BY BENSON IDONIJE
OF all the young guitar players on the scene today, Mark Whitfield is perhaps the most professionally talented and rounded.
True, every soloist, including great veterans such as Wes Montgomery, Charlie Christian and even Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins and all — repeat phrases in the process of expressing themselves and articulating lines of improvisation. No one is all knowing; no one is absolutely perfect; these things don’t happen with computerised precision.
But repetition can be drastically reduced, the way it is in the hands of the great veterans if appropriate steps and measures are taken. The problem is that because they are guitarists, they believe that their entire focus and attention should be directed towards the instrument alone, instead of maintaining an open mind and adopting a holistic attitude to jazz as an artform. Whitfield is not part of this misconception.
In the last 15 years, guitarists have sounded the same in the articulation of tonal concepts and improvisational lines — all because they have refused to identify with tradition and the past. They know about the fact that Wes Montgomery is the greatest, but have never taken time out to discover the source of his technique. Instead, they have all fallen back on George Benson and Earl Klugh who, though were influenced by Wes himself, have singled out for emphasis, specific phrases and ideas that provoke instant reaction and appeal — driven by commercial motivation. Whitfield, certainly, is not part of this conspiracy.
Experience has shown that it is not enough to study the instrument– in conformity with scales and exercises. It is not enough to be able to make the changes along set patterns and progressions emanating from your own imagination.
Though this is extremely desirable, it is completely necessary to involve yourself in the knowledge of conventions and jazz history. It is important to hear from veterans who trod this path before and grappled with difficulties whose solutions have become the norm today. Whifield has gone through this experience; he has heard from the elders.
One of the attributes that puts Wes Montgomery on top of all jazz guitarists is the ability to enact chorded solos even at the octave– a feat that George Benson and Earl Klugh’s imitative approach has handed down to today’s players who, however, seem to be articulating it out of context.
A committed instrumentalist would want to know how this feat all came about; and it is its explanation that would situate it in its true context—for positive use. Chorded solos in the hands of Wes who is the boss of the instrument, is only a means to an end, not an end in itself – the way today’s guitarists are making it look like. But Whitfield is totally aware of these misconceptions.
This same feat reminds me of pianist Red Garland, a highly innovative pianist, whose spirit was killed by Miles Davis who wanted him to do exactly what he (Miles) wanted— for the shape of his band’s sound identity. Red Garland was only a sideman like Wynton Kelly, Gil Evans or Herbie Hancock — pianists who all played with him at the time. The point is that Red Garland came up with an innovative feat that was known at the time as block chords for his solo concept. I listened to a jazz pianist at Ronnie Scott’s, the new Ronnie Scott’s, London’s one time most popular jazz club, two years ago, and all he did throughout was a complete engagement in block chords. It made no sense.
However, guitarist Whitfield is a virtuoso who has great respect for conventions and tradition. Quite understandably, he counts Montgomery and Kenny Burrell -- two giants of the instrument who are what they are in jazz because their styles are miles apart as creative individuals -- among his greatest influence. In order to put his career on a genuine professional path, Mark studied both the acoustic bass and guitar, and was awarded scholarships to Berklee School of music for both instruments.
To underscore his commitment to music in general, and his choice of instrument in particular, Mark turned down an accelerated medical school programme at Georgetown University and attended Berklee School of Music on a guitar scholarship in 1983.
From Berklee, Whitfield moved to New York for professional opportunities and made the most of them, performing with such legends, as bassist Ray Brown whose acoustic version helped to create a unique identity for the famous Oscar Peterson Trio. He also played with the organist Jimmy Smith and singer Betty Carter as well as some of the top jazz artists of his own generation including Terence Blanchard, Donald Harrison, Nicholas Payton, Christian Mc Bride, and Britain’s top saxophonist, Curtney Pine.
Whitfield has released numerous recordings as a leader, including 1977’s Forever Love, which features solo guitar to full orchestral arrangements, the kind of feat Wes Montgomery accomplished with AM and Riverside Records in his life time. With his unique combination of talent and showmanship, Whitfield is truly one of the most talented jazz guitarists working today.
Louis Armstrong and perhaps Dizzy Gillespie were the first to introduce show business to jazz —without destroying the artistic essence of the music. But still, critics tried to put them down for what they thought was going to take a lot away from the music’s creativity. But it was taken over in later years by even the artists who were known for their ideological views about the music–Lester Bowie, Miles Davis and Sonny Rollins from the way they dressed. Mark Whitfield started this flamboyant stage presence in the’80s–to set the pace for guitar players.
“I think that it is very important that as an artist, when you take the stage, in any forum, that you have some sort of presence people can identify with,” said Mark Whitfield in justification of his showmanship. “I think it’s a problem if its something you have to go out and find. I think one thing I‘ve always been able to do is walk out in front of a lot of people and play music and enjoy myself. I enjoy playing for myself, and I enjoy playing for people. I’ve never really had to give much thought to putting together some sort of show. To reinforce that, you know, I genuinely really love to play and that, that comes across, the music is enough, and maybe that’s even better for people because I think they perceive it as being genuine.”
Mark Whitfield’s commitment is a source of inspiration to today’s guitar players even though most of them need to imbibe Mark’s total spirit and motivation. His advice to aspiring young jazz musicians is instructive:
“I had the benefit of a lot of really good advice, and it came from a lot of different sources. I think the most important thing a young person can do in thinking about preparing for a career in jazz music is that you have to go about it with the same seriousness and preparation that you would use for any highly specialised skill, as if you wanted to be a neurosurgeon, an astronaut, something that requires a lot of study and a lot of dedication, far beyond what is the normal call of duty. In this day and age, you have so many different avenues for information. There are tons of books and instructional videos; and I guess you can even now study over the Internet.
“And, prepare yourself before you even go to college. And when you go, you want to pick a place where you can go, and be prepared, and get the best education possible for what it is that you want to do. If you want to be a great basketball player, you don’t want to go to Berklee School of Music. I think if you dedicate a lot of time and effort and energy into it, and you love it–and you have the ability, it will pay off for you.”
Whitfield had always maintained this focus from the age of seven when he owned his guitar. He started by trying to imitate what he heard from a Lightnin’ Hopkins record, called And follows you after the blues. He tried to play the riffs and things with the songs. His parents saw his interests at that early age and got him some lessons at a local music store.
Today, he is on top, enjoying rave reviews such as “one-of-a kind” guitarist, “virtuoso” and “technician” of the guitar.