Some Bright Moments, Present and Past, with Guitarist and Music Educator Bill Boris
By Jeff Cebulski
All it takes is a reference, you know, to get a person to dig deep into the well of jazz. In the process of interviewing Bill Boris, guitar instructor, leader of various ensembles at Columbia College, and leader on a new trio CD, Bright Moments, Boris mentions the influence of Pat Martino, the iconic player who visited our city last year with his organ companion, Pat Bianchi, to play at the Jazz Showcase.
So now I am writing with Martino’s first album as a leader, El Hombre, in the background. Having missed “early” Martino, before the tumor surgery. that left him a music amnesiac for a while, this album is a revelation, not just as an introduction to the underappreciated organist Trudy Pitts, but also as a bridge to influential players of the 70’s, someone who was operative while I was being taken into that jazz well by people like Larry Coryell and John McLaughlin.
A conversation with Boris, who is an Associate Professor at Columbia College, its Coordinator of Guitar Studies, and the director of the Progressive Rock Ensemble and the Fusion Ensemble, becomes a trip down memory lane for this baby boomer, who was introduced to the guitar-organ pairing via the progressive rock days: The Allman Brothers (Duane and Gregg), Santana (Carlos and Greg Rolie), The Doors (Krieger and Manzarek), and the live “Voodoo Chile” on Electric Ladyland with Hendrix and Winwood, with nods to Al Kooper and Garth Hudson, who played in bands with guitarists, and maybe early Deep Purple (“Hush”). And my jazz interest was fueled by the 70’s fusion extension following Miles’ excursion into jazz/rock, including McLaughlin’s seminal works with Larry Young and Jan Hammer and John Abercrombie’s joining Hammer for the Timeless album.
This was a fruitful time for the young Boris: “My chops did evolve from rock playing. My interest was at first the Beatles, then Jimi Hendrix, and Mike Bloomfield. In high school I played guitar in a horn band that played Chicago and Blood, Sweat and Tears. Learning these tunes required some harmonic understanding so I started to learn about harmony by figuring out these tunes. Then, I heard George Benson, Freddie Hubbard and others on a radio station in Chicago. I first heard all the Creed Taylor records. I couldn't believe how great George played - then I started trying to learn jazz. I was around 17.
“I love all the music of the late 60's and 70's. There was a radio station in Chicago that played Stevie Wonder—Music of My Mind is one of my favorite albums—Donny Hathaway, The Crusaders, Larry Carlton, Steely Dan, and Freddie Hubbard. Also, in the early 70's I started to listen to John Coltrane and Charlie Parker and Miles. With Miles, it was his electric music like Bitches Brew. I actually saw Miles in a small club in Boston in the early 70's and that was a memorable experience. Also, I really loved Pat Martino. Pat has been to Columbia three times and is a wonderful person, very warm. I really loved all the music of this time and didn't consider labels or categories. It was the music of that time period which reflected American culture.”
So we Boomers learned about jazz ‘backwards’: when Steely Dan and The Jazz Crusaders began to show up on FM playlists together, we were introduced to Carlton, Steve Khan, Dean Parks, and Al DiMeola. While Coryell and Sonny Sharrock bridged the gap for Hendrix fans, the others moved us to check out the real provocateurs—Wes Montgomery, Grant Green, Kenny Burrell, Joe Pass, Jim Hall, and George Benson. (Martino, those days, was listened to by actual guitarists, not us air guitarists.) And some of them recorded with organ players of repute like Jack McDuff, Jimmy Smith, and Melvin Rhyne (and, as I now discover, Ms. Pitts).
The guitar-organ tradition has carried on as Martino paired with Pat Bianchi (after a period with Joey DeFrancesco), the late Abercrombie with Dan Wall, Peter Bernstein with Larry Goldings and Mike LeDonne, and Jonathan Krisberg with Dr. Lonnie Smith (as evidenced during last year’s jazz festival).
But it’s the retro feel of Boris’ new album, Bright Moments, that initiated this conversation. The album features originals and strategically chosen songs that could appeal to a live Boomer crowd, featuring an alluring yin-yang of Boris and local keyboardist Dan Chase, supported by Tyrone Blair on drums. On Bright Moments, recognizable compositions by Stevie Wonder, the Young Rascals, Dave Brubeck, Richard Rodgers, and Benny Golson hold sway. However, and most importantly, these tunes are mixed with five Boris originals that point back to the halcyon early fusion days and feature the juxtaposition of Boris’ chromatic, sometimes angular guitar and Chase’s bluesy B3 and Fender Rhodes. The album, deftly recorded and mixed by Rick Barnes, seems prosaic in form and similar in arrangement at first, but it’s not only extremely pleasant to listen to but also richly rewarding as the pieces go deeper. This guitar-organ pairing works, synergistic enough to draw new attention to an old art form.
