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Featured SlideMeister Member September 2015
David "JazMaan" Fairweather
I've known David Fairweather for a buncha years already through SlideMeister and spent time with him at conventions here and there, and I'm here to tell you that he is an impressive, multi-talented jazz musician / vocalist / showman, with a smooth style and just a fun guy to hang around with.
The following is a transcript of an interview with the "JazMaan." Enjoy!
David “Jazmaan” Fairweather is a harmonica playing attorney from Los Angeles, California. He recently agreed to sit for an interview:
Q: When did you start playing harmonica?
A: Probably in 1967. Right around the time of the U.S. blues revival. I was around 13 or 14 years old and started hearing some of the blues rock acts like Canned Heat, Butterfield Blues Band, Taj Mahal and Cream. Oh and Jim Kweskin & The Jug Band! The very first song I ever learned off a record was Kweskin's “Jug Band Waltz” in first position. And then I learned to bend from “Jug Band Blues” in 2nd position. And then I discovered Alan “Blind Owl” Wilson. I still consider the “Blind Owl” my favorite player of all time. Most of my diatonic style came from listening to Canned Heat and Taj Mahal records. It wasn't until a couple of years later that I went back and seriously listened to the previous generation of originators like Sonny Terry, Sonny Boy Williamson and Little Walter.
Q: What about chromatic?
A: Oh it wasn't until the 90's that I seriously took up chromatic. I became very close friends with the late Michael Polesky who happened to live right down the street and he introduced me to the chromatic world.
Q: You've acquired a reputation as an altered tunings guy. When did that start?
A: Again it was Michael Polesky who introduced me to Pat Missin and his “Altered States”. Once I found out there was a guy who would make me any tuning I wanted, I kind of went nuts. I discovered that I had kind of an innate ability to quickly adjust to lots of different tunings. Many players fear switching tunings, but I could always pick up a new tuning easily. Remember, I was a practicing attorney so I had a little money to burn. I must have ordered dozens of different experimental diatonic tunings from Pat Missin. Crazy fun tunings, including one I invented myself and named “Temptation Tuning” because the chords were pretty good for playing an old jazz tune called “Temptation”. But the best thing about the “Temptation” tuning was that you could play a complete chromatic scale with just draw bends. And it draw bent all the way up the harp through the highest register! That really got me excited! I started posting about it on Harp-l and learned the hard way that most harmonica players don't want to hear about altered tunings! They think they've got too much invested in traditional Richter or Solo tuning to try something new. Only a few, like Brendan Power for instance, seem unfazed by switching tunings at will.
Q: When did you start playing altered tuned chromatics?
A: I started corresponding with a German customizer named Seigfried Naruhn in the early 90's. Seigfried made me my first altered chromatic. It was a beautiful little harp that he called “Toni” because it was based on wholetone or augmented tuning. It had a handmade custom metal shell that looked like a CX-12 only it was tiny, more like a CX-10. The wholetone tuning had such extended range that 10 holes was all you needed. I had never understood the “logic” of traditional Solo tuning with its doubled Cs and F's. And wholetone tuning was nothing if not absolutely logical and orderly. But I quickly learned that logical and orderly doesn't necessarily equal musical! Wholetone tuning looked good on paper but felt too rigid for me. I mentioned this to Alberto Bertolazzi, the owner of Hering Harmonicas and he suggested that I try diminished tuning instead. A month or two later, out of the blue, Alberto sent me a Charlie Musselwhite brand chromatic in diminished tuning! I played that for a while too. Right around that time I started corresponding with Wim Dijkgraaf in Holland and Wim was also playing diminished chromatic at the time. We started comparing notes over the internet. We'd both play “Out of Nowhere” and trade licks over e-mail. Almost like postal chess or something! Again this was the earliest days of the internet – before YouTube even!
Q: Are you still playing diminished chromatic?
A: No, I wasn't really satisfied with diminished tuning either. It's always felt unstable to me. I like a nice fat comfortable tonic chord I can come home to and diminished tuning didn't offer that. It was great for dominant seventh chords but then you'd get to the tonic chord with nowhere to rest, like being left at sea! Then one day I read about a new tuning invented in England by a mathematician named Andy Newton. He called it “Fourkey” tuning. It was supposed to allow a complete chromatic scale on a diatonic harp with only two ordinary draw bends and no need for any overblows. I'd already put in a bit of work learning overblow technique, but for the kind of music I like to play I felt that the timbre of my overblows didn't fit. “Fourkey” tuning sounded interesting enough that I wrote to Andy Newton and asked him to send me a prototype diatonic. I told him “If there's any good music to be found in 'Fourkey' tuning, I'll find it!”
