Spotlight: Harvey Valdes

It is hard to reconcile the young Harvey Valdes who grew up loving Napalm Death, and Sepultura with the man who plays sensitive standards like “April in Paris” on solo guitar. You might find the child more visible in the man who rocks his Trombetta FeederBone in duo with drummer Damion Reid.

In both contexts Valdes brings a personal approach that is tasteful even when it is being aggressive and a deep appreciation of tone as the starting point of music.

What kind of music were you playing when you first became proficient on the instrument?

I was into hard, fast, trash, death metal and punk, and anything that had fast riffs, fast solos, fast drumming, and an aggressive attack. My first concert was a quadruple bill with Sick of It All, Sacred Reich, Napalm Death, and Sepultura—I was just 12 years old! It was the music that spoke to me, loud heavy music with a ton of attitude.

I grew up in New Jersey and my parents used drive me to a music store in Rahway for guitar lessons every Saturday morning. I would bring in a cassette tape of a band like Nuclear Assault and play it for my teacher, who was a jazz/wedding musician. He would sit there in the lesson room smoking cigarettes, listen to the song a few times, figure it out by ear, and then teach it to me. It’s amazing he didn’t kick me out of there, considering the music I was bringing in. He was open enough to my interests to teach me music that was likely of no interest to him. I was psyched; I would go home and play the riffs or solo parts non-stop until the next lesson. This was the music that I became proficient playing.

What led you to create more experimental (non-mainstream) music?

My parents are Colombian immigrants; I grew up with a steady stream of salsa and cumbia in my childhood home. My older brother was into Scorpions and Van Halen; my older sister was into new wave and alternative. Through her I became aware of bands like PIL and Dead Kennedys. I also grew up watching MTV, so all the Michael Jackson, Madonna stuff was around as well. This influenced my ear, and gave me an early understanding that mainstream music was just one of many genres out there.

When I started to seek out what I wanted to listen to as a kid, I wanted something different than what was in the house. The music that spoke to me was about being loud, fast and rebellious. I used to listen to the college radio station, WSOU, where I found out about thrash, punk, and death metal. Going to record stores was also a ritual for me as a kid. I would discover bands by looking though bins of cassette tapes and taking a chance on one because the cover art looked cool, or I saw it in a magazine, or they influenced my favorite band. I knew there was more out there and felt like I was outside of whatever popular culture was being presented to me, so I looked for music rebelling against the mainstream.

Harvey Valdes Pic

When I started playing guitar, I remember having an impulse to play spontaneously. I just wanted to play without thinking about it too much—just make sounds. Looking back, it was a form of improvisation. At the time I thought of it as jamming, or making stuff up. I would record myself on a mini 4-track cassette player and play weird noisy stuff.  I wasn’t thinking seriously about it—purely just for fun. I wasn’t even aware of what improvisation was about till much later.

Because I recognized this improvisational impulse in myself, I ended up listening to and studying jazz. I had a period where I was steeped in the discipline of studying bebop. I loved this information, but the strictness of four years of university study sort of burnt me out. As a break from that I took up the oud, which led me into Middle Eastern sounds and an eastern approach to improvising.

I didn’t wake up one day and say, “Hey, I’ve got to do experimental music.” It’s a journey that I’m still on. I guess my music or approach could be called experimental, but to me its just making music. I think all the music that has influenced me comes out in my playing consciously and, more often, unconsciously.


Whose music inspires you?

It would be a very long list of musicians from the past and present! I admire so many people, but more than anything I admire playing that has commitment. I hear it in street musicians, I hear it in the playing of people currently on the scene, and I hear it in the music of well-known artists.

Lately, I’ve been on a solo piano kick, listening to Cecil Taylor, Matthew Shipp, Ran Blake, Jaki Byard, and Bill Evans solo records. These guys leave me floored with their relentless creativity.

How did you get better at your current style?

I practice daily, and I’ve been at it for some time, but its not like a destination has been reached. I’m endlessly curious about music. I want to discover new things about my instrument, about my ear, and about music in general.

My approach to practicing is simple. I become aware of a limitation in my playing, design an approach to get beyond that limitation, and commit to applying it.

Basically: Listen. Practice. Apply. Rinse. Repeat.

Harvey Valdes Trio Pic

What are you trying convey with your music?

When I make music, all of my guiding concepts are musical in nature. I might be interested in a particular texture, rhythm, or the synergy of interlocking lines. I am interested in getting inside the emotional wave that music itself contains. I am interested in the vast and endless complexity of sound and the way that various sounds can take a listener on a journey. While playing, I try to honestly represent the sounds that I hear, and the emotions they conjure in me.

Which guitars, amps, effects, plug-ins and software do you use to create your music, and why?

I’m completely taken with headless guitars for the ergonomics and aesthetics. There are some great luthiers who put a lot of thought into the comfort, playability, and style and I have become really interested in discovering these new luthiers and their instruments.