Boris explains: “it wasn't a conscious decision to record a CD that would have a 70's vibe, although I had been listening to some artists my students listen to, like Robert Glasper. These recordings did influence some of the arrangements of the pop tunes. In a way, some of Glasper's music is reminiscent of the 70's, so your sensibilities are correct.
“Most of the tunes on the CD were tunes we've been playing for the last two years. The pop tunes seem to connect with the audience. I met Dan about five years ago when we were both playing in the Mike Frost Project. Dan really listens when he plays and has a great vibe. He really understands the guitar/organ trio concept. The organ/guitar trio works well when the organ player plays a steady bass line locked with the drums and comps in a way that leaves space for the guitar. Dan's choices for sounds on the organ also worked well with the group.”
A close listening suggests Chase has been influenced, first, by another keyboardist Boris likes, Larry Goldings (who currently plays with another Boris fave, Peter Bernstein) and, second, by Larry Young. “Dan does sound like he's influenced by Young and Goldings, I do hear that in his playing.”
The influences were nurtured by Boris’ choice of templates for this recording, “Martino's El Hombre [Prestige] and Bernstein's Earth Tones [Criss Cross], which I used as a reference when we were mixing my CD. A very important guitar/organ trio record is Wes Mongomery's Boss Guitar with Melvin Rhyne. I listened to this recording for years.
“I think Peter Bernstein is one of best Jazz guitarists around. His tone, articulation and phrasing are very compelling and a good example for young players.”
The album begins with the Boris-composed title cut, a display of the guitarist’s range. What begins as a rock fusion theme morphs into postmodern bebop, as Chase and Blair propel the music beyond bop clichés and into the 21st Century.
Bill Boris Trio - Bill Boris (guitar), Dan Chase (organ), Tyrone Blair (drums)
Wonder’s jaunty “I Can’t Help It” and Boris’ “The Fallen Angels” point back toward Crusadersland, allowing Boris to pick his way over, around, and through the Hammond B3 haze and dancing drums. Another song that, on the surface, seems similarly generic is “Cozumel,” which by its title suggests it’s being the “Latin tune.” Well, sort of. After a drum entrance that simulates Caribbean percussion, the dancy rhythm, tightly provided by Blair, is transcended by Boris’ string musing, which saves the tune. “The outro solo on Cozumel was intended to provide a contrast with the melody which is very straight forward and diatonic,” said Boris. The trio’s compatibility is clearly in evidence here, as the groove carries each member into a comfort zone.
But the group’s treatment of the Rascals’ hit, “How Can I Be Sure” sells me on this collection. What could have been a vehicle for elevator music becomes, here, a treat. Boris’ playing evokes comparison to the underrated Khan (especially in the last 20 years), as his chromatic development lifts the tune past its melody and into jazz as smoothly as breathing. Chase picks up on Boris’ lead to create a solo that builds upon the improvisation and delivers the guitarist back to the theme and an improvised coda that carries the song further, reminding us that this is art, after all.
“It's a song I heard growing up,” said Boris, “and I really like the song; it's a great tune. When we play live, we do expand on [it]. When we play the tune at a club, people in the audience recognize the melody but—especially if I don't announce it—some are not sure what it is and ask me about it after the set.”
To these ears, a Steely Dan connection occurs on “You’re the One,” which features Chase on both keyboards. Using the organ to provide Danly-darker bass lines, Chase provides Fagan-ish Fender Rhodes phrases, embellishing an instrumental that sounds like it needs lyrics (are you available Mr. Fagan?).
Boris seems to agree: “Although not consciously, ‘You're the One’ could be influenced by the group. We decided to use the Fender Rhodes when we were in the studio, and the Rhodes really does give the song a Fagan vibe. You know, I was a little concerned that using the Rhodes and a different guitar sound on some tunes might take away from the continuity of the CD.”
But it doesn’t. The album, deftly recorded and mixed by Barnes, seems prosaic in form and similar in arrangement at first, but it’s not only extremely pleasant to listen to but also richly rewarding as the pieces go deeper. I’d love to hear these guys live with an enthusiastic audience.
“Something was sort of bothering me when I listened to the CD,” responded Boris, “and you explained it—I thought that it indeed might be prosaic or worse, background music. I did put attention to detail and none of the tunes were just played to fill space. I do think the production sounds good and hopefully the arrangements make the record interesting. Also, it was a conscious decision to have pleasant and angular sounds.”
The group’s treatment of the classics—“My Funny Valentine,” “Stablemates,” and “In Your Own Sweet Way”—are tributes to beloved songs. Boris provides ample evidence of his talent on each, but the difference is Chase. There aren’t many (or even a few?) versions of these songs that feature organ playing, so it is interesting to hear what Chase does with these timeless melodies. His pleasurable comping on “Valentine” lifts his guitar mate to sublime picking, providing a lower-registered solo response that creates an appreciated blues tension. “Stablemates” is the ‘we can do jazz’ piece; Boris exhibits a Pass-like touch and bop deftness while Chase and Blair effectively churn. “Own Sweet Way” is performed in the group’s sweet way, Boris doing his professional best to move past the melody and into sweet improvisatory territory, where Chase delivers one of his best and most thoughtful contributions.
