Friday, June 24, 2011

An Interview with Fusion Jazz Guitarist Alex Machacek

Born in 1972 and raised in Vienna, Austria, Alex Machacek is equal parts guitar virtuoso and prodigious composer. I had the pleasure of reviewing Machacek's latest CD 24 Tales in an earlier post and was instantly amazed by his fluid guitar playing and immense compositional depth.
Fusion Guitarist Alex Machacek
Alex Machacek is definitely a force to watch.

In this interview, Alex talks about his various recordings, his compositional process, and gives us a rundown of his current gear as well as a glimpse of projects to come. He also tells us about how difficult it is for musicians like himself to continue to produce recorded works and even a guitar instruction DVD, in the face of rampant online file-sharing.

The Guitar Column:  You're originally from Austria, a city renowned for producing great classical composers. What was your early musical education like?
Alex Machacek:  I started out taking classical guitar lessons at a local music school. Beside the lessons I also had to attend theory classes and choir.

TGC:  I first came across your name some years back when I was doing a YouTube search for Charlie Parker's 'Donna Lee'. My first reaction was 'Machacek -- what an unusual name'.
AM:  Yes, the name – I know that it is a tough one to pronounce for English speaking people and that’s why I decided to put an audio sample of the correct pronunciation on my website.  (smile)

TGC:  My second reaction upon watching your video was me almost falling out of my chair! I love the way you played the melody, expanding and compressing the time like a rubber band -- very Frank Zappa! Was that video from a guitar clinic you did?
AM:  My rendition of Donna Lee was actually for a guitar competition where you had to fulfill certain requirements. One of those was to perform a fast Bebop tune and I thought that there are probably thousands of guitar players out there who can play Donna Lee faster. That’s why I decided to re-interpret the melody with some Zappa influenced polyrhythms. Needless to say that I didn’t win.  (smile)

The video is from a record store in Raleigh – I played a couple of songs there to present my then new album [sic].

TGC:  Coming to the US, you spent a couple of semesters at the Berklee College of Music. What was that experience like?
AM:  I spent two semesters at Berklee. The biggest difference was probably the size of the school – the Jazz department of the Conservatory in Vienna is tiny...whereas at Berklee there where 800 guitar players! Besides attending school I spent most of my time practicing.  All in all I got a lot out of it.  (Ed. Note:  After two semesters at Berklee, Alex returned to the Conservatory of Vienna where he completed his degree in Jazz Education

TGC:  Since then you've recorded with a number of great, like-minded musicians. Tell us a bit about your CDs, [sic] with Terry Bozzio and Improvision with Jeff Sipe and Matthew Garrison.
AM:   [sic] was my first album on Abstract Logix and there are different line ups on it. The pieces with Terry are recompositions around his drum solos, the other songs are in a regular band setting.

The line up for Improvision was Souvik Dutta’s idea (Abstract Logix president). I knew that we wouldn’t have much time in the studio so we basically just jammed. I then took the material and composed around it at home. It was definitely a pleasant experience – Matt and Jeff are great musicians.

TGC:  You seem to favor touring in a trio format. Do you still have your trio with Kai Eckhardt and Marco Minnemann and will there be any live CD releases from those tour dates?
AM:  As for the trio format, I’d love to take a string quartet and so many other musicians on the road, but guess what: $$$... (smile)

That trio (with Eckhardt and Minnemann) is not a current one.

TGC:  Your newest CD '24 Tales' is based on an interesting concept. Marco Minnemann pre-recorded his drum parts and you structured and composed your guitar, bass and keyboard parts around it. I especially dig the way you composed around his drum fills and gestures, making it sound cohesive and compositional, especially when Marco does these abrupt rhythmic left turns.  But there are some really hip modern jazz piano improvisations on 24 Tales as well. Are you as adept at keyboards as you are at guitar?
AM:  Sure, with my mouse on the computer! I can’t play the piano, but I know what I would like to hear so I just put it into my sequencer with the mouse – note by note.

