At a recent show at Little Tokyo jazz venue Blue Whale, a packed house witnessed the curiously enthralling spectacle of three brave acrobats flying high above the stage and –– watch out! –– swooping down real low in daring feats of entirely improvised, jazz-aligned new music. No safety net! This was some real brain-/body-mutating musical matter that gave all us chin-scratchers a lot to think about. More importantly, it just plain smoked.
Guitarist/electronicist G.E. Stinson, bassist Steuart Liebig and drummer Jim Black were the tough-butt, determinedly deep musicians. I was watching Stinson particularly closely that night, savoring again how this L.A. avant/new-thing stalwart is a bona fide world-class guitar deity, a supremely expressive, ferociously focused and beautifully cliché-free ax expander whose wicked wizardisms come correct and replete with fine-tuned intuitions about how to yank this thing we call “jazz's” nodding head right outta its boring old bum. The Kingfisher, Oklahoma–born Stinson has applied his special ears and hands to so many wildly varied musical moments, from founding the new age/electronic group Shadowfax to massive contributions to L.A.’s alt-jazz/new-genre music scene via work with Napalm Quartet, Splinter Group, Stinkbug, Metalworkers, Alex Cline and loads more.
I hung out with Stinson at his Venice studio not too long ago, and we yakked about one of our favorite subjects: music and where it comes from. His artistic evolution reveals that even the avant-guardians’ true musical roots lie in surprisingly funky places.
L.A. WEEKLY: You’re from Kingfisher, Oklahoma, but grew up mainly in Chicago. Turns out that you were originally inspired by blues and R&B kingpins such as Bo Diddley and Muddy Waters. How do they figure in the seemingly unrelated music you’re involved in today?
G.E. STINSON: My family were living on Chicago’s South Side. We were really poor, and I grew up in black, mixed neighborhoods. Early on, because my mother’s family were all evangelical musicians and preachers, I had that music in my life, because my mom was a piano player in the church. By the time I was 13, I heard Bo Diddley on the radio; I remember distinctly because I was cruising down the highway with my mom in her black Olds Rocket 88. Bo Diddley came on the radio, and it just rattled my head. I thought, “Oh my God, this is the most amazing thing I’ve ever heard.” Shortly after that, I started lobbying to get a guitar.
How did Bo Diddley float your impressionable little boat?
When Bo Diddley came along, it reached me in a visceral way that I don’t think had ever happened before. How did he do that, and how is he making that weird sound? His guitar sound was revolutionary, and I just needed to know how to do that.
His custom setups looked great, too...
The first Bo Diddley record I bought showed this homemade guitar he made. He had all these great vibratos that he would use, and he was really into making these weird, interesting sounds. When you hear his records, there’s all this use of reverb and delay, and it all sounds really cool.
What year would that have been?
Oh, ’62-’63, right before The Beatles hit. I know because I was listening to them, and The Beach Boys, Jan & Dean and things like that. But then Bo Diddley came along and I was trying to play his stuff for my white friends, and they didn’t want anything to do with it! Then The Beatles, the Stones and The Yardbirds came along, then everybody wanted to know about Bo Diddley.
When you started playing in bands as a wee shaver, who else were you drawing inspiration from?
After Bo Diddley, I started going down this road — Who’s this guy? Who’s Howlin’ Wolf, and Muddy Waters? The first band I was in, with three buddies from high school, we did all of those songs like “House of the Rising Sun,” “Little Red Rooster.” The other guys wanted to do, like, Paul Revere & the Raiders, and “Pipeline,” because that was the kind of thing you had to play at high school dances.
At that age, it’s all good, though, right?
Yeah, but what I wanted to know at that point was, “How does Muddy Waters make the guitar do that?” For me, the blues was the whole deal. I started listening to Muddy Waters records, and somehow I learned about slide guitar. I had figured out that Muddy Waters was doing everything open-tuned, so I learned how to do it open-tuned. It really made me great on slide, because I can basically do on regular tuning what open-tuning players can do.
The Chicago thing was electric, it was urban, you could connect to that. I loved the sound of the electric guitar. I grew to love the acoustic, but in the beginning it was all about what you could do with the sound. Like Bo Diddley, all the different effects he was getting. And Muddy, I always just loved the sound of the guitar he was getting. If you go back and listen to those records now, God, the guitar sound is just astounding.
Yeah, it’s badass. It doesn’t get any more badass than Muddy.
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Down the road apiece, after playing in blues-oriented bands that opened for the likes of Muddy Waters, Hound Dog Taylor and Brother Montgomery, you found yourself segueing into something quite different with your initially Weather Report–/Mahavishnu Ork–influenced Shadowfax band.
What happened was that, as I was getting deeper into blues, I was beginning to hear music that intrigued me in the same way that Bo Diddley and Muddy Waters did. It was Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman and Charlie Parker. In 1968, I went to see Ornette Coleman, Dewey Redman, Charlie Haden and Ed Blackwell. I had no idea what I was hearing but, you know, there’re these moments when you look at music and suddenly the horizon opens up and you can see endless possibility. Ornette’s thing had this kind of bluesy core to it, a kind of rawness that I could relate to — it felt familiar and alien at the same time.
My life was happening with Sun Ra, he was from Chicago, too. And I was hearing about the Art Ensemble of Chicago, and they were the direct beneficiaries of Sun Ra’s thing. They came right out of that whole thing. So all of that, it was a rich, challenging environment of music, and, just like hearing Bo Diddley and thinking, “What is that?,” I was intrigued and wanted to dive in.
That’s but a very condensed look at G.E. Stinson’s journey, intended to give a picture of how some extreme new ways of music-making can derive from unsuspected sources. Now do yourself a favor and listen to his trio’s Blue Whale set; listen carefully — can you trace the links?