Greats such as Andrés Segovia, Eric Clapton or Jimi Hendrix have inspired countless guitar players; Joshua Breakstone, a graduate of New College in Sarasota, was motivated by the trumpet legends of jazz. As a teenager, the seeds of his music career were planted upon his discovery of trumpeters Lee Morgan and Clifford Brown. His admiration for them led to Breakstone's incorporation of a technique in which he plays single-note runs rather than the more typical chordal soloing.
"It's more like playing melodic lines like someone might sing them," Breakstone says. "It's not that guitar- chord approach, al-though I do play plenty of chords. The great thing about jazz is that it's the ultimate music for someone interested in improvisation, and there is interesting terrain for harmonics and developing melodies spontaneously. [Jazz artists] can play over anything harmonically: We can play things by John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins or Clifford Brown, and rewrite our own music. I have recorded two CDs of music by the Beatles. We invent new melodies over harmonies."
Tough jazz critic Scott Yanow called Breakstone's 1989 album, Self-Portrait in Swing, "a flawless bop date," thanks in part to his unique style. Many guitarists' chords get tangled up with those of piano players, but the single-note riffing keeps Breakstone's soloing distinct, like a horn-and-piano interplay. Yanow has even suggested that collectors of straight-ahead jazz should have all of Breakstone's albums.
According to the legendary Larry Coryell, one of the world's best guitarists and an Orlando resident, "Joshua Breakstone is right in the middle of the mainstream of jazz, a cool cat who plays great music. He has it all together, and his technique and style are perfectly matched." Coryell compares Breakstone to Barney Kessel, a bop-oriented guitarist who displayed elegant note production while jamming in a swing groove. "In the guitar world, [Breakstone] is loved and everybody knows him," Coryell says.
Breakstone's versatility can be a curse as much as a gift. In fact, he may be the only jazz great to record an album of '60s surf rock, and not necessarily because he wanted to.
"I was in Tokyo and a guy from King Records heard me play and said it was wonderful and could I meet with him the next day and talk about recording for them," recalls Breakstone of his time in Japan in the '90s, where surf rock continues to be wildly popular. "I go to their office and there is this huge room set up for a banquet and about 40 people and they had, like, you couldn't believe the food. We're drinking and drinking and hours are going by. We started at noon and it's 6:30 and everybody's drunk. Their jazz guy walks me to the elevator and I jump out and walk back to the office and ask for the owner of the label. He sticks his hand out the door and grabs me by the shirt and grabs a guy from the legal department and we hammer out a contract. It was a really great contract.
"It was time for the first recording, and I had the musicians lined up, and I get a fax from him: ‘I want you to do a recording of the Ventures.' I said, ‘I am not doing this.' I put together a fax for him saying, ‘I am absolutely insulted. I thought you had respect for me and my music. I thought you understood what I do, and I don't care about your goddamned contract and you can take it and rip it up. I'm not going to do it.' It was a terrible fax. I put it in the fax machine and my girlfriend at the time says, ‘Don't send that. Wait until tomorrow morning. Some of these things you should really think about.' I read it in the morning and decided it was really terrible and I wrote back a fax saying, ‘I don't understand, and I don't like the idea of this project.' He sent me a fax back saying he was worried I would hate the idea but he wanted me to reconsider it and take anything the Ventures had ever written and do it any way I wanted. I went to the library and discovered the Ventures had covered "Caravan" by Duke Ellington and "Slaughter on 10th Avenue" and "Perfidia" and all these songs I just loved. They butchered them all, but it was all this material that I loved and I understood what he was after."
So Breakstone infused the baby-boomer pop tunes with jazz improvisations and melodic enhancements taken at a graceful lope, but with fresh flourishes. He realized in the recording session that the Ventures had used classic jazz songs like "Softly as in a Morning Sunrise" as the raw material for their repetitive staccato beats and electrified guitar shreds with fuzz tone pedal distortion. Ventures founder Don Wilson later contacted Breakstone to tell him his version of the band's "Walk, Don't Run" was the best ever recorded, including the original.
Breakstone, who recently taught a master class at the University of Miami, seems to have embraced his open-minded approach and tells up-and-comers that all music is just another form of communication, with all the boundaries and abstractions that come with it.
"I try to play music that has touched me, or songs I might find beautiful, exciting, moving, funny or harmonically really great. I try to communicate the way I feel about that music. I teach students about the dynamics we use in our voice and how we can communicate on a deep level with musical dynamics, telling a story. A lot of young musicians will play a lot of stuff, and it's impressive, but for me that would be like speaking and being completely scattered and all over the place. It might be fun and energetic, but after a while it's just a little too much. So just the same way in a book, we organize thoughts and have a title and chapters and paragraphs and beginning sentences that are developed by other sentences that naturally lead into new ideas which you develop in the next paragraphs."
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