Great Houdini


The affinity and admiration that guitarist Bruce Arnold has for the blues emerges fully formed—albeit in its rawest and most direct form—on the 2011 CD release of Great Houdini. Released by the NYC based Muse-Eek Records, Great Houdini is actually a recording collaboration between Bruce Arnold and his blues brother in arms, harmonica player Dave Schroeder. As if to revel in their innermost musical guises, on Great Houdini Bruce and Dave take on the pseudonyms Arnett Brewster (Bruce Arnold) and Woodrow T. Greenwich (Dave Schroeder). Inspired by the late, great escape artist and magician Harry Houdini, on Great Houdini both Brewster and Greenwich throw off the shackles of their own well informed musical virtuosity and get back to basics for some good old time blues instrumental duets—here pairing Brewster’s lap slide guitar with Woodrow’s harmonica. Although both musicians are renowned among their peers in the world of jazz fusion as well as both traditional jazz and contemporary classical music theory, the ease with which they delve into the art of fundamental American blues based instrumental music is quite refreshing and revealing at the same time. With its nostalgic musical vibe evoking images the old West and Midwest, the loneliness of Route 66, American ghost towns and basically all things the blues, Great Houdini is quite a perfect way for music aficianados to re-explore the primitive, foundational concepts of the art of American blues music. While Bruce Arnold claimed in his 2010 interview with mwe3.com that his 2010 album Art Of The Blues was, in his words, ‘really the closest thing I’ve come to a traditional jazz sound,’ his 2011 Great Houdini album with Dave Schroeder clearly details Bruce’s major commitment to the purity of the blues. Liner notes here by Howard Mandel shines a light on the creation of this significant CD. On Great Houdini, Bruce Arnold and Dave Schroeder bring perhaps the greatest American musical art form back to the beginning again. www.Muse-Eek.com

mwe3.com presents an interview with

mwe3: You spoke about finishing this album last year after the release of Heavy Mental and The Art Of The Blues. Is Great Houdini a natural progression for you following the release of those CD releases?

BRUCE ARNOLD: I’m always looking for a new means of expression. That’s why I’m into the lap slide guitar and also the computer program SuperCollider. I’m also currently working on my follow-up CD to Heavy Mental using a Music Man double neck with 12 and 6 string necks. Each instrument gives a different sound that inspires me. For instance I have two wonderful slide guitars. The Asher Electro Hawaiian gives a smooth lush sound and rips like crazy when you put distortion or wahwah on it. I’m working on a big band project with arranger/composer Rich Shemaria using the Asher and it’s really sounding great. In addition, I have a Rayco Resophonics Weissenborn Lap Slide build by the Canadian luthier Mark Thibeault. It's a gorgeous acoustic guitar, and I’m playing that in another blues-based project with singer Michal Shapiro. The lineup is still Woodrow T. Greenwich on blues harp, Kirk Driscoll on frottoir and Jerry DeVore on acoustic bass. It’s got that country blues vibe but the songs give it a more modern sensibility. I’m also going to be recording an "electronic music meets Rayco acoustic slide" project using composer Tom Hamilton’s “Off-Hour Wait State (Some Music about the Subway)” which I’m quite excited about. It’s going to be a real interesting blend of electronic music and acoustic blues slide sound. I guess all these projects are not occurring in a particularly linear progression but I seem to get urges in these sonic directions and I just go with them.

mwe3: You and Dave Schroeder are respected teachers in the music department at NYU. I heard there was some interest in how you and Dave went back to the basics on Great Houdini and some at the school were even slightly shocked by your return to basics on this album.

