Los Angeles Guitarist Graham Dechter Delivers a Master Class in Swing With His Second Capri Album, Takin’ It There, Featuring John Clayton, Jeff Hamilton and Tamir Hendelman
Poised and polished, suave and swinging, the young Los Angeles guitarist Graham Dechter is no one-off wunderkind. In 2009 he released a confident and dauntingly impressive debut album, Right On Time (Capri) featuring the acclaimed pianist Tamir Hendelman and superlative rhythm section tandem of bassist John Clayton and drummer Jeff Hamilton (his long time employers in the Clayton Hamilton Jazz Orchestra). Dechter took his time following up, and in the ensuing years the guitarist has grown by leaps and bounds. Slated for release by Capri on September 18, Takin’ It There captures Dechter with the same illustrious cast exploring a program of well-selected standards, jazz classics and originals. Steeped in the jazz tradition, he’s a commanding player who has found a sleek, incisive and ebulliently expressive voice of his own.
What’s most impressive about the Los Angeles native is his orchestral sensibility, a dynamically expansive approach to interpreting material that requires exquisite chemistry and calibration. The fact that the quartet has spent countless hours as the engine of the swaggering Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra means that they can roar, whisper, glide or gallop as befits the moment at hand. He credits his early classical training for playing a major role in shaping his group concept.
“Playing in and composing for orchestras at an early age made me aware of how each individual instrument plays a significant role in comprising a piece as a whole,” says Dechter, 26. “The same goes for jazz. Whenever I play a solo, I’m constantly listening to and feeding off of the other musicians in the quartet. Everything they play affects what I play.”
The album opens with Wes Montgomery’s “Road Song,” a piece that grooves with such brisk authority it practically levitates. The group arrangement establishes the quartet’s modus operandi right out of the gate, elaborating on Montgomery’s buoyant melody without taking it down another route altogether. More than a hat tip to another fret master, Dechter takes a sizzling, medium tempo saunter through Barney Kessel’s playful blues “Be Deedle Dee Do,” a tune introduced in 1958 by Kessel’s Poll Winners trio with Ray Brown and Shelly Manne (masters who mentored Clayton and Hamilton, respectively).
The graceful classical-influenced introduction to “Chega De Saudade”, essentially an interactive dialogue between Hendelman, Clayton and Hamilton, casts Jobim’s enduring bossa nova in a revealing new light. With a melody at times reminiscent of Jobim’s “Dindi,” Dechter’s “Together and Apart” showcases the guitarist’s gift for rendering a ballad with concision and emotional detail, a reflective mood established by Clayton’s haunting arco introduction. Clayton contributes “Grease for Graham,” an irresistible vehicle for Dechter to get down in the grit. Hamilton kicks off Lee Morgan’s hard bop anthem “Hocus Pocus” with some beautiful trap work, revving the engine before the quartet shifts into high gear. In many ways, the album’s key is the title track, composed for Dechter by his close friend, pianist Josh Nelson. Something of a manifesto, it’s a swaggering tune that feels utterly contemporary.
“The title of the tune itself gave me a lot of ideas conceptually in terms of how to pick the rest of the songs,” Dechter says. “For me, ‘Takin’ It There’ represents a push and pull between two contrasting ideas. The first idea being that you search outside of yourself as a means for personal discovery. The second idea being that everything you’ll discover about yourself and the world around you is accessible from within. This CD is really about the process of balancing those two things a process that is somewhat similar to what I deal with on a day-to-day basis as a musician: trying to find a way stay true to my roots and influences while at the same time striving to say something new and original.”
Of course, it helps if your roots are as deep and well nourished as Dechter’s a third generation musician, he grew up in a supremely sophisticated musical household. His grandfather, trombonist Ted Dechter, spent decades as an esteemed music teacher in the Los Angeles public school system after touring and recording with Stan Kenton. His father, saxophonist Brad Dechter, is a veteran Hollywood orchestrator and arranger who has contributed to more than 250 feature film scores and numerous television shows, while also arranging for luminaries such as McCoy Tyner, Al Jarreau, Johnny Mathis and Barbra Streisand. His mother, Maureen Dechter, is a top-shelf vocalist with encyclopedic knowledge of the American Songbook. Needless to say, Graham soaked up a vast amount of music while growing up.
After a brief run of piano lessons at five, he switched to the violin, which he studied assiduously for 10 years. Drawn to the guitar in junior high as a musical hobby, he became a dedicated student of the instrument by the age of 16. Largely a self-taught guitarist during his early years, he experienced a series of epiphanies while studying at his high school, the Idyllwild Arts Academy, with the acclaimed bassist Marshall Hawkins (whose credits include Miles Davis, Shirley Horn and Richie Cole). During the time that Dechter was focusing on classical music and following in his father’s footsteps as a film composer, Hawkins introduced him to improvisation and showed Dechter that he could fully express himself in the jazz idiom.
“He was all about time, swing, telling a story when you solo–basically, all of the things that are virtually impossible to teach, yet, somehow, he managed to teach them,” Dechter says. “More than anything, he conveyed the spirit of the music to his students, in a way that only someone who’s been there and lived the jazz lifestyle can.”
After graduating from Idyllwild, Dechter enrolled in the Eastman School of Music’s jazz studies program, but after a year Hamilton recruited him for the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra, taking over a chair previously filled by the great Anthony Wilson. At 19 he was the youngest member of the talent-laden orchestra, and in many ways the ensemble has served as an on-the-job doctoral program.
He’s forged a deep connection with rhythm section mate Tamir Hendelman, the virtuosic Israeli-born pianist who is best known as the instrumental foil for a glittering cast of divas, including Tierney Sutton, Natalie Cole, Roberta Gambarini, Jackie Ryan, and Barbra Streisand. Hendelman is also a longtime member of Hamilton’s stellar trio, and their combustible chemistry is evident throughout Takin’ It There. Hamilton and Clayton, self-described best friends, have been inextricably linked for almost four decades, from their early years with pianist Monty Alexander through their ongoing relationship with Diana Krall (another great artist they mentored). Throughout the album, Dechter gives his collaborators plenty of room to stretch out.
“With Jeff, John and Tamir, I have this amazing palette of colors to work with,” Dechter says. “Jeff is a master orchestrator and can get such a wide variety of sounds out of his drums and cymbals, whether it be with sticks, brushes or hands. John, along with having a huge pizzicato sound, has one of the most gorgeous arco sounds of any bass player on the planet. And Tamir is a complete musician in every sense of the word. There’s virtually no end to what he can do musically and pianistically. Taking all of this into consideration, it would be insane for me to hog the ball and not feature all of them.”
Recorded after a week of gigs, Takin’ It There sums up Dechter’s musical journey so far and points to a blindingly bright future. Learning from the best, he’s put their advice and examples into practice, playing with a kind of drive and fearless imagination that sets him apart from so many of his fellow guitarists. He credits his bandmates with pointing the way, noting that bassist Clayton leads by example, always playing “with honesty and clarity something I strive for each and every time I play my instrument.” Dechter also notes drummer Hamilton as being the first person to get him thinking about his career in a way that extended outside of his immediate comfort zone and immediate boundaries. “Like John, he got me thinking about the big picture of my music and gave me the push and inspiration to really pursue my dreams and shoot for the top.” With Takin’ It There, Dechter hits the mark.
Graham Dechter – guitar
Jeff Hamilton – drums
Eric Reed – piano
Mike Gurrolla – bass
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