Cowboy Jazz: Corey Christiansen
The Utah State University director of jazz studies takes us inside his latest quest to form a fresh musical crossbreed.
For the most part, jazz and the Americana traditions are distinctly different idioms. But there are rare musicians who merge the two approaches to arrive at a signature sound. Bill Frisell is an obvious example, and then there’s Midwestern guitarist Corey Christiansen. On his most recent album, Factory Girl (Origin), Christiansen explores classic folk and frontier songs, filtered through a lens of modern jazz, blues, and rock—using a much wider tonal palette than the standard-issue, dark jazz sound.
A guitarist since the age of 5, Christiansen, now 44, had the benefit of spending his formative years in a musical household. His father, Mike Christiansen, was his first teacher. The elder Christiansen founded the guitar program at Utah State University and was the school’s director of guitar studies for four decades. Today, the younger Christiansen has that gig at USU. Corey discovered jazz in his teens, but much earlier than that he was exposed to the Americana tunes that he’s been revisiting in recent years.
The professional trajectory of a typical jazz musician is to apprentice under an established player before working as a band leader and then, perhaps, on the strength of their recording and performing career, teach at a university. But Christiansen—who has led a triple life as an educator, editor, and performer—took an opposite path. In 2000, after receiving his master’s degree in music from the University of South Florida, he took a gig with Mel Bay, one of the leading publishers of music-education books and videos.
At Mel Bay for the better part of the 2000s, Christiansen worked not just as an author and editor, but as a clinician—a gig that had him performing all around the world in workshops and clubs, sharpening his conception of the guitar. In 2004, he kicked off the company’s in-house record label, Mel Bay, with his strong debut as a leader—Awakening, a quartet album mostly of standards.
Christiansen lived in St. Louis while with Mel Bay, and developed a personal guitar-playing style by synthesizing the urban influences of both traditional and contemporary guitarists, as well as the Midwestern strains he was exposed to in his youth. The cowboy tinge is especially apparent on Factory Girl, his follow-up to 2013’s Lone Prairie.
With his feet planted firmly in the jazz tradition, Christiansen stakes out new territory in classic American songs like “Shenandoah” and “John Hardy.” He imbues the music with uncanny harmonic and timbral details, through both the use of effects pedals and, occasionally, a resonator guitar. It’s great fun to listen to.
Calling from his home in Utah, Christiansen—ever the professor—broke down his music for us in conceptual terms while also detailing his rig in a way that will inspire serious envy in any gearhead.
You were with Mel Bay for many years and then became a recording artist. How did this transition happen?
I got the job with Mel Bay around 2000 as their guitar/senior editor. Part of the deal was they wanted me to go around and do workshops and clinics while promoting their products. I’ve always had a real affection for teaching and love it as much as playing. Traveling all over the world, I began booking gigs in the places I was doing workshops and, in doing so, I realized I needed a record. I put one out cheaply in 1998 [Synergy] and then, around 2004, we started doing Mel Bay albums. I was the first artist on the label, and that’s how I really launched my performing career.
Where’s your home base these days?
I live in northern Utah. I lived in St. Louis for a while, but moved here seven or eight years ago and teach at USU. I live north of Salt Lake City in a really small college town, Logan. It’s picturesque and beautiful. There really isn’t a strong jazz scene, that’s for sure, but we do have a jazz program at the school, and all of the musical events are centered around the university, which is great. Salt Lake City, on the other hand, has a scene where a lot of strong musicians live and play.
What’s it like to be a jazz musician in Logan, as opposed to a big city?
Even when living in St. Louis I didn’t play locally as much as on the road, so that’s the reason it made sense for me to move. The world has become a pretty small place, and so a lot of us jazz musicians who’ve lived in bigger cities at one point can now live anywhere.
For me, it came down to a lifestyle choice. Sure there’s some things I’m missing out on. I’ve got friends in New York City who can hop on a subway and hear incredible music any day of the year. That’s not really the case for me here in Logan, Utah. [Laughs.] What I’ve found is that it’s good for me to be able to go on the road while enjoying other things at home: the best of both worlds. I like to fly-fish, hike, and spend time in the outdoors in general.
Living in Utah and spending time outdoors has influenced Christiansen’s sound and song list, and allowed him to maintain what he describes as a healthy, balanced life. Photo by Jim Levitt
Does this setting inform your music?
It totally does. It’s interesting because I moved back to the same city I grew up in. To give you a visual reference: If you’ve ever seen the movie Napoleon Dynamite, that’s the valley where I spent my formative years. The valley is split between Idaho and Utah, and the movie was mostly filmed on the Idaho side. I grew up playing a lot of cowboy music and my heritage goes way back to the homesteaders—the pioneers who settled here. I became a jazz guitarist in my teens and that’s where my whole career has ended up, but moving back initially awakened my love for all these old cowboy tunes. That’s what my recent work has been about: fusing these two worlds of mine—more urban music and then this very non-urban music of the American frontier.
