An Interview with Kevin Callahan, Part 1

Kevin Callahan is a guitarist, composer and teacher based in Seattle, Washington. A few weeks back, I went to a concert given by Odair Assad where I heard a piece by Kevin called The Red Fantasy. I was fascinated by the piece, and looked up and emailed Kevin a few days after the concert. This is a great interview, and I hope you enjoy!


When did you start playing guitar?  Classical first?

I started playing guitar when I was about 12 years old living in a town just outside of Boston. I have some singers in my extended family, and my parents were always very supportive of music, so they did whatever possible to make music available to me as a kid. We found a teacher, Charlie Chiarenza, a Sicilian, who was more-so a violinist and jazz bassist, although he taught beginner level guitar. Being of Sicilian descent myself, we had some things in common. I remember bringing my steel-string made by Harmony to my first lesson only to discover that Charlie required a full month of Solfége before allowing me near the instrument. I wanted to play the Harmony; he made me read the dots!

It wasn’t long, however, before I was playing Tico Tico and tunes by the Ventures. Charlie introduced me to the music of George Barnes and Bucky Pizzarelli and he even brought me to a club to meet Joe Venuti. Sadly, I was too young to understand the scope of that genre of music. But as I grew older, I discovered how much I loved jazz. And just last year, I met Bucky at Jazz Alley here in Seattle. Great player!

I didn’t study with Charlie for very long. A year later, I entered high school, and I was so busy with schoolwork and cross-country/track that lessons had to stop. But, Charlie’s impact on me was far-reaching and remains to this day.

Throughout high school, I played folk-rock. Important influences included Bob Dylan, James Taylor, Joni Mitchell, Bonnie Raitt, The Beatles, Neil Young. In fact, even now, I listen to many of those artists whenever I can. I did a lot of transcribing from records in high school. James Taylor is an excellent guitarist and I learned quite a bit by copying him off vinyl. I remember hearing an interview with Pat Metheny a few years ago in which he said one of his favorite guitarists is James Taylor. I can see why.

When I entered Dartmouth College as an undergraduate, I was pretty sure I wanted to major in Chemistry and be a doctor. Not having to declare a major until sophomore year, I enrolled in first-term Music Theory. I had had no classical training prior, but here we were required to take 4-part dictation. Ouch! By the end of the first 8-week term, skills were being honed, albeit inchoate as they were. My roommate, an all-state clarinetist out of New York, turned me on to YES and like everyone else, I *had* to learn “Mood for a Day”. Having had developed some right-hand technique as a result of copying James Taylor, MFAD didn’t seem all that difficult. My roommate and I decided to form a duo and we started getting gigs in and around Hanover. Guitar, clarinet and my mediocre voice. In fact, I could have been a stand-in for Neil. Gigging at 17 and getting paid seemed pretty cool, though.

The same year, I took a seminar on John Coltrane with Professor/author Bill Cole. That changed my life. Bill gave me transcriptions of a collection of Coltrane solos. Those very transcriptions are sitting on my desk as I type this (although I prefer to learn by ear). Everything about music suddenly changed. I heard new things and thought about music and sound from an entirely different perspective. And while all these Trane and Davis tunes began informing my musical imagination, I was also discovering Jeff Beck and Deep Purple, Larry Carlton, Steve Morse, Sonny Stitt, Art Tatum and others. By my senior year, I was in an all-instrumental band called Naughty Zoot consisting of keyboard, bass, drums and guitar. We started doing gigs playing tunes note-for-note by Pat Metheny, Weather Report, Jeff Beck, Charlie Parker, Dixie Dregs … and we wrote some of our own stuff in what would probably be considered a fusion of be-bop and rock. While I loved music with a passion, I ended up with a B.A. in English with a secondary focus in environmental studies, thinking I would go to music school post-Dartmouth. That never happened.

After graduating, I spent a short time back home in Boston, left for the West Coast and wound up in Seattle thinking about becoming a Naturopath. My passion for music never waned, though, and while I wanted to learn Flamenco, a friend suggested I contact his teacher, Gary Bissiri, to learn classical guitar. Gary’s beautiful tone and musical insights were an eye-opener. So, at age 25 or so, I bought a nylon string guitar and took about nine months of intense classical guitar lessons. I went from playing Beck’s Constipated Duck to Bach’s Prelude, Fugue and Allegro in a matter of a few months and I was hooked. So hooked that I got injured and had to stop for some time. Over the years, I’ve gone in and out of the music world as I concurrently developed an interest in programming computers, well, Macs. And with the iPhone and iPod Touch, I’ve got the jones to port a music theory app I wrote for my students. Right now, I’m spending a lot of time learning the iPhone SDK.

