Beyond the notes, the tone, and the technique, and all the "gee whiz" from the proletariat, stands the man who is the master of all three. Rochester jazz guitarist Steve Greene is an utterly splendid and prolific artist. But a conversation with this stunning cat goes deeper to reveal aspects that pre-date the notes, tone, and technique and even threaten to overshadow them. Gabbing with the gregarious Greene about the nuts reveals a fascinating man consumed by fascination. Greene is transparently opaque, gently obtuse, and a character and a half. He is the space between the notes and is so cool, I swear to God, sheep count him.
Though he still claims to be learning, himself, Greene teaches guitar, mandolin, and ukulele to roughly 25 student currently enrolled in his 12-Corners teaching studio. He keeps busy composing and performing. He has played in Flat Toy, Mr. Twang, The White Hots, The Steve Greene Trio, as well as assorted solo affairs. He has composed for art installations as well as dance companies like Garth Fagan Dance and The Boston Dance Collective.
Beyond the afore-mentioned guitar qualities stands a man confounded by the beauty he seeks and the beauty he creates. He keeps the listener guessing because he's still guessing. Greene is wickedly deadpan and a regular riot. Greene machine stopped in to answer some silly questions and share a few yucks. An edited transcript follows.
City: What's new?
Steve Greene: That's your opener?
Sorry. You've experimented plenty outside of the acoustic jazz people associate you with. Let's talk about that. Is that better?
Yes; I've been to the dark side. I grew up in the rock era, so guitar for me was Hendrix and all that stuff. I really love electric music. When I played with Flat Toy years ago it was all distorted Les Paul, whammy bar stuff.
What made you first pick up a guitar?
There was this guy coming down the street playing ukulele when I was 10 years old. He was getting all the rats out of town. I said to my parents I want to play the ukulele. And my mom said, "No, you should play guitar." So it's really coming from the womb.
Were your parents musicians as well?
My dad was a med-psyche guy; mom was a social worker. They definitely encouraged me. Our house was where all the bands practiced. And when it got too loud they'd put pillows over the heat runs.
To cover the noise or suffocate the band?
Only three of the band members survived.
When did the jazz bug bite?
When I saw a band mate ripping all these cool jazz riffs on a Gibson ES-175. I said "Ooh, I like that."
As you went along, what else colored your sound?
When I was growing up I wasn't just doing music. I was painting a lot; photography; a lot of sculpture.
What is the common thread running through these various endeavors?
In all those things you're arranging space in some way.
Why did you gravitate to music?
The great thing about music is that it's a social thing as opposed to going off to paint alone or photograph alone. But it took me years to get used to playing in front of people. Between sets I'd go out to the car because I couldn't stand the crowd thing.
Why do you suppose you're drawn to the avant-garde?
When you have a lot of questions, you try to figure it out. Growing up, in my home I had books by Alexander Calder, paintings on the wall, "Scientific American" in the bathroom; it was my environment. I was inquisitive, and growing up with parents in the psychiatric field, there's a lot of questioning. I've always had this avant-garde streak. In high school I had a band called Workshop with electric cello. I was into guys like composer Harry Partch.
Why jazz? Does it lend itself best to your odd leanings?
I think the thing I dig about jazz is I don't know it. It's very hard for me to play jazz. It's a lot easier for me to do other things. Every day I wake up and say, "I have no idea; how do I do this?" When I play, I'm not playing jazz, I'm tuning frequencies. If someone in the audience isn't feeling so hot I'll bend a note in a certain way to try and change the vibe in the room.
When imparting knowledge, philosophy or technique, which students benefit the most from your view: the technically proficient or the inquisitive?
How do you teach?
The way I teach is, I don't tell anybody what to do and that's it. They give me some bread. It's nice. I ask people what they want to do, that's the first thing you've got to figure out. I have to work from where their creative sense is. Whether it's a jazz thing, a folk thing, a metal thing, I want people to be able to open their ears and get more creative. People come in thinking guitar or composition or improvisation is a certain thing, but what I'm really trying to do is to keep them moving through the creative process.
I would imagine you're learning too.
If someone comes in and says, "I'm really into speed metal," that's great for me because I get to learn all that stuff.
Do you ever come to an impasse with certain students?
If someone is into really advanced classical guitar, for example, there's clearly another teacher who's better for them; It's better that they get the tradition from somebody else, someone who teaches it.
What's the most ridiculous or far flung thing you've done?
Play in a Holiday Inn Band in the early 80's. We wore crushed velvet suits; it was great. That was so outside the box for me. Handmade Orchestra or avant-garde things like that are more natural to me.
What groups are you currently performing with?
Every once in a while we'll do a Steve Greene Trio gig. Now I'm in The Just Jazz Trio with Ron Alessi on drums and Gary Cummings on bass. It's nice not having my name on it.
So you don't have to worry about being Steve.
Whoever that is. Yeah, it's less pressure. It's nice just being the guitar player in a band.
Depending on who you ask — or when you ask the question — you'll get a variety of explanations of what the Sound ExChange Project really is: A local contemporary classical ensemble; a chamber group; an artist collective; composers; curators; educators; community-investors.