Since his debut at age 19, Graham Dechter has rekindled a post-war jazz sound, effortlessly swinging and always in the pocket. On his latest, Major Influences, he evokes iconic names like Pass, Ellis, Farlow, and Montgomery, employing a command of technique and melodic jazz with a dash of sweet blues. We caught up with him to get the details.
Your improv style is very positive and swinging – that optimistic post-war feeling of Herb Ellis, Barney Kessel, and Joe Pass comes through.
Thanks. My guitar teachers – Jim Fox, Bob Sneider, and Larry Koonse – had a huge impact on my playing. In addition to the three you mentioned, other major influences were Wes Montgomery, Jim Hall, Freddie Green, Grant Green, Ed Bickert, and my present day hero, Peter Bernstein. Pete’s playing is unmatched.
You started on violin. How did you make the transition to guitar?
That came as a result of wanting to prove something to a bully in grade school who played guitar and made fun of me for playing violin. I wanted to learn guitar and outplay him in two weeks. I don’t know if I accomplished that, but when you’re 12 years old and someone picks on you, it can either be very debilitating or very motivating. After two weeks, I fell in love with the guitar and never looked back.
How did you discover jazz?
I grew up with jazz in our house and, after falling in love with Wes Montgomery’s Boss Guitar, I began to realize that guitar wasn’t just a rock or pop instrument, but a viable jazz one, too. As far as understanding harmony, it’s a never-ending journey. I was blessed to have great teachers who really taught me the nuts and bolts of the most-common chord progressions and how to navigate them.
Hard-bop drummer Art Blakey is suddenly hip again, and your cut “Minor Influence,” pays homage to his music.
Art Blakey is – and always will be – hip! I essentially wrote the tune as an homage not only to Art, but to many of the great musicians who came up through his Jazz Messengers, as well as the classic Blue Note recordings of the ’50s and ’60s. I was inspired by Art’s unrelenting big beat and the hard-driving sensibilities of pianist Benny Green, most notably his performance on his own tune, “Bu’s March.”
“Billy’s Dilemma” is a barnburner. How did you achieve that picking speed and cleanliness at such quick tempos?
I worked on some technique-specific exercises when I was younger, but what really got me more comfortable playing fast tempos was learning the vocabulary of great jazz horn players, pianists, and guitar players who have played at those tempos. You have to trick your mind into believing that what you’re playing is not actually “fast,” but just another tempo. The moment you make a big deal out of it, the more likely it is you’ll tense up, and that’s the absolute last thing you want to do at brisk tempos. You want to stay as relaxed as possible.
What gear did you use on the album?
An Andersen StreamLine 16 archtop with a John Caruthers custom single-coil pickup. Also, a ’65 Fender Vibrolux and an Xotic RC Booster for tone and EQ manipulation. I use D’Addario roundwound strings, .012-.052, but replace the E and B with a .013 and .017.
How does one make a living as a jazz guitarist?
I think it depends on who the guitarist is and what their strengths are. In training for the guitar chair in the Clayton-Hamilton Orchestra, I had to become an expert in playing rhythm a la Freddie Green in the Count Basie Orchestra. Because of this, certain artists, such as Michael Bublé, have called on me to play on their albums because they wanted that style of guitar on their recordings. The bottom line is if you set out to be the best at what you do and wind up achieving a high level of mastery, others will notice and you’ll always have work.
Classic jazz guitar is having a bit of a renaissance with fine young players like Dan Wilson and Pasquale Grasso (VG, November ’21). How does jazz guitar relate in the 21st century?
I think people will always be able to relate to and enjoy great music, no matter the genre. Pasquale and Dan – two of my favorite modern guitarists – have a timeless aesthetic to their sound and approach. I’m cut from the same cloth, but as you’ll notice, we all sound very much like ourselves. In my opinion, there’s nothing hipper and more modern than getting to experience music being created in real time, whether you’re a musician or a listener. That’s precisely what jazz is – music of the moment.
This article originally appeared in VG’s February 2022 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.