Improving improv with jazz guitarist Larry Koonse

Ayumi Kuriki/Courier Guitarist Larry Koonse (right) with Zac Matthews (left) performing at PCC in the Westerbeck Recital Hall on Thursday, May 4, 2017.

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Grammy nominated CalArts music professor Larry Koonse started and ended his two-day visit at PCC with a full house jazz concert at the Westerbeck Recital Hall, but what happened in between, the intimate interaction between the notorious musician and PCC jazz students, is what left its mark on campus.

The first concert took place on May 4 with a jazz trio performance by Koonse and PCC music faculty Brian Carmody on drums and Zac Matthews on bass. By the time the jazz guitarist performed again the night after with Chuck Manning on the tenor sax, Darek Oles on bass and Jason Harnell on drums, he had already given two classes teaching rhythmic and improvising techniques. Four PCC jazz bands had performed for him and received his feedback as well.

“I was waiting to play with him all day yesterday,” bass player and PCC student Julian Gomez said.

Koonse is a renown educator and had a few tips for jazz students.

From insisting on searching their unique perspective on music —“the human fingerprint”—to the more practical suggestion of getting a master’s degree if they want to have a steady income as a music teacher in the future. He encouraged student musicians to get into the habit of singing out loud whatever tune they felt a deep connection with to stay true to their internal rhythm, but also instructed them not to define themselves too narrowly.

“When I graduated from college I was saying yes to everything,” Koonse said. “I needed the money and the experience. My suggestion is to be flexible, open, and not too narrow when you define yourself.”

Koonse made it clear that for a musician having a strong inner connection with his or her instrument is the equivalent of having a life jacket for someone lost at sea. It’ the only thing that will get them through the journey. That, and some swimming skills.

“In the arts it’s always about the constant balance between practice and expression,” Koonse said. “My technique was hollow until I brought time and feeling to it, you can’t only use the intellect as an artist. But you also need exercise and discipline to acquire the tools you need to express yourself.”

PCC jazz improvisation professor Dan Cole invited Koonse as part of the Pamela Girard Guest Artist/Master Class series. Girard was a musician involved in the piano department at PCC and her son, Christopher Daniels, endowed the series in memory of her dedication to her students.

Cole believes it’s important for his students to meet and interact with an accomplished artist so that they can play with the idea of becoming a professional musician themselves on day.

“I still struggle everyday with being a musician and it’s terrifying being an artist,” Cole said. “I loved that Larry has addressed moments when he’s been terrified too, even at his level. It’s important for our students to understand that that is something that everyone faces regardless of what level they’re playing at.”

Koonse seems a natural at what he does. His father is a guitarist; he taught music at PCC years ago, and there was always music playing in their house. He remembers touching the guitar’s strings for the first time when he was seven, and how much he liked it right away.

But it hasn’t always been easy.

“The love and hate relationship with music has been a theme in my life,” Koonse said. “I was practicing six hours a day in my 20s but feeling angry and frustrated and decided to put it down for a while. I was wondering how I could make a living with it and comparing myself with everyone else. It’s a phase I have gotten past. Now I just love it.”

During his visit at PCC, Koonse alternated listening to students music and their questions, playing music himself and teaching improv technique exercises to improve student’s practices.

“As improvisers we are constantly putting ourselves in situations that are a little beyond us, where surprise is around every corner,” Koonse said. “That’s what activates the juices.”

Koonse explained that the improviser’s mindset requires a certain amount of risk-taking and being able to build mutual trust among musicians, skills that PCC students just got to sharpen with his help.

“That’s the mindset of the improviser, to accept everything that happens,” Koonse said. “It has already happened anyway. No is not a possibility.”

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