Interview with Cameron Mizell (November 2017)
When did you start playing the guitar and why?
When I was in third grade, my elementary school offered Suzuki violin lessons. But I’d heard what 80 kids playing “Three Blind Mice” on violin sounded like, and opted out. Instead my mom put me in private guitar lessons. My parents were really good about making sure my brother, sister, and I all took music lessons when we were young. My sister and brother both played piano and trumpet and some point but eventually stopped as they got older. I’ve stuck with guitar this whole time.
What did you study and what is your musical background?
When I started I was too young to have any taste in music, so I was just learning from one of those beginner method books, and eventually would learn whatever songs my teacher put in front of me—mostly folk music, some Beatles, acoustic classic rock. She had handwritten lead sheets, so I learned the play the melody and chords, and then put them together.
After a few years I started to get into rock music. This was the early ‘90s, so the radio was playing music from the Seattle scene and everything that stemmed from “grunge” music. I was also into Metallica for a while and learned a bunch of their songs and guitar solos. One time I was reading a lesson by Kirk Hammett in a guitar magazine, and he talked about Miles Davis and John Coltrane and how they had different approaches to phrasing. I went to the record store and started listening to Miles and Coltrane, got hooked on jazz, and have been going down that rabbit hole ever since.
What were and are your main musical influences?
My first real musical influence probably comes from tap dancing. My mom was a dance teacher, and before I was big enough to hold a guitar, I was in dance classes. I really liked tap dancing and stuck with it until I was 16 years old. I used to watch old movies with the Nicholas Brothers dancing with Cab Calloway, or Gregory Hines dancing with jazz musicians. I think there’s a rhythmic element to my playing that is rooted in tap dance steps.
In terms of musicians, I think I’ve been through periods where I really dug into the music of Dexter Gordon, Wes Montgomery, James Brown, The Meters, John Scofield, and Bill Frisell. I do a lot of sideman work and have to approximate the styles of other guitarists, all of which works its way into my own voice. David Gilmour, Jimi Hendrix, George Harrison… it’s hard to be a working guitarist and not have a grasp of how these guys played and the influence they had on the guitar’s role in popular music.
How did you start to work on Destiny Records?
Destiny Records was founded by my friends Mike Shields and George Shalda, both of whom I met in college. We were all studying jazz at the University of North Texas. Mike owns the label and George is a brilliant recording engineer. Both are also fantastic musicians and gig regularly in Austin, Texas.
Before I became a full-time musician, I’d been working at Verve Records. Between that experience and having released my own albums independently, I had a pretty decent understand of how the music industry worked and wrote a series of articles online that offered advice to independent musicians wanting to release their own music.
When Mike and George had finished recording the first Destiny album in 2013, they came across those articles and talked to me about working with them. We’ve been producing and releasing jazz albums ever since.
How did start the idea to release another solo album like “Memory/Imagination”
Memory/Imagination happened by accident. I woke up the morning of November 9, 2016 to the horrible news that Donald Trump was going to be our next president. I didn’t know what to do with myself that day, so I just started playing guitar and improvising while I meditated on various social justice issues that were important to me and felt threatened by this new administration. I had some mics set up in the room, so I decided to hit record. Weeks later I went through the recordings and started pulling out the stuff I liked. I sent it to Mike Shields to see if he thought it sounded like an album, and we ultimately decided to release it. All nine tracks are first take improvisations, completely spur of the moment.
I saw that you use effects and loopers, what pedals do you use?
I have an obscene amount of pedals, and I often change what I use just for fun. Each new sound can inspire different ideas, or make old ideas feel fresh.
For Memory/Imagination I used the Line 6 DL4 as a looper. I think some of the other effects that day included the HOG2 and Freeze pedals from Electro-Harmonix, Deco and El Capistan from Strymon, the Zvex Box of Rock, Xotic RC Booster, and the Way Huge Supa-Puss.
How do you express your “musical form” both under execution and improvisation? How did your instruments chang the way you play and think about music?
