The release of Bop! Bang! Boom! marks Grant Geissman's fifteenth solo album since breaking onto the scene over 30 years ago. Recently the celebrated guitarist and composer spoke to us about his latest release, how scoring popular TV has affected his work and career, his hobbies outside of making music and lots more.
Bop! Bang! Boom! is the final album in a loose trilogy. What does it have in common with Say That! and Cool Man Cool?
The common thread is that all three albums represent exactly the music I wanted to write and record, with no caveat whatsoever. Good or bad, it's what I wanted to do, and I never had to say, "Well, it's a nice album but the label made me tone it down or do some cover tunes," or whatever. I formed my own label, Futurism, so there wouldn't be some guy at the record company telling me what to do, or what not to do. Beyond that, all three albums have that amazing artwork by Miles Thompson, and they all have special bonus inserts with liner notes by Bill Milkowski, session photos, and so forth. Say That! has a miniature facsimile chart for the title tune, Cool Man Cool has a sheet of removable tattoos, and Bop! Bang! Boom! has an insert with trading cards ("Collect them all!"). Our slogan is "Cool music, cool design." In this age of downloads, I still wanted to present a fun, cool, and cohesive package from both the musical standpoint and the packaging standpoint. Happily, these three jazz projects have gotten by far the best reviews of my entire career.
I'm gonna take a wild guess that the title Bop! Bang! Boom! is a nod to your "extra-curricular" passion for the Golden Age of Comic Books. In your mind, does the music/comic book connection go beyond the title?
Actually Bop! Bang! Boom! isn't a comic-book-related title. If it were, it would be more like Biff! Pow! Blam! No, the title Bop! Bang! Boom! just seemed to reflect the energy and the "powerfully eclectic" nature of the music. It's jazz, but that word means a lot of things, and while still under the "jazz umbrella" the music on these projects is fairly diverse. Having said that, I am a big fan of certain comic-book and lowbrow art, and I love the fact that Miles Thompson's artwork somehow captures the music and at the same time projects that jazzy, hipster cool, beatnik, outsider kind of vibe. For each project, I show Miles images of things I like and that I think fits the feel of the music, and he takes it from there. He shows me pencil sketches, and I suggest changes or additions, and then he goes and paints. There are more than a few nods in the artwork to vintage pop culture. And then Francesca Restrepo and I work on the actual package design, with Francesca taking my concepts and then doing most of the heavy lifting. The art and design part is just as fun as writing and recording the music!
On "Texas Shuffle," you jam with Larry Carlton, another guitarist known for a legendary 1970s solo ("Kid Charlemagne"), and with Albert Lee, another incredible guitar picker. What was the recording session for that tune like? And is it straight improv the whole way through or did you guys write any of it out?
Unlike the rest of the album, which was recorded with the whole band playing live in the studio (capturing the improvised solos live as well; it's jazz, man!), "Texas Shuffle" was started as a rhythm track, because I knew I wouldn't be able to get me, Albert, and Larry together in the studio at the same time. I had wanted to write a tune with the guitar melody all voiced out in three-part harmony, and then going from there into individual improvised solos, and into trading "fours" at the end before the melody comes back. The first guys I thought of to play on it with me were Albert Lee and Larry Carlton, and they both said yes! So the harmonized melody parts for the guitars were all written out beforehand, along with the rhythm chart for the band. I took the rhythm track back to my home studio and recorded all my parts, and then I mocked up the two other melody parts to show Albert and Larry what the tune sounded like. I left "holes" for where Albert and Larry's solos would go, which was confusing during the section where we would be trading "fours," because I'd have to think "Albert" for four bars, "Larry" for four bars, and then I would play, and so on. Albert came over and recorded his melody stuff first, and then four or five takes of his improvised solos. Then I sent the files to Larry in Nashville and he sent me back his melody stuff and two different solos. Both guys said "pick what you want," so I comped up what I thought was the best of the best (it was all great!), and that was it. I told my engineer that I reserved the right not to suck, meaning that I might want to redo my own solos after I heard what the other two guys did, but I just left my original performances. Amazingly, it does sound like we were all in the same room, playing together.
