Feature Interview: Neal Miner

Discussion in 'Features' started by TalkBass, Mar 23, 2004.

  1. TalkBass

    TalkBass News Poster

    Mar 12, 2004
    This feature was published on TalkBass.com in November 2002

    <img src="http://www.talkbass.com/images/nealminer.jpg" width="139" height="133" border="0" align="left"><p>Neal Miner is one of New York City's busiest jazz bassists. He was born and raised in Manhattan and, for the past 15 years, has worked full-time accompanying many of today's top jazz artists. Neal got his start in jazz working with such young stars as Brad Meldau, Larry Goldings, Peter Bernstein, Eric Alexander and Ryan Kisor. Neal has logged an impressive number of recordings and appearances on television, radio, in theater, and movies. He can often be found at the world-famous Manhattan jazz club "Smalls" where he performs regularly as a sideman and leader. Neal has also performed at these other renowned Manhattan jazz clubs and cabaret rooms: Blue Note, Birdland, Carlyle, Fat Tuesday's, Finestein's, Iridium, Jazz Standard, Joe's Pub, Knickerbockers, Knitting Factory, Mad 61, Oak Room, Smoke, Village Gate, Village Vanguard, Sweet Basil, Zinc bar and Zinno's. </p>
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  2. TalkBass

    TalkBass News Poster

    Mar 12, 2004
    <p>I had been aware of Neal Miner’s presence on the scene long before I actually heard him. The music that was coming out of a club called AUGIE’S on the upper West side was really making a stir: Eric Alexander , Brad Mehldau, David Hazeltine, Larry Goldings… And behind them on the stand, Neal Miner. And then later at Smalls, Neal’s two-year long weekly hit, when it wasn’t just his playing being presented, but also his music. I was still unprepared for the impact that his first release as a leader, <em>The Real Neal</em>, had on me. The sound, the approach , the ideas, EVERYTHING on that record speaks to me as a bassist and a musician. The first cut I heard was his arrangement of <em>Smoke Gets In Your Eyes</em> and just hearing the authority in the sound and in Neal’s approach to his improvisation has really given me a model to aspire to. And it’s a sound I think more people should check out. </p> <p>Recently, I got the opportunity to have Neal answer a few questions:</p> <strong>Ed Fuqua: In the liner notes for your record ,THE REAL NEAL, you talk some about your background and upbringing, could you give us a little of that here? </strong> <p>Neal Miner: My father, Bill Miner, a psychologist and avid jazz record collector since the age of 13, recently passed a little more than a year ago. He actually had a special room in our Manhattan apartment that was sound proofed so he could listen to his jazz into the wee small hours of the morning. I'm not kidding you, he had well over 10,000 jazz records, not to mention jazz books, Downbeat magazines and many other jazz related items. Not only was he obsessed with the collecting end of jazz, he was also an encyclopedia of jazz knowledge, dates, names, who was on what label on what year...you get the picture. My father even wrote some liner notes and discographies</p> <p>I heard jazz from day one, but it wasn’t until I was around 12 that I started to take an interest in it. At that same time, the after school drum teacher at the grade school I attended (The Day School) would give an annual concert for the kids featuring himself with the likes of Roy Eldridge, Tommy Flanagan, Arvel Shaw and many other jazz legends. Little did I know that this drum teacher, Eddie Locke, was a very established jazz drummer who had played and recorded with Coleman Hawkins, Roy Eldridge and many other jazz greats. Whereas other years when Eddie gave this concert, I would be talking to friends, squirming around, misbehaving, maybe even getting sent out of the room, this particular year I couldn’t believe the wonderful music I was hearing, it was starting to kind of make sense. I especially liked this tune by Dizzy Gillespie called A Night In Tunisia. I then went home that afternoon and asked my father, "Dad, have you ever heard of a guy named Dizzy Gillespie"? Delighted and amused, it was at that very moment that my father began to educate me on jazz. My Dad would play records for me all the time, now that he knew I was interested. He also took me out to hear live jazz, even on school nights. I heard Warne Marsh at the West End Cafe, Tommy Flanagan at several clubs, Thad Jones/Mel Lewis at the Vanguard, Red Mitchell at Bradley’s, Dizzy Gillespie and even Carmen McRae once. I didn’t always understand what I was hearing, but I just liked the sound of it for some reason. </p> <p>One of the most helpful things in his educating me was when he made me 3 cassettes that he called basic tunes. On each cassette were several classic examples of the commonly played