Danny Embrey and Rod Fleeman: A JAM Q&A
Taken and Transcribed by Roger Atkinson
Danny and Rod have been friends since they came on the scene together in the 1970's, and their careers have intertwined ever since, especially in the band Interstring. They are constantly in demand locally and nationally. In addition to associations mentioned in the conversation, Danny appears regularly in the Sons of Brasil
(The conversation started with a discussion of all the places that had closed over the years)
Rod: Guys in Dry Jack used to joke, we'd put a skull and crossbones on the van where we played that week. There were a lot of places closed right after we played, we were the last band to play there before they closed down
JAM: Good for the resume.
Danny: Yeah, we worked all these places, but don't bother calling, no one will answer the phone.
JAM: What is it about jazz that keeps attracting talented guitarists?
Danny: God only knows… we've got to stop them!
Rod: We have to stop it somehow!
JAM: That really started about the time that your careers were starting.
Rod: And there was Don Winsell before us, too, he was the big guitarist in town, the master.
Danny: He was the first guy in Kansas City playing the guitar like he was a horn player, like Lester Young or Charlie Parker. He was the first guy I heard here. He died fairly young.
Rod: Beautiful chords, beautiful player. I wanted to take lessons from him, but at the time he was full up and I was taking lessons from Rich Roberts, he worked in the same store as Don did, I'd get some of Don's guitar arrangements from Rich. Shortly after that he died in a car accident coming home from a gig one night.
JAM: When did you two first meet?
Danny: It was around 1973.
Rod: I think you came in, I was playing at the Top of the Crown, now it's Benton 's.
Danny: You were playing with Greg Meise. I had just come off the road, I was on the road playing with a variety group.
Rod: And you played “Round Midnight”, I remember the tune you played. I was thinking it was a hard tune, that I needed to know it! I was really knocked out. I first heard about you, well, my first gig in town was with Greg Meise at a place called The Wildhawker, around 31 st and Southwest Boulevard . It's a Quik Trip now.
Danny: Closed that place, too!
Rod: It was an after-hours joint, eleven to three six nights a week. It was a private club. That's how they negotiated around the drinking laws in Kansas , there was no liquor by the drink. One night I was in there talking to drummer Abel Ramirez, and Abel was telling me about Danny, about how I needed to meet him, that we'd get along really well, he's a great player and all that. It was about six months later when you came in to the Top of the Crown.
Danny: Yeah, Abel had been on the road with us, and came home I think to get married. Abel is an old childhood friend of mine. Still plays in a big band every Tuesday in Lenexa . Then Rod wanted to do a job at the Starlight in the pit, and I filled in for him for a couple of weeks at Crown Center with Greg.
JAM: So you were actually working with Greg at the same time?
Danny: Right, I started filling in for Rod. Then Rod went out of town to go to school at the University of Miami .
JAM: That seems to have been a popular place for Kansas City musicians at the time… Pat Metheny went there, Bobby Watson… what was the lure?
Rod: I was there when Bobby was there. It was one of the few schools to offer a really good jazz program. There were just a few then – North Texas , Berklee. And Pat, he could take the air out of you, even then. I remember one night he came in to The Wildhawker, this would have been before he went to Miami . Dan Hurley was in town, I guess he was recruiting him. They came in together, and Pat sat in with Greg Meise, and it was like ‘oh, man…' He was pretty far ahead of the curve.
JAM: All of you guys are about the same age – you, Pat, Steve Cardenas.
Danny: Pat's maybe three years younger than us, and Steve maybe another three years younger again. He was studying from me at Woods Music, I was about 21 and Steve was in high school.
Rod: But Pat, Danny, and I are about the same age, coming up at the same time. And Rob Whitsitt is about the same age, too.
Danny: And Monte Muza came just before us, another fine player, I used to go out and hear him.
JAM: What was John Elliott's influence in making this all possible?
Rod: John was important to all of us, not just the guitar players. Everybody.