TGC:  I'm curious, how much time does it take you to complete a massive compositional undertaking like 24 Tales?
AM:  I didn’t do it in one run, so it is hard to say – I started years ago but I got interrupted with other projects quite often – so I can only guess – many months?

TGC:  Your CDs are on the Abstract Logix label.  How did your association with Abstract Logix come about?
AM:  My affiliation with Abstract Logix actually started by Shawn Lane recommending me to Souvik Dutta. He heard my first CD 'Featuring Ourselves' and seemingly liked it.  Back then Abstract Logix was just a distribution company.  I was still living in Vienna, Austria and received an email from Souvik expressing interest in distributing my CD.  Later on, when I already moved to Los Angeles, Souvik and I kept in touch quite a bit and one thing led to another.  Souvik founded his label and asked me if I wanted to release the CD I was working on ([sic]) on his label.

TGC:  You're also an instructor at the Musicians Institute in Hollywood. How do you manage your time between teaching, recording and touring the world?
AM:  I only teach 2 days a week and if I have to go on the road then I take a leave of absence.

TGC:  I've got to ask you, you have a really strong fluid legato technique but you're also very adept at alternate picking. Most guys are specialists at either one or the other. How did you develop both techniques to such a high level?
AM:  Don’t let yourself be fooled, my picking technique isn’t really good – I am definitely better playing legato.

TGC:  Watching your Pentatonic Concepts DVD from Lick Library -- a great instructional DVD by the way -- I noticed how positively relaxed your left hand is on the fingerboard. Most times it looks like you're hardly moving it at all!
AM:  Well, I definitely am working on efficiency and try to play with minimum effort.

TGC:  Do you have any new instructional DVDs in the works, or a guitar book maybe?
AM:  I had plans to write a book but (now) actually, no.  Nowadays people just steal my stuff and therefore I don’t have much incentive to work on it.  So far, the amount I earned with that DVD is just pathetic. I see it for illegal download all over the internet.

I don’t want to come across as greedy or being only in it for the money, but keep in mind that there is a lot of work involved creating educational material.

I do like teaching, but I do like playing and composing even more. Therefore I rather work on new music -- which people also steal shamelessly.

TGC:  What are you using these days by way of guitars, pedals and amps?
AM:  My main guitar is a custom guitar built by Bill DeLap, headless, chambered SG-style body.

For my amp I'm using a Boogie Rectoverb with a Port City 2x12 cabinet.

For effects, either I am using the (Fractal Audio) Axe FX Ultra with a midi footswitch, or sometimes I'll use my mini pedal board which consists of a Volume Pedal, Keeley compressor, X-otic BB Preamp, M-Audio Crunchbox, EWS modded Aria Chorus and Line6 DL4.  And depending of the band I also use a Roland guitar synth -- GI 20 (midi guitar interface) with a XV2020 sound module.

TGC:  What do you bring in your touring rig, considering the strict baggage rules airlines have these days?
AM:  Either the Axe FX in a soft rack, usually as a carry-on, or the mini pedal board in a hardshell case, checked-in.  And of course only one guitar.

TGC:  Both John McLaughlin and Allan Holdsworth have praised your work highly. That must be quite a thrill coming from two masters who are true fusion pioneers!
AM:  Yes, I can (and should) die now!

TGC:  Thanks so much for doing this interview Alex! Do you have any parting words for our readers?
AM:  I already mentioned it before but I have to say it again. Illegal downloads kill music!

There seems to be a new generation growing up not even knowing that music is not free. So spread the word...even musicians have to pay their bills. And one thing that really annoys me is the whole 'sharing' discussion. The ones who are so much for sharing are usually the ones who don’t give but just take. But enough of that, we will see what the future will bring.

On another note I would like to mention that I do have a new CD coming out in the fall. The band is called FAT which stands for Fabulous Austrian Trio. The band is with Raphael Preuschl on bass and Herbert Pirker on drums. Both of them already made an appearance on [sic] and they are simply great.

