Miles Davis’ influence extends far and wide, even down to the gritty thrash metal that pervades parts of our culture today. Realizing this statement needed evidence, The Revivalist sat down with the perceptive Testament guitarist Alex Skolnick for an insightful interview on the influence of Miles and how that plays into his newest project, The Alex Skolnick Trio that just did a European run with Rodrigo & Gabriela. How do you transition from metal to jazz you may ask? We’ll let Alex fill you in on that one.
What are the qualities of Miles Davis as an innovator that are most inspiring to you?
I’m especially inspired by how Miles broke every rule- he could change styles with ease, even at the risk of alienating some of his biggest supporters, never worrying about popularity, political correctness or playing ‘the game’ to be successful. Also, it was never about technique with Miles- he was one of the world’s most expressive musicians without being overly fast or overly complicated. That’s a valuable lesson for players of metal and jazz respectively.
What is your favorite Miles Davis era? What creative period of Miles’ career speaks to you the most?
I’d say the ‘Kind Of Blue’ modal period of the late 50′s, especially the work with Bill Evans. There are albums I like from all of Miles’ eras, but that album is just timeless, ’58 sessions is another great album from the period. My next favorite era would be the mid 60′s quintet with Herbie, Wayne, Ron, Tony. I’m also quite fond of the very short period in between these two eras, when he did ‘Seven Steps To Heaven.’
Do you think that there are any artists/musicians who are of the same caliber as Miles in terms of how he influenced all facets of pop culture?
As far as cultural influence, I would say the only one has been The Beatles. Like Miles, they combined genre and raised standards, in their case bringing classical, folk and show tunes to rock, even helping launch the genres of world music (Within You Without You) and heavy metal (Helter Skelter). And as is the case with Miles, pretty much anyone who has musical taste likes The Beatles at least on some level, and most of their music is timeless. But the Beatles were four, Miles is one. No other individual I can think of comes close to his influence.
What are the connections between jazz and metal? The average music consumer may not necessarily make a connection between the two, but what are some underlying similarities?
Jazz and metal exist outside of the mainstream. Both experiment with melodic patterns unapproachable in pop music. Both have a directness, expressiveness and intensity rarely found in the mainstream. Fans of both genres, as well as most musicians, are fiercely independent, refusing to be dictated or pandered to by the music industry. While each genre has had artists who have crossed over to mainstream audiences, you can count them on one or two hands. Both genres have purists, unwavering in their beliefs about what makes a ‘real’ jazz or metal musician. Though these purists may dress and talk differently, their stubborn behavior is nearly identical. And to be a musician in either genre requires fierce dedication and an unwillingness or inability to fit in anywhere else.
What about your own career can you relate to Miles’ journey?
Miles was also an outspoken critique of categorization, who hated to be called a “jazz” musician. I used to not understand this but I do now, having been categorized as purely a metal player and worse of all, a ‘shredder.’ These categories classify you with people that you shouldn’t be classified with. Also, I can relate to Miles frustration with the status quo and seeing the self imposed limitations placed upon fellow musicians.
Can you talk about your transition from working heavily in metal to dedicating much of your career to your jazz trio, the Alex Skolnick Trio?
It was a long, long process. There were years where it felt like I was starting over. I didn’t know it would result in AST, only that I needed to be practicing high level jazz improvisation full time, and that somehow, I would end up putting these new skills to work. It really took diving into the music head on, studying with local pro jazz players in the Bay Area and eventually moving to New York and studying music at the university level, as well with private teachers- all pro jazz players. Also, I never lost the raw feeling that I got while playing metal. This was what made me ready to start to doing gigs and albums as a leader, as well as meeting the right guys for the trio project.
As a guitarist, what are your thoughts on John McLaughlin’s playing on Bitches Brew, and the importance of jazz guitar thereafter?
I think its brilliant that John McLaughlin was someone who didn’t try to do jazz guitar in the traditional way. He loved guys like Tal Farlow, Django Rheinhardt and Wes Montgomery but didn’t try to play like them. Rather, he took the fast flamenco influence that Django had, combined it with Indian and other influences, then expanded upon it. That’s why it worked for Miles- because it was so exciting, new and different. As far as I know, Miles hadn’t had a guitar player before. Now here he was, not only having John play guitar on Bitches Brew, but naming a track after him. And from then on, Miles always had a guitar player. John deserves a lot of credit for going against the grain and changing the face of jazz guitar. At the same time, I think its important for jazz guitarists not to lose sight of the elegance of players like Farlow, Wes, Johnny Smith, etc…
Do you see a crossover of your fan base between Testament and your jazz band now?
Absolutely. Its not a huge crossover but its there. I get many emails from fans on both sides. I’m happy whenever a Testament fan discovers he or she likes the trio or vice versa, but even more happy when they discover new music thanks to me. For example, whenever I hear from a Testament fan that now loves ‘Kind Of Blue’ thanks to my recommendation, I feel like I’ve accomplished something worthwhile. It makes all the struggle worthwhile.
What about Bitches Brew was so revolutionary to you and how do you think it directly or indirectly influenced your own playing (technique-wise, stylistically, etc)
Very simply, it was the grooves and combination of horns over electric instruments that just hadn’t happened yet- that was revolutionary. I’m sure Miles was thankful for his success up until then but unlike many artists, he refused to be trapped by it or pressured into repeating himself. He was willing to risk it all. It’s an album I’ve listened to a lot, but haven’t studied on the level of some of Miles’ other albums, so I wouldn’t say its influenced me ‘technique’ wise, specifically. However, it has certainly inspired me to take more chances, go against the grain and not worry about what anyone else thinks I should play.
Finally, what does Bitches Brew signify to you?
Bitches Brew ushered in a whole lot of music and brought together fans of music that had previously had little in common. Miles alienated a lot of people with that album. Many said it can’t, shouldn’t be done. Even today, there are purists, die hard fans of Miles’ earlier work who won’t listen to it, like Bob Dylan going electric. But to me, Bitches Brew opened the door for jazz to rock players like myself who had the listening capacity for jazz and the potential as improvisers but not might have discovered that without Bitches Brew. Thanks Miles.
Alex Skolnick Online: http://www.alexskolnick.com/