Danny: There's something about the guitar in Kansas City , it's hard to pin it down why there are so many good guitarists.
Rod: It's definitely a guitar town. No doubt about it.
Danny: And John Elliott certainly solidified the stuff we needed, helped us pull the harmony and theory thing together. It wasn't about lines or single lines, it was more about the whole chordal and keyboard aspect. He helped the guitar player to understand the keyboard. Heck, we just wanted to play our guitars!
Rod: He was teaching the theory, it was especially important to guitar players, because guitar is an instrument where you are prone to fall into patterns.
Danny: Especially visual patterns.
Rod: It's like once you know this shape, you can move it up the neck and as long as you know where the root of the chord is you can almost turn your brain off. But John would turn the brain on, he would force you to sit down at the piano and think about things. John knew all the tricks. I'd say, “well, that particular chord, I don't think you can play it on the guitar”, and he'd say “oh, you can, keep looking! Try that lower string group.”
Danny: He knew how to write and voice for the guitar. The piano can be voiced in thirds, but the guitar, the voicings need to be broken up. He understood this. He knew what we could play and what we couldn't.
Rod: He really nailed us!
JAM: So how did you get to John?
Danny: It was all word of mouth, all the guitar players knew, I think I went to him after Rod had started. You had to wait, I was on the list for about a year. Rod was taking lessons from him, and Pat had taken lessons with him before that. I put in three solid years, and could have done another but I went out to LA. He just taught privately. He had ninety students a week at that time, and he had a studio at 99 th and Holmes for years. He didn't hand out stuff, he wrote it out in our spiral music notebook. We all still have them. He filled up about four or five books when I was with him.
Rod: You'd go ahead and perform the lesson he had given to you from the previous week and while you were doing that he'd be writing out the next lesson. But he'd hear everything you were doing, he'd be writing and he'd say, “that's not right, do that again”, and keep on writing.
JAM: How did he influence your teaching?
Danny: That's the way I start everybody.
Rod: Yeah. I can't get away from it. I plagiarize him like crazy.
Danny: It's tried and true, it works, you know? One thing I do, I split the lesson up in two parts, half theory and chordal stuff, and half technique and solo kinds of things. But the theory half of it is John Elliott. I think John's glad to hear it, that we're continuing on with his method. He'd like that. I don't copy his material verbatim, I write out my own stuff, but it's the same concepts. There's a guitar player in town that has come out with a new series of books, Jay EuDaly, called Vertical Truth – Chordal Mechanisms for the Guitar.He plays a little jazz, he's good, but he's more out of a rock perspective. He studied with John for seven years. He put this book out of John's method, under the auspices of John, with the blessings of John. He had me review it for JAM a few years ago. [Editor's note: Danny's review is in the December 2000 / January 2001 issue of JAM ]. I remember when I got the copy, looking at it, thinking ‘yup, this is it'.
Rod: John would never put a book out, although we all wanted him to, it was such a great method that he had. He just wouldn't do it.
Danny: But we all took from him and then he retired, some people wanted to study from him but he retired. I assume Cardenas took from him, he was probably the last of the line. Jake Blanton, he's too young to have studied with him, same with Matt Hopper.
Rod: But when we've taught them, we've really exposed them to John, so his influence continues. It's really far reaching.
JAM: What brought you to guitar and specifically jazz?
Rod: Just like today, jazz was not the popular music of that time period, but it's great music and if you get exposed to it, you're just into it. Can't help yourself. I was going to Southwest, George Alter was teaching the band, they needed someone to play chords because the pianist in the stage band had graduated. So I got recruited, and when I heard the band I knew that's what I wanted to do, it really lit a fire under me. So we were running counter to our generation, listening to our parents' records. It's even more true today, because we are a couple of generations now from it being a more popular music.