(Pic Source:  Abstract Logix)

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Alex Machacek '24 Tales' CD Review

Souvik Dutta over at fusion label Abstract Logix contacted me about doing a review for Alex Machacek's latest CD 24 Tales.

Alex Machacek 24 Tales
So here we go, the first CD review at The Guitar Column!

24 Tales is based on an interesting premise. All tracks were composed by Machacek around a one-take solo that drummer extraodinaire Marco Minnemann had previously laid down in the studio.

Recording without a click track, Minnemann's solo is chock-full of rhythmic twists and turns, and shifting time-signatures. Taking Minnemann's 51-minute solo, Machacek divided it into 24 mini-compositions that segue into one another.

24 Tales proves that Machacek is not just another fusion guitar virtuoso but also a composer of incredible imagination and amazing compositional chops as he navigates his writing around a virtual minefield of Minnemann's ever-changing rhythms.

The first track On Your Marks opens with an ostinato figure played on acoustic and overdriven guitars. After stating a very angular overdriven melody, Machacek launches into an ensemble section that reminds me of some of Return To Forever's finest moments. The highly compressed clean multi-finger tapped section of this piece is unique unto itself. Machacek's tone on the distorted sections is a little grainy with a slight digital 'fizz' -- no doubt due in part to amp simulation -- but it provides a nice crunchy texture nonetheless. On Your Marks indeed -- there are some incredible alternate picked sections that would have made a 20-something-year-old Al DiMeola sweat!

Sit Back And Chillax is a laid-back piece with acoustic slide guitar against a backdrop of fretless bass, synth pads and vocals by Machacek's wife Sumitra, a singer and artist in her own right. There are even some sections where Machacek sounds like he is about to venture into Indian slide guitar territory while the Chick Corea-inspired piano part here makes me wonder if Alex is as accomplished at keyboards as he is at guitar!

Anamika features a beautiful clean electric guitar before launching into a soaring overdriven legato melody -- an homage to fusion great Allan Holdsworth no doubt.  Pros And Cons of Depression yields a wrenching but again very brief solo while Tranquillo is right out of one of the pages of a young and hungry Return to Forever, replete with unison acoustic guitar and piano passages.

If there is one gripe I have about this album it would be that Machacek's solos are consistently too short -- just it seems as he is about to develop a solo idea to fruition, another ensemble section begins. Although this could also be due to the nature of the pre-recorded-drums format of this album. Or maybe, as a guitar fan, I just wanted to hear a great player like Machacek stretch out a bit more.

The longest track at 4:37 (most of the tracks on 24 Tales average out at under 2 minutes each), Sweet Torture features intricately picked acoustic guitar followed by a section of heavy-duty industrial guitar tones.  Somehow, in Machacek's compositional universe, it all makes sense!

Feel Me is a funky rock piece interjected with ensemble sections on acoustic guitar and another Holdsworth-inspired legato guitar solo. This solo I think has the best lead tone on the entire album and Machacek executes his lines flawlessly.

Guesting on trombone on three tracks is Martin Ptak. At The Club features a couple of very elegant and hip trombone solos; I really dig his tone and phrasing and Ptak adds a movie score texture with his trombone overdubs on See You There.

Marco Minnemann gives us an impromptu lesson in odd time by counting out the shifting rhythms on Minnemaus In Da House, while Sexy sees Machacek delivering his most gorgeous solo, in my opinion, on 24 Tales.

There are so many instrumental layers to this album. Distorted lead tones and acoustic guitars not only co-exist but complement each other seamlessly in ways that I never before imagined.  And I had to remind myself over and over again that the instrumental parts were composed and layered after the fact -- that's how tightly Machacek manages to beautifully interlace his guitar, bass and keyboard parts with Minnemann's incredible improvisation!

John McLaughlin has said that "Machacek's music starts where other music ends...". 24 Tales more than lives up to that statement.

24 Tales is available from Abstract Logix.

Alex's website is at

The complete home study jazz guitar course


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