So he sent me a prototype and I immediately fell in love with it. It only took a few weeks before I started posting videos on YouTube like “Misty” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c5un0JAkWoc
and “Yardbird Suite” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q-Thib725Ig .
And then I wondered, if “Fourkey” diatonic was already so “chromatic” - what would a “Fourkey” chromatic slide harp be like? Around the same time Gary Lehmann had the same idea. But I was the first to actually have one made, thanks to Steve Baker who was working for Hohner at the time. Steve convinced Hohner to make me a Fourkey CX-12 and I was off to the races with it! It had that nice fat tonic chord I craved, and it offered smooth articulations and lots of enharmonic choices too. Roger Myerson and Gary Lehmann and some other guys at Slidemeister encouraged me to explore it and even helped come up with a new name for it, “LeGato” tuning, because it sounds so smooth!
Q: So do you play “LeGato” chromatic tuning exclusively now?
A: Well it depends on the situation. If I'm playing out on a blues gig, I'll play standard Richter diatonic or thrid position solo chromatic because that's the sound people expect to hear on the blues. But if its a jazzier tune or a pop tune, I'll play the “LeGato” chromatic. I like the “LeGato” because it allows you to play long flowing lines unbroken by changes in breath direction. It sounds more like a saxophone to my ears. In fact one of the things I enjoy most now is playing classic saxophone solos on the “LeGato”. (Click on YouTubes below “Bernie's Tune” and “Twisted”
Q: How did you get the name “Jazmaan” and why the unusual spelling?
A: That nickname also dates back to the earliest days of the internet. I guess it was back in the late 80's I had to pick an America Online moniker and “Jazzman” was already taken so I came up with “Jazmaan” instead. I had no idea the name “Jazmaan” would follow me for the rest of my life! I actually find it a bit pretentious because I'm not that great of a jazz harmonica player, certainly not compared to truly great players I've known like Michael Polesky, Randy Singer, Jon Kip or Ron Kalina! But I'm proud to call all those guys my friends. Anyway I do have other claims to the nickname besides my harmonica playing!
Q: What kind of “other claims”?
A: Well I've been singing and writing jazz vocalese since the 1970's, similar to the work of Oscar Brown, Jr., Jon Hendricks and Annie Ross. I'm proud to say I've met and sung with all those cats and they seemed to like my vocalese creations. I love putting words to solos by Wardell Gray, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. And besides my singing, I'm something of a jazz historian too – at least with regards to the 30's and 40's. So when people call me “Jazmaan” I just go with it.
Q: So what's next for David “Jazmaan” Fairweather and his altered harmonicas?
A: Well you know I've never really been a professional harmonica player. I just play for fun. I've always made my living as a lawyer. I had my own blues band when I was at UCLA, but I made a career choice back when I was accepted to law school and stuck to it. I graduated from Stanford Law School in 1978 and I practiced law for 35 years until I retired in 2012. They keep calling me back to work for a few months here and there so I guess I'm really only “semi” retired. But now I have a lot more time to practice harmonica instead of just practicing law! So in the words of jazz trumpeter Jack Sheldon, I'm still just “Tryin' to Get Good”! My professional musician friends often call me out to sit in on gigs around town. And I throw jazz parties every year where I sing my vocalese and invite all the jazz pros I admire to jam https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mxlfCpRajgs (“Tin Tin Deo”) I also travel to Belize several times a year and I'm hoping to organize a blues festival in Belize next year. That should keep me busy enough!
Q: Any parting thoughts?
A: I just want to give another shout out to the late great Michael Polesky. I was just a solitary isolated player until he introduced me to the whole harmonica community and to people like Douglas Tate, Pete Pedersen, Chris Michalek and many others who have since passed on. He also introduced me to many of the great players who are thankfully still with us like Tommy Morgan, Les Thompson, Ron Kalina, Bill Barrett and Randy Singer. So many thanks Mike wherever you are!