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Alex Machacek has garnered high praise from the likes of John McLaughlin and Allan

Holdsworth, and pundits have routinely compared his guitar playing to Holdsworth’s and his
compositions to those of his posthumous mentor Frank Zappa. (Machacek even reprised
Holdsworth’s role in UK while performing with Eddie Jobson’s UKZ project.) While such
comparisons are valid as far as they go, Machacek is as adept at Mahavishnu-grade single-note
picking as he is at Holdsworthian legato pull-offs and hammer-ons, and his writing draws on
myriad influences while increasingly transcending them.
Our interview with Machacek resulted in far more material than could be included in his
upcoming May 2010 feature. Here are some outtakes:

You studied classical guitar as a child in Vienna during your formative years. In what ways
did that establish a foundation for your later development as a player?
Studying classical guitar didn’t affect me too much because when my real interest in music
came it was in jazz and rock—in electric guitar—though it probably didn’t hurt to have learned
the note names on the fretboard and to read music a little bit. My right-hand fingering
technique was very much better back then, whereas nowadays if I don’t have a pick I can
barely play, so that’s long gone [laughs]. As for my left hand, I’m sure that just trying to keep
my wrist flexible was beneficial, and something of that probably remains in motor memory.

You also studied classical percussion. In what ways has that aspect of your education
influenced your compositions?
That influenced me in general quite a bit. I already had a degree in jazz guitar, and when I
returned to school I had to take a secondary instrument. So I went into my first snare drum
lesson and had to read something. It was not a technical issue. It was really easy. I read it and
I played it and it was okay, and then the teacher asked me, “Did you play a lot of jazz
recently?” I said, “No, why?” And he said, “Because it was super sloppy” [laughs]. That kind
of opened my eyes rhythmically. Those classical percussion players are really on top of their
game. It has to be 100 percent. So, I got introduced to that precision, phrasing, and dynamics
on drums. I had to learn quite difficult snare drum pieces. Once you decipher all that stuff you
think, “Hey, that’s cool. I might use something like that in my own music.” So yeah, it did
definitely influence me and opened a new door. It was a good mirror for my rhythmical skills. I
had some self-reflection process going on.

Given how freely musical styles are intermingled these days by yourself and others, what
role does tradition play within the modern compositional environment?
It’s really important to know what has been done, in order to take from it or just to avoid it.
Let’s say I’m a painting student and I have the brilliant idea in 2010 to put up an empty
canvas. Well, that has been done before, so it might have been really beneficial if I’d done my
homework before contacting the gallery. It also helps to hone your personal tastes. For
example, how can I take a concept that has been there for centuries—let’s say counterpoint
voice leading—and apply it to my own music?

Do you think that because music has been becoming more eclectic, or composition has
anyway, is that entirely a positive or is there something lost by maybe losing some of the
purity of particular traditions?
In Austria, for instance, I played in a couple of contemporary ensembles where the only goal
was to do something new no matter what—but just because it’s new or hasn’t been done, that
doesn’t make it automatically good, it just makes it new. Maybe it hasn’t been done for a
reason—because it doesn’t sound that great for instance [laughs]. The same thing would apply
to your guitar sound. Everyone is looking for his own voice. Let’s say I put a phaser, a chorus,
a whammy, another phaser, a slapback delay, and then a reverb with one day of pre delay on
my sounds. Maybe that’s a very original sound, and maybe nobody has done it before, but…

Have you spent a lot of time analyzing Zappa’s compositions?


Not necessarily analyzing, but just listening. I listened and picked out what was interesting to
me—there’s counterpoint there, or certain instrumentation. And there’s also finding out
where Zappa stole it from, actually. Just because Zappa used marimba— and unison lines with
any melody instrument—doesn’t mean he invented that. You can look back and hear that in
orchestral music quite a bit. But if you put marimba on your music, and if there’s distorted
guitar, “Oh it’s Zappa.” Yeah, in a way it’s true, but not entirely true.

What tips could you offer to budding young improvisers?


Go back to square one and listen to music. You should know what has been done so you have a
picture of who’s doing what in which style of music—what note choices are there for each
style of music—because it totally depends on the style. And transcribing is never a bad idea—
it’s good for your ear, and it might make you play something you wouldn’t have normally.
Also, sometimes I’ll come up with a concept and then build on it by imposing some restriction.
For example, I’ll take a prticular set of notes and then just milk them and see what comes
out. And it doesn’t hurt to have a little bit of music theory—this note fits over this chord—just
so you know the ABCs of the music language. Know your fretboard really well if you want to
improvise well.

Virtuosity is more than mere technical prowess: it also consists of a certain creative
restlessness – a constant urge to explore, improve, and reinvent. No matter how well refined
the execution, true virtuosity withers when repeatedly making the same statement, running
the same patterns, or improvising over the same changes. With his provocative new release 24
Tales, Alex Machacek has sought an inventive new context for both his incredibly fluid, precise
guitar work and his expanding compositional vision.

“I have always liked drums,” Machacek explains. “On so many fusion and jazz records, there is
an extended drum solo – sometimes it feels obligatory. At a certain point I thought, ‘How
would it sound if I compose something based on a drum solo? Drummers are always getting
wilder with what they do in terms of meter and technique…” His fascination with drums led to
several experiments with composing music based on (and performed on top of) improvised
drum solos – a practice that reaches its fullest potential on 24 Tales.

