Eric Zolan

Funky and Blue
Eric Zolan
Eric Zolan: Luke Marantz.

Guitarist Eric Zolan whips up a perfect confection of jazz, blues, and R&B in his playing, heard on his latest, Calder’s Universe. His authentic approach avoids fusion and post-modern ideas, opting instead for licks that wouldn’t be out of place on a ’60s soul-jazz record.

“Calder’s Universe” is a sly mix of vintage R&B and jazz – like George Benson, Wes Montgomery, or Grant Green meets Stevie Wonder.
I love all those musicians, and George Benson is a huge influence; I love his playing on Jimmy Smith’s The Boss – the best organ-trio record of all time. Bobby Broom is another big influence. When I was writing the tunes and practicing for the album, I was listening to his organ-trio record dedicated to Stevie Wonder, Wonderful!. I also transcribed a fair amount of Pat Martino’s solos on El Hombre. Dave Stryker (VG, June ’22) is another big one, and Ed Cherry – his sound and feel are unmatched.

Did you play rock or funk when you were starting out – or always jazz?
My first musical obsession was ska and punk music, and loved the Dead Kennedys, Minor Threat, and Streetlight Manifesto. American Idiot by Green Day was the first album I learned by ear. I think it was the horn sections in ska music that first turned my ear toward jazz. I started playing jazz when I was about 14.

Clearly, you dig the organ-trio tradition, as in “Caught On Tape.” What does an organ do for you, rather than having an upright bassist?
Having the organ comp behind my solo makes my job a lot easier! I’m not good with chord melodies or accompanying myself with chords and have always gravitated towards more linear players – Martino, Green, etc. At the same time, I love accompanying others, especially in the funk/soul style. Some of my favorite guitar playing is Leo Nocentelli’s on the early Meters albums, Cornell Dupree on Donny Hathaway: Live, and Catfish Collins when he was in The J.B.’s, which was James Brown’s band. I think that style works really well when comping for the organ.

Your approach to improv is funky and bluesy, but there are also jazzy arpeggios.
I never get tired of playing the blues; it’s the foundation of my vocabulary. I also favor the bebop dominant scale and playing over the dominant chord that is a fourth from the minor chord or vise versa. I’ll make a chord into a dominant-seventh any chance I get. That’s something I got from [pianist] Cedar Walton. I like to use some diminished patterns and chord substitutions. Nothing I play is very advanced, theoretically, but I teach my students all these useful ideas.

Your playing has that staccato sound of Benson and Martino. Describe your picking and fretting.
Yes, I love Benson and Martino’s articulation; they have so much clarity and their time is so solid. I’m not a true “Benson picker,” but I do use some of Pat and George’s techniques like keeping my right wrist elevated and anchoring my picking hand with my pinky. I use Dunlop Jazztone 208 picks. They’re pretty large, but very comfortable and dynamic to play with. They don’t create much pick sound in their attack and the tone is rich and full. For strings, I used D’Addario .013 flatwounds on the record, but I’ve since switched to D’Addario or Thomastik-Infeld .012 roundwounds, which are a bit easier on my hands and have a brightness that nicely cuts through the mix.

There’s a lot of space in your playing and composing.
I hope it gives the music clarity. I definitely don’t like it when music is too busy and tend to favor minimalism. I like melodies that are memorable and singable – phrases that have clear beginnings and endings. I’m not sure if I accomplish that 100 percent of the time in my playing and writing, but it’s something I aspire to.

Your tone is fat, clean, crisp. What gear did you use on the album?
I played an Ibanez SJ300 into a ’65 Princeton Reverb that belongs to the studio. That was a great guitar that unfortunately is no longer working due to issues with the pickups. Now, I play a Gibson ES-446.

Jazz guitar has had a tremendous resurgence in the past few years. Why is it suddenly hip again?
Jazz guitar has always been cool to me, so I might not be the best person to ask (laughs). I think the internet and social media have played a large part in generating interest in younger players, because it has exponentially grown the output of artists. This content is far more accessible than before, too. All I have to do is open my phone and I can watch hours and hours of live performances from players I love.

This article originally appeared in VG’s May 2023 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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