A Conversation with Dan Balmer
When I telephoned Dan Balmer in late September to ask him if he would allow me to interview him for Clubscene, he was most agreeable, and we set date, time and place, then met in early October. I had roughed out an outline for how to proceed, suggesting we might break the content into three parts: 1.early years and influences, 2. the evolution of the man and his sound, and 3. the current scene, and what might be next. Dan concurred, I asked a broad question to get things rolling, and what ensued was more a conversation than an interview. Dan spoke freely and easily, I made sure the tape recorder was working, and I occasionally asked a question or offered comments on Dan's observations. What follows, then, is less an interview, and more, a conversation, with Dan comfortably talking about how it's all happened over the last 35 years of his musical career. And quite amazingly, though the conversation fast forwards and rewinds now and again (as most good conversations do!) it flows quite nicely and sticks pretty well to the rough outline we'd set for ourselves. All the content is my edited version of Dan speaking; when I am directly involved in the conversation or asking a question, I will note that. Also, the very last section, the tape had run out, and I therefore relied on some notes and my memory for those concluding remarks and observations.
I first played guitar when I was 6 or 7 years old. I had three older brothers who were very into music, and at an early age I found it the cool thing to do. In some ways, I'm sure, I wanted to impress my brothers, and I know that I found in music a sort of refuge. Before long, I was playing daily. I know that, at least since when I was about 15, there's hardly been a week that's gone by in which I didn't play. In fact, in the last 34 years, there have only been three weeks in which I didn't play at least once a week. I became a very steady player, and very dedicated to it.
My first gig was in a coffee shop when I was 15, with a woman who was a singer/songwriter. It was kind of folk music. This was the seventies; my parents had to drive me to the gig! It was a different world back then. My first jazz gigs were with Ted Trimball and John Jensen, and early on - I was about 19 - I started working with Ron Steen and a great organ player named Count Dutch. I also played with Carl Smith and The Natural Gas Company. There weren't as many players around back then as there are now, and not many guitar players. But I started getting gigs, and established my own group with Tom Wakeling and Jeff Cumpston. (BK So Dan...the whole jazz thing...did it suddenly just happen?) Well ...I had a brother who brought me a Larry Coryell record from college. Listening to Coryell, I soon realized that you could play blues and rock stuff after a couple of years. Almost anybody could. (I can teach almost anybody to play passably in rock and blues in two years.) But I knew you couldn't play like Joe Pass in two or three years!
I couldn't sing, and didn't want to sing. But if you wanted to play, be a top flight instrumentalist, be serious, then jazz was the only music to play. Jazz is kind of the highest mountain, the double black diamond. It's not to say it's better than the blues, but jazz is where the experts are, where the big dogs run! Jazz requires a set of skills unequaled anywhere else that I know of. So I quickly realized: if I wanted to be a player, to play at the highest level, jazz is where it was going to be, not rock, or pop. That's what I wanted to do.
I believed then and still do, that jazz is an art form, a higher art. I bought into that, even though I knew I wasn't going to get rich pursuing it. So, anyway, that is the way I saw it. I was playing with a buddy of mine. We'd get together and jam and try to emulate Larry Coryell and John McLaughlin. And when I was about 15, I started playing with a great drummer named Chris Lee, who is on my records and who I've played with ever since. The way things happen is that you get out, you start making connections and you find other people who share your same passions ( BK: Was Steen doing jams in those days?) I don't think he was, but he was influential. Like, he would tell Count Dutch, "You gotta get this guitar player..." and that kind of thing kind of got me going and gave me the opportunity to play. I also started playing with Dave Friesen, and, well, I was, I think I was, a good guitar player. So I had a lot of really good opportunities. I think that nowadays there are a lot of good players - on every instrument - lots of really good, tremendous young players, but it's much more crowded now, the landscape is much more crowded, and unfortunately there isn't more opportunity. In other words, when I was young, I was one of two or three guys who were pretty good and there were a few gigs to be had. But now there are ten guys who are good and there's only one gig to be had! So it's kind of working in the wrong direction.
(BK: About influences, Dan ...were Johnny Smith, Tal Farlow, Kenny Burrell, etc. in your consciousness at that time?) I think what always happens is, you start at some point and then you go deeper, e.g., Larry Coryell, and you get into McLaughlin, and you get into, you know, all the contemporary people, but then you discover who they listen to and you go back to Wes Montgomery. I listen to Charlie Christian a lot, I listen to Wes Montgomery. Charlie Christian, I mean, he was a monster, mind blowing! Yeah. Charlie Christian, Tal Farlow, Joe Pass. (Wes was one of my favorites.) Those guys resonated with me. Of course you couldn't pay attention to all of it, but you could pay attention to a lot of it.
