CHRIS STANDRING: SOUL JAZZ GUITARIST AT THE TOP OF HIS GAME

By Paul Freeman [November 2015 Interview]

Most two-year-olds have a favorite toy - a stuffed animal, building blocks, a rocking horse. For Chris Standring, it was a little guitar.

Raised on a farm in Buckinghamshire, England, Standring spent his childhood driving tractors and feeding sheep, as well as plucking guitar strings.

When he was eight, Standring was transfixed, watching Glen Campbell play a guitar solo on TV. The youngsterís first idol on the instrument was Jan Akkerman of Dutch band Focus. Later inspirations included Jeff Beck, Larry Carlton, Robben Ford and Pat Martino.

He attended the London College of Music, ignoring his harmony and history classes and only attending his private classical guitar lessons. Though he was featured in 20 live BBC radio broadcasts in the late 80s, he moved to Los Angeles in 1991.

Standring released his debut album, ďVelvet,Ē in 1994. His R&B-inflected hits include ďCool Shades,Ē ďHip Sway,Ē ďI Canít Help MyselfĒ and ďOliverís TwistĒ (from 2012ís ďElectric WonderlandĒ album). ďBossa Blue,Ē (from 2010ís ďBlue BoleroĒ) was Billboardís Contemporary Jazz Track of the Year.

Standring, 54, has always infused his jazz sound with healthy helpings of funk and soul. On his latest album, ďDonít Talk, Dance!,Ē he pays even greater attention to the groove. Backed by some of L.A.ís finest musicians, and featuring a guest appearance from vocalist Lauren Christy, the record is captivating from start to finish. He not only played on the album, but also composed, arranged and produced it.

He has another new album due next spring. Each new record takes Standring into new musical territory. He has penned a memoir, ďSomething In The Stars: A Story Of Innocence, Ambition and All That Jazz.Ē

POP CULTURE CLASSICS:
In the writing of the ďDonít Talk, DanceĒ album, was it different, maybe starting more from a groove?

STANDRING:
Itís definitely heavier on the dance side of things. I mean, Iíve always recorded funky soul music with a jazz edge. But that one, in particular, was a little bit more dance-oriented than anything else Iíve done. Overall. Not every track, of course.

PCC:
Do you try to figure out where you want to go next musically? Or does the music dictate that to you?

STANDRING:
Thatís a good question, because during the months when Iím not writing a record, I think about what the next record should be, in my mind. And when you start writing, thatís very often not how things come out. So I can have all sorts of theories about what a record should be until you actually start writing and then youíve got to just kind of goÖ You can get a twinge of an idea and a kind of a direction, but at the end of the day, if something comes to you, youíve got to grab it and sort of follow that museÖ Itís a difficult question to answer, unless youíre actually doing it [laughs].

PCC:
Do you use a variety of guitars, with different tones, when youíre composing, to push things in different directions?

STANDRING:
Yeah, Iíll use all the sorts of inspiration I can get to try and get something new. So I do have a few guitars. I tend to have one signature guitar sound I like to use, so people know itís me. But for when Iím actually writing, I might use any number of different instruments to get different ideas.

PCC:
How would you define your signature sound?

STANDRING:
Well, itís a jazz tone, a clean jazz tone, played on an arch top jazz guitar.

PCC:
Thatís a Benedetto?

STANDRING:
Yeah.

PCC:
For you, whatís so special about that particular guitar?

STANDRING:
Well, Iíve been playing a Benedetto guitar since, I think, 1996. And Iíve had a relationship with the company. And they just happen to make the best jazz guitars in the world. Thatís actually not really up for negotiation, between jazz guitar players. So I donít really see any need to go anywhere else [laughs], because they just sound and feel amazing.

PCC:
As arranger and producer, do you have the albums pretty much all mapped out by the time you get into the studio? Or do you allow a lot of space for invention as youíre recording?

STANDRING:
Well, things are a bit different than they used to be, back in the day. When I write, Iím generally recording as I do it. I have a studio at my house. So I might start writing and Iíve actually got to be more conscious of what Iím doing, because what Iím recording that day very often will end up being the pass on the final record. So itís more of a question of fleshing something out immediately, as Iím writing. Over the course of the months, that same piece of music will end up being the final piece of music that goes on a record.

PCC:
Since youíre arranging and producing, are you conscious of not always putting the guitar in the spotlight, but being more concerned with the overall sound?