Boris is effusive in praising his teammates. “Dan and Tyrone did a great job and were generous with their talent and time. Rick Barnes did a wonderful job capturing sounds—I did get the guitar sound I was looking for. Rick was relentless in his attention to detail in the mixing. We spent many, many hours mixing together, and Rick understood where I was coming from and was open to suggestions. Rafe Bradford did an excellent job mastering. He also paid great attention to the detail and subtleties in the sound and was open to my suggestions. I was very detailed and picky in mixing and mastering and had a very clear idea of how I wanted the record to sound.”
And that attention to detail comes from a multi-faceted career. Boris arrived at Columbia College in 2001 after about a quarter century playing for people like Chicagoans Art Davis and Franz Jackson, followed by an R&B/Pop road trip backing up people like Ben E. King, Del Shannon, Mary Wells, The Drifters, and Leslie Gore.
“I moved to Orlando, Florida, briefly in 1986 with the back-up band. Early in 1987, I moved to Chicago because I had an opportunity to become the musical director for the musical Beehive, which ran at the Briar Street Theater for a year and also toured Japan. After the show I worked playing Jazz in many clubs in Chicago, did some jingles, and played commercial music.”
Then Boris assembled his first group “around 1991, which included some great musicians: Robert Irving III, Miles Davis' musical director during the 80's; drummer Oscar Seaton, currently with Terrence Blanchard. He has worked with George Benson and Lionel Richie for the last 10 years; Walter Henderson, a great trumpet player; and Rafe [Bradford], a wonderful bassist who is also a great mastering engineer and has recently started Foundation Mastering. The group played around the city and also at a few festivals. I recorded a CD with this group, released in 1999.”
An opportunity to sub for Bobby Broom led to a brief but fruitful partnership with the late organist Charles Earland. “In 1999, Charles asked me to play on two albums, Stomp, Charles' last CD, and a record with Charles and Irene Reed, The Uptown Lowdown. Eric Alexander was also on these sessions. I also played a lot on the Southside during this time.”
“I was fairly busy in 2001 when I was given the opportunity to teach at Columbia,” Boris continues. “Then around 2003, I was asked to substitute and teach a Pop Rock group, and around the same time I started coaching a guitar/organ combo. A few years later, I got more involved teaching Jazz combos and Pop Rock ensembles. Around 2006 the Fusion Ensemble was formed, which I directed. Also around this time, the CUP [Contemporary, Urban, and Popular Music] major was developed and focused on different styles of popular, original music.
“From this time though 2010, I was very busy teaching private students and two or three ensembles every semester. I was also playing a lot. In the June of 2010, my good friend, mentor, and supervisor Frank Dawson suddenly passed away. It was really a shock and very sad. Dick Dunscomb, the chair of the Music Department at the time, asked if I would consider becoming acting Coordinator of Guitar Studies. I agreed but it was a difficult time because I felt really awful about Frank's passing. After a year as acting coordinator, I became the Coordinator of Guitar and Bass Studies.”
Evidence of Boris’ academic success was in display in late February, when the Columbia College Fusion Ensemble performed at the Notre Dame and Elmhurst Jazz festivals. A proud Boris shared, “All six students received Outstanding Performance awards at both festivals. At Notre Dame they gave one award recognizing all the members.” It was, perhaps, to be expected. In 2017, the ensemble received an Outstanding Performance Award from Downbeat’s Student Music Awards.
Asked if his students share his own fusion tastes, Boris said, “There is interest in some of Herbie Hancock's music from the 70's but generally the students listen to contemporary artists like Robert Glasper, Jacob Collier, and Cory Henry [formerly of Snarky Puppy]. I think every generation has its own music.” As for Boris’ music itself, “I actually played a track for members of the Fusion group to see if there was too much reverb on the track. They seemed to like it.”
And with that, musical generations are plaited, just as they are on Bright Moments…and on my computer, where more Pat Martino music resounds, with thanks to music educator Bill Boris.
Bright Moments. Mikomi Records (Chicago), 2018. 10 songs.
Bill Boris, Guitar
Dan Chase, Hammond B3 and Fender Rhodes
Tyrone Blair, Drums
When someone hires me to do a radio show, I would feature: “How Can I Be Sure,” “The Fallen Angels,” “In Your Own Sweet Way,” and “Bright Moments.”
NOTE: Henry will be ‘in residence at Columbia from March 5 through 9 and will perform a concert with student ensembles on March 9.