tunes in jazz(i.e. Perdido, I Got Rhythm, Blues, How High The Moon, and a few others). I must have listened to those tapes 5,000 times each and in doing that, I basically memorized each version and their solos and feeling. There was Bird, Prez, Art Tatum, Wes, Monk, Mingus, Hawk, Miles, Trane and many others on those tapes. You know how a child’s mind is like a sponge? Well, will never forget any of those solos, I could, and still can sing along with any of them. I still have those tapes. </p> <p><strong>Any other musicians in the family? </strong></p> <p>My father tried to play tenor saxophone when he was young, but from what he told me he wasn’t very talented and when he heard himself on a play back of a recording he made with a friend, he quit. My Mother on the other hand is untrained but has one of the best sets of ears out there. She can sing harmony to just about anything and she knows every standard ever written. My Sister sang in choirs all throughout high school and in college and still does occasionally with the Seattle Choral Company. </p> <p><strong>Why did you choose the bass? </strong></p> <p>I was intrigued by seeing it being played in rock videos on MTV. I think I liked the super low sound it made and it looked cool too. Also I related to it because it wasn’t in the forefront of the band it was in the background, supporting. I guess I’m kind of like that as a person. </p> <p><strong>When did you get "serious" about music? </strong></p> <p>It wasn’t until I was about 15. I went to the Eastman School of Music summer jazz program for high school students. It was there that I got a severe kick in the pants. I realized how I didn’t know anything about anything. I continued going there for the next 3 summers. </p> <p><strong>Did you start out studying the instrument with a teacher or were you "self-taught" in the beginning? </strong></p> <p> My first teacher on the electric bass was at The Day School. He was head of the music department. Primarily a guitarist but he also played electric bass well. </p> <p> <strong>Who were your teachers (for music and/or bass) and what drew you to each specific person? </strong></p> <p>I had a lot of different teachers, thanks to my Father’s active interest in my musical education. Outside of the music teacher at The Day School, I studied with Rob Schneiderman for electric bass and music theory. He’s primarily a pianist but he also plays great bass. Then there was Bob Nieske from the Boston area, great guy and player, both acoustic and electric. George Ziskind, a good friend of my father who plays great jazz piano and taught me about playing tunes. Bill Grimes was my teacher at the Eastman summer camp all those summers. Michael Formaneck was one of my first acoustic bass teachers. Then there was Orin O’Brien of the New York Philharmonic, she really got my technique straightened out and on the right track, she also got me started with the German bow. Then there was Wes Fisher, a 90 year old man who I studied with for a year when I was at a boarding school in Pennsylvania. Then I went to Interlochen Arts Academy for the last 2 years of high school and studied bass with Tom Knific and Derick Weller, Tom was a great teacher who was very thorough in jazz and classical. I then went to The Manhattan School Of Music for a year and a half and studied with Harvie Swartz and Don Palma, Don was a great teacher who showed me some wonderful exercises. I briefly studied with Todd Coolman, I liked his concept. Then I heard John Webber play. He is only a few years older than me, but he had his sh** together. He was one of the first bass players I heard who didn’t use an amplifier. It was with him that I learned how to get a sound out of the bass and how to walk bass lines and solo. If you don’t know John’s playing check him out, he can play! </p> <p> <strong>What have been some important/crucial/revelatory areas of knowledge for you, coming up as a young player? How did you work on them or how did they reveal themselves to you? </strong></p> <p>I feel very lucky to have come up when I did and where I did. Just as I graduated from Interlochen in the late 80s there was an incredible group of young musicians on the NYC scene all trying to play jazz. They were either attending The New School, Manhattan School, Mannes, William Patterson or Julliard. To name a few just so you know who I’m talking about: Brad Mehldau, Peter Bernstein, Larry Goldings, Chris Potter, Christian McBride, Greg Hutchinson, Ryan Kisor, Avi Shi Cohen, Dwayne Burno, Joe Farnsworth, Eric Alexander and many others who you might not have heard of but are equally gifted: Joel Frahm, Grant Stewart, Omer Avital,, Jason Lindner, Chris Byars, William Ash, Ari Roland and so many others. At that time we were all playing and hanging out together all of the time, on little