Contemporary jazz guitarist Mordy Ferber talks with our Cary Ginell (Part 1)

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Mordy Ferber in the Megatrax Studios
Mordy Ferber in the Megatrax Studios

Guitarist Mordy Ferber has been a presence on the music scene for more than a quarter century. Born in Israel in 1958, he learned to play guitar when he was a boy and soon joined a rock ‘n’ roll band, touring Israel playing covers of songs by the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, and others. In 1981, he got a scholarship to the Berklee College of Music in Boston and started to play more jazz. Since moving to New York City in 1990, he has been a stalwart presence in television and film in addition to the studio and the classroom, teaching master classes in improvisation technique. In the first part of our interview, Mordy talked about his background growing up in Israel and his philosophy about playing music.

Q: Were your parents musical at all?

A: No. My father is still alive, but my parents were holocaust survivors so there was not much music in the house, if you know what I mean.

Q: I was going to ask you about that. They were in Poland, so when and how did they get out?

A: My father and mother were in different places. My father was in Poland but went to Russia but all of his family members were killed.

Q: Was he in a camp in Russia?

A: Yes, He had wanted to join the Russian army, but when things started to look bad, he and one of his brothers went to Russia but while they were in camp, they got punished for saying something about being better off in Poland because you couldn’t speak out in Russia. If you said something like that, they’d put you in jail for five years. In Russia, if you got put in jail, you never survived. So he never found his brother, and when he came back to Poland, he didn’t know that his whole family was dead. So he joined the army to fight the Nazis. My mother was very young and was living with her family, but her five brothers and her parents were killed while she was a teenager. She was sick and near death many times. When Steven Spielberg did his interviews on the Shoah, she was interviewed. Her story is amazing. So, anyway, growing up with these two people, they never spoke about it. It’s better when you do speak about it, but since they didn’t speak, the atmosphere in the house was very dark. Music, for me, was an escape. It wasn’t like I would say to myself, “Oh, I’m going to do something to escape,” it was just something I always did. I liked singing; I was a singer first when I was little. Then, when I got tired of having an accordionist accompany me, I took up the guitar. I took private lessons on classical guitar for three months. I really liked classical music.

Q: Would that have been your first choice of music to play for a living?

A: Not at that time. Today, when people start to play an instrument, they buy an electric guitar with an amplifier. It’s like buying a synth instead of an acoustic piano. It’s wrong. You have to buy an acoustic guitar. You really need to start the correct way, and this was the correct way. You want to take a guitar and start playing folk or classical music. I really loved that because it built sound and tone in my fingers because it’s just you and the instrument. There’s no amplifier, no delay, no reverb. Even now, I’m very close to playing a nylon string guitar.

Q: Is it better for someone to learn to read music before they start playing?

A: Oh, my God, I don’t have to tell you. I got a full scholarship to go to Berklee to study because I was very well-known in Israel as a pop and rock player. So it was a big deal when I came to Berklee. I knew how to read, but so far from what I was playing that when they put me in the guitar labs, where you have to read together with ten other guitar players, I never went. I didn’t care about it. I have books on Mel Bay and video DVDs, but I will never be a great reader. Of course, I know how to read; I’ve taught at NYU and the New School University for many years, but I’m saying right now – start to read before you really develop your sound. McCoy Tyner didn’t know how to read. Wes Montgomery didn’t either. I know you can get away with it, but is definitely helpful.

Q: Even for jazz?

A: Well, no, but let me explain. It was beneficial for me because I have a photographic memory and I can remember so many tunes. So when I go to a studio and they have something for me to play, I just say “Just play it for me one time,” and boom, I got it. But when you go into a studio, they really want you to read. Reading music is just like reading a newspaper. There are no tricks. You just read every day and you get better. Today, somebody wanted me to play “Yesterday” for a session; so they showed me the charts. Of course I can read that. But it’s not my cup of tea; it’s not for me. I just want to create. I got to the point where freedom is most important to me. I can play the same standard five times and not repeat anything, and that’s what I care about. But I always recommend reading because then you know how to teach, know how to play in the studio, and you get more gigs that way. If you have a friend who wants you to play for him and he gives you some charts, you can take them home for a few days. But if you’re called cold by Quincy Jones to a studio and you say, “Hold on a minute while I look at this,” you’re fired. So I have mixed feelings about reading. But I would never say “don’t read.”

