An average working class guy. A cup of coffee. A short Italian-American actor with a gun and nasally voice saying, “Do I amuse you?”
The name “Joe” conjures numerous associations, but if you’re a jazz guitarist like Steve Masakowski, there is only one “Joe” of primary importance: Joe Pass, the prolific and influential guitarist who died in 1994 at age 65.
Masakowski, a member of the 22-year-old New Orleans-based modern jazz quintet Astral Project, has released five previous records under his own name, including two for Blue Note in the early ’90s, What It Was and Direct AXEcess. His latest, For Joe, on Compass Records, pays homage to Pass, specifically Pass’ 1964 recording, For Django, which had an enormous impact on Masakowski as a young man.
“I really attribute that record with inspiring me to become a jazz guitarist,” says Masakowski, who was born in New Orleans in 1954. “I actually started playing guitar kind of late, in my teens. I played bass before that. I was in a rock band, you know, trying to do Cream and all that stuff. But I always had a desire to compose, and picked up the guitar to try and find new chords and write things. I realized I really had an affinity for the guitar, so I decided to take some lessons, and Hank Mackie was recommended to me. For Django was the first record Hank gave me. All I remember is going back into my room and listening to that first tune, which is called ‘Django,’ and thinking, ‘Yeah, this sounds good, but kind of dated.’ Then, when Joe started going double time, it was like, ‘Wow, what is he doing here? This is unbelievable.’ These lines were coming out with such fluidity and just perfection, man. I sat in my basement for the next two weeks, trying to pick out what he was doing. From that moment on I just fell in love with his playing.”
We’re relaxing in the shade of Masakowski’s front patio, which overlooks the eastern side of Audubon Park. It’s early afternoon on a Sunday, a time when no one rushes anywhere, especially in New Orleans. The May weather is particularly radiant and birds chirp in the nearby trees, creating a playful yet meditative mood similar to that often evoked by Masakowski’s velvety guitar lines, as we talk about his undying affection for Pass’ For Django.
Pass, it should be noted, is more commonly recognized for his later work when, after signing to the Pablo label in the ’70s, he put out a number of well-received unaccompanied records, as well as famous duos with Ella Fitzgerald, Oscar Peterson, Duke Ellington and other luminaries. Still, Masakowski considers For Django to be Pass’ artistic pinnacle.
“I remember asking him one time at a clinic, ‘Can you think of any other record where you play better than on For Django?’ And he said, ‘Oh, yeah, there’s a bunch of them!’ I don’t think he liked the question,” laughs Masakowski. “But for me, after all the jazz guitar records I’ve heard over my career, this one still comes back as being the best one, the one I use as an example of the great sound that you can get on the guitar, the way you can improvise fluidly. He’s really speaking from the soul, and he swings so hard. Of course, he was very inspired to make the record for Django Reinhardt, who I guess was his mentor, so my record is sort of the same gesture to Joe Pass.”
Reinhardt, the great European gypsy jazz guitarist of the ’30s and ’40s, is the progenitor of this multi-generational tribute saga, but his influence on Masakowski was actually quite limited, at least in the early stages.
“He wasn’t really a big influence, other than through Joe,” Masakowski says. “When I started listening to Django recordings later on, then I started to hear a lot of the influence that he had on Joe, and it’s interesting because you can hear little linear things and sort of the way he phrases things that are similar. That’s the way it is with all jazz musicians, because the music is handed down. It’s sort of an oral tradition, you pick up things from different musicians. Like, Django has this really distinct vibrato, and I always wonder if B.B. King might have gotten that from Django, because that’s something that B.B. King does a lot, and it’s very similar, even though they’re two totally different styles of guitar players.”
On For Joe, Masakowski attempts to capture the straightforward, flowing eloquence permeating For Django without slavishly duplicating its format and material. Rather than use a quartet, for example, he opted for a trio consisting of bassist Bill Huntington and Astral Project bandmate Johnny Vidacovich on drums, creating a sparse setting for his prodigious seven-string guitar technique to shine.