I play a 7-string Teuffel Tesla, a Klein BF-96, a custom Forshage Hollow Ergo, and a Sukar oud. Each instrument has its own flavor, determined by the wood, pickups, and strings. Each musical situation demands a different approach to the sound and dictates the instrument I choose.

HV Guitars Pic copy

The Klein gets to go on many gigs, as it’s a very versatile instrument. It has a clear voice and nice resonance. Because of the pickup configuration (hum/single/hum), it is easily adaptable to many situations.

The Teuffel Tesla is a special instrument. I tune the 7th string to a low A, and its just freaking awesome. The range and deep resonance is outstanding on this instrument. Also, it has these built in noise buttons—kill switch, feedback mic, and 60-cycle hum—that add another approach to playing the instrument. It’s fun to use the Tesla for solo playing and also in a trio setting without a bass player.

The Forshage is a new addition. I often play standards in a solo setting and was looking for a guitar that has a bit of the old school jazz thing with a modern twist. Meaning, I wanted a warm fat sound, without the tradition of an archtop. It’s a dead simple instrument, one neck pickup, volume and tone. It’s hollow so it has some nice air around the notes. And it’s a joy to travel with at just under 5lbs!

For effects, I’ve gone down many roads, from none at all to huge pedal boards. I have a decent size collection of pedals that I can dig into and mix/match for a gig that calls for some sounds. For the last few years, the less I carry the better. That just comes with the territory of being in New York City, as well as traveling on planes. All I need these days are a fuzz and a reverb pedal. The two pedals that get the most use are the Paul Trombetta  FeederBone Machine and the Neunaber Stereo Wet with an expression pedal to control the mix. For me, these two cover a lot of ground. There are so many textures you can get out of the PTD FBM with just your volume knob. The Neunaber reverb is just beautiful. It has variety of verb sounds depending on how you set it. Occasionally, I’ll bring a delay like the Pigtronix Echolution.

I have a few old and new tube amps that I mainly use for recording or the random gig when I feel inspired to lug a heavy tube amp. I picked up an endorsement from ZT amps a couple years back and couldn’t be happier. They make quality, road worthy, good sounding amps. I’ve used the ZT Club regularly, playing in an orchestra with a drummer, two percussionists, and an army of horn players. The ZT has no problem holding its own. The little Lunchbox has been great for rehearsals and playing small places.  Most places in New York have a backline; if I know the place and have played there before, chances are I will use what they have. It’s all about keeping it light—especially living on a fourth floor walk up!

Which do you enjoy more: recording or playing live and why?

While I do enjoy both, performing live has the edge. I love the uncertainty, the communication with other musicians and the audience, the energy and process of being in the moment, and being inside the live sound environment of a stage. Live performance forces me to commit to my ideas in a way that recording doesn’t. In the studio, theoretically, there is always another take. Live, you just have that moment to make your statement. This kind of focus and pressure forces me to take risks. Sometimes they pay off, sometimes they don’t; either way is good, because taking the risk, in and of itself, is valuable.

How have you built up an audience for your music?

Social media has been good to me. YouTube and Facebook are great vehicles for making connections with people whom I would otherwise not meet. It’s pretty wild to post a video and have someone in other part of the world listen and comment. There are many groups on Facebook that draw listeners who are interested in guitar, jazz and improvisational music. I have met people from all over the US and the world through these social outlets. I also participate in gear and jazz forums here and there, and I’m an instructor for TrueFire, which has brought a lot of international listeners and students my way. On the local front, my audience spans the downtown and Brooklyn improvised music scenes, as well as a cross section of people who may know my playing from other side projects.

With whom would you like to collaborate and why?

I’m always meeting new musicians and collaborating. It’s always an exciting experience and one I look forward to. I think playing with Tim Berne would be a blast. He has some surprising music, and I really dig the way he writes these twisting counter lines. Getting inside of that musical world would be a really exciting ride.

What is your latest project? When will it be available and where can people in different parts of the world get it?

I am releasing an album of my compositions for drums, violin, and guitar this year. I am really excited about this album and the sounds we got at Tedesco Studio in Paramus, NJ. Joe Hertenstein is on drums and Sana Nagano is on violin and they both bring their unique take to these unconventional tunes. The record incorporates both composed and improvised approaches.

I’m also working on a solo guitar standards record. I have always looked up to the great chord-melody players like Joe Pass and Joe Diorio. This record is somewhat of a nod to those great guys with my own very extended approach to reharmonization. This is something I’ve been wanting to do for some time, and it finally feels like the right moment.

I also have a collaborative project called Tesla Coils with Blaise Siwula on sax and Gian Luigi Diana on laptop/sound manipulation. We’ll be releasing our second record this year on the Italian label, Setola di Maiale.

As a sideman, I will be featured on records that are coming out some time this year by Sean Sonderegger, Michael Lytle’s Double Swim, This Ensemble, and David Dovo’s Electric Red.


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