Danny: Now young people's parents don't listen to that at all. They listen to Led Zeppelin! I started on drums, all three boys did. My older brother Gary, he's ten year older than me and my other brother Jack, who's no longer with us, we all played drums. Gary played drums, so we wanted to also. My brother listened to jazz records, so this is how I started listening to it. He was into Elvis Presley first, then he got into jazz stuff, so that's what got into my head. He had Wes Montgomery records, some Monk, Mose Allison. Then the Beatles came out and I switched to guitar. A lot of guitarists of our age became guitarists because of the Beatles.
Rod: I still love the Beatles. I actually think it was my mom's suggestion to take music lessons. I didn't have anything else going on, no organized sports or anything. Guitar came to mind probably due to Elvis, the guitar was really in the limelight. I played in a rock band when I was in sixth and seventh grade. Ed Toler influenced us all, too, he passed away. He was more known in blues circles. Me and a friend who played with me in the rock band started taking lessons from Ed. Ed exposed us to a lot of black music, like B.B. King, Albert King. I was over at Ed's house one time, looking through his records. There was B.B King, Albert King, Albert Collins, and then there was one I didn't know. ‘Who's this?' ‘Oh, that's Wes Montgomery, that's different, that's jazz, but it's really good. Put it back!' I'm looking at it, didn't know about this guy.
Danny: I was an R&B fan, James Brown, Sam and Dave, Otis Redding, some of that was fun to play on guitar. I remember hearing Wes Montgomery, my brother got into the Hammond B3 sound, Jimmy Smith, and Wes was on some of those, and the sound of the guitar was so cool, so fat, so melodic, these melodies that weren't so string-bending. Sounded like he was playing real music. You could really do that on the guitar?
JAM: There really weren't that many guitarists in jazz yet, not like trumpet or sax. It was still an oddball instrument.
Danny: Now you look on YouTube and there are killer guitar players everywhere.
Rod: But back then, it's like the guitar, you just had to be in love with it. At that time, your best opportunity to get gigs was in an organ trio. Other than the B3 format we didn't have any gigs. Guitar was the oddball. It was a luxury in a big band, you didn't have to have it. Then you had piano trios, and maybe the groups that would play the country clubs, they'd have a few horns and a trio. But there weren't gigs for guitar players. Even Don Winsell, as good as he was, he'd did a lot of country gigs. What we wound up doing was doubling on electric bass. Everybody needed a bass. With Greg Meise, when he started switching from organ to piano, I'd have to switch to electric bass. When I went to Miami , you probably had to play a lot of bass with Greg.
Danny: Yes, when he played piano, I played electric bass. I played electric six nights a week for two years, saved up enough money to go to LA. Rod showed me how to play bass, I went to his house and he showed my how to construct bass lines. I liked it, it was just a different role.
Rod: When I came back after Dry Jack, I vowed to not play any more bass, I'd sell shoes first, no more bass. But by the time I got back the guitar had been integrated into the country club bands and wedding gigs, now you needed guitar, more people wanted tunes from that era, “Proud Mary”, that is what people danced to. We were needed.
JAM: And now the guitar is a key instrument, maybe the dominant instrument in jazz. Is this because of the wave that started back at the time when you were emerging?
Danny: It became a voice, a true voice in jazz. It wasn't before, it was more of a novelty. It's horn-like, it sustains, it cuts through.
Rod: And look at the people from our generation who have come through and created this: Pat Metheny, John Scofield, John Abercrombie. They have emerged as really the dominant voices in jazz. Oh, we didn't mention guys who were influential, out of the organ thing, Pat Martino and George Benson, they were a direct link to Wes Montgomery. They were fiery players, technique to burn.
Danny: Before them there weren't many guys that played that fast on the guitar, maybe Tal Farlow and Joe Pass , but that was in a different way.
Rod: Danny and I were hanging out a lot back then, listening to recordings a lot.
Danny: Every day we'd listen to records for several hours.
JAM: Do you all miss Interstring?
Danny: It's just hard to keep groups together like that. We were lucky to hang together for two albums worth. People move around, it's such a mobile world these days.
Rod: The band was born, I think we had a Sunday night gig at Milton 's when it was on 39 th . I don't think we called it Interstring yet. Then we did some Monday or Tuesday nights at The Tuba. It was great.
