Guitarist Dr. Zvonimir Tot has had a busy last few months. He recently released a double CD, Standards Live at the Jazz Showcase, published an educational book, toured Germany, recorded in San Francisco and played several concerts on the West Coast. Tot, pronounced tote, is also a clinical assistant professor for the Music School of Theatre & Music at the University of Illinois at Chicago, so he’s been gearing up for the new school year. We got Tot to stop long enough to talk about his background and how he became interested in jazz.
Where were you born and how did you end up in the United States?
I was born in Novi Sad, the capital of Vojvodina, which is the northern province of Serbia. Throughout the 1990s, I lived and worked in Serbia, Hungary, the Netherlands and Germany. I came to the U.S. in the summer of 2000 to take advantage of a full scholarship for a master’s degree at Northern Illinois University.
Was there music in your house when you were growing up?
No, not any meaningful extent. My mother was a fairly skilled amateur pianist in her youth, but by the time I was born she had given up playing. My father was not musical at all. Somewhere around the seventh grade I acquired a turntable and started listening to records. Another happenstance was that my mother was a news anchor at the national radio, so with enough pleading, I was occasionally given not-entirely-legal access to the radio’s sound archives and allowed to copy LP records onto cassette tapes. For some reason at that time I gravitated toward the folk music of Spain and Latin America. In retrospect, this may not have been particularly conducive to social acceptance, given that my peers were mostly listening to British punk and domestic rock. Even though I eventually became a jazz musician, my love of Spanish and Latin American music remains to this day. I was also exposed to the wonderfully rich folkloric heritage of Vojvodina, Serbia and broader Balkans. Although I do not perform the folk music of my roots professionally, it definitely influences my jazz phrasing in subtle ways.
How did you end up choosing guitar as your instrument?
It was more or less an accident. Around the fifth or sixth grade, my mother insisted that I get music lessons on some instrument. The most popular instruments at the time were guitar and accordion. Well, you get the picture—the guitar won. I took private lessons from a not particularly skillful (I know that today) local teacher, and, after a while, I dropped the instrument completely. After the poor thing collected dust for a couple of years, I finally picked it up again and tried to figure things out on my own. Needless to say, I sucked. Years later, I started learning music seriously, but to a certain extent, I remain a self-taught guitarist. Today, I am definitely not a guitar fanatic. While I appreciate the expressive capabilities of the instrument, I tend to think of myself as a musician who incidentally plays the guitar.
When did you first start getting interested in jazz and what artist/artists did you first listen to?
Most jazz guitarists come from rock/blues backgrounds. Not me. Because of my early affinity toward Latin American music, at some point I heard a bossa nova on the radio; it may have been Black Orpheus. I think I appreciated the melancholy mood and sophisticated harmonies. I had no idea what those harmonies were, but my curiosity was awakened. Toward the end of high school, I met a friend who had an extensive jazz collection. He introduced me to some records by Miles Davis, Chet Baker and several other great musicians.
What were the biggest challenges you experienced when you first started playing jazz?
The biggest challenges were lack of information, lack of a coherent jazz scene and the cultural barrier of learning a musical idiom foreign to one’s own culture. So, the fact that I became a jazz musician at all defies the odds in many ways. An important early influence was Jamey Aebersold’s Play-Alongs, often acquired in a rather unorthodox manner. It is therefore particularly satisfying that 30 years later, Mr. Aebersold became my publisher, mentor and most recently, employer. This summer I was privileged to teach alongside stellar faculty at the Jamey Aebersold Summer Jazz Workshop, the original jazz camp, now in its 53rd year.
You have many college degrees. Can you give us the list and tell us the story of how you accomplished so much educational success?
I have degrees from Franz Liszt Academy of Music (Budapest, Hungary), Amsterdam Conservatory, Northern Illinois University and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. While these educational experiences were highly meaningful in my continuing quest for better musical craftsmanship, nobody has ever asked me onstage about where (and if) I went to school. I think that musical knowledge should ideally come from both formal education and real-life experience.
When you first moved to Chicago, which musicians did you first hear who inspired you? And, how was it when you first arrived?