Q: Tell me about hearing Django for the first time.

A: In those days, I was more influenced by rock music and had nothing to do with jazz. I can’t even choose a name right now, whether it would be Wes Montgomery or Jim Hall, who would have been a big influence on me. Even if I had heard Joe Pass on the radio, I wouldn’t even have thought about going into jazz. But when I heard Django, he had all the elements of what I loved. First of all: there was humor. It was also happy music. As for technique, I didn’t even know that he could only play with two fingers. Even with ten fingers you can’t play like he could with two. You could not believe that this was coming out of a guitar; it was so unique. There was nobody like Django and there will never be. So I heard him on the radio and I said to myself, “I’m going to transcribe this guy, whatever it is.” In those days, we’d have to take the needle off of the record to figure out the notes; it’s not easy like it is today where you can slow down the song. But that was the first time I heard him and I became a big fan. From there, I went into Tal Farlow, Kenny Burrell, and then Jim Hall and Wes, who were really strong and important. And Charlie Christian, of course, who came before everybody. Then Joe Pass became a big influence. But my introduction to jazz, because I never heard jazz anywhere, was Django.

There was no YouTube back then. The exposure to the younger generation now is really unbelievable. Everything is out there. For me, learning was transcribing. I didn’t have a teacher, so transcriptions were the best thing. So, I must say that for the first years of my jazz career, I sounded like other people, because I would transcribe. But what I did beyond transcriptions is that I took another step. First, I started to transcribe piano players, which is easier, because if you transcribe Wes or Django or Pat Metheny – and I’m just giving you people who have a strong identity – you don’t sound like them. People would say, “Oh, that’s nice, but who are you? What do you bring that is new?” It’s OK to imitate, but you need to understand what you are imitating. To go to the next level, you have to search deeper within yourself and come up with your own voice. You do that by writing music. Some people have all kinds of tricks, like Stanley Jordan or Frank Gambale. Those techniques are it for them. But when you go down into the language, it’s altogether different.

Q: So does your language come from songwriting?

A: Yes. I felt like my sound came from writing music because it was MY music. When I played, I started to develop my style, so that when I went to play a standard, I played the same way as when I played my own tunes. I did a DVD for Mel Bay called Make the Tune Your Best Friend. If I play one of my songs or if I play “Stella By Starlight,” I treat that like it is my song and I bring myself into the tune. This tune has been played half a million times by the greatest: Miles, Bill Evans, so what are you going to do now? Once I played with Eddie Gomez and he said, “Let’s play this ‘Stella By Starlight’.” Bob Moses was the drummer, and we were in China at the time. So Bob said, “Mordy, I played this tune with Bill Evans. C’mon, let’s play something else.” I dig it. I understand. Bill Evans was the greatest at playing standards. But your sound starts to develop. Some people are identified by their technique and how fast they play or through some certain sound. But for some people, it’s the language, like with Keith Jarrett. It’s the language. Every note is like that. If you want to learn melody, you listen to Miles Davis. So as an educator and as a player, when I get a compliment from Jack DeJohnette or Larry Coryell, it’s usually “Mordy plays himself.” Now it’s become your voice. You can like Bob Dylan or you can not like Bob Dylan, but he sounds different.

Q: So that’s the biggest compliment for you? To be called unique?

A: Always. Bringing something different. I didn’t try hard to be unique. Everybody has his own voice. But very few people go the distance to search deeper and to go into their essence to see what they can bring to the world.

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