BA: Well I’d have to say that Woodrow T. Greenwich (Dave) was a big influence on this. One day he said “do you play slide?” and I had recently received a “Powerslide” from Peavey Electronics. It's a very inexpensive guitar, but I really enjoyed playing it and it brought back a lot of my early blues experiences. I started rehearsing every week with Woodrow and we learned a lot about picking up a new instrument, plus we really liked playing together. The NYU faculty reads like the Who’s Who of New York Jazz so we had great jazz artists sticking their head into his office as we were rehearsing with looks from puzzled to pleased on their faces. Honestly some jazz musicians can be pretty narrow-minded, but most at NYU are very progressive so they dug what we were doing. Of course they all had to make some funny comment to keep up the camaraderie, but for instance you have players like Billy Drewes who plays with the Vangaurd Orchestra but also does a lot of work with Bill Frisell, and he's all over the map with his music. He played with us one night and we all had a lot of fun.

mwe3: How does the Great Houdini album reflect your love of the blues and how does the album reflect your childhood and other musical experiences growing up in the heartland of America?

BA: I was very influenced by my cousin Dave “Harry” Woods. Really an unbelievable blues guitarist who turned me on to a lot of great blues music starting when I was around 8 years old. I also had a dear friend Dan Phen whose record collection pretty much covered the entire spectrum so hearing all those sounds really influenced me during high school. And of course there is the popularity of country music in the Dakotas so the sound of pedal steel was never too far out of ear shot. Sioux Falls, South Dakota at that time actually had some amazing musicians playing around at the time. You had Mike Miller, an L.A. session guitarist now, that has played with just about anybody you can think of. And the late Mark Craney, was there; he was an LA drummer who had a long list of contemporary rock groups he played with after leaving South Dakota. That is only a few of the better known players but I could go on with a long list of guys that were great players, so the bar was high and there was a very active music scene. Really I think the thing that was happening as blues and rock sensibilities met in the ‘60s was very much alive in Sioux Falls as I’m sure it was throughout the mid-west...it’s just that we had this crop of unbelievable musicians. By the time I was in high school they had moved to John McLaughlin's Birds Of Fire which isn’t exactly easy music. This might also explain my eclectic nature. It was very common to see rock, blues and jazz combined in various ways at that time back home.

mwe3: Where and when was the album recorded and finished? How long have you known Dave Schroeder and how would you compare your music with Dave’s compositions on the Great Houdini CD?

BA: I have a studio in Westbeth (HUD artist residence building) in the West Village that I share with jazz drummer Tony Moreno who is on my Art Of The Blues CD. We did 3 or 4 sessions of just playing live together and then went back and patched up some of the drafty holes. This was recorded between August of 2010 and the tracking was done around Christmas. We then spent a few month mixing and CD production took a while too.

I think Woodrow T’s (Dave) and my style of writing for this project were pretty different. Dave is a very lyrical composer so I find his melodies to be very memorable. I based many of the forms of my compositions on a James Cotton CD he did with jazz bassist Charlie Haden. I also sneaked a lot of my serial composition ideas into my stuff. All the compositions except “Widow Maker” have a strong background of “025” which is using a three note cell that would have the interval content of a whole step and a fourth. Which of course is one of the major building blocks of a pentatonic scale which is so important to blues and early rock. So most people wouldn’t even notice this but it’s there. There is an analysis of one of the compositions on my blog here.

I have known Woodrow for almost 30 years. He has been a great friend to me and got me involved at NYU almost as soon as I moved to NYC from Boston. Being part of the jazz studies department has been a great honor for me, rubbing elbows with the likes of John Scofield and Joey Lovano and lots of others...it’s been a great environment. Dave is the director of the department and is always bringing these musicians together for performances at various venues like the Blue Note with and without student involvement, so it’s been a great experience that’s hard to match in the NYC scene.

mwe3: How did you get introduced to the Asher Electro Hawaiian lap slide guitar and how would you compare your guitar sound and technique on lap slide with your performance and mindset on your other guitars?