One of my teachers once told me, “Improvisation is composition in real time.” The difference with composition is that you can go back and refine your ideas. The more I write and play, the more I try to make both feel the same. When I was recording Memory/Imagination, many of the tracks were an attempt to write a song in real time. I would try to play a melody and expand upon it, then come back to it at the end. In other cases I was trying to create a texture or soundtrack to a scene in my imagination, kind of like underscoring my thoughts.
In terms of instruments, I find that it really all starts with a sound in my head, and certain guitars just help me achieve the sound. I have a Collings I35 LC that is an absolutely stunning instrument and plays almost effortlessly. But for several tracks of Memory/Imagination I used an early ‘60s Silvertone guitar. It’s a beast to play, doesn’t stay in tune, has uneven frets, and all kinds of problems. There’s an unpredictable element to it that was perfect for the way I was feeling that day, and it helped me realize many of the sounds in my head.
What does improvisation mean in your music research? Can we go back to talking about improvisation in a repertoire so encoded as the classic or you’re forced to leave and turn to other repertoires, jazz, contemporary, etc.?
I think most great composers are also great improvisors, and the idea that improvisation means to create something out of thin air might sound romantic, but it’s not at all how it works. Improvisation is a combination of expected and unexpected ideas. In order to improvise music on a high level, you must have a very deep understanding of how music works, and that requires study of the masters from all periods.
Jazz has become synonymous with improvisation, and studying the process of jazz improvisation, in my opinion, is the first step to understanding a greater context of improvisation. Jazz musicians share a common, ever-expanding vocabulary for improvising together, making it a logical repertoire for study.
Beyond jazz, though, I think every type of music can teach you something that helps with improvisation. It’s so easy to discover new music these days, I look for opportunities to hear something unexpected. And beyond music, you have to get some life experience before you have anything to say as an artist.
And what do you think is the “function” of a moment of crisis?
Moments of crisis shed light on who we really are, individually and collectively. I guess it depends on what you would consider a crisis, but if we were to assume it’s a moment where things don’t go as planned, or things seem to fall apart, then improvisation and quick thinking are our best tools. Musically speaking, sometimes we create these moments on purpose to get our fellow bandmates to respond in unexpected ways.
What are your essential five discs, always to have with you .. the classic five records for the desert island ..?
In no particular order:
- Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and Firebird Suite performed by Ivan Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra
- Miles Davis A Tribute to Jack Johnson
- Tom Waits Rain Dogs
- Bill Frisell Good Dog, Happy Man
- The Beatles Abbey Road
What are your next projects? What are you working on?
Right now I’m working with several artists to create art videos for Memory/Imagination. I hope to release those one at a time after the album comes out.
In July I recorded an album of improvisations with my friend Aeric Meredith-Goujon, who plays bass and drums using a looping rig. We’re mixing that album now, and it will probably be available early next year.
In November I’ll be recording an album with drummer Travis Whitmore, which will probably be a bit more on the funky side of things. We’re writing material for that session now.
And in the larger scheme of things, I have a bunch of new material composed that will find a home soon. I’d like to make another trio album in the next year or so, and Charlie Rauh and I have been discussing a guitar duet album. I’ve also been studying string arrangements and would love to compose for string quartet.
Last question: a few years ago, during an interview with Bill Milkowski for his book “Rockers, Jazzbos and Visionaries” Carlos Santana said, “Some people have talent, some people have vision. And vision is more important then talent, obviously.” I think you have a great talent, but … what is your vision?
Talent is a tricky idea. I don’t feel like music ever came very naturally to me, I’ve just always loved it and worked really hard to be able to make music. And progress is slow, so I’ve had to keep a long view on what I hope to accomplish and know that my daily practice will help me reach those goals. All I’m trying to do is express my ideas through the guitar as freely as possible. The impetus for those ideas change as life moves forward. Memory/Imagination, for example, was a result of a horrible political outcome that I certainly didn’t anticipate. It’s hard to anticipate exactly what will happen. All I try to do is prepare myself to deal with whatever unfolds, and the guitar happens to be the way I best like to express myself.