album,
Mike tells mwe3.com, Truthfully, the first time I became
aware of Monk's music was on a record called That's The Way I Feel
Now, which was a collection of artists from rock and jazz backgrounds
playing Monk. It taught me early on that Monk could be open to interpretation.
In my case, I wanted to highlight the steel guitar, so I brought Monk
into my world. Further enabled by an excellent studio sound,
Neer and company find the Monk jazz groove, featuring Neer embellishing
Monks acoustic piano melodies with his incredible lap steel
guitar wizardry. Jazz purists and guitar fans even from the Surf-rock
spectrum will be impressed at how tastefully Neer and company turns
Thelonious Monks patented piano jazz sound into a veritable
lap steel guitar revival. www.steelonious.com
mwe3.com presents an interview with
The Steelonious interview
Can you tell us where youre from originally where you live now
and what you like about it?
Mike Neer: I was born and raised in New Jersey, in a small
town nestled between Newark and Jersey City, just a few miles west
of NYC. As much as I've wanted to leave, New York City has its hold
on me, so I like to stay within driving distance. Coming up as a musician
in the 1980s, the exposure I had to so much great jazz and funk in
New York was invaluable. I would go and see John Scofield, Mike Stern,
Bob Berg, Bill Frisell, Wayne Krantz and many more on a weekly basis.
Things have changed since then, but there is still always something
to do or somewhere to be.
mwe3: Tell us the events leading up to Steelonious and
how you became interested in the lap steel guitar.
Mike Neer: I picked up a lap steel out of curiosity at a flea
market sometime around 1990 after hearing David Lindley. I really
didn't have a clue about the instrument, so my development was tortoise-like.
Eventually, I put it back in the case and went on with my guitar playing.
Later on, I got the bug again when I heard Gabby Pahinui with Ry Cooder,
and on a trip to Hawaii, I grabbed every recording I could and actually
met a steel player at a luau, who coincidentally was an Italian guy
from my hometown.
I didn't get serious about the instrument until around 2002, when
I saw an opportunity to join a really cool band in NYC that was playing
acoustic Hawaiian swing-style music from the 1920s. I found an old
National Tricone and shedded my butt off for about two months until
I had the chops to get an audition. I was checking out Sol H'opi'i
a lot and his influence has never left.
mwe3: What made you want to create a lap steel instrumental
album of Thelonious Monk covers? Its amazing how well the music
sounds in the steel guitar setting! Tell us the key players you recorded
the album with and who engineered the Steelonious album.
Neer: Fast forward a bunch of years, and I had gotten to a point
where I felt comfortable with my own ideas and my ability to pull
them off. I have been playing music professionally since I was a teen,
so there are many influences and ideas floating around in my head.
I made a recording of Giant Steps a few years ago as if
recorded by Sol H'opi'i in the 1930s. In some ways, Steelonious
was an extension of that, where I could pay tribute to not only Thelonious
Monk, but also many of my steel guitar heroes. Speedy West is a big
hero of mine
his sense of humor appeals to me, but he wrote
great tunes, too. Buddy Emmons, Tommy Morrell, Joaquin Murphey
they were on my mind.
Jazz is the music that I enjoy the most, and just as broad of a genre
as it is, I felt comfortable with bringing the compositions into styles
not normally associated with Monk. The musicians I chose to record
with are all players that I have a history with, though none had ever
played together. All are very good jazz players, but excel in other
styles, too. Andrew Hall (bass) and I had played Hawaiian swing together.
Matt King (piano, organ) and I played a thousand gigs together, especially
playing New Orleans R&B, and Diego Voglino (drums) and I have
played country and Latin stuff together. The chemistry between the
musicians was great and we recorded the takes live at Paul Wickliffe's
studio in two days. Tom Beckham came in and just killed on vibraphones.
Paul is a great engineer and he also mixed and mastered, too.
mwe3: What guitars did you record Steelonious with?
What are some of your other guitars, ukes and basses and what amp
do you record with in the studio and for live work on stage? Do you
play other types of steel guitars or ever pedal steel and who are
your favorite lap steel and other steel players?
Mike Neer: I used one lap steel on Steelonious, and
that is a Clinesmith cast aluminum 8 string tuned to C13. I play Clinesmiths
exclusively. They are based on the designs of Paul Bigsby, but Todd
has really taken it to another level and he has a very creative mind
and has the skills to match.
amps, I used a Fender 100 watt Twin Reverb with JBLs and a small transistor
Fender Bronco on the one track I recorded at home, Ask Me Now.
For live gigs, I use a Roland Jazz Chorus, JC-45. A Digitech RP1000
helps me dial in some nice tube simulations and effects.
I think it is inevitable that my guitar playing would manifest in
my steel playing, since I played for most of my life. I studied some
with Mike Stern, Steve Khan, Peter Leitch and Ray Gomez. John Scofield
and Allan Holdsworth are heroes of mine. But I decided to stop playing
guitar and focus on steel, and I just assimilated a lot of my thinking
and approach to it. Gotta be yourself!
mwe3: Whats been the reaction from the jazz community
about Steelonious and how the purists feel hes
being covered in the lap steel setting? What Monk albums do you think
defines his essence?
Mike Neer: The reaction to the record has been overwhelmingly
positive. Early on, I consulted with a long time friend who is an
arranger and sax player, and he was very supportive and quick to point
out that it was refreshing to hear these ideas. Truthfully, the first
time I became aware of Monk's music was on a record called That's
The Way I Feel Now, which was a collection of artists from rock
and jazz backgrounds playing Monk. It taught me early on that Monk
could be open to interpretation. In my case, I wanted to highlight
the steel guitar, so I brought Monk into my world.
One of the really cool things is that I will be profiled in the June
issue of DownBeat magazine by Bill Milkowski, who I am a fan of. Only
one other steel player has ever been featured in over 80 years, and
that's Robert Randolph.
mwe3: What are some other plans youre this coming year
as far as any live performances, writing, producing and recording?
Is Steelonious II under way?
Neer: I love to play this music live, so most of my energy is
going into booking shows and festivals, especially with this being
the year of Monk's centennial.
I do have plans to begin another record this year and I've been working
on arrangements of not only Monk, but Mingus, Ellington and Horace
Silver. At some point, though, Son Of Steelonious will be recorded.
I hope to find a label to release it on. My first record was funded
in part with the support of a Kickstarter campaign, and I am thankful
for that. But next time I'm hoping to get the record made on the merits