STANDRING:
Well, yes. These are good questions. The ďDonít Talk, DanceĒ record was very much like that. I had been making these kind of contemporary jazz records for a long time, where my guitar was a focus of the lead voice, if you will. And this record, I wanted to do something a little bit different. And my guitar voice was not necessarily at the front and center of it all. It was on a lot of the album, but on a few tracks, I just wanted to do something a little bit different and see where it all took me. I canít really say what it is, but itís a vibe. And the guitar is there in the background. And sometimes it steps forward.

PCC:
Has it been easy to find the right musical collaborators to surround yourself with?

STANDRING:
Itís been very easy, because Iíve had the same band for something like 15 years. Weíve grown up together in a way and thereís this musical understanding. I donít very often co-write these days, just because Iím so sort of self-contained in my own studio. I mean, I do sometimes with songwriters, but generally not instrumentalists anymore. But I have a lot of people I like to call to come and add to the songs, towards the final recording of it all. Iíve known a lot of people in L.A. for many, many years. So itís easy. We have some of the best musicians in the world that live here.

PCC:
Generally are you consciously blending a variety of genres? Or is that just a reflection of your eclectic tastes?

STANDRING:
Yes, Iím very conscious of it. In fact, thatís what drives me. The idea of listening to what they call ďsmooth jazzĒ just does not leave me excited in any way. But I will listen to orchestral music, Iíll listen to European drum-and-bass-driven chill or lounge music. And Iíll also listen to old, straight-ahead jazz. Itís using those genres that excites me, putting different things together that wouldnít normally be put together. And there are also DJ elements. I love all that, too. Put that all together with a bebop jazz guitar on top.

PCC:
I read that you actually wanted a guitar at age two.

STANDRING:
Yes, I did get a guitar, when I was two, a toy guitar. And I had a toy guitar every year for my birthday until I was old enough to hold a real one, which was age six. So yeah, it goes back a long way.

PCC:
What sparked the interest to begin with? Were your parents into music? What made you want to play guitar?

STANDRING:
I donít know the answer to that. I remember seeing Glen Campbell play solo guitar on the TV, when I was probably eight, thinking, ďWow! That sounds amazing! Whatís that?Ē But I canít answer that question. It just happened. It was probably that moment on TVÖ or several moments, watching people hold guitars.

PCC:
But to be drawn to the guitar at age two - maybe you played in a past life?

STANDRING:
[Laughs] Maybe.

PCC:
What did you find so magical about the guitar itself?

STANDRING:
I remember it having a great smell [laughs]. Thatís about all I can remember, as a kid, just smelling the sound hole. I know that sounds weird. Itís things like that that get in your brain and you think, ďOh, this is interesting.Ē And it sounds great. You make a sound. Then a chord. Then two chords.

Donít forget, back in the day, we didnít have a lot to do. Right now we have all this distraction with the internet and smart phones. But back in the day, we basically had a record player to amuse ourselves with, a TV set and any instrument we could grab.

PCC:
Who were some of the artists who inspired you originally?

STANDRING:
Well, back in the day, when I was a kid, I was nuts about a Dutch band called Focus and a guitar player called Jan Akkerman. He was the first guy that I really, really listened to and thought was just amazing. And then I got into Jeff Beck. And much later, people like Larry Carlton and Robben Ford. And then even later still, Pat Martino, whoís one of my favorites still today.

PCC:
Those artists, is it their originality that attracts you?

STANDRING:
I think it was their prescience that came across on their records. They just spoke to me somehow, some way.

PCC:
As youíre listening to these other artists, is it just an organic process that you start to develop your own voice on guitar? Or is that something you consciously working towards?

STANDRING:
I think itís quite a subconscious thing. We are basically a result of our experiences and influences. All the genres that Iíve been talking about fusing together, and my own personal style, itís all an amalgam, a hodgepodge of stuff that weíve listened to and been exposed to and loved. Thatís all it is. Thereís actually not that much mystery to it.

PCC:
But do you find that the creative process does have some mysterious element?

STANDRING:
I donít think thereís much mystery to it. People like to think thereís a mystery to it. But the creative process is, basically, you sit down with an instrument and try and write something. And some days you can and some days you canít. And thatís about as deep as it goes [laughs]. Some days something happens. Other days it doesnít.

PCC:
So you donít let it frustrate you, when it doesnít happen?

