Quick Q and A with Guy van Duser and Billy Novick

If the world ran the way it should, both Guy van Duser and Billy Novick would be swing music ambassadors so that people the world over could hear their exquisite music. This duo has musical chops that routinely make jaws drop and ears stand at attention. They’re fun; they’re sophisticated; they’re two cool dudes.

For more information about Guy and Billy, visit their website.

For even more information, check out this podcast.

Here’s a video of Guy and Billy when special guest, Jeanie Stahl, dropped by the me&thee to sing with them in 2015.

Guy van Duser and Billy Novick will be playing at the me&thee coffeehouse in Marblehead, MA on Friday, February 23, 2018.   Below is an interview we did with them some years back.

The combination of fingerstyle guitar and clarinet is so unique and yet so natural. Did it feel like magic the first time you played together? Did you know that you were onto something?

Billy: Actually, hokey as it may sound, it did feel somewhat magical the first time we had played together. Guy had composed some guitar music for some dance troupes, and I had written an avant-garde jazz piece for another group of dancers. The two pieces appeared on the same concert, and, when I heard Guy play, I was absolutely amazed. We decided we had a lot in common musically, and, when we finally got to play together, the sonority of the two wooden instruments was rapturous! There’s an almost mystical quality to the sound- earthy yet elegant at the same time. Whenever I feel I may be getting into a rut with our playing, I just tune out all the “intellectual” concerns with the music and just focus on the beauty of the sound.

Guy: Mostly we play coffeehouses and many of those happen inside churches, where the qualities of our two instruments are gloriously supported by the acoustics. And after thirty-two years, each of us is very aware of the musical mannerisms and ways of thinking that we each have, to the point where we sometimes spontaneously produce the same musical phrase on both instruments. It’s a little spooky sometimes.

Have you always been drawn to the early jazz era of song?

Billy: My musical tastes are very wide-ranging, but, yes, I have always loved the early jazz era. My older brother played in a Dixieland band in high school, and we went to a record store to get some “Dixieland” records (I hate the term “Dixieland”) and lucked out with our purchases. We got a LP of Jelly Roll Morton and his Red Hot Peppers. Neither of us had any idea who he was (I was 11 at the time), and it turns out that, fortunately, we ended up with 12 of the most highly-regarded New Orleans tunes that were ever recorded.

Guy: My mother was trained as a concert pianist and my dad played guitar a little, but what had probably the strongest influence on my musical development were the countless recordings my father would play in the house on evenings and weekends. Dixieland, big band dance music, cool 50’s jazz. . . and then when I learned to play some on a guitar of my own, he and I would sing duets together for a couple of hours at least two or three nights a week. He sang and taught me hundreds of tin pan alley songs, what are known to today’s players as “standards”. So I literally grew up on the stuff we’re playing now.

What’s the most “contemporary” song you play?

Billy: Both Guy and I have written a number of songs that we play. Our originals would be the most contemporary — other than that, not much after 1950.

What’s the most unusual venue that you’ve played?

Billy: In 1976, the Boston Pops was doing July 4th down in NYC, where the Statue of Liberty was unveiled after it was refurbished. (Do you actually “refurbish” the Statue of Liberty?)

We “subbed” for the Pops on the Esplanade, playing Guy’s version of the Stars and Stripes, just the two of us on that huge stage. It was broadcast nationally. . . .

We also opened for the Glenn Miller Orchestra at an outdoor concert in Western Mass, and they never showed up. They actually did eventually show up, but the two of us had to play a set of Glenn Miller tunes to keep the audience from leaving. It was a normal venue, but an abnormal playing situation.

Guy: Billy is forgetting to mention the wedding that he and I played for at the Dolphin Pool of the Aquarium, the reception on top of a ski mountain where we had to get the sound system up via the ski lift, and a few others. . . .

Do you have a favorite memory from your days of playing together?

Billy: There were zillions of great moments, and there is no singular memory that jumps out at me. then again, I can barely remember what I did 10 minutes ago, let alone what we did 30 years ago!

