New Yorker guitarist Tommy Z talks about his blues experiences at the most dangerous places on Earth

"It's (Blues) a very potent and primal force inherent to humans and as long as people feel it then it will keep generating new audiences."

Tommy Z: Star-Spangled Blues Banner

Beginning as a teenager in the talent-rich Western New York music scene, Tommy Z is a guitarist, singer/songwriter, producer, engineer and composer. Though he is a guitar-driven electric blues-based stylist onstage, in the studio Tommy composes a variety of music. So while well experienced and studied in traditional blues, jazz and rock styles, Tommy is an artist who puts that soulful blues feeling into all the different styles he plays. In 2007 Tommy was inducted into the Buffalo Music Hall of Fame, recognizing him alongside some of the best talent to ever come out of WNY (and also making him ineligible for any more music awards!). He has had the opportunity to perform with/or co-bill with some of the worlds' greatest artists in the blues/rock genre including: B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Johnny Winter, The Fabulous Thunderbirds, Jeff Healey, Colin James, Roomful of Blues, Blues Traveler, Derek Trucks, Joe Bonamassa, Robert Randolph, Peter Frampton, Carey Bell, Pinetop Perkins and many more.

The son of a Vietnam-era veteran, he has been bringing a taste of home to US troops overseas since 2003 with blues-based concert tours in Iraq, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, UAE, Bahrain, Qatar, Japan, South Korea, Djibouti, Europe, Egypt, Turkey, Guam, Alaska and other distant locales on behalf of USO/AFE. Tommy contributed guitar tracks to Deep Purple vocalist Ian Gillan's CD on Immergent called Gillan's Inn, on the track "When A Blind Man Cries," which also featured blues-rock legend Jeff Healey and Jon Lord. In addition to his performance schedule, Tommy is a Canisius College graduate, guitar teacher, and composer/producer for Film, TV, Sports, etc. Tommy Z’s fourth full-length studio recording, “Blizzard Of Blues,” released on February 2016. The album concept and rocking title song were born after a grueling ride on NY’s 219 Expressway in blizzard conditions with cars sliding off the road and emergency vehicles towing them out of huge banks of snow.

Interview by Michael Limnios

How do you describe Tommy Z sound and progress, what characterize your music philosophy?

My sound is an amalgam of what I consider to be the sum influence of the great post-war electric blues guitarists, while adopting the boundary pushing playing and tone of Hendrix and SRV. There seems to be a schism between purists who do not accept Hendrix, etc. and those that do but I embrace it, maybe because it's just part of what I love about expression on the guitar and when I was born. But I also am very influenced by pre-fusion jazz and jazz/blues guitarists and non-guitarists, funk like the Meters/James Brown, and a lot of popular American music which might surprise some people. So it's blues that sometimes rocks, with some funk and jazz thrown in there with a popular appeal. The progress of my sound is just a natural development of how I play, sing and write. As I do it more, I try to make improvements. But also the players that I'm lucky to work with like Damone Jackson and Jerry Livingston also help shape things, because I make decisions based on what ingredients I am working with ya know? With these guys, I'm pretty uninhibited right now and we are looking forward to competing in Memphis for the IBC on behalf of the WNY Blues Society this January.

While I don't have a fully developed way of explaining my music philosophy I would say that in part no matter what type of music I am playing, “It's all Blues to me.” What I mean by that is that if for instance I look at a popular song like Billie Jean by Michael Jackson, or Crazy by Gnarls Barkley, I see and hear it as something akin to “The Thrill is Gone” or something like that especially in terms of the chord progression, and melody etc. It's just dressed up in a different production framework. I am drawn to groovin', soulful music and that is reflected in how I play a write.

"I think one thing I miss about some of what is marketed and passed off as blues or even blues-rock is the lesser prominence of the soul/swing of it and what can be a lack of attention to an actual sense of blues melody, whether it's penta/hexatonic/mixolydian or whatever." 

What were the reasons that you started the Blues/Rock researches? What touched (emotionally) you?

The deep soulful feeling certainly resonated with me, and the more I got into it and researched the more there was to discover absorb and appreciate. I was certainly interested in many different styles of guitar playing, but at some point in the 80's the popular/rock music of the time became over saturated with hair bands with less emphasis on the music, so I just tuned that stuff out and went with what I loved to hear and play which was mostly post-war electric blues.