Though I’ve not had much formal guitar training, I’ve learned a lot by paying attention to anything that catches my ear, no matter the style, no matter the player. I’d listen, sometimes emulate and then experiment with new things. It’s not that bad a path, and eventually, you may come up with your own approach.

Is composing something that you just started doing naturally?  Any formal lessons, etc?

In high school, I wrote folk and soft-rock tunes. Dylan and Taylor were huge influences – I didn’t know much about music that wasn’t sung. And yeah, I played “Stairway to Heaven” too. When I entered college, I enrolled in Music Theory 101 (or whatever it was called) freshman year. I then took a year off from school, booked some jazz guitar lessons with Mitch Coodley, and was able to hook up with Thomas McGah, who at the time was head of composition at Berklee School Of Music in Boston. My private studies with Tom were more analysis of the Common Practice Period followed by 5th species counterpoint than actual “composition”, but it got me thinking. Other than the compressed nine-month stretch with McGah, I’ve mostly learned by listening to music. But, because of having crammed in a jazz background some time ago after having gone through Common Practice Period, counterpoint, and having read numerous books on 20th century music, I have a pretty good knowledge of theory, and I naturally tend to analyze pieces I’ve learned to play. It’s funny, because after a while, the categories or genres tend to fade around the edges and the language blurs. You’ve got notes and no-notes. And it’s really just about the sound you’re going for, anyway. That’s pretty much it.

Other than the folk-rock and fusion tunes I’d written, I didn’t start composing anything intended for classical guitar until Badi Assad had heard me improvising on something and then asked if I could turn it into a ballad for her album, Rhythms. So, that was really the start. Then Sergio Assad encouraged me to surround the ballad to make a suite. I think that’s when I realized that this could be fun and a new vehicle of expression.

You recently wrote a piece for Odair Assad, how did you connect with him?

My first connection with Odair was well before meeting him. When I heard his playing with Sergio’s in their early recordings of the 80’s, I was blown away (isn’t everyone!). Can guitar really be played like that? Hearing the Assads makes you re-think everything, not just what it means to be a guitarist, but what you eat for breakfast to how you dry your socks. And it’s not only their impossible playing, it’s also Sergio’s arrangements and compositions that make their contribution to the guitar world extremely important. I think right now, Odair is raising the bar. When people call his playing “phenomenal”, they’re selling him short!

I met Odair at Cooper’s Tavern in north Seattle after a concert many years ago. We instantly bonded. Over the years, Odair has heard various compositions and arrangements of mine, including a suite I recently wrote for the “Alki Guitar Trio” (Magali Rischette, Adrien Brogna, Hughes Kolp) – recorded on GHA Records. When Odair asked me to write something for him, I was truly honored.

Can you tell us a bit about that piece, The Red Fantasy?

Structurally, it’s a fantasy, as the title predicts, where seemingly unrelated ideas emerge and circulate in a world awash with red wine varietals. The piece gets underway with a slight Spanish flavor, so we open a Tempranillo soon followed by a Syrah built on a driving 5/4 meter with an admixture of jazz, classical and maybe a hint of renaissance. After the Syrah, we reach for a gutsy Barbera invoking rock ‘n roll, and just as the Barbera gives rise to Malbec with its South American rhythms, we settle down with an Amarone – a slow, contemplative waltz, aged and perhaps revealing a complex bouquet, originally attended by a Beaujolais Nouveau, but I jerked the Beaujolais as its lightness was structurally inappropriate to follow the Amarone (obviously!). We then re-savor a couple of the earlier varietals before reckoning with a strong finish. Harmonically, the piece varies quite a bit. I wouldn’t say I was using any particular language and the above descriptions are very informal. When I write, I don’t think so much about style or musical boundaries, but I do draw on theory to enlist the aid of a device or two if I get cornered. There’s definitely a rock ‘n roll element to the Barbera and Odair just nails it! Must be the Scorpio in him, maybe the long hair. With earlier pieces, I’ve worked directly with my editor of choice, Sibelius, and sometimes with a guitar (and or cat) on my lap. Sibelius makes it very quick and easy to produce great results and allows me to work fast. For “The Red Fantasy”, I took a different approach: rather than going directly to the score, I sat in front of my Mac and launched Quicktime Pro to video-capture improvisations and record rough ideas, shapes, colors. Sometimes I used PhotoBooth as it can also record audio-video. Later, I’d transcribe what I played, more or less, and rework the ideas into the composition using Sibelius.

part 2

Posted on in Interviews with Classical Guitarists