Danny: Then Todd [Strait] moved out of town. And I started going out on the road quite a bit. It was hard to keep it together. Bob [Bowman] was traveling quite a lot, too. And Rod, you weren't traveling as much but you were real busy around town. It was hard to keep it together. I listen to the CDs every now and then.
Rod: Me, too. It was fun times. Especially the Tuba gigs, it was the perfect place for the band. We had a one night a week gig, it was consistent and we had a great following.
Danny: We'd all bring in tunes. Never really rehearsed.
JAM: When we first moved here, in 1997, we heard you a number of times and it was always packed.
Danny: At the Tuba, the bar was real close, people would be right in front of you.
JAM: What were the challenges with a two guitar band?
Rod: It required a fair amount of listening to one another. There are challenges, and you need to have the right kind of people to do it. All four of us had real good empathy together. It was a guitar and a guitar, we had the same things going, and in some respects it's easier than playing with a piano.
Danny: You had to know when to not play, to lay back and toss the ball back and forth. We'd do a lot of overlaying of things, too, but we knew each other's playing so well, that was a big part of it. Couldn't do that with putting two strange players together.
JAM: Had you played together in bands before?
Rod: Jams, sure. We did a couple of duo gigs at various times.
Danny: Really, it's like one guy is acting like the horn player, the other is acting like the piano player, in real simple terms. You start out that way and it all works itself out. Some times we'd do chordal things where Rod would be down here and I would be up here.
Rod: Like one big guitar.
Danny: Then we'd sometimes solo together, sort of clashing frenetic solos together, people loved that.
Rod: There's been some other examples of it. When Pat [Metheny] first joined Gary Burton, Mick Goodrick was the guitarist. They did some great things together.
Danny: It's unusual. The Guitar Player book that Joel Barth put together, there was an interview with Gary Burton, he talked about all the guitarists that he had in his bands, and he talked about that two guitar group. And Steve Cardenas has been involved in some bands like this, the Paul Motian band had the two guitarists, the Electric Bebop Band. Two guitars and two tenor saxophones.
You know, right now there are a lot of really good guitar players coming out. And there was a long dry period where I didn't think there were many coming out.
Rod: Right after Steve it seemed there was a drought.
Danny: Really, not many standouts on any instrument for quite awhile. Now there's Jake, and Matt Hopper, and Brian Baggett, Aaron Sizemore. There are horn players, too. Some of the resurgence might be due to Bobby Watson being in town, there is some excitement about being able to study with him.
Rod: And these guys are from here, too. It's not like there's a bunch of outside guys coming in on the guitar, but we definitely have a real bumper crop of fine young players.
Danny: But there is something about the guitar in this town.
Rod: It is amazing, I wonder if there's another town like this?
Danny: It probably starts with one good one, like Don Winsell when we were coming up. One person catches on, and they influence other people. So maybe it just takes one person and it starts to snowball. Somebody who is here, flesh and blood, you can actually see them do it. It creates so much more interest than hearing them on records. Oh, and Charlie Gatschet is another player who has blossomed the past few years. He has been doing some things in Denver , plays a place called Dazzle. So he can get noticed out there. Sometimes it is hard to get noticed locally.
JAM: How much are you traveling now?
Rod: I've been doing quite a bit. Some with Diane Schuur, but not as much lately. More with Karrin. Quite a bit the past couple of years.
Danny: I went the opposite way. A few years ago I got off the road. I miss the performances, but not the travel. It's like, I'll play for free, but pay me to travel!
Rod: That's what Count Basie would say when people asked him what it was like to get paid so well for an hour on stage. He'd say that they aren't paying me for this, they're paying for the other twenty three!
Danny: Rod's done a lot, going back to Dry Jack. When I was seventeen I went out on the road with a variety band, driving cars, mainly around the Midwest . Motels, playing, moving on. I went for a summer and stayed out for three years. I was just an ear player, learned off of records like most of us back then did. Then went out to LA in 1980. Then I was with Sergio Mendes, we traveled a lot, that was for six or seven years, but only like three months out of the year. Then I came back, and then traveled with Karrin all of those years. Put it together, that's a lot time on the road, like twenty years traveling.