You used crowdfunding for Factory Girl. What was that experience like?
I used Indiegogo for this record. Here’s the thing I found out doing that: It’s a full-time job. Some people look at it as free money, but that’s not the case at all. It’s a lot of work to manage a crowdsourcing campaign. We ended up being funded at 104 percent, so we exceeded our goal. We offered really great perks. A lot of people preordered the album and what I found out is there are a lot of people who want to be part of the creation process, more than just support you on the back end with the purchase of a CD or download. There are a lot of good people who support great music and put their money out there.
How did your Indiegogo campaign impact the music you recorded?
It funded the record, but was something so much bigger. We went into the studio knowing there were X number of people already excited about the album. That gave us some confidence and empowerment, and it made it a little more exciting to be able to make an album with specific faces in mind of people who were supporting our music. It really took the music to an inspiring new level.
Did the supporters have any actual input in the finished product?
It was more about my band—great guys who are great musicians. I hired them because I don’t really have to tell them much about what to do. The information I gave them for the tunes wasn’t overly scripted, and I had a lot of faith in them and what they do. Both Jeremy Allen and Matt Jorgensen, the bassist and the drummer, were there throughout the writing of the tunes and the recording process. They had enough valuable input and insight that I decided to list them as co-producers. I didn’t let any of the supporters get too involved with ideas and opinions about where the music would go. I had a pretty good idea of what direction the music would take, given the people I hired.
What was it like to work with musicians not based in your area?
[Keyboardist] Zach Lapidus lives in New York. Jeremy [Allen] and I taught at Indiana University Bloomington, where I pioneered their jazz-guitar program. [Percussionist] Michael Spiro is from the Bay Area and also teaches at Indiana University. For a while, he and I were commuting there every other week. Matt [Jorgensen] is from Seattle, so the band is from all over the place, literally from coast to coast.
The guys flew in a day early, and we were able to rehearse and do a concert at Utah State before hitting the recording studio. We had two days at June Audio in Provo. It’s a great studio where bands like Imagine Dragons and Neon Trees have spent a lot of time. I like that studio because my friend Scott Wiley, who’s the engineer, gets great guitar tone. He knows how to record guitar really well.
Corey Christiansen’s main guitar is his signature Buscarino, which he teamed with a reissue Gibson SG, a National Tricone Cutaway resonator, and a Martin SPDC-16R for his new album. Photo by Mark Sheldon
Talk about the recording process.
We did two takes on every tune—played them down live. On the tune “Factory Girl,” I wanted to put down another guitar line. On “One’s Promised,” I added an acoustic rhythm guitar track, and on the last tune I played some slide resonator on the intro and outro. Other than that we played everything in real time, from beginning to end. The way we set up—for the most part, all in the same room—helped the end result, because we could really feel the energy of the band that way.
Many jazz records get done very quickly, with just one specific tone: that warm, clean guitar sound. This record is not about that. There are a lot of different textures going on. The studio has great vintage drum kits and every guitar and amplifier you could imagine. The album wasn’t necessarily produced like a rock record, with tons of overdubs, but it was nice to have all those options at our disposal.
What gear did you use?
The main guitar is my signature model Buscarino, which is a semi-hollow that I’ve been playing as my go-to for at least 10 years. I also played a Gibson Custom Shop ’61 SG reissue, which is a little different, made out of korina. It’s just killer. I have a Martin steel-string that I used for an overdub on the second track, and on one tune I also used a National Tricone Cutaway. It’s newish, I think I got it in 2005, and it’s just a ridiculous guitar for playing slide, with that certain tonal quality and overtones.
The amp I’m playing through is a Dumble Overdrive Special. It’s actually a clone, but it’s the most incredible amp I’ve ever seen or heard. You wouldn’t be able to tell that it’s not a real Dumble. I’m not sure who built this thing, but it’s a really spectacular amp—all of the Dumble tone and responsiveness, without the Dumble sticker price. [Laughs.]
Was there anything in the studio that you used?
There was one track that I actually used an early 1960s [Fender] Deluxe that the studio happened to have. It was the cleanest brownface I’ve ever seen. It looked like a reissue, it was so pristine, but then you look at the back of the amp and it’s got the lamp cable that would try to kill you. [Laughs.]
You’ve got a broader sonic palette than the typical jazz guitarist. On “Cluck Ol’ Hen,” for instance, you get a killer overdriven sound heard more often in modern blues. What are you using for effects on the album in general?
There I use a Strymon BigSky and TimeLine, as well as Jack Deville’s [Mr. Black] Dark Echo, sometimes, as an analog delay. I’ve got a little bit of tremolo from one of the Moog Minifooger pedals. For overdrive, I use a Jetter GS 124 and Gold 45/100, and I’ve also got one of those Bob Bradshaw-designed wah pedals.