gigs, sessions, and at the schools we went to. We would all be out every night either listening to the masters, each other, playing or talking about playing. It was like a secret society. There was healthy competition going on as well so we were all rapidly getting better and we were all learning from each other. There was a lot of energy in the air. Also at that time we were all going for the same goal, to swing hard! All the bass players played without amps and used gut strings on their basses and pulled to get a sound. I think this was the beginning of a new era for the bass, we abandoned the amp and went back to the original bass set up. At the time I didn’t think anything of it, but looking back on it now I realize what an important and valuable time of my life that was, it helped me become who I am as a player. Maybe I’m wrong, but there doesn't seem to be a scene like that any more. </p> <p> <strong>Who are the players that have influenced you? </strong></p> <p>Of the masters: Ray Brown, Red Mitchell, Paul Chambers, Sam Jones, Oscar Pettiford, Doug Watkins, Slam Stewart, Bob Cranshaw, Ron Carter to name a few. Of the players today that are older than me: Dennis Irwin, Peter Washington, John Webber, Phil Flanigan, Bob Hurst, Tyler Mitchell, Ben Wolfe to name a few. Of the players today who are my contemporaries: Omer Avital, Ari Roland, Dwayne Burno, Paul LaDuca, Doug Weiss, Paul Gill and Christian McBride to name a few. </p> <p> <strong>Do you teach? What do you recommend younger players work on? </strong></p> <p>For about 5 years after dropping out of college I taught private lessons at The Trevor Day School and at the Dalton School. I have also taught private lessons out of my house. One thing I can’t stress enough to young players is to get a sound on the instrument without the amplifier. I also think if you’re going to be a jazz player vocabulary is super important. Learn lots of walking lines and solos of the masters, and they don’t have to be just solos of other bass players. Learn lots of standards, because you’ll work a lot more that way. Learn the melodies as well. </p> <p> <strong>What was it like breaking into the NYC scene? </strong></p> <p>I worked almost every night even if it was just for tips. All of this exposure helped me get my name around. From an early age I gravitated towards more straight ahead/swing & be-bop jazz as opposed to more modern/experimental styles. Also the fact that I didn’t ever play with an amp made me more desirable to a certain crowd of musicians. </p> <p>I also feel very lucky that I got to work with a lot of older musicians when I was young. There’s a feeling that you get from them that very few young players have. I probably shouldn't have been on a lot of the gigs that I was called for but they must have seen something in my playing that they liked. I learned a lot of tunes in the process, and in any key, singers definitely help with that. I also played a lot of gigs without drums, I think that helps your time. </p> <p> <strong>What musicians were influential in getting you heard? </strong></p> <p>That’s a hard question to answer. Like I said, I think the fact that I worked so much with so many different players over the years has helped me get heard, and my name got passed around mostly that way at first. More recently I’ve done extensive work and recorded with jazz greats like Jon Hendricks, James Moody, Annie Ross, Bob Dorough, Bill Henderson, and new jazz stars like Jane Monheit, Ann Hampton Callaway, Dena DeRose, Loston Harris and Mark Elf. I’ve also played in large groups such as the Toshiko Akiyoshi Jazz Orchestra, Carnegie Hall Big Band and the Village Vanguard Jazz Band. Also, since Smalls jazz club has been open, almost 10 years now, I have played there quite regularly as a side man and a leader, this has also helped me with getting heard. </p> <p> <strong>What was your first "big" gig? </strong></p> <p>I think that would be back in 1993 with the Ryan Kisor Quintet. We did a short tour advertising his debut release on Columbia Records. The tour consisted of a Monday night at The Blue Note, a night at Sculler’s Jazz Club in Boston and the Iowa City Jazz festival. The band was Ryan on trumpet, Mark Turner on Tenor Sax for half the tour, Chris Potter on the other half, Larry Goldings on piano and Andy Watson on drums. </p> <p> <strong>Any moments you'd sooner forget? </strong></p> <p>Like most players, I’ve had my share of embarrassing experiences. One that stands out in particular, was sitting in with the Buddy Montgomery(Wes’s brother)Trio at the Parker Meridian Hotel. It was probably in the early nineties and a lot of great musicians were in the house watching and sitting in. The bass player who handed me his bass(Doug Weiss)is a lot shorter than I am so his end pin was way too low for me to play the bass comfortably. Since the tune had already started, I didn’t have any time to put the bass down and raise the end pin. Trying to reposition my body so I could play properly, mixed with the nervousness of sitting in with this master made me screw up the form on rhythm changes. Buddy just stopped playing and looked at me with an evil glare and said loudly, ‘Are You Done Yet?’ That hurt! </p> <p> <strong>What advice would you have for a younger bassist who is thinking about moving to New York? </strong></p> <p>Be patient, show your face on the scene regularly and know a lot tunes. Show up early to gigs, return phone calls, dress properly and be easy to work with. Sounds like simple advice but you’d be surprised how many bass players lack in these areas. It’s not enough to just be good, good bass players in NYC are a dime a dozen. </p> <p> <strong>You're working on a new record for a larger ensemble, could you talk a little bit about that? </strong></p> <p>It’s a sextet: tenor sax, trumpet, trombone, piano, bass & drums. I’m featuring original music of mine that I’ve been writing for the past 10 years. Nothing experimental, just straight ahead stuff. Some of the tunes are written over the chord changes of standards. All the instruments are equally featured but I do play a few bass features. Chris Byars, the tenor player in the band, has orchestrated the music for this sextet. He is a brilliant musician in every way. We have quite a history playing together and his collaborations on this project really make this band sound special. </p> <p> <strong>Does it affect your compositional approach? </strong></p> <p>A little bit. I love writing in send offs, shout choruses and interludes into my tunes. Just an "in head" and "out head" with a lot of blowing in between kind of bores me. With a sextet all of the devices I mentioned work very well and can make the tunes more interesting and personal. </p> <p> <strong>Do you play differently with a larger ensemble than a smaller one? </strong></p> <p>No, not really. I just try to adapt to whomever I’m playing with, the size of the band doesn’t really matter, just the style. </p> <p> <strong>Is your compositional approach an "outgrowth" of your playing approach, or does writing come from another place for you? </strong></p> <p>I never really thought about it, but I think it’s all coming from the same place inside. It’s your style, sound and taste that should come across. It’s actually a very personal statement that lets you know a lot about a musician. </p> <p> <strong>Do you play other instruments (piano, etc.)? </strong></p> <p>I play what I call ‘composers piano’, good enough to compose but not to perform. I really use it as a tool. </p> <p> <strong>You're doing what many of us here at talkbass would love to be doing: playing jazz at a pretty high level with heavy musicians in NYC, making records, touring... what else would you like to be doing? </strong></p> <p>I will always love being a bassist, playing with many different musicians and being a part of various people’s projects is very stimulating to me. I just want to keep getting better on the instrument and playing with new great players and become more and more established as a sideman. I also want to do more as a leader and break in to the next level as a band leader and composer. I would love to have a deal with a major jazz label and tour with my own group. But in the end a balance of all of these things is an ideal way of life for me. </p> <hr width="50%"> <p>Neal's bass is a 3/4 size John Juzek made in West Germany in the 40s or 50s - there's no date written inside. He uses a mixture of 2 Thomastik "Spirocore" on the E & A strings, a Pirastro Oliv(chromesteel on gut) on the D string, and the no longer made Kaplan Goldenspiral(tynex wound on gut) on the G. "It's a strange set up, it took me years to design it, but the bass and I love it and it works, very even sounding." His bow is "a simple(Kreutzer) German bow, nothing special." </p> <p>And for amplification? "Believe it or not, I prefer to use a Shure SM58 in live situations. Every sound man I've ever worked with looks at me like I'm crazy when I ask for it and tells me he would rather use a RE20 or something like that. Then when the concert is over he agrees with me. The SM58 really gets the natural sound and punch of the instrument without adding synthetic color and too much low end, try it sometime. In the studio I have no preference, but it's always just a mic, no pick-up." ....and no amp. </p> <br><hr> <center><img src="http://www.talkbass.com/images/nealminer2.jpg" width="139" height="133" border="0" align="right"><br>For more information on Neal Miner and his new CD "The Real Neal", visit Juniper Records at <a href="http://www.juniperrecords.com">www.juniperrecords.com</a>
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