Playing Passim was always a memorable event, very electric with the audience being so close. Prairie Home Companion was very exciting, too, but we did a bunch of those. Perhaps it was Guy, myself and Cathal McConnell (wondrous whistle player from the Boys of the Lough) playing a three-part harmony version of “In the Mood” on Prairie Home Companion. What in the world could we have been thinking? And why would they ever let us do that!! It wasn’t great music, but it was a lot of fun — quite quirky, as you might imagine.

“Jamming” with Chet Atkins in his kitchen was fun, particularly when the tour bus came around and everyone peered inside.

Guy: Yeah, Chet thought Billy’s renditions of be-bop jazz on the pennywhistle were very cool, I remember!

I always felt comfortable on the road with Billy; maybe because we were such complete opposites, we never got in each other’s way. He’d be up at six am, I’d be up at ten; he a vegetarian, I a card-carrying carnivore, he a sports fanatic, me a late-season dabbler. But he would drive the van and I would read aloud to him the entire sports section of whatever city’s newspaper we happened to have that morning. That was during the Golden Age of the Boston Celtics— and Billy and I ended up flying back to Boston one Sunday morning with the entire Celtics team on the plane in front of us, returning from a game with Detroit, and Larry Bird’s feet sticking out into the aisles.

Billy, you’ve done a lot of session work with other musicians, any memorable moments from any of those sessions?

Billy: Many! I think Susan Werner is one of the most talented musicians I ever met, and playing on her record was a lot of fun. In my early years (did I really write that?), I toured with David Bromberg and we did a record that Brian Ahern produced. We recorded in this house in Santa Monica, and the whole thing could have been a parody of the LA music scene. Brian wore this Indian robe the whole time, there were all sorts of substances consumed (need I say more?), and there were all these “guests” hanging around, waiting to record a song or two with us: Bonnie Raitt, Linda Ronstadt, Emmylou Harris, Mac Rebennack (Dr. John), Ricky Skaggs, and Bernie Leadon (of the Eagles).

I did quite a few sessions for Philo records in Vermont, and they were a lot of fun. You’d record and stay in a beautifully refurbished barn, and just hang out for a few days. Particularly memorable were the few days up there with Dave Van Ronk, when we recorded my arrangement of Peter and the Wolf for jug band. It was Dave’s lifelong dream, if you could believe that!

I also was dragged into a portable music studio/trailer in the middle of a music festival in Toronto to do overdubs on a few songs for a demo tape for this singer, who, in fact, was Emmylou Harris. Of course, nobody knew who she was!

A lot of the soundtrack work I do is rewarding, particularly when you get a roomful of great musicians (and people) to semi-improvise some tracks.

I often end up overdubbing on 3 or 4 songs on a record. It’s increasingly rare to have everyone play at the same time now, like a real group. When it does happen, it ‘s a whole different experience. Everyone says there’s a real palpable difference for the listener. At the risk of sounding like a heretic, I don’t think that’s necessarily true. But from the musicians’ standpoint, it’s just a lot more fun.

And, since there are so many musicians spending so much time together, there’s inevitably a lot of food being ordered. At home I tend to eat a very healthy diet, with virtually no junk food. so, in the studio, there are always pizzas being ordered, Chinese food, chips, etc. I know I’m supposed to be transported by the inspiring and spiritual music we’re creating, but most of the time- and I hate to admit this- it’s the food that’s got my attention. “Finish this next take and I can have some more pizza? You got it!”

Now that’s what I call art!

Guy, can you describe what stride guitar is?

Well, the sound of many of the great early jazz recordings owes a lot to the presence of some pretty impressive piano playing, actually. The guitar on those records was always acoustic and just strummed and almost never very audible, while the pianist was performing melodies with his right hand and supplying his own bass and chords with his left, the back and forth movement of the left hand giving the impression of “striding” up and down the keyboard.

That’s what I’m trying to recreate on the guitar, rather than playing it on piano, an improvised backdrop of bass, chords, and melodies as a setting for Billy’s clarinet and vocals. I like to imagine that I’m a little “trio”, chords, bass, and rhythm, and when we both play full out, like on a Benny Goodman “big band” number, we think we’re a “two-man big band”!