JAM: What are some of the things you are doing now?
Rod: There are the things with Diane and Karrin, and I've been working with Ron Gutierrez at Cascone's, other things with singers…
JAM: You both do great work with singers.
Danny: My first gig was with a singer, the variety band. I remember, the pianist quit in the middle of a road trip, and I wasn't ready! I've been working with singers from the very beginning. I really do enjoy it.
Rod: We've both been lucky, we've worked with some really good ones. Karrin…
Danny: And Rod's worked with Marilyn Maye for years.
Rod: You've done that, too. There's a special art about working with a singer. Just because you are good being out front does not mean that you work well with singers. Same goes for pianists. You have to listen.
Danny: It's a lot of listening, you really have to zone in on the singers. You have to be all over it, all the time.
Rod: You have to be able to voice your chords, listen close, support the melody, and give them something to work with.
Danny: A lot of times, if you play less it really sounds like more. It sounds fuller. There is definitely an art to it.
JAM: You've both played with some great musicians, like Sergio and Jay McShann. How do those experiences change you?
Danny: They are just great experiences to draw from. For me, once you've done it, you are more comfortable the next time. You learn from it. Like on Marilyn Maye gigs, she is so particular, and nice and forgiving, too, but you learn what she wants and likes to hear. But what she wants to hear may not be what the next singer you work with wants. All the experiences help you to grow as a complete player.
Rod: It's not necessarily just with the singers. Music is unique. There is a certain amount of wisdom, which gives us hope, right? (laughs) That the older you get, there is something that gets into your playing, it comes with time.
Danny: It makes you wiser.
Rod: Right, and when I think about playing with Jay McShann or Marilyn Maye, there is so much wisdom there. I learned a lot from them and I hope that eventually I'll become a source of that for a younger player, there'll be something that I can impart. That's one thing about music. It's not like sports, when once your body wears out you're done. Music is a wisdom thing. Even Claude Williams, near the end, there was so much wisdom in his playing, he was older and getting frail, but there was something there, you could feel this link to the past. A living link. We're all that, we're living links.
Danny: I'm playing with some of these young guys now, I can feel how they're tapping into my experience. I playing with a group that Zack Albetta put together, and Heartsongs with Jeff Harshbarger, they're tapping in. Makes me feel kind of old! They have this fire, and they're gleaning this stuff from me.
Rod: Learning what not to play, watching how we act on the gig. Our demeanor. They watch everything.
JAM: Rod, what would the casual listener not know about Danny's playing?
Rod: There's so much that's unique. His sense of time, probably from growing up around the drums, his time is just amazing. It's just so locked in, like a laser beam.
Danny: That's nice to hear, it's so important to jazz, the placement of the notes can make or break a line. With Rod, it's his musical thoughts that are just so clear, so musical. They go right through, don't get sidetracked. The casual listener might pick up on that. And his musicianship is at a very high level. He'll never lose control of the form or anything like that. His melodic sense is very strong. When he takes a solo, he really draws the listeners in. You'd see that in Interstring a lot. They'd be with him on every note. Real strong melodic sense. It starts here, and goes here….
Rod: Then it nosedives! (laughs)
Danny: That was another thing that made Interstring so interesting, we are really different players. People like variety.
JAM: What are the connections between teaching and performing?
Danny: In both you are trying to reach people.
Rod: I never thought of it like that.
Danny: When I finish a lesson, I like to feel that it was good, that the student really seemed to learn something, that I was able to communicate, it feels good, it's like finishing a set and thinking that it went pretty well. It's not always like that, you can be halfway through a lesson and know it's not going too well, I'm not getting through…
Rod: And the harder you try the worse it gets.
Danny: … and I still have a half hour to go! You like to be inspiring.
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