Nowadays, there are 50, well, 35 amazing guitar players, you know, in New York , any one of which you could be knocked out by. In the early seventies, though, it was very finite. You could name them. So, back to where I think we were. I really got into it, and I was playing with Tom Wakeling and playing with Count Dutch and Ron Steen . And then I started sitting in with Tom Grant, and eventually, Tom ended up hiring me into all of his bands. We had a great ten years of making a lot of good music and being super popular. We attracted a lot of people and we had success commercially. And the eighties was a very good time to have success commercially for jazz music. And we made good money, not always the most common or the easiest thing to accomplish when playing jazz! Tom Grant would sell maybe 50,000 records or more. In those days, even relative unknowns might sell 80,000 and all kinds of people were selling 100,000, 200,000 records!
It's a different world now, e.g., look at Radiohead and their recent ploy to sell their newest CD for whatever anyone was willing to pay. And now there is the sharing of records. You know, the audience has changed and peoples' relationship to music has changed. The world is always morphing, and you can't get in the way of that. Back to Tom Grant: I know that Tom was really excited about the overall success his bands achieved. We were all excited. Nothing wrong with that and that was a nice thing. Essentially, anything is fine if people like it, and the music is fun to play. So with Tom, lots of success in a time when it was good to have success.
And I also always had my own groups going and I began making my own records. Then, after Tom, I really pushed my own thing for about 5 years. I was trying to make my own thing happen (this now is in the mid-nineties) and that is a hard thing to do, I'm here to tell you. Then time goes by and these days I'm kind of getting to the end of that. You know, it's a process of always trying to connect with an audience. But you're also aware that you're getting older, and the audience, of course, except for a certain core of it, is kind of settled, and a younger audience is coming up and they kind of want their own musicians. Maybe the best example of it is to say that the ideal band would be to have three cute guys (even though this is jazz!) or girls and then have their cute boyfriends/girlfriends come out to the gig with their friends, and then you've got a scene. And that's very attractive and it's fun ...but it gets harder as you get older; it's kind of hard to have that kind of thing happen when you're 40 and over.
So, the really good thing that has happened to me these days is getting the gigs with Mel Brown. And that happened largely because Dan Faehnle moved back to Ohio . (BK: Dan, just to make sure I have it right...it's really been jazz, in various forms, for you almost all the way, hasn't it?) Yes. Again, jazz seemed like the tallest mountain to climb, and as I've indicated, that is what I wanted to do. I was up for this, for climbing the highest mountain I could find. (BK: were the brothers any influence on you as well?) Well, yeah. But they were mostly just into it...they played, everybody played. And my mother was a piano teacher. (BK: Okay. Let's see. I suggested that Part II of this conversation might emphasize the evolution of the player and his sound, and I think we've really been talking about this as we've gone along here. Right?) Well, yeah, yet in a way that is really its own thing. So, if I may...back to the point we were talking about, that is, how great it has been for me to get the gigs with Mel Brown, two nights a week, Wednesdays and Thursdays.
I've learned a huge amount playing with Tony Pacini, Mel and Ed Bennett in the Wednesday night quartet gig. Getting the chance to play straight ahead jazz with these guys weekly for four years has had a huge impact on me. Clearly the organ gig on Thursdays with Louis Pain and the guys has also been good for a whole different side of my playing. So these opportunities have been good and viable for me over this period of time. You know, I think I am the right guy for the gigs and that I bring things to the table. I bring some organization; I bring some business savvy to help out, as well as the music. So these things have been exciting.
Then there's also Go By Train which is something I can be co-leader of but am not wholly responsible for. Also, I am keeping my groups going, and I still play with David Friesen fairly often. I love that gig; it's always very serious...big boy music! And then recently Scott Steed got me a gig with Diane Schuur. He asked me if I could travel to Japan with the group and I said yes. He said there'd be a few gigs before Japan . I did those gigs and they really liked me and I did the gig in Japan and they told me they were going to make me the Western half of the US and Asia person. They also asked me to perform on a record they were about to cut (the record is now done) and I just had a call from the producer to say how good it is. And you know, the record is nice! So this is an exciting kind of national/international thing. I think a lot of people are going to love it because it's just straight ahead, beautiful. It has well thought out sounds. Randy Porter is playing piano and Scott's on bass. He's the kind of bass player band leaders love. So that has worked out really well, and I am hoping that that relationship will continue. I also just worked three nights with Karrin Allyson. I love playing with her. We had a Friday gig at Jimmy Mak's, and earlier, two nights in Yakima along with the symphony.