STANDRING:
Yeah, I do get very frustrated. And it gets harder when you get older, especially as youíve written and recorded so much, because itís very easy to write the same thing twice. So I have to filter myself. So these days, I might try to write 10 things before one thing comes out thatís got me really excited. And what does get me excited is some kind of a new twist on something that I havenít done before.

PCC:
And that gets harder to find?

STANDRING:
It does get harder. But I also find that, by making myself write each day, you get on a roll and it comes easier. If all of a sudden, I havenít written in six months and I sit down and try to write, inevitably, nothing will come out. But I know thatís going to be the case. And you just have to get on a roll and, within a few days, it comes back.

PCC:
That must be a great feeling, when it comes back.

STANDRING:
It is good. But in order to get something inspiring, I have to expose myself to inspiring things, which is generally making myself listen to music I havenít heard before, hunting around for things like that.

PCC:
The London College of Music, did that give you a solid foundation? Was that important to your development?

STANDRING:
I think it was. It was a three-year performing course, where I basically had three things I had to do every week. One was a private classical guitar lesson. And then a harmony lesson and a history lesson. I ended up, literally, just going to my classical guitar lesson every week. And my teacher wasnít even in the college [laughs]. So I was never to be seen in the college, simply because I was home practicing all day and all night for three years. So thatís why it was great. Basically, I had an excuse to sit down and practice the guitar for three years and get good.

PCC:
And then you worked at BBC for a while, composing?

STANDRING:
Well, I didnít work at the BBC, but back in the day, they had these broadcasts that they would assign arrangers and musicians and bandleaders to put together. So it would be like a three-hour recording session. You would record live. And I could record whatever I wanted and generally I would write my own music, because weíd get paid for it. And Iíd bring in lots of musicians, sometimes a horn section and maybe four vocalists. Weíd do these pretty extravagant things, because I could put it all together in a very organized way,in a short period of time. They liked it, because they would get a lot of music and it would all sound very professional to them. So that was a good experience. I probably did about 20 of those live radio broadcasts in the late 80s.

PCC:
What made you decide to move to L.A.?

STANDRING:
Fame and fortune [laughs], like everybody else. Mostly that, but also, I had spent 10 years, in the 80s, trying to really get ahead and thinking that I would be much further along on the success ladder than I was. But looking back on it, I was actually a kid, not really understanding that you have to really pay your dues. So I was impatient and ambitious and wanted to really join the big leagues and come out to the entertainment capitol of the world. So I just did it. I came out here in 1991.

PCC:
And was it a difficult time for you, when you first arrived?

STANDRING:
Yeah. I knew it was going to be hard. I had basically told myself, ďItís going to be a lonely road for a few years.Ē So I was prepared for it. I knew that I needed to do this. There were the poverty years. And then I had a break and everything was all right. But it took me about 10 years to really jump on.

PCC:
With all the playing, all the years of experience, are you still learning on the instrument?

STANDRING:
Yeah, thereís no question. Right now, Iím absolutely at the top of my game. But thereís such a long way to go. And Iíve never been more fascinated with the instrument.

PCC:
Your internet TV show, ďInside Track,Ē can you learn from those musicians that youíre interviewing?

STANDRING:
Well, thereís always something that you learn from them, yeah. These are world-class musicians that Iím having on the show. Itís a fun day, because we get to play and hang out, drink wine [laughs] and itís all recorded.

PCC:
As you perform on tour, what do you hope the takeaway is for the audiences?

STANDRING:
Well, I just try to put on a great show for people. And for some strange reason, people love it. And they want to come to see me. And, of course, Iíve got a brand new record thatís coming out in March, 2016. So Iím excited to get out and play all the new music live and see how the new record does.

PCC:
What direction is that record taking?

STANDRING:
How can I describe it? Itís got an urban jazz flavor to it. Itís the best thing Iíve ever done. Thereís no question. Iím absolutely playing the best Iíve ever played on it. I think the albumís going to be called ďSoul Vibration,Ē but thatís not 100 percent confirmed yet.

PCC:
To this point, your life as a musician - what are the most rewarding and the most challenging aspects?

STANDRING:
I think the greatest reward is getting up in the morning and not actually having to go to work. But also, the greatest challenge is getting up in the morning and going, ďWhat do I have to do today?Ē [Laughs] So itís a double-edged sword.

For more on this artist, visit chrisstandring.com.