Interview with Mark Wingfield (March 2019)
When did you start playing the guitar and why?
When I was around 12 or 13 I saved up my paper round money and bought my first guitar, it was a very cheap electric, it was black with green highlights and gold vine inlay on the pick guard and I thought it was the greatest thing ever. I didn’t have an amp or effects pedals so I wired up the output of my guitar to the recording head input of an old portable cassette recorder I found in the attic. I then fed that into my cheap hi-fi amp and built a stack of speakers from parts I got from the local dump. I got what I thought at the time was a pretty cool fuzz sound from this home made setup. I eventually got a guitar amp at about age 16 and by that time I was hot-wiring all kinds of old audio gear to create different kinds of fuzz and sustain. I was interested in tinkering with the sound and trying to create interesting effects really right from the beginning.
My inspiration at the time was mainly Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck and some progressive rock. But it wasn’t long before I discovered jazz and that changed everything for me. I still liked Hendrix, Jeff Beck and prog (I still do) but jazz opened up the whole world of improvisation, and the amazing flights the great jazz players could take on their instruments, which really appealed to me. It also made me realise that in order to play that kind of thing I needed to really practice. By 18 I was living in Boston and playing in bands made up mainly of Berklee students. I learned a lot from that, but I still felt like I was only scratching the surface of what I was hearing in my head. I realised I needed to take practicing and learning theory a even more seriously. By the time I was 20 I was practicing 6 to 8 hours a day. After a couple of years of that I was able to start playing the kind of music I liked, but it took many more years to find and then develop my own style.
What did you study and what is your musical background?
I am entirely self taught. I had one lesson when I was about 15 or 16 from a local teacher who started by asking who my favourite guitarists were. I remember mentioning Jimi Hendrix and John McLaughlin. The teacher then insulted McLaughlin’s playing, and that was it for me, I never went back. I didn’t go to music school, but I did spend a lot of time practicing, analysing and learning theory, transcribing, ear training the whole thing. Some how I knew I needed to learn it in my own way if I was going to be able to use it in real time improvisation.
What were and are your main musical influences?
A number of things had a big effect on how my playing developed. I love Miles, Coltrane, Keith Jarrett, Jan Garbarek, Anthony Braxton and Kenny Wheeler. They are all big influences. I also got heavily into Indian classical music, Japanese Shakuhachi music and African tribal music. Western classical music is also a huge influence, pretty much everything from Bach to modern composers like Elliot Carter. So I was as influenced by all this as I was by guitar players.
I got to a point where I found that listening to other guitar players was stopping me from finding my own sound. I would begin to hear my own sound in my head, but as soon as I listened to my favourite guitarists, I started hearing their ideas instead of my own. Because I was able to play a bit like they played, the influence just seemed to erase my own ideas whenever I picked up the guitar. So I decided to stop listening to guitar almost entirely, which was a difficult thing to do, because there were so many great guitarists who’s playing I loved. But I knew it was the only way I was going to really find my own voice. From then on I only listened to and tried to play like other instruments for example vocalists, sax, trumpet and piano.
I see you have a great relationship with Markus Reuter. You have two completely different ways of playing but you seem very complementary. How was born your artistic relationship?
Leonardo Pavkovic the head of MoonJune Records suggested to both of us that something interesting might happen if we did an album together. We both loved the idea so Markus and I arranged to video chat and discuss possibilities. Almost immediately I realised that even though we were coming at it from different angles, we had very similar ideas about creating music. Within just that first video chat we had come up with ideas we were both very excited about. These ideas were about facilitating improvisation in new ways. Leonardo arranged a recording session at La Casa Murada Studio with Asaf Sirkis on drums and Yaron Stavi on bass. Markus and I came up with some simple sets of rules and drawings to use for these sessions. The idea of these concepts was to guide improvisation in a different way. So rather than a chord progression providing a set of harmonic rules as is normal in a jazz setting, we came up with ideas which didn’t require any music written down or pre-arranged. The funny thing is that we started the first couple of pieces following these concepts, but abandoned them after the first minute or so of music. Things were happening so naturally that it just didn’t seem necessary to stick to the concepts. However I think, because they were still in the back of our minds, these ideas were essential to how the music took place.
Your records are released by MoonJune Records. How did start this relationship?
Barry Cleveland, who is another very interesting musician, was an editor at Guitar Player Magazine at the time. He had just done a feature on me for the magazine and mentioned that he thought Leonardo and I should talk, so we got in touch via email. Not long after that I was doing a concert in New York City with Kevin Kastning and Leonardo came to the gig. At a meal after the concert we had a chance to talk about working together and it went from there. The first thing that struck me when I met Leonardo was just how much he knew about this sort of music. He doesn’t just know the entire canon of jazz and progressive music from the 60’s up till the present day, he really understands it on a deep level. Working with someone like that who really understands the music makes a huge difference from my point of view.
What does mean improvisation 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 still listen to Miles’ solos from Kind of Blue and all his work through the 60’s and 70’s. For me he is one of the truly great improvisors. He could say so much with just a few carefully chosen notes, with his choice of notes, and his tone and his timing. Sometimes just one note he plays against a particular chord can affect me for an entire day. I totally love Coltrane’s 60’s work. Especially his live recordings. There’s an emotional intensity and pure outpouring there that few others have come close to.