What’s your tonal philosophy?
More than anything, I don’t want my pedals to sound like they’re obviously on. That transparent thing is what I’m really looking for. I devoted a year to developing my sound, and that was kind of a fun process. Ultimately I ended up with the most ridiculous amp and went through a whole slew of pedals to land where I am. I’ve finally refined my sound to match what I’d been hearing in my head since I was 20, and this is the first album where I feel like I got there.
Congratulations! That must feel good.
It’s a great feeling. The only problem is it’s not like I can put a Dumble ODS on my rider when on the road [laughs], and I don’t have the drawing power where I can take an amp with me on a plane. But, of course, a lot of the sound is in the fingers.
As an educator, how do you teach students to find their sounds?
A lot of students ask how I get sounds, and I explain that you have to develop a concept in your head and then start experimenting with gear to match what you’ve been dreaming about. A certain guitar, amp, or pedal doesn’t fix a problem. You have to know what the problem is and then you work with those tools to get that sound. Getting back to my project, it was a pretty good year of refined listening. It’s hard to do that—being your own sound coach.
How did you develop your style from a conceptual perspective?
I’m not much of an original so much as a really good thief. I never want to completely emulate anyone else, but I try to listen and steal little things from here and there. I get inspiration from different guitarists and other instrumentalists, and my approach to the instrument is based on the things I like, kind of Frankenstein’d together.
The influence of Bill Frisell is apparent on tunes like “Shenandoah”—not just in the choice of Americana-informed repertoire, but in your sense of space and phrasing.
Absolutely. What amazes me is that there are all the most obvious aspects of Bill’s sound, such a nice and warm but clear and defined tone, enhanced by a little delay and some reverb. That’s what people normally notice first in his electric sound. But I spent at least a couple of months listening every day to his East/West album and the thing that impresses me the most about his playing is the way he comps for himself at a different dynamic level rather than where he plays his line. There’s a real art to being able to control a few different volume settings with your hands over the course of a few bars. So many guitar players play at one volume level all the time, but Bill has this incredible dynamic range that I don’t hear a lot of people talk about.
Who are some of your other benchmarks?
Grant Green is a huge inspiration to me, as are Wes Montgomery and Jim Hall. Those would be the three old-school guys I probably get the most from. Another is Johnny Smith, who was a friend of my dad’s. When I was a kid, he would come hang with our family for a week or so every other summer. I was 12 years old, and we had Johnny Smith at the house, playing guitar and cooking steaks. Because of that personal connection, I checked out his music in depth. And, of course, there’s John Scofield and Pat Metheny, plus I’ve spent a lot of time with Hendrix and Jeff Beck, and also the jazz horn greats: Coltrane, Miles Davis, and one of my favorite musicians of all time: Joe Henderson.
What makes Henderson so important to you?
Rather than collecting some of his lines or knowing some of his tunes, he’s inspiring on another level. In the era in which he came up, a lot of guys were using a lot of bebop language, but Joe was playing so uniquely. He’s certainly got a bag, as do all jazz musicians, but to me he sounds so free, and his playing is less stock than most players. I take that from him, plus there’s something about his big sound on the tenor saxophone that just draws me in.
With his signature Buscarino semi-hollowbody guitar and a trio including bassist Kevin Smith and drummer Kobie Watkins, Corey Christiansen unspools his unique take on the folk song “John Hardy,” which appears on his new album, Factory Girl. Christiansen’s precise control of dynamics directs the flow of the performance.
Getting back to Factory Girl, as the title suggests, you explore the music from a feminine perspective.
When I did the Prairie album, I started researching all of these cowboy tunes. I played a lot of this type of music growing up and I always paid more attention to the melodies than to the lyrics. But as I began working on that project, I started getting into the lyrics and realizing that all the tunes are pretty dark: songs about cowboys struggling or getting shot or killed. At one point I was like, “Man, cowboys only wrote songs when they were sitting in jail waiting to be hung!” [Laughs.]
For the next record, I wanted to find tunes that tell the feminine side of story. I came into the title track, and it was fantastic, a perfect setup for the whole record. That particular song—not the Rolling Stones tune of the same name—originated in the 1820s in a Boston factory. It’s basically a woman singing about wooing a foreman so she doesn’t have to work in a factory anymore. It came out of an urban area and headed West into the plains.
I got addicted to the feminine side of the stories, which in a lot of ways was even more of a struggle than the masculine side. They were unable to own land [Author’s note: Unmarried women were first allowed to own land in Oregon in 1850.] and were also like property. And so I started writing tunes with that in mind. Then there a couple tunes that fall outside of the narrative—“John Hardy” and “Joe Clark”— which don’t tell as much about the feminine side as the others, but which still worked in the context of this project, which is really a celebration of our great American music.