From the outside, it seems like scoring a TV series would involve a completely different skill set than being a great jazz guitarist or session musician. What kind of impact would you say your TV composing has had on Bop! Bang! Boom! and, more generally, your career in jazz?
It's interesting, because although they are two different things, it's still music, and you do get into a pattern of creativity where you don't second-guess yourself as much. On Mike & Molly it's a lot of bluesy, funky guitar stuff, and even though they are short transition cues they still have to sound like music, and have a feel or attitude that takes you from one situation to another within the show. It's essentially like writing the germs or musical motifs for like 12 to 15 songs every week. So you do have that creative energy going, and then you find yourself getting ideas for longer-form tunes, and some of those eventually become the next jazz album. I am interested in many different kinds of music, so there's always something I'd like to explore, and the jazz albums are the place where I get to do that.
You were a young, promising guitarist when you got your big break with Chuck Mangione. Were you able to make a living solely through being a session musician back then? Do you think it's gotten any easier or more difficult for jazz musicians to practice their craft without compromise?
Of course, I am completely delusional in this, but I still think of myself as a young, promising guitarist; I still think I'm just starting out! I was still in college at Cal State Northridge when I got the call from Chuck Mangione, so for the next four years or so I was on the road with Chuck, playing on his records, appearing on TV shows with him, and so forth. But even back when I was still in college I was doing some session work; there was more than enough work to go around back then. When I finally came off the road I had to get re-established, but I did support myself doing sessions, writing, and whatever else came along. I have been very lucky, because I have never done anything other than music as a career (with the exception of the books I have written about the 1950s EC comics and MAD magazine, which are really more like fun for me). As far as practicing my craft without compromise, the irony is that doing the TV shows has allowed me to write and record exactly the music I want to without compromise; these jazz albums wouldn't exist without being subsidized by the TV work. I'm lucky, lucky, lucky, and very grateful for it.
A San Jose, California native, guitarist/composer Grant Geissman first made his mark on pop culture with the improvised guitar solo on Chuck Mangione's 1978 pop crossover hit, "Feels So Good." With Mangione, Geissman recorded a number of albums, toured the world, and appeared on virtually all of the major TV programs of the time that featured live musical acts.
Today, Geissman is a well-known contemporary jazz recording artist with fifteen highly-regarded solo albums. He co-writes the underscores for the hit CBS sitcoms Mike & Molly and Two and a Half Men, and he also co-wrote the Two and a Half Men theme ("Men, men, men, men, manly men!"), for which he was nominated for an Emmy Award in 2004.
As a studio guitarist he has recorded with such artists as Quincy Jones, Burt Bacharach and Elvis Costello, Chuck Mangione, Van Dyke Parks, Brian Wilson, Inara George, Joanna Newsom, Gordon Goodwin's Big Phat Band, Paula Abdul, Ringo Starr, Keiko Matsui, David Benoit, Placido Domingo, Luis Miguel and Julio Iglesias. He has also played on the scores for such TV shows as Two and a Half Men, Monk (playing the Django Reinhardt-style acoustic guitar solo on the theme), Mad Men, and Dawson's Creek. He has played on the scores to films like Because I Said So (starring Diane Keaton and Mandy Moore), Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, The Majestic and Anaconda.
Apart from his musical career, Geissman is one of the country's largest collectors of MAD Magazine and 1950s E.C. Comics memorabilia. He has authored three definitive books on the subjects: Collectibly MAD (Kitchen Sink Press, 1995), Tales of Terrror! The EC Companion (with Fred von Bernewitz, Gemstone/Fantagraphics, 2000), and Foul Play! The Art and Artists of the Notorious 1950s E.C. Comics! (HarperDesign, 2005).
His latest project, Bop! Bang! Boom!, was released on July 17th on Futurism Records and is available at Amazon.com.
Visit Grant on the web at www.grantgeissman.com
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