Masterful jazz guitarist Joshua Breakstone thinks the ultimate thing in jazz isn’t how fast you play or how great a guitar player you are. Rather, it’s how well you know your instrument.
“If there’s a prize, if there’s an ultimate goal in jazz, it’s to find your own voice and develop your own way of saying something and expressing yourself,” he explains.
The 61-year-old Breakstone, who has released more than twenty albums under his own name since his 1983 debut, Wonderful!, says he doesn’t try to copy anybody’s style, even when he’s recorded tribute albums to jazz guitarists like Grant Green and Wes Montgomery and pianists Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk. And Breakstone’s new album, 88, released last month on local jazz label Capri Records, features the music of pianists he admires, including Sonny Clark, Mal Waldron, Lennie Tristano, Harold Mabern and others.
“When I get music of pianists, I don’t copy them,” Breakstone says. “I take their melodies and, in some cases, especially when you start talking about Monk, there’s a certain process — a little bit of a reduction – because the pianists can play so much, and the comping behind it [jazz speak for accompanying, or playing chords behind someone who is soloing]. So we reduce them. I think in that way, like when you go from piano to guitar, you almost get a little bit of a more pure rendering of the melodies.”
Although 88 might be a tribute to pianists, there’s actually no piano on the album. Rather, the album includes his Cello Quartet, which features cellist Mike Richmond (also a longtime bassist who worked with Miles Davis, Stan Getz, Lee Konitz, Ravi Shankar and played in the Philadelphia Orchestra), bassist Lisle Atkinson (who worked with Nina Simone, Clark Terry and a slew of jazz legends) and drummer Andy Watson, who’s recorded with the great Japanese pianist Toshiko Akiyoshi. Breakstone had the idea to add cello to his group after performing with Japanese bassist and promoter Mitsuru Nishiyama, who booked many of Breakstone’s tours to Japan, where the guitarist has been playing for the last three decades.
As Nishiyama got older, Breakstone said it was rough for him to drag his bass around, so Nishiyama asked if it was okay to do a tour where he played cello instead. At first Breakstone looked at it like a guitar trio with a cello soloist. But a few shows into the tour, he started hearing the group as more of a string section with percussion.
When Breakstone got back to the United States, he decided he wanted to record with that kind of group. However, he had a tough time finding a bass player who also played cello until he played a gig with Richmond.
His first album with the Cello Quartet was 2013’s With the Wind and the Rain, and he followed that with last year’s 2nd Avenue: The Return of the Cello Quartet, both of which were released by the Bailey, Colorado-based Capri Records. Breakstone says he’s been with the label, owned by Tom Burns, for many years.
“It’s a great relationship,” Breakstone says of working with Capri. “I could be with a much bigger record company, and I could be paid more for the recordings I’ve done over the years, but there’s no way to substitute being able to do exactly what you want to do project-wise and being able to do what you want to do as far as the people you’re going to record with and the selections you want to record.
“I record in New York," he continues. "I handle the recording myself, so I produce the recording. And Tom knows that I know how to do that. He doesn’t even come out to the sessions. I send him a finished master edited [and] ready to go, and we’re in business. I can’t imagine anything better from the standpoint of somebody who’s recording. It’s just ideal.”
While working with Capri is one local connection for Breakstone, the guitarist has also teamed up with local Emmy award-winning filmmaker Joshua Hassel, who wanted to make a documentary on Breakstone after seeing him perform at Burns’s home. And in February, filming began on that documentary, Joshua Breakstone, Soft Hands: Jazz Ethereal, for Colorado Public Television. There’s footage of Breakstone and his group rehearsing for 88 in New Jersey, interviews at the New Jersey-based jazz radio station WBGO, Breakstone being interviewed on air by KUVO’s Arturo Gomez, and live shots from Breakstone’s March performance at local jazz club Nocturne, as well as his Japan tour last summer.
Although Soft Hands: Jazz Ethereal is slated to air on Colorado Public Television in early 2017 (and will eventually be released on DVD), there will be a screening at Dazzle at 5 p.m. on Sunday, November 13, before Breakstone’s two performances at 6 and 8 p.m. Tickets are $15-$18.