Greg Ruggiero: Home at Last

GUITARIST RETURNS HOME WITH LYRICAL TRIO

Michael Kanan, Neal Miner, Greg Ruggiero

Michael Kanan, Neal Miner, Greg Ruggiero

When guitarist Greg Ruggiero appears at the Outpost this week, coming in from Brooklyn with the Greg Ruggiero, Neal Miner, Michael Kanan Trio, it will be a homecoming for the former
Albuquerquean. More important, though, Ruggiero will be giving a tour of the new musical home he’s been building over the last few years.

Play with Old Guys
The seeds for the trio were planted about five years ago when Ruggiero called pianist Kanan (kay-nan) to fill in on a duo gig in New York. “Michael was the first major guy that I called for a gig,” says Ruggiero.

Kanan, perhaps best known as Jane Monheit’s longtime arranger and accompanist, is well
established on the New York scene. Ruggiero first encountered him years before via a favorite album, guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel’s Intuit. He had a connection to Kanan through a mutual friend in New York, and Kanan graciously agreed to play the gig.

“As soon as we started playing,” says Kanan, “there was such an instant ‘Oh, yeah, I know who you are.’ ”

During breaks, the two chatted, and Ruggiero expressed some frustration with his current
situation. “I was playing with guys around my own age, guys from more of a modern world, and I was wanting to play more traditional-based jazz,” says Ruggiero. “I didn’t really know where to go. . . . Michael had this statement: ‘Do you know about old guys?’ ”

Ruggiero pointed out that he was playing with Kanan, who is 14 years older.

“Not me, older than me,” Kanan responded.

Kanan arranged some sessions with some of his older friends—such as bassist Murray Wall, who played with Benny Goodman; drummer Taro Akamoto, who played with Warne Marsh; Steve Little, a drummer for Ellington; and bassist Bill Crow, who backed Stan Getz and Gerry Mulligan, among others—so Ruggiero could meet and play with them. He also introduced him to bassist Neal Miner, with whom Kanan has been playing since 1993, including the last eight years together in Monheit’s band.

Part of Something
Ruggiero took to the old guys and what they could teach him right away. “They never force
anything upon you. They’re always supportive. They have the most amazing feel and touch on their instruments,” says Ruggiero.

Today, young players come right out of school and are looking to get something going, Ruggiero says. The tradition of playing with the masters, apprenticing with an established band, has all but disappeared.

“It dawned on me: now’s the time,” he says. “I moved to New York to play jazz, and you can kind of forget about that when you get involved in different projects and stuff, and you’re trying to get by, and you’re scuffling. I realized that my time with these masters is limited.”

The last five years, he’s devoted himself to working with these guys. “I really feel like I’m part of something. I feel like I’m part of a New York tradition. I feel like I’m getting better and better. I’m 38 years old now, and I’m learning more every day than I did when I was 21, and I’m learning better.”

Along the way, his repertoire has expanded, too, shooting up from about 200 standards to somewhere around 500.

A Happy Confluence
Kanan cannot remember who suggested the idea of the trio, which is booked under his name in New York, but he does know that it wasn’t the instrumentation that drew them together two years ago, but their personalities and their mutual desire to play lyrical jazz that an audience could relate to.

Greg Ruggiero. Photo by Genevieve Russell.

Greg Ruggiero. Photo by Genevieve Russell.

“We want to have a clear, swinging pulse that people can enjoy,” he says. The plan of attack is simple: Have no plan. All three prize a high degree of spontaneity in their gigs, and they’re confident that if they are having an engaging conversation, the
audience will respond.

Kanan says the communication among the three is so good that “it just feels like something we’ve always been doing. . . .” For him, the trio is “one of the things I’m most happy about in my life right now.”

Ruggiero echoes that sentiment. “When you’re playing swing music and you’re playing from a tradition that’s clearly defined—and that doesn’t mean we’re playing in an old way, either; we’re not limiting ourselves in any way when we’re playing—you realize the joy in it,” he says. “I’m the happiest I’ve ever been.”

Upcoming Gigs
The trio, which has been garnering good notices, is looking forward to its biggest New York gig on March 30, when it will appear at the Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall. Kanan is the evening’s headliner and will play in a variety of configurations, including the trio, which will be joined by Jane Monheit for part of its set.

The Outpost gig is the trio’s first road gig. “This is going to be something special,” Ruggiero says. “I’m superexcited to bring it home. Even my dad is going to love it. He’s a huge jazz fan, and he loves swing, and he loves standards. He’s going to get exactly what he’s been hoping for all these years.”

Greg Ruggiero, Michael Kanan, Neal Miner Trio
Thursday, December 3, 7:30 p.m.
Weil Hall at the Outpost Performance Space
210 Yale SE, Albuquerque
Tickets $15 general/$10 members and students
For tickets or more information, go here.

© 2015 Mel Minter. All rights reserved.

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