STORY WRITTEN BY FERN BRODKIN
For Digital First Media
Alex Skolnick is one of the busiest guitarists around. This year alone he has toured with 3 different musical projects in addition to the Alex Skolnick Trio, which will make 2 appearances in the Philadelphia area.
On Sept. 17, the trio will open for Andy Fairweather Low and the Low Riders at Havana in New Hope. The following night, Sept. 18, they will headline a show at World Cafe Live in Philadelphia.
Skolnick and his band members Nathan Peck (bass) and Matt Zebroski (drums) look forward to seeing you on the Unbound tour. The band’s fifth album Live Unbound (Skol Productions), will be released on Sept. 16. It will be the band’s first live album and includes 5 originals plus reimagined versions of Aerosmith’s “Dream On” and the Scorpions’ “Still Loving You.”
Skolnick’s story is an interesting one. He grew up in Berkeley, Calif. and studied guitar with Joe Satriani, who had not yet become a world-renowned guitarist.
In 1985, at age 16, Skolnick auditioned for a local band and at 18, shortly after graduating from high school, he began recording with the group. The band, which became Testament, was a successful heavy metal band of that era. He recorded 5 albums with them and had the opportunity to tour alongside Black Sabbath, Megadeth, Judas Priest, Iron Maiden and others.
After 7 years Skolnick decided to leave the band, though the original lineup subsequently reunited in 2005 for touring and recording. At age 23 Skolnick was already a music business veteran. He could’ve continued to earn a living as a heavy metal guitarist.
“On the one hand, having the experience of recording albums and touring at such a young age was terrific ‘on-the-job’ training for a career in music, incomparable with anything else,” said Skolnick in an email interview from Germany while at The Bass Camp, where he was a guitar instructor at the week-long clinic. “On the other hand, it was also a whirlwind and surreal to be thrown into such an intense cycle at that time (ages 16 – 23), so I needed to step away and find out who I was outside of the situation, musically and psychologically.”
After a few years of freelancing with Stu Hamm, Ozzy Osbourne and others, as well as leading a few of his own projects, Skolnick decided to go back to school to pursue his interest in jazz.
“I felt there was still much room for development as an improviser and a composer,” explained Skolnick. “I’d taken things as far as I could on my own and while my professional experience was great on the performance side, it kept me seriously limited to one very specific genre.”
Skolnick had developed a love for jazz when he saw “a televised performance of Miles Davis’ electric music in the late ’80s, which had screaming electric guitar (probably Mike Stern or John Scofield). That lead to Weather Report, Return to Forever and other jazz-rock. So to understand that type of electric jazz, I began studying more straight-ahead jazz, which caused me to develop a deep taste for it as well.
“This week, for example, I’ve been playing alongside heroes of mine — (drummer) Dennis Chambers and (bassist) Alphonso Johnson — as part of Warwick’s Bass Camp. That’s just one example of something I wouldn’t have been qualified for before attending New School.”
Skolnick founded the Alex Skolnick Trio in 2002 while at the New School. They began as a traditional jazz trio that played bebop renditions of classic rock and heavy metal tunes. They have progressively added more original material to their repertoire and Skolnick says it is the favorite of all his projects because “it’s the vehicle in which I have the most freedom. (The new) recording says that we don’t have much use for limitations. (And) our live performances can take us anywhere, from the spirit of quintessential jazz guitar trios to distortion and chaos. It’s all possible.”
Yes, metal and jazz seem to be strange bedfellows. Yet Skolnick continues to love both genres and makes time in his busy schedule to perform both.
“When they’re done well, both metal and jazz are vehicles of expression that tap into unspoken emotion felt by artists and listeners. Both exist largely outside the mainstream, providing relief from life’s monotony as well as more homogenized music that’s imposed on all of us. I like metal’s intensity — it’s like a sonic yelling, literal and figurative, as well as the musical virtuosity when present.
“Jazz improv opens up a whole new world on the other side of the coin — it provides a sense of dynamics. The music breathes. It also has incredible diversity: jazz can incorporate swing, funk, soul, Afro-Cuban, etc. Nothing’s off limits. Plus, every performance is unique; no solo is the same.”
As for Skolnick’s future he says “I’m certainly enjoying performing both (genres) at this stage of my life and I plan to continue for now. I do know I’ll be an improviser of jazz, world music and other styles as long as I’m alive and able. However it’s unlikely that I’ll want to ever feel like an ‘aging metal musician,’ so I’ll likely stop at some point.”
Perhaps at that time Skolnick will be able to find the time to pursue one of his other loves: writing.
“I realized writing is something I have a knack for. The demands of maintaining a career as a serious musician hasn’t allowed for the long hours required to develop good fiction ideas. But hopefully one day.”