I’ve never really been interested in playing standards myself. In terms of chord progressions, what inspired me was the music that came out of the ECM label in the late 70’s, 80’s and beyond. Most of this music has less chords then you get in standards, but each chord change is very signifiant. For me the chords in some of those ECM records tell more of a musical story, and this I find very inspiring. When it comes to improvising over chords, what interests me are chord progression which tell an interesting emotional story, or take you on a journey. In recent years I’ve started composing with chords and harmonies more akin to classical music than is normally associated with jazz. Although I still use chords found in jazz, I find drawing from classical music allows me to write pieces that tell more of a story.
Lyrical players like Keith Jarrett and Kenny Wheeler, along with more radical players like Anthony Braxton, Cecil Tayor and Lester Bowie have been an influence on how I approach improvisation. Jan Garbarek is another big influence and another player that for me is one of the truly great improvisors.
What’s the role of the “Error” in your musical vision? For “error” I mean an incorrect procedure, an irregularity in the normal operation of a mechanism, a discontinuity on an otherwise uniform surface that can lead to new developments and unexpected surprises…
I try to avoid errors as much as possible! When you are improvising with other people, many unexpected things happen. If it’s a completely improvised session like The Stone House (with Markus Reuter, Yaron Stavi and Asaf Sirkis), Lighthouse (with Markus Reuter and Asaf Sirkis) or any or my work with Kevin Kastning, then no one knows what is going to happen next. Although with these musicians there is a level of communication and interaction where we can all sense where we should take the music at any give moment. But we can’t of course know exactly what any of us will play. So there are places where really unexpected things happen. In a sense this is an “accident”, but in another way it isn’t, because any new point in the music is the result of what we have just played the moment before.
The other thing about these situations is that they are great opportunities. Because when an unexpected musical moment occurs, you are in a place where you can also react in an unexpected way, and maybe take the music a new direction. In improvised music you need to listen and be very sensitive to what each musical moment means. What does it suggest? Where should the music go from this moment? If one of the other musicians plays something you didn’t expect, then you need to tune in to what direction they are suggesting the music goes in. Sometimes the combination of what everyone is playing reaches an unexpected place. One approach to this situation is to take the bull by the horns and invent a new direction for the music to go in that moment. Or perhaps that unexpected moment suggests it’s own direction which you can pursue.
And what do you think is the “function” of a moment of crisis?
If a gentle improvisation begins to dissipate, I think you need to be sensitive to leaving space at that point because maybe the music is asking for that. If it’s a high energy improvisation and it reaches a place where it feels near breaking, then it’s time to bring a strong new musical idea in at that point, maybe something with is a big contrast. Or maybe you might just let the music break down because that is what is meant to happen, and then something new will naturally be born from the that. The key is to follow how the music makes you feel in each moment. If you are in touch with that, then you know where to go and what to do. If the emotion in the music feels like it’s building to a feeling of crisis, then you play that, you express what the feeling in the music.
What are your next projects? What are you working on?
I’ve just finished mixing a duo album I recorded with Gary Husband on piano, which I’m really excited about, because for me some real magic happened in this session. The album is a mixture of compositions I wrote which we use as a vehicle for improvisation and pieces which are completely improvised, with nothing planned before hand. Next I’ll be working on another album I recorded with Gary on synth and Asaf Sirkis on drums. This album also features both Gary and Asaf on drum on some tracks, which is pretty amazing. I’ve also got a new album with Kevin Kastning coming out soon which is just being mixed now. This is another one I’m excited about because I think it’s one of our best sessions to date. Later in the year I have a trio album with Jane Chapman on harpsichord and Adriano Adewale on percussion which represents a whole other side of my composing and playing. This album combines guitar, harpsichord and percussion, mixing improvisation which classical composition and Brazilian and African rhythms. I also just did a recording session with David Cross last week which felt really great while we were recording. I haven’t had time to listen to yet, but I’m sure it’s going to be a good one. I also have another session coming up with Markus and Asaf in a couple of months, and there are more things planed for the summer. So my schedule is pretty full.
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?
That’s an interesting question. At any given time I have a definite vision of what I want to create. But my vision of the music I want to create changes continually from project to project. When I’ve finished a particular project I tend to have a period of time when I’m exploring new ideas, either in my head or on an instrument. From that tends to come the vision for my next project. I’m talking here about projects where I compose the music and have a directing role in the recording. I also play and record a lot of music where it’s a complete collaboration between myself and the other musicians. For example the session coming up with Markus and Asaf. With these kinds of sessions, the vision is something you realise together with the other artists either before or actually during the session.
With my own work I usually to start to hear and see something long before I begin to compose for the project. Often it starts with an impression, or a strong feeling of atmosphere which comes to me along with associated feelings. From that I start to hear sounds and see images, places and times in my mind, which form a stronger and stronger sense of how the music should sound and what it should put across. This forms my vision for composing the project. I think the album I just released “Tales from the Dreaming City” is a good example of this. I had a strong vision for how this music should sound and the overall atmosphere of it when I started composing the music and this carried through to the playing approach and improvising during the recording.
If you area asking about an overall vision for my music as a whole, it would be to try and play the unplayable. I don’t mean to try and play technically unplayable things. I mean to play moods and feelings, atmospheres or even images I know exist, which are at the moment unplayable, but which I strive to play. That endeavour is behind everything I do.