Minasi : Time's Tales
Will Tell is the kind of CD title that makes artists and record
label marketers nod in approval. It's a familiar, even banal aphorism
that has an amusing, music biz double meaning. But when the title
was chosen for the new CD by guitarist Dom Minasi (both artist and
label chief in this case), it takes on another layer or two of meaning.
He is, after all, a man who made his recording debut as a leader on
no less a label than Blue Note then, disillusioned by the music business,
quickly disappeared from the scene. It's a depressingly familiar trajectory
in jazz and for many players, that's where the story ends. But a few
gritty souls climb back from obscurity to resume their careers or,
in Minasi's case, to begin a second career that bears little relation
to the first.
Dom Minasi is a survivor. And like the fine champagne whose name he
shares, perhaps Minasi, who was effectively off the scene for two
decades, has improved with a little cellaring. He's certainly acquired
character, both musical and personal. The 61-year-old Queens native
(he was born on the same day as guitar great Wes Montgomery) looks
like actor Danny Aiello, but speaks with the wisdom and resignation
of a gunfighter whose seen too much killing and has put his weapon
But Minasi never put down his guitar, not since he first saw his cousin
play the thing as a child. "I begged my father to let me play, but
he wouldn't let me start until I was seven." His ill-tempered first
teacher didn't work out, so Minasi found Joe Gianelli ("He taught
Chuck Wayne to read and was like a second father."), then early bebopper
Sal Salvador. "He really got me to know the instrument", Minasi told
me in a long, discursive phone conversation from his Upper West Side
home. "In the summer, when I was 12 I was practicing 12 hours a day
and six hours a day on school days."
By his teens, Minasi was teaching ("When I was 19, I had 110 private
students. The Beatles were hot and everybody wanted to play guitar."),
and hanging out at Birdland. "I saw that Johnny Smith was going to
be at Birdland and I begged my father to let me go. He did, and that
Soon, he was hanging out at the jazz corner of the world and absorbing
the changes that were roiling within the music world at that time.
Minasi was especially taken with Monk and Coltrane, who were making
new ways through jazz harmony, a lesson he never forgot. But he was
also a working musician at a time when live music was everywhere.
Weddings, dances, big bands and small comboseven a little of
the newly-ascendant rock and roll. Minasi was a well-schooled and
seasoned musician who could cover any gig.
He came to the attention of Blue Note's George Butler, who assumed
responsibility for the label after the United Artists buyout. Butler
signed Minasi and released his first record as a leader in 1974. When
Joanna Loved Me received adulatory reviews andat a time
when jazz could be found on the radioairplay. Minasi's career
He was flown to California to record a follow-up. But, by this time,
Blue Note had been sold and was about to reach its disco-inferno nadir.
I Have the Feeling I've Been Here Before, a commercial recording
overburdened with production in the manner of contemporaneous Blue
Notes by the Blackbyrds and Bobbi Humphrey, had none of Joanna's
graceful takes on standards. Minasi disowned the record, fired two
managers who were using him to get in front of Butler and, at the
height of his career, walked away.
"I just got disgusted with the music business", Minasi told me.
But not with music.
"I started playing different kinds of gigs, just like I did before
Blue Noteweddings, dances, and a lot of demos. Don't kid yourself.
A lot of jazz guys do weddings. They just don't talk about it."
And that is what Minasi did to support himself and his family for
nearly two decades, pausing to return to college at age 48, earning
a degree in composition. ("I took 26 credits the last semester. There
was a screw-up in the registrar's office and they let me do it.")
Gigging around, he met bassist Dominic Duval, who had himself abandoned
professional music and worked as a window washer to pay the bills.
"[Duval] asked me to play with a group called MICE. We did the
Knitting Factory but we never got off the ground."
The band's drummer, Jay Rosen, recommended Minasi for a Mark Whitecage
recording session that Rosen was to be on. It was to be the guitarist's
first in nearly 20 years and would rekindle Minasi's long-dormant
career. But the Minasi who returned on that record (Elements,
Leo Records LR241), playing in a style that some would call "outside",
was not the fluid, bop-influenced musician of the Blue Note recordings.
Or was he? "I've been playing like this since I was 15. I just didn't
have the chops. At one gig, I was told to stay inside, so I had to
relearn how to play", Minasi said.
But he never forgot the heady harmonic and structural lessons he learned
as a young man at Birdland. Away from the pressure of building a career,
he built a style instead. It's characterized by an advanced sense
of jazz harmony built on the upper partials of the scale, and frequently
punctuated by Minasi's signature scrabbling up and down the fret board
of his custom-built, Carlo Greco hollow-body.
No other guitarist sounds like that, and that sound disappointed those
fans that had anticipated a return to Joanna's swanlike bebop.
This kind of thinking perplexes Minasi, who sees himself as entirely
within the tradition. "Look, I've played standards for years, so all
my songs are A-B-A." When I pointed out that his note choices seem
more radical than even Eric Dolphy's, he said, "Sure they are. But
Dolphy's been dead for, what, forty years? I hope I've moved things
forward from that point."
He has, but heard in the context of bop's harmonic advancements,
Minasi's playing sounds strikingly familiar, almost traditional.
And he delivers it with the rounded, classic hollow-body tone of his
teacher Sal Salvador and his first idol, Johnny Smith.
"I really believe that as a jazz musician, you should be well-rounded.
You should know harmony and rhythm. You should know how to read. You
have to do that to survive."
And, as time has told, survival is something Dom Minasi knows a lot