“Doing it as a trio is a little more technically difficult in terms of having all the weight of harmony and melody on me,” he says, “but I felt like that was more comfortable because I’ve been playing a lot of trio in New Orleans and I felt like I could keep the same kind of vibe (as on For Django). On For Django, Pass has John Pisano playing rhythm guitar behind him (in addition to bass and drums), but it’s very subtle. It almost sounds like a trio record. And the pieces are rather short, right to the point. I like the fact that it’s very clear and concise and it really focuses on Joe. It’s not one of these deals where everybody takes extended solos on every tune. It’s very much about the musical statement he’s making and his guitar playing. My record is very similar in that respect, because it’s about me in a trio situation, just doing the compositions. There’s no extended improvisations. They’re pretty short, but I feel that they’re complete, you know, not overdone.”
Masakowski borrowed only one tune from the Pass album (the title track, “For Django”); the other eleven tracks are originals or covers which fit the setting, such as Rick Margitza’s “Waltz,” Dave Brubeck’s “In Your Own Sweet Way” and “Falling in Love with Love,” a Rodgers/Hart tune which appeared on another Pass album of the ’60s, Catch Me.
“Basically, I tried to find things that were reflective of what I heard on the For Django record in terms of style and content, without doing exactly the same tunes,” he says. “I wanted to avoid doing exactly the same tunes because I didn’t really want to compare my record so much with his. I just wanted it to be a tribute to Joe, to show my appreciation for his impact on me as a guitar player.”
Masakowski’s five originals stand out, especially “Pass Presence” and “The Big Easy,” which first appeared on his Blue Note debut, What It Was. “I did that tune because not many people know that Joe Pass spent some of his time in New Orleans,” he says. “He just passed through. Joe had sort of his gypsy days, too. He had a lot of problems with substance abuse and became like a lot of musicians, traveling here and there, playing for a while and then kind of turning up somewhere else. It always intrigued me that he spent time here in New Orleans, way before anyone knew who he was.
“‘The Big Easy’ seems to be the favorite tune of a lot of people that play the record. It’s sort of an easy, walking piece. When I compose tunes, I try to think in terms of a certain idea, a certain vibe, or a certain person, then I sort of let that speak through the music. I feel like that tune captured what the New Orleans vibe is for me, that sort of slow, flowing feeling, you know, lazy.”
Throughout the album, Masakowski displays his rare ability to make complex, intricate material feel relaxed and natural. His style, while unique, owes much, not only to Pass, but to Wes Montgomery, Pat Martino, and a lesser known guitarist named Lenny Breau.
“Breau was a Canadian born player who had a very different approach,” says Masakowski. “He played finger-style and used the thumbpick. He started listening to piano players, and was very influenced by Bill Evans and McCoy Tyner, so he developed a way of voicing chords on the guitar that were very reminiscent of piano players. I was very intrigued by that because it sounded so different. He had this thing which has become popular, especially with players like Phil DeGruy, and I do it a lot also, which is called cascading harmonics. It’s a technique that allows you to make the guitar sound sort of like a harp or piano.”
Masakowski has always been interested in expanding the possibilities of his instrument. In the late ’70s, he invented what he called the “Key-tar,” an early synthesized guitar which enabled him to pursue his passion for electronic music at that time. The inspiration of Bucky Pizzarelli led him to the highly unusual seven-string guitar, and he eventually developed his own design concept — with an extended neck to give the guitar the same lower range as a bass — implemented on the custom-built seven string guitars which he currently plays with near flawless technique.
Still, Masakowski believes that technical prowess is only a means to an end. “The way someone plays an instrument is never really as fascinating to me as the music that comes out of it,” he says. “I mean, whether you play the guitar standing on your head or with your teeth, it doesn’t really interest me that much. I’ve done my fair share of trying to play fast, and trying to impress people with my chops, but what really impresses me now is someone playing something very heartfelt on a real spiritual level that transcends any technical aspects of an instrument.”
Like Joe Pass before him, Steve Masakowski continues to make a significant impact on the jazz guitar tradition, as the increasing prevalence of the seven string nationwide illustrates. At the University of New Orleans, where he teaches Advanced Jazz Harmony and Theory, Jazz Guitar and directs the Jazz Guitar Ensemble, all of his current guitar students have adopted seven-string. It’s enough to make you wonder if there will be a For Steve record some day.
“I don’t know if I’m that good,” he says, laughing. “That’s not for me to decide. If somebody does it, that’s great. I just hope that if they do it, it comes from their heart, and not because they thought it would sell records or because it was a good marketing idea. I’d be flattered, but I don’t expect it any time soon.”