Bach and Flamenco

To guitarist Marc Yaxley, the thrill for the audience and for himself is in the unexpected.

“We might take a Cole Porter tune and put a flamenco twist on it with the Rasgueado technique, or we might open a bebop tune with a Baroque piece from Vivaldi,” he explains. “You’re pleasing the classical and the jazz buffs. I love both of those styles, so the last 15 years I’ve been bringing that repertoire to my concerts.”

Yaxley is comfortable performing solo or with his own trio, which features bassist Cameron Austin and drummer Bill Berg. “Classical and jazz are very demanding,” he says. “I study those two avenues, and I love flamenco music. I’m not real good at it yet, however I love listening, and I’ve had a few experiences in flamenco technique. My sound is classical guitar, jazz guitar, and flamenco mixed. I’m just having a ball combining these sounds.”

Yaxley was born in 1955, the year the Paul Desmond tune ‘Take Five’ was a hit for the Dave Brubeck Quartet. “My father was playing that odd-time-signature record for me when I was an infant in the crib,” he says. “Around age five I saw Charlie Byrd, the great nylon-string classical jazz guitar player on television, and I started running around the house playing a tennis racquet.”

In case Yaxley needed more inspiration, both of his parents were musicians and taught at the Brevard Music Center each summer. “I was always exposed to orchestral instruments,” he says. “I don’t think I heard Jimi Hendrix until I was in my 20s. and then of course The Beatles. I didn’t hear The White Album, none of this was in my house. It was always classical and jazz.

“It was kind of a potpourri of education, from the book learning to the ear playing, but we didn’t really listen to the radio much. I’m just now learning about the great Jeff Beck and what he did. In my ’50s I’m learning about these wonderful jazz rock players.”

Yaxley attended Stetson University on a cello scholarship, and earned a double major with guitar. He traveled with several groups before settling into a show gig in Las Vegas, then moved to Florida to work with jazz pianist Harold Blanchard in 1986. “What interested me about jazz studies was the fact that you can play in all 12 keys, and of course the different time signatures and the great chord extensions and all that happens in this music,” he says. “All of the jazz players were horn players, so when you play jazz you’re in Bb and Ab and Db, in contrast to country and bluegrass where you’re most of the time in the sharp keys such as E, A, and D. I find the instrument much more interesting that way.”

Classical guitar poses its own challenges. “You have the melody and the inner voice and the bass line all at once,” Yaxley explains. “The great composers that wrote for the classical guitar are just magnificent, and it’s just so complete. I’m a big fan of Johann Sebastian Bach, and of course Tarrega and all the Spanish composers. And I really love the sound of flamenco with all of these elements. It’s such a passionate, improvisational music.”

Yaxley moved to Brevard in 1993, helped form the guitar trio Triad, and began teaching classical and jazz guitar at Brevard College, Western Carolina, and UNC-A, where he remains an adjunct professor. “I’m a student myself and I’ve had some great teachers,” he says. “The life of living in a bus on the road — I did that, and I’m a little tired of that. I enjoy just settling down and meeting these wonderful young kids that are keeping this music alive.

“My students all want to play the hard stuff, so I’ve got to keep up. If you don’t they’ll lose respect for you in a heartbeat. I practice what they’re playing, and research what they want to do.”

Yaxley has recorded six albums, the most recent, Songs For New Mexico.

His trio performs the flamenco-jazz fusion beautifully. Cameron Austin plays a 5-string acoustic guitar bass. “That wonderful bass sound gives us a little signature. Cameron can sightread anything I put in front of him, and he can also improvise through the chord changes with a lot of imagination.”

Drummer Bill Berg brings in experience with Bob Dylan, Leo Kottke, and Flim & The BBs. “Bill has just got the intuition. It’s almost scary how well he reads the both of us,” Yaxley says. “People that hear us are giving us standing ovations. It’s one of those trios where you have to think when you listen to it, and sometimes people don’t want to think, they just want to hoot and holler. We combine a lot of rubato things. It’s just a real musical group, and when people hear it they love it.”

Yaxley plays a Breedlove nylon-string guitar. “I’m pretty much settled on a nylon string,” he says. “Just a basic stock pickup in that saddle on the bridge, and I run it through an amp with a little reverb to liquefy things. I’m not real big on electronic effects. I went through the synthesizer thing for awhile, and basically just got back to flesh and blood on the strings, and seeing what we can conjure up that way.

“I grew up on nylon strings, and then when I heard players like Strunz & Farah, John McLaughlin, of course Paco DeLucia, with that flamenco interest of his and jazz by affection, it kind of led me that way. I love the milky sound of the nylon string.”

McLaughlin’s concerto for guitar and orchestra, “The Mediterranean,” was also a big inspiration. “Here was a guitar concerto that was about 60 percent improv and 40 percent written down for the guitar,” he recalls. “I just thought that was a great, great thing. All the guitar concertos I’ve heard are beautiful, but that one was so interesting because of the improvisational element.”

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