Dartmouth Jazz Guitarist Releases Album ‘Serious Jazz,’ but ‘Easy to Listen To’

Saturday, April 12, 2014
Ever since Michael Blum began devoting his time to the electric guitar as a Dartmouth freshman several years ago, he’s experienced it as a solitary pursuit. While playing in the school’s practice rooms, his only audience is himself. He said not having anyone to hear his work is “surreal.”

But no longer.

Last month, Blum, now a junior and a cognitive science and music double major, released Initiation, his first full-length album as a jazz guitarist. It follows a relatively quick turnaround for the Long Island, N.Y., native, who began studying with Berklee College of Music professor Jim Stinnett about 18 months ago, and started recording the album just a month before its Feb. 9 release.

“I guess I got my act together,” Blum said of his guitar work. “About a year after I started studying with Jim, he said to me that I guess my playing at that point was at a level where it started to sound like the jazz tradition, like the jazz masters, and he said, ‘We need to record.’ ”

The 10-track album features a combination of jazz standards and originals composed by both Blum and Stinnett; the latter plays bass on the record. Though Blum was bitten by the jazz bug at a relatively young age, he wanted to make sure his output was both technical and approachable.

“I like to think that it’s right in the middle,” he said. “It is serious jazz, but I think it’s easy to listen to.”

Blum grew up in a musical family, with a mother who is a singer and a father who played classical guitar. He was drawn to the sound of the electric guitar; as a teenager he loved bands such as Led Zeppelin and Van Halen.

He said he figures any rock influences have been stamped out of the jazz of Initiation, and his artistic direction was instead cemented during trips with his jazz-loving dad.

“Listening to his music in the car, I guess it kind of infiltrated into my musical tastes,” Blum said. “As I matured, it became pretty much my sole musical focus.”

For Initiation, Blum drew on his influences from the jazz world, including guitarists Grant Green (who appeared on many Blue Note Records albums) and Wes Montgomery, as well as pianist Red Garland and the Oscar Peterson Trio.

Talented as they were, though, Blum said he wasn’t drawn to them because of their discography or virtuosity.

“They’re all really bluesy and really accessible,” he said. “Pretty easy to listen to from a listener’s standpoint.”

In fact, Blum said, he already has the concept for a second album in the works. It’ll be a tribute to Peterson, for which Blum will attempt to play the parts of one of the premier pianists of the second half of the 20th century on his guitar. He said the process has been as daunting as it’s been rewarding.

Stinnett, who teaches in his home in Candia, N.H., near Manchester, said he helps his more promising students get into the recording studio. When Blum first came to him — they connected through Blum’s father, who learned bass from Stinnett — he said the young guitarist wasn’t ready to put his music to tape. But Blum has made “just great improvement,” Stinnett said. “He’s listened, absorbed the language of great jazz guitarists. ... He’s made tremendous progress in about a year and a half.”

Though Blum’s proximity to a teacher like Stinnett helped tremendously, he said, just as helpful have been the rural surroundings he hadn’t experience until he moved up north.

The snow and mountains of the Upper Valley, Blum said, have given him more inspiration than jazz’s busiest arena.

“It’s just so remote,” Blum said of the area. “If I lived in New York City, which is reputedly the jazz capital of the world, I think my mind just wouldn’t be as clear as it would need to be.”