Jeff Shirley is one of Kansas City's premier jazz guitarists. Combining traditional guitar jazz sounds with a European flavor, Shirley's music has made him a mainstay on stages in and around the city. With the release of his new album, Point of the Story, which features pianist Roger Wilder, bassist Bob Bowman and drummer Matt Leifer, Shirley aims for a wider audience. It's a pleasure to share an interview with Shirley about his new album, his creative process and his music, book and movie recommendations.
Introduce yourself. Describe your music for new listeners.
Hi, I’m jazz guitarist Jeff Shirley. I grew up in Liberty, Missouri and I fell in love with music and jazz. I graduated from the University of North Texas, they have a great school of music. I have been growing and active in the KC scene since then. I want every album I do to sound pretty different, the main thing you will hear that connects them all is jazz guitar, and my compositional voice. I like to make every album a unique event. My music is jazz, with a very modern focus. Point of the Story is my album where I tried to mix the KC jazz sound with European stylings.
Talk about the journey to your first album, Point of the Story. How long had you been working on the songs? Who else plays on it?
I’ve been working towards this album for some time. A bit of a long journey, that’s why it’s such a long album, I had a lot to say. Most of these songs were written in 2016, with "Boysenberry" being written before. The album was recorded in July of 2017. I’m joined by Roger Wilder on piano/Rhodes, Bob Bowman on upright bass, Matt Leifer on drums, and Ryan Thielman on flugelhorn on a few tracks.
What were some of the challenges with recording Point of the Story? What did you learn that you’ll take to future projects?
There are so many little steps. I think just being patient is one of the challenges. You have to get the ideas, write the music, put the music into digital sheet music, rehearse, record, album design, promotion, and more! It’s obviously not as easy as just having fun playing music, there’s a lot of work. I did a lot of visualization in my head. Trying to make it how you imagine in your head, trying to make that a reality is a challenge. Things aren’t always going to go the way you expect them, but it’s how you handle that that’s really important too. When working with other people, not being hesitant to tell them you would like something a little different. Or after you’ve given a few notes, you still have more notes, and you feel like you've already asked a lot. But there might be that one last thing, go ahead and tell them that, don’t hold anything back. Say that one last request, you only have one chance to get it as close to perfect as possible. Once you have finalized the music, but before it's time to share, it's time to silence your mind and focus on the next steps. The mind will still say, "What if you would have done this, or that?" Learning how to turn that voice off is the hardest! Action is what's important, taking the leap. For future projects, I learned things like how to accommodate the other musicians in the studio and how to make their lives easier. For instance, if the musician is reading music notation, a song with 7 page turns may be more realistic at a live gig than in the studio. Proofread, proofread, proofread. Don’t wait for someone else to catch a mistake, they won’t.
How does your composition process work? What software or other tools do you use?
I like to approach composition from a number of different angles, that gives me some songs that have compositional variety. If I’m practicing guitar or in the car singing, and I get an idea, I’ll use my phone to make a quick memo-recording. I’ll go through those later and see if there’s anything there I want to work with. Sometimes I’ll have a 2 week period where I will try to write one song a day with my guitar. Sometimes I’ll sit down at the piano and write a song. I also use multi-track recorders to experiment with layers for composition, also for recording rough demos. I use Finale, Logic, Transcribe!, Metronomics, iReal, and my phone’s voice recorder.
What’s ahead for you in 2018?
Lots of gigs, continuing to promote this album, and getting people to listen to it, the music only comes alive when it is heard! I will continue to play at places like YJ’s, Black Dolphin, Green Lady Lounge, The Phoenix, Mutual Musicians Foundation, Blue Room and more. I’m playing a lot right now with Max Levy, Patrick Ketter, Nick Howell and many more. Every Sunday, come out to YJ’s, I play there from 7-10 with Bryan Hicks, Alyssa Murray, and Matt Leifer, it’s an open jazz jam session with a some great food being served in a snack shop type atmosphere. I will continue to teach jazz guitar at Ottawa University in Ottawa, Kansas with Todd Wilkinson and Michael Pagan and R.E.W. Music in Olathe and Lenexa. I will continue to perform, compose, teach, live in the moment and enjoy life!
What inspires you about contemporary jazz in Kansas City?
What inspires me is how many great players there are here, and the quality of their character. I’m talking about the seasoned veterans and the young lions, and everyone in between. There’s a lot of great clubs open, if you’re a hungry player, you can get gigs. It may not be easy or the gigs you always want. Green Lady Radio is up and running, Mutual Musicians Foundation has their radio station running. We’re making technological leaps, there’s a lot more around the corner. I love when I hear original music from local artists, jazz standards are beautiful and played most often, that’s what people are used to hearing and it’s easy for musicians to come together and play those. There’s just something special about new, original music. When it works, it’s breathtaking.
Jeff Shirley's recommendations from the Johnson County Library catalog
Jazz/Concord by Herb Ellis
I like this one with guitarists Herb Ellis and Joe Pass, joined by Ray Brown and Jake Hanna because it reminds me of some of the first jazz CDs I checked out from the library growing up, as an early teen. Joe Pass and Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen’s “Chops” and Art Blakey and the Jazz Messenger’s “The Best of Art Blakey” were my first two, both great albums that introduced me to a lot of new things and helped me fall in love with jazz music.
Still Life (Talking) by Pat Metheny Group
This is a beautiful album from the Lee’s Summit native and his incredible group. When I found this music, I was overwhelmed by the beautiful sounds, lush arrangements, inventive harmony, to me it’s truly perfect music! I found it from reading a local “JAM Magazine”, the issue with the desert island picks. The guitar solo on “Third Wind” is one of the fastest, exciting, most amazing guitar excursions ever. I love Lyle Mays and what he adds, as well as Steve Rodby, Paul Wertico and everyone else that made this such a masterpiece!
Future 2 Future by Herbie Hancock
“Future 2 Future” is one of my favorite CDs. Herbie’s music has always thrilled me, he has always pushed the boundaries of music in many ways. On this one he collaborated with Bill Laswell. In addition to the great piano and keyboards on this one, I am always drawn towards great drummers. This one has Jack DeJohnette on 4 tracks, and one song even has a sample of Herbie’s long-term musical partner, the late Tony Williams, allowing you to hear a new musical collaboration from them! It also has another one of my all-time faves, saxophonist Wayne Shorter. Wayne’s music is also a huge favorite of mine.
Lost Themes by John Carpenter
I love listening to soundtracks. It’s amazing, John Carpenter is a director, screenwriter, producer, musician, editor and composer! A one-man movie machine! I love his sounds, and “Escape from New York” is one of my favorites as well. I love great synthesizer music, and he know how to use it tastefully and innovatively, always keeping his music fresh and fun.
The Gleaners and I
I used to go to a weekly film showing where they would show artistic movies, foreign movies, classics. This is one of the films that really stayed with me. I have always loved watching films, and I love the way this one looks and the filmmaker’s unique voice. I seem to love French directors!