A Few Minutes With… Scott Feiner

Scott Feiner
Scott Feiner

Interview and story by J Hunter

People change careers all the time, and not just because of the economy – although that’s the primary reason these days. It’s different with musicians, though. Sure, a player may pick up another instrument over the years – last I heard, sax wizard Joe Lovano’s picked up either 10 or 12 – but the new addition is usually related to his or her primary instrument; musicians don’t just say, “Y’know, I just got fired as a guitarist. I think I’ll try being a drummer now.”

The thing is, that’s kinda-sorta what happened to Scott Feiner, who made a pretty decent living as a jazz guitarist back in the ’90s. The New York City native wasn’t even playing guitar professionally in 1999 when he discovered the pandeiro – a Brazilian hand drum that’s essentially the unofficial instrument of that nation. Instantly entranced by the pandeiro’s singular sound, Feiner brought it back to New York, determined to learn how to play it. Part of that involved hooking up with Brazilian musicians and learning from them, which resulted in Feiner moving to Rio de Janeiro in 2001. (He moved back to the states a few months ago.)

What was supposed to be a hobby turned into a wonderfully unique form of expression Feiner calls “Pandeiro Jazz,” something I discovered in 2010 on Feiner’s truly sultry Zoho release Accents. An acoustic date featuring guitarist Freddie Bryant, saxman Joel Frahm and bassist Joe Martin, Accents had a devilish mix of intimacy and attitude that approached both jazz and Latin forms in a way I’d never experienced, taking classics like Herbie Hancock’s “Watermelon Man” and Mal Waldron’s “Soul Eyes” to places they’ve never been before. While this music was a new discovery for me, Accents was Feiner’s third Pandeiro Jazz release in five years.

But even though Feiner had a really good thing going, a random concert experience made him re-examine – and, essentially, reboot – his concept a couple of years ago, the result of which is A View From Below, Feiner’s first self-released Pandeiro Jazz disc. (The reasons for going indie will soon be explained.) “Less is more” is a cliché that is long past “well-worn,” but Feiner’s actually achieved it: View is a trio date featuring guitarist Guilherme Monteiro and keyboardist Rafael Vernet… but because they play electric instead of acoustic, this set of Feiner originals offers a broader, more aggressive sound while still maintaining the intimate dynamic of Accents. Driven by Feiner’s marvelously relentless beats, both Monteiro and Vernet attack their solos like hungry pitbulls on the opening title track, and turn the intros to spectacular pieces like “O Forno” and “The Visitor” into undeniable calls to arms. There are quieter moments on “Mother Nature” and “Raro Momento,” but the vibe gets intense even on these comparatively softer tunes.

Feiner took time from preparing for his Wednesday night (May 28) drop party at the Falcon in Marlboro to talk about the state of Pandeiro Jazz, as well as its creation and development:

Q: Is there any way to describe a pandeiro in 25 words or less? I mean, it looks like a tambourine, but it’s so much more, isn’t it?

A: The technique is very different – much more precise and refined-sounding jingles and (in the case of my drum) a thick goat skin.

Q: You’re known now as a percussionist, but your original focus was jazz guitar, wasn’t it?

A: Yes. I started studying guitar at 13. Went to high school for music in NYC and then went on to get a degree in jazz studies/guitar at the Hartt School of Music in Hartford, CT: I studied there under the legendary saxophonist Jackie McLean. After graduating, I returned to New York City and was part of a very vital jazz scene during the early 1990s. I was fortunate to play with a lot of amazing musicians – many of whom are at the forefront of the jazz world today. Today I only use the guitar to compose.

Q: Please talk about when the pandeiro came into your life.

A: I was already into Brazilian music, but didn’t know what a pandeiro was when I first visited Brazil in 1999. During that first trip, I saw a kid playing one on the street, and it blew my mind. I had originally wanted to be a drummer when I was 10 years old. The pandeiro just chose me – love at first sight. I returned to New York determined to learn how to play it. At that point, I had already stopped playing guitar professionally. The pandeiro was “supposed” to just be a hobby. I wound up getting carried away. (Laughs)

Q: Percussion is a huge part of South American music. But where congas and timbales seem to invite and incite raucousness, the pandeiro seems to thrive on nuance and subtlety.

A: Not necessarily. It really depends on the musical style within Brazilian music. If you check out the samba/partido alto players who tend to use plastic head pandeiros, you’ll hear some very aggressive stuff – almost like conga playing, in some sense.

Q: You put this concept out into the world in 2006 with the Delira Musica disc Pandeiro Jazz. You had a hell of a band on that date, including Freddie Bryant and one of my favorite saxophonists, Joel Frahm. You got that band back together for your 2010 Zoho release Accents. How much had the music changed for you in that five-year span, as well your relationship with those musicians?