Arriving to Chicago as a foreign-born jazz musician was rather humbling, and in many respects, it remains so. In addition to its glorious historical jazz heritage, this city is home to some of the better musicians on the planet. Listing names is always a thankless task because one can never list every musician of consequence. The list that follows is by no means comprehensive; it is merely a mention of some of the artists that I have worked with who have made a particularly strong impression on me. In no particular order: Mark Colby, Art Davis, Larry Novak, Frank D’Rone, Henry Johnson, Cheryl Wilson, Larry Gray, Kelly Sill, Paulinho Garcia, Ernie Adams and many others.
You have a new double album that was recorded live at Jazz Showcase in Chicago with bassist Kelly Sill. How did the recording come about and how different is it to just play with a bassist as opposed to a trio or larger ensemble?
A guitar-bass duo is one of my favorite playing formats; it is intimate and intensely interactive. Bass and guitar are, in a way, extensions of each other. Naturally, a mere combination of instruments would be meaningless on its own. Some 12 years ago or so I started playing with Kelly Sill. It was soon obvious to me that we have a personal and musical dynamic conducive to making music. Kelly is a marvelously empathetic and intuitive musician, and playing with him is always a balanced mixture of safety and challenge. Add to the mix his brilliant and seriously quirky mind, and interesting musical, as well as personal interactions, often ensue. Most of my previous recording projects feature original—well more or less so—compositions. On this double CD we recorded only standards, without any arrangements or rehearsal. Most of the tunes were decided upon at the gig. Courtesy of Joe and Wayne Segal, we recorded a gig at the legendary Jazz Showcase. The CDs were just lightly mixed, without any Pro Tools “magic” or other editing. We wanted to preserve the authenticity of live performance, glitches and all. I’d like to think that we made an honest record.
You also have an educational book published by Jamey Aebersold Jazz, entitled Jazz Guitar Harmony – The Melodic Approach. What concepts and exercises are in the book? Is it specifically for guitar or can someone move the concepts to another instrument?
As a younger musician, I was (like many others) frustrated by looking at “chord books” that would consist of nothing but endless pages of chord diagrams. Some other books dealt with harmony to some extent, but I found them not particularly systematic or coherent. An additional technical difficulty in playing harmony on the guitar is the physicality of the instrument—we are to some extent, bound by mechanical chord shapes. Consequently, we as jazz guitarists often gravitate toward a few comfortable voicings. I developed the methodology presented in the book over a number of years, at first to help myself, then to teach my students. This system seemed so logical to me, I was fairly certain that a good book with such content must already exist, and I just wasn’t aware of it. Therefore, it didn’t really occur to me to write one. This changed a few years ago when Jamey Aebersold heard a conference presentation of mine on the topic of jazz guitar harmony. He told me that there is no book on the market that deals with the issue in this particular way and that I should write it. Needless to say, when the foremost jazz educator in the world tells you to write a book, you write it. The concept is relatively simple: harmony means more than just stacks of notes; it is about voice leading. Good pianists always think this way, while guitarists do some of the time. The book takes a fairly detailed approach to treating harmony as multiple melodies and offers practical, gig-focused solutions to musical applications of that concept. All examples are notated in standard notation and tab, and each is coupled with two recorded tracks—guitar, bass, and drums, as well as just bass and drums serving as a play-along. The book can be ordered on my website at zt-music.com, as well as on Mr. Aebersold’s website jazzbooks.com.
Describe some of your current and upcoming projects.
This summer, I had a 20-day tour of Germany with saxophonist Uwe Plath and his band. I also had a concert in Eugene, Ore., and a recording session in San Francisco with pianist Larry Vuckovich. The most “involved” current project is my new band, Zvonimir Tot’s Jazz Stringtet. The band is a sextet, consisting of string quintet and acoustic guitar. We perform my original music exclusively. Stylistically, the band is a jazz-concert music crossover. We have a few upcoming performances this fall and should be recording a CD this winter. I am planning several out-of-town projects for next summer. One that I am particularly looking forward to will take place in Cape Town, South Africa, where I’ll have several performances and a CD recording with Dutch bassist Hein van de Geyn, one of my musical heroes.
Zvonimir's new book Guitar Harmony – The Melodic Approach published by Jamey Aebersold Jazz