BA: I heard Ben Harper playing it on a PBS concert and it completely blew me away. Bill Asher builds some of the most sonically unique sounding guitars. There’s a woodiness, a sweaty, earthy quality to them that is really something. As far as my lap slide performance I’d say I’m still just getting the basics together of good intonation.
And developing my ability with the slide and finger picks is totally kicking my ass. I use a standard guitar tuning which makes the guitar a lot harder to play but being involved in a jazz scene, I’m always asked to read music and just don’t have the time to figure out how to read on an instrument with a different tuning. Using the standard guitar tuning requires that I bend the bar many times to get certain chord voicings. Not an easy thing to do but I’m slowly getting better at it. I use old Fender amps. On the Great Houdini CD I played through a vintage Fender ‘59 Bassman. I also use a bunch of different early vintages of pre-reverb Fender Deluxes. These amps have an incredibly warm sound. The Great Houdini CD doesn’t have any effects except a little reverb but I often use effects when playing with other groups. There is usually a Klon Centaur for distortion, Fulltone Clyde WahWah and of course a healthy dose of SuperCollider processing.

mwe3: The Hawaiian slide guitar has quite a history in American music lore. Are you also a history buff when it comes to the Hawaiian slide guitar?

BA: No not at all. Really I had no idea of particular types of slide guitars until I started to research them with the idea of buying one. Both the Asher and the Rayco are “Weissenborn” type guitars. Hermann Weissenborn built guitars in the 1920’s. and most great Hawaiian guitar players used his guitars. As mentioned I heard Ben Harper using one and then did a few searches on the internet and was completely blown away by their sound. One distinct feature of their design is they have hollow necks so they have this incredible resonance that makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up. It's a really special sound that makes it hard to put the guitar down once you start playing it. I haven’t really been influenced playing wise by any slide players I’m just playing the stuff that’s in my head which is a combination of old blues stuff and my modern pitch class set approach to music. I think as my ability gets better you will see more of the modern stuff coming out.

mwe3: Why do you and Dave call the album Great Houdini and how would you say it shines a light on your love of American blues music?

BA: Harry Houdini was known for escaping from all kinds of boxes and restrictions and we don’t like to be boxed in musically, either by instrument or by style so it seemed like a natural fit. He was also from the midwest (Wisconsin don’t cha know) and although a generation or two before my time if you read his bio his early upbringing really resonates with both Woodrow (from Carroll, Iowa ya betcha) and my experiences from South Dakota. Both of our music experiences from this time profoundly shaped our later sensibilities so we felt a kinship with Mr. Weisz aka Houdini.

mwe3: What are you next plans musically, guitar wise and in your recording and teaching career too?

BA: Like I said, I'm currently working on a new rock CD, using a Music Man double neck and it's turning out quite commercial. Again using the pitch class set “025” so the compositions and the soloing are much more “inside” than my previous CDs. Been writing new music for my next jazz CD, starting a new project with the great drummer Ed Uribe working on recording jazz standards from the Great American Songbook with of course generous injections of my pitch class set improvisation ideas. Trying to get back to a duet recording I did with fellow “Spooky Actions” partner John Gunther. We are working on a duet version of Bela Bartok's Romanian Dances where I play classical guitar so that is really stretching my ability. Also working on some new sounds for Supercollider thinking about doing a much more electronic project in the near future. Teaching wise, I’m about to start the NYU Summer Guitar Intensive that runs every year for 3 weeks in July. We have a new performance space, the “Provincetown Playhouse” on MacDougal Street in the Village so very much looking forward to that. I also just started giving online lessons with Truefire.com which has developed an incredible interface for interacting with students.

I will be going out to the Jazz School in Berkeley California in August to teach and perform with Mimi Fox. Looking forward to getting away from the New York heat.

I also have a new educational DVD out called Guitar Physiology Survival Guide: 33 Best Practices for Building Speed, Strength and Agility. I’m very excited about this release. I’ve wanted to get a DVD out that really looks closely at the nuts and bolts of the physical act of playing the guitar. I have found that inattention to these most basic details is the reason guitarists don’t reach their full potential. The DVD contains a lot of important information to prevent folks from getting repetitive stress injuries, tendonitis, etc. from playing the guitar, something that is way more common than most people realize. And the techniques I describe can also help folks that have already messed themselves up, to play more fluidly and painlessly.

Thanks to Bruce Arnold @ www.muse-eek.com


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