Jazz remains Alex Skolnick’s true identity

By Will Romano

Alex Skolnick was just 16 years old when he joined the San Francisco-based thrash band Legacy, which later morphed into metal stalwarts Testament. Skolnick’s work with Testament on genre-defining recordings such as 1987’s “The Legacy” and 1988’s “The New Order” spoke to a generation of hard rock fans hungry for dark, heavy music, which was only beginning to infiltrate the mainstream consciousness at the time.

Matt Zebroski, Nathan Peck, and Alex Skolnick. Photo courtesy Magna Carta

Yet, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, who could have guessed that Skolnick would soon exit Testament and later migrate from the adrenaline-fueled metal community to the more traditional world of jazz?

Since his discovery of iconic artists such as Miles Davis and Pat Metheny, Skolnick has earned a degree in jazz from New York City’s The New School and, much like the guitar teacher of his youth, Joe Satriani, grown emotionally and technically as a musician. Though Skolnick occasionally rejoins his one-time Testament bandmates, the Brooklyn resident has often steered clear of the heavy metal scene altogether, in part, by spearheading his own guitar-led instrumental jazz band, Alex Skolnick Trio.

Growing in confidence as a bandleader and composer, Skolnick continues to surprise audiences and even shatter expectations, while offering insights into his musical identity. Alex Skolnick Trio’s latest album, “Veritas,” which shares its name with the Roman goddess of truth, reflects the guitarist’s love of traditional jazz even as it contains moments of funky fusion (“99/09”), acoustic melancholia (“Alone in Brooklyn”) and Indian music-inflected jams (“Bollywood Jam”). Fittingly, it’s perhaps the Trio’s most lively, honest and original statement to date.

Given the musical flavors of “Veritas,” the temptation is to conclude that Skolnick has found spirituality or that he’s a 21st Century update of jazz-rock icon John McLaughlin. But perhaps this would be missing the point or purposefully overlooking the intense commitment Skolnick has made to jazz and guitar playing, in general. “I think the music on ‘Veritas’ represents who I am,” says Skolnick. “What’s come out on the record is what’s inside me.”

Goldmine spoke with Skolnick about “Veritas,” his diverse musical career and what truth in music means to him.

Goldmine: Your new record ‘Veritas’ has touches of metal, but is mostly a jazz album.
Skolnick: It’s definitely jazz. I’m playing with jazz musicians and even an upright bassist [Nathan Peck]. I’m playing a hollow guitar with F holes. It’s the music I love and these days I want to play the music I love.

Goldmine: Why did you switch from metal to jazz?
Skolnick: I can’t explain why I’m drawn to certain things. I think it’s like explaining why I played guitar in the first place. I had come from an academic background. My mother’s a law professor and I was expected to go into some profession similar to that, like law or medicine. The thing is, I don’t like hospitals. I do like guitar strings, however. I think it’s that simple. I like holding the guitar. It feels good. So, when it came to jazz it became such a part of me as a listener and fan. I was compelled to make that a part of me as a musician.

Goldmine: The title of the Trio’s new album is “Veritas.” What does the idea of truth mean to you as a musician?
Skolnick: Two main thoughts that come to mind: one is that when you play music, or you’re any kind of artist in the public eye, you are written about, a lot. You are described; it is part of the process. It’s not often that your own voice and your own image of yourself get through all the clutter. This was doubly true for me, because I come from the heavy metal world, which I was playing professionally since I was 16. You’re immediately categorized as a certain type of person, a certain type of musician, and I feel like I’m finally able to assert who I am outside of all of that stuff. So that’s one reason. The other is that the artists that I gravitate towards are truth tellers. One example would be Pat Metheny. When you see Pat Metheny play he’s telling it like it is. He’s not looking for trends.

Goldmine: With the inclusion of Indian-inspired music on this album, it feels as though you’re on a spiritual journey. What can you tell us about a track like ‘Bollywood Jam’?
Skolnick: It feels a bit like a journey and I hope I’ve begun to evolve. But, the song ‘Bollywood Jam’ came about by accident, really, because I saw the movie Slumdog Millionaire. I’m not up on Bollywood films, but I did see that one. I was captivated by the music. I did some research into the composer, A.R. Rahman, and it turns out he’s the leading composer of Bollywood films. I thought the Trio should try something similar to his style. I came up with the basic ideas for the song … and these different parts started to come together, like the main riff and main melody, and it just took on a life of its own.

Goldmine: What’s the deal with the song “99/09”? What do the numbers mean?
Skolnick: The song starts out with this funky rhythm, which is inspired by Prince. So, 99 is a reference to Prince’s “1999.” I think of the song as a … collaboration between Prince and John Scofield, a jazz guitarist who has a lot of funk in his playing. 09 is the year the song was written.

Goldmine: Who’s in the band these days?
Skolnick: Well, it’s the same drummer who’s been there all along, Matt Zebroski. He’s as much a part of this band as I am. I can’t imagine doing this without him. The bass player is Nathan Peck, who’s been with us for the last two recordings [2004’s "Transformation" and 2007’s "Last Day in Paradise"]. When he first joined for the “Transformation” record, we barely had a month to work on the material. But with the new album, a lot of history has passed between the three of us and we know each other so much better. There’s no substitute for that, as far as I’m concerned. I could hire great session musicians and do a decent jazz record. But that’s all it would be — a decent jazz record. I want something more.

Goldmine: Your interpretation of other artists’ material is intriguing. In some cases it’s difficult to discern what song you’re actually playing.
Skolnick: I think Rush’s “Tom Sawyer”, from “Last Day in Paradise,” was the first time we’d recorded a cover and it wasn’t obvious, until late in the song, that we were covering anybody. The Judas Priest song, “Electric Eye”, from “Transformation,” was a little bit like that, because we changed the beat. It was arranged in the style of modern jazz piano music. The first album, “Goodbye to Romance: Standards for a New Generation,” was nearly all covers. Since then we’ve recorded a number of original songs that we’re really proud of and are going over well live. While we were in rehearsals on the road … we just decided to jam on “Fade to Black.” But we’re in the process of including more originals in our live sets. So, the fact that we chose to record “Fade to Black” is perfect, because it’s like a statement about phasing out the covers.

Goldmine: After Testament you recorded with Savatage and later the band that evolved from it, Trans-Siberian Orchestra (TSO). What can you tell us about those experiences?
Skolnick: Savatage was a very bittersweet situation. On the one hand I got to do an album with a band that I liked in high school. The flipside is that the gig came about because of a tragedy: Savatage guitarist Criss Oliva had passed away in 1993. That was around the time that I had left my band, Testament, because things hadn’t been working out, and I found playing with Savatage appealing. It was like, ‘Hey, why not?’ Then again, I knew I was heading in a different direction from the band, but I just didn’t know where. For some reason, joining Savatage just didn’t feel right. I’m not sure why that is. It’s a little like our conversation earlier — who knows why things happen? It wasn’t one particular thing. Maybe I felt I needed to … be one of the main creative voices in the band. If I had stayed with Savatage I wouldn’t have been.

Goldmine: Producer/songwriter Paul O’Neill really revamped Savatage and provided the overriding vision for the highly successful TSO touring/recording machine.
Skolnick: I’d agree with that. All I can say is that some guitar players are just happy to play guitar. Then there are others who want to be creative people. I guess I’m the latter. I don’t view myself as just a guitar player.

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