I also just did this great Friday night gig with this incredible organist, Pat Bianchi, and a great drummer, Jim White, so I hope I will be hearing more from them. I've learned so much from all these gigs. Which is of course a large piece of my evolution. I feel like I am running on about four years of good luck. And that's sort of the whole story of what I've been doing over the years, and in that time I've also made about seven or eight records. Some have sold well, some have been well received, and some have been a bit more commercial than others. I'm using various marketing techniques, but I am not actually aggressively trying to sell things anymore. What I mean is I have tried aggressively to sell things for 25 years, but now I have a three and a six-year-old who are more interesting to spend time with.
(BK: Dan, looking back on all the music you've played, before, after and including with Tom Grant, how would you best describe it?) I think of my music as always being jazz. I think of jazz as not being defined by any particular thing. I tend to see it as intelligent, evolving, creative improvised music. So I would have to say, with my music, there are just two things I have been trying to do. One is to be a super versatile guitarist. That is probably my greatest strength: my ability to do a lot. I mean, I did a series of recordings for an unnamed computer company. In these recordings, I was supposed to emulate the playing of Jim Hall, Charlie Byrd, George Benson, Kenny Burrell and Wes Montgomery. I did it, and the guy who was in charge of it said, "You know, I never get feedback on these recordings, but they just wrote me an email and said the guitar playing was great!" I try to do it all well.
I still do country western. I still do rock recording sessions. I love to play the guitar, and I love to play all styles of the guitar. In the last almost five years with Mel Brown, I've really gotten to develop my whole repertoire. Actually, I surprise myself with what I play with Mel on Wednesday nights! I've learned so much in the last five years. I play that big guitar with my thumb a lot. You know, I can hold my own now which I don't think I could have done five years ago in that style. I mean, five years ago, in that style, had I been playing with Russell Malone or Bruce Forman, I'm pretty sure I would have felt as if I weren't really in their league. Now, however, now I feel like I can pretty much play that music next to anybody. I could not have done that five years ago. I feel so fortunate to be leaning all these things. So, as regards my playing, I've always just tried to play the guitar as much and in as many styles as I can. So that's one thing.
As to my evolution, my records, I have been trying to stay contemporary because things I hear always so immediately inspire me. When Pat Metheny was most popular, I was inspired by most of that.
And then when Bill Frissell became more popular, I channeled more of that. In my compositional output I've always been tying to kind of marry something listenable with something interesting. And that is hard to do. You know what I mean; something that you can get non-jazz listeners to listen to and buy, that will also gain the respect of (jazz) musicians. I really feel as if I have walked that razor's edge. And at various times, I know I have fallen on either side of it. And I think the records are good, some very good. I think that I was doing the best I could at any point in time, as far as my recording evolution is concerned. You know, it's very hard if you are a jazz musician these days and you're trying to sell some records. So, with my last record - I think I know what happened with that - I wasn't thinking of trying to sell a record. I just wanted to make a great record that could get great reviews and that musicians would like. And that's what happened.
On other records, I was trying, obviously, to sell records, to sell to housewives, to everyone. I don't blame listeners who don't like my sound or MY straight ahead, or whatever else I play. I can't expect anyone to like it. I mean, I don't go to poetry readings and rarely do modern theater either. I sort of accept things as they are even if perhaps they aren't as they should be. You know, somewhere there's a little theater company doing some marvelous avant garde thing and they're doing it beautifully and their hearts are in it, and there are six people in the audience. Well, that's jazz! That's us! So, I don't blame people if they don't come out and listen to jazz.
Time was running out, and as we were wrapping up, Dan offered a few observations on the Portland scene, acknowledging appreciatively that there are a lot of very good new and younger players in the pipeline. But he also reminded me of what he'd observed earlier in the interview: these days, we have lots more quality players around, but fewer venues in which to showcase their talents. Whereas, in the past, just the opposite was the case. As to the club scene, he said somewhat whimsically: wouldn't it be nice to have a couple more Jimmy Mak's in town! In response to my asking, Dan also offered some thoughts on Dan Faehnle, mainly emphasizing the point that while in the past there had surely been a kind of unstated competition between Dan and him, each to some extent feeling somewhat intimidated by the other, what evolved over time is a sincere mutual admiration and a lasting friendship between them.
Dan concluded the interview asserting that it has been a good run for him, and that he would be more than happy if recent trends, e.g., performing regularly at Jimmy's, keeping his groups going, producing an occasional record, and performing guest gigs such as with Karrin Allyson and the Japan gig with Diane Schuur and Scott Steed, were to continue.
And with a big smile, he concluded, "It's really nice, too, to have some time, important valuable time, with my two boys!"