“After I played my first gig with the drummer Marco Minnemann, I told him that I wanted to
do an album with different drummers,” Alex continues, “where they would provide me with
solos, and I would write music for them. Marco said that he had recorded a solo – but it was
fifty-one minutes long! At first I thought, maybe I’ll take a section of it to work with…but
eventually I decided to take on the whole thing.” Minnemann’s solo – a kaleidoscopic rush of
rhythmic, textural, and even melodic devices, all improvised without a click track – became
the backdrop for 24 Tales. (Minnemann also gave this solo to Trey Gunn, John Czajkowski and
Mike Keneally, and their interpretations will be released subsequently.)
An astonishingly musical effort, nearly symphonic in its vast range of timbres, use of space,
and elegant sense of structure and development, 24 Tales finds Machacek breaking
Minneman’s solo into 24 discrete (but connected) sections. “When I decided to do this,”
Machacek explains, “I listened to it - several times. Sitting in front of 51 minutes of drums can
be a little intimidating. So I broke the entire solo up into those 24 pieces. Whenever I heard
the mood or the rhythmic foundation change, I marked it as a separate piece.”

From rapid-fire 13/16 scrambles to resonant, chiming long tones – all the while colored and
propelled by Minnemann’s supple traps – the variety of textures and rhythmic feels allows
Machacek to explore an enormous range of guitar tones – often in quick succession, expertly
creating and releasing tension and making for unexpected (and unexpectedly appealing)
contrasts. Warm, classic jazz hollow-body sounds intersect with frenzied fuzz, acoustic slide,
and trebly palm-muted figures, sometimes playing the same passages in unison to create an
entirely new tone. Machacek’s compositional process has roots in his celebrated abilities as an
improviser, although he is quick to point out that there is not a great deal of actual
improvisation on 24 Tales. “Just jamming over Marco’s mania would be hard,” he explains, “I
wouldn’t have been able to capture the details of what he’s doing. I tried to catch those little
gestures. There are only a couple of sections where there is real improvisation. I think of this
as more of a compositional album.”

The scope and depth of 24 Tales is a direct reflection of Machecek’s experience, commitment,
training, and ability. Born in 1972 and raised in Vienna, Austria, Machacek first began studying
classical guitar at the age of 8. Simultaneously, he developed an interest in rock guitar
playing, from the pure driving power of Iron Maiden to the work of Brian May, who
embroidered Queen’s recordings with a telling mix of soaring leads and orchestral ensemble
parts. Eventually Machacek became enamored of jazz, with the great Joe Pass serving as his
model. He left school two years early, at 16, to study jazz at the Conservatory of Vienna. All
the while, he gigged in a variety of outfits – pop cover bands, jazz groups, accompanying
singer-songwriters, theatre pit bands, jazz big bands, and classical ensembles among them.

Machacek’s relentless search for his own voice on the instrument was kick-started by the
discovery of the music of Allan Holdsworth – whose playing blends rock power with a jazz-
inflected scalar sense. What particularly impressed Machacek was the unpredictable nature of
Holdsworth’s improvising, with its frequently altering harmonic base and unexpected
dissonances. “I was so attracted to his playing,” Machacek recalls, “and I had no clue what
was going on. All I knew was it was different, it was great and I wanted to figure out what he
was doing.” His next great influence was Frank Zappa, whom he discovered a few years after
Holdsworth. “I was looking for something else on a compositional level,” he explains, “and
then I found Zappa.” His intense affection for Zappa’s work eventually brought him into
contact with former Zappa percussionist Terry Bozzio, with whom he formed the trio BPM
(which also included saxophonist Gerald Preinfalk) and eventually recorded 2001’s Delete and
Roll.

A summer course in Perugia, Italy lead to a scholarship to the Berklee College of Music, where
Machacek studied for two semesters before returning to Vienna to finish his degree at the
Conservatory. His collaboration with Bozzio began in 1999, at the same time as he released his
debut CD Featuring Ourselves. After traveling extensively to perform and record, Machacek
and his wife Sumitra (who contributes vocals to one section of 24 Tales) settled in Los
Angeles, where he teaches at the Guitar Institute of Technology. His next solo album, [Sic],
was released in 2006 on Abstract Logix, and featured Bozzio. “Imagine a composite of Allan
Holdsworth's stunning legato chops and advanced harmonic language with Mike Keneally's
exacting virtuosity and Frank Zappa's fiercely uncompromising ‘difficult music,’” raved Jazziz,
“ and you’re getting close to where this visionary new talent is currently operating.”
Machacek followed that album with 2007’s Improvision, featuring Matthew Garrison on
electric bass and Jeff Sipe on drums.

Created over the course of over two years, 24 Tales is Alex Machacek’s most detailed and
personal statement yet. Largely self-recorded and performed by Machacek, it still seethes
with the intensity and unpredictability of group improvisations, while harnessing that energy
within a striking compositional framework. The project holds together brilliantly, thanks to
careful attention on Machacek’s part. “I always made rough mixes of every piece,” he
explains, “and would listen to hear if the transitions are working. My goal was to make each
section work both within the entire piece and as individual tracks. There are a couple of
motifs that reappear throughout the album. “I’d like to think of this as some sort of gel. There
is a lot of musical information on this album, and rather than constantly bombarding the
listener with new ideas, I tried to use some of the same ideas in different contexts.”

“Sometimes I get tired of situations where a tune is just an excuse to play a long, long solo,”
he continues. “It doesn’t have to be like that. With this project, I definitely put the focus
more on composition than on improvisation.”

With 24 Tales, Machacek has achieved a rare feat: an album fueled by spontaneity yet
elevated by compositional acumen and instrumental precision, endlessly fascinating and yet
listenable and immediately engaging. “It’s not intended to be performed live,” he concludes,
smiling, “but I do plan on taking some ideas and sections and rewriting them to reduce them
to more playable, manageable pieces. To perform this music the same way as it is on the CD,
with all the complex transitions and layers, you would have to give me an unlimited budget…”