A: You have good taste – Joel is one of my favorites, too! The whole idea for Pandeiro Jazz came about by accident. I was in NYC in 2004 on a trip back from Rio, and someone offered me a night in a little café in Greenwich Village – a very informal gig. I wanted to take advantage of being back in New York and not just do a typical Brazilian thing. I called Freddie to do the gig as a duo, and asked Joel if he would come by and sit in with us; Joel and I had played a LOT together when I was a guitarist back in the day, and he recorded on both of my recordings as a guitarist. I recorded the gig just to be able to hear what it sounded like later, and returned to Rio. As I listened to it and showed it to a few of my “pandeiro idols” in Rio, I realized I had stumbled upon something that hadn’t been done before. I returned to New York a year later and recorded Pandeiro Jazz in Brooklyn in 2005 – it took a year to release it.

Accents was actually recorded two years after Pandeiro Jazz, but it wound up on the shelf for a couple of years because of the release of Dois Mundos in Brazil in 2008. But even after two years, the big difference was that the first CD was an experiment – like, “I wonder if I can make an entire jazz CD with only a pandeiro, and will people want to listen to it”? When we recorded Accents, I already knew it was working, and we had played a bunch of gigs together. I wanted to document that growth. Personally, I had developed more as a pandeiro player and was also more confident, but Freddie, Joel and Joe always sounded great, regardless! (Laughs)

Q: On A View from Below, you’ve trimmed your band down to a trio, with only guitar and keyboards backing you up. And yet, it seems like the sound has expanded! Is that just because of the electric nature of this band, or did you have a more rambunctious sound in mind when you wrote this music?

A: I’m so happy to hear you say the sound expanded. That’s great! I think part of it is the electric nature of the recording, but perhaps it’s the style of the compositions, as well. Also, I think the engineer got a great sound for us in the studio. He’s one of Rio’s best, and he did a great job. The idea to do a bass-less trio came about by accident as well: Back around late 2008 or early 2009 I played a concert in São Paulo, and the guitarist Chico Pinheiro was my special guest. I went one day early with the pianist to rehearse with Chico. The rest of the band arrived a day later from Rio. I liked the sound of the trio so much I decided to do one tune in the concert with just pandeiro-guitar-piano, and when I returned to Rio, I decided to start investigating that more… and during that time changed the sound from acoustic to electric. Then all the tunes for View started to brew. I actually waited about three years to make this record – the tunes were ready around 2010.

Q: Although your own compositions appear on Accents, you also did several covers as well as a couple of Freddie Bryant tunes. However, all the music on View comes from your pen. Was that a conscious decision, or did it just shake out that way?

A: I decided to record View precisely because I had a new body of original material and the new trio format. I had done it a bunch live, so it was really about documenting it. There was a time when I was thinking about it being a live recording. I like all of my previous recordings, and love all of the great musicians I’ve had on them. But I firmly believe the project has come into its own now with this new trio format and the new material, and I hear this from other people, as well. I think the overall statement is stronger now.

Q: Your guitarist on this tour is Mike Moreno, who is just sneaky good! I think he’s got one of those signature sounds you can’t find anywhere else. What’s it been like working with him, and how has he fit into this stripped-out configuration?

A: Mike Moreno truly is amazing, and it’s a treat to play with him. We’ve been in touch over the years, but we’ve only played one gig together so far before The Falcon, which was the CD release gig in New York in April. And that was with the pianist Sam Yahel – it was a blast! Not only is Mike’s sound very personal, but his touch and phrasing is incredible. There’s real drive and intention in his lines, which really helps the music move forward. It’s great working with Mike. He’s easy to get along with and takes the music seriously. What more can you ask for? We’ll also be at Smalls in NYC on July 9, and Sam will be with us on that one as well.

Q: Are you playing just the music from View, or are you exploring any of your older recordings through this very different configuration?

A: We’re playing some tunes from my previous three recordings, as well.

Q: Along with the Falcon, you’re also doing two shows at the Xerox Rochester International Jazz Festival on Saturday, June 28. Given the inherent intimacy of this music, does Pandeiro Jazz translate well to a larger venue? Does your new electric direction help you in situations like that?

A: I’ve actually played on a lot of big stages with Pandeiro Jazz over the years – mainly at festivals in Brazil. It’s worked well with any of the formats, and actually some of the most intense moments have been duos with pandeiro and piano. But yes, I think the electric format gives things even more of a punch. You should hear what a low-tuned, close-mic’d pandeiro sounds through a large PA system. (Laughs)

Q: All your previous discs have been label releases, but View is a self-release. What’s the story behind that?

A: I actually had interest from a very respected label out of NYC, but they couldn’t consider releasing it until 2015, and I didn’t want to wait. It would have been great to have their financial backing for publicity and marketing and general “market clout.” But I’ll tell you one thing I prefer about being independent: When it comes to digital sales, it’s much easier to keep track of things when you don’t have someone else in the middle.

Scott Feiner & Pandeiro Jazz (featuring Mike Moreno and Vitor Goncalves) will give “A View from Below” its mid-Hudson debut at The Falcon in Marlboro at 7pm on Wednesday (May 28). Donations are encouraged. NOTE: The performance is also being webcast via Concert Window.

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