Which is the most interesting period in your life? Which was the best and worst moment of your career? 

Right now is the most interesting period in my life and feel it to be the best moment of my career. I tend to feel that way for the most part in all points of my life and I think that's being present. I have great musicians to work with, make a living performing, recording and teaching music and my music is reaching a greater audience all the time...hey even in such a beautiful place like Greece. The worst point of my career was probably when I wasn't so focused on music like I am now. 

Why did you think that the Blues music continues to generate such a devoted following?  

I think because people will continue to mature and see through hype, manufactured artists and over-produced music and seek out what Blues does for people. It's a very potent and primal force inherent to humans and as long as people feel it then it will keep generating new audiences. Without getting too political there are a lot of reasons in world affairs today to identify with the Blues. I think your country (Greece) can certainly relate, right?  Oppression, corruption, heartbreak, conflict and then resolution (we hope).  

Do you remember anything funny from recording and show time around the world?

Oh my there are lots of times and stories, but the one that comes to mind is that one of my former drummers, Dave Keller, used to rim shot every backbeat of every song on the snare. So much that he went through drum sticks very quickly and he was down to his last two.  Well after the first set he had broken his last pair and had to find something to use in desperation.  So on the break he left the stage and went down to the creekbed of the stream next to the club and came back with a couple of tree limbs that he used for the rest of the night.  Now that's bluesy! While we are talking about drums I have another story. I used to do audio production at the Seneca Niagara Casino in Niagara Falls, NY and there was this jazz band, Carol McLaughlin, who I was doing sound for. Well just around showtime their drummer hadn't show up yet and phoned that he'd been in a little car accident and would be late. The bandleader was nervous to get started, so I volunteered to play drums saying that I could keep time for them, but that's about it. He agreed, so I looked around for drumsticks and there weren't any!  The only thing I could find was a plastic coat hanger and a crescent wrench. So I did my best. He called Green Dolphin Street and we started. All I could think was, “Ok just play swung 1/8ths” and when their great upright bass player Sabu Adeyola (who was Ahmad Jamal's bassist!) looked over at me and said, “Yeah Man!” it made my month (or more)! Fortunately for them their drummer arrived soon after.

What’s the best jam you ever played in? What are some of the most memorable gigs you've had?

The best jam? I don't know I always feel like that last one was the best one. I hope I'm constantly improving. I do recall fondly the touring with Pinetop Perkins from Muddy Waters' band, and also the USO-type tour I have done for US troops overseas in Iraq, Afghanistan, etc. 

Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you? What is the best advice ever given you?

I guess I'd have to say that whatever experiences that have yielded learning and understanding were very important. I had the good fortune of meeting Stevie Ray Vaughan when I was just a budding guitarist in a Burger King of all places and he took the time to talk to me and answer my questions. He was very real down to earth guy and tremendous force for blues and blues rock music. As far as advice...Although my mother doesn't know who Max Planck is, she understood quantum physics when she told my sister and I we could be anything we wanted to be and that is such a great thing for a child to grasp.

"I think because people will continue to mature and see through hype, manufactured artists and over-produced music and seek out what Blues does for people. It's a very potent and primal force inherent to humans and as long as people feel it then it will keep generating new audiences. "

What do you miss most nowadays from the blues of past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of music? 

I think one thing I miss about some of what is marketed and passed off as blues or even blues-rock is the lesser prominence of the soul/swing of it and what can be a lack of attention to an actual sense of blues melody, whether it's penta/hexatonic/mixolydian or whatever. It's deceptively “simple” music and I learn new things all the time about stuff I've been playing for years. 

My hopes are that people actually buy artists' music, because not doing so will discourage and force many to stop making music. All you will have is the archives and youtube (for as long as that lasts!). But there are many who are coming up with the appreciation of the music and carrying it on so I don't really worry. Some of them are my students. I don't have any fears about this music, but I do encourage people to go to the concentrated source of the music instead of just a second or third or fourth generation cover. It's important to have a sense of the history of this music especially if you are a musician.

What do you learn about yourself from the blues music and culture? What does the blues mean to you?

Well naturally I wasn't born to it; I mean I'm white and from a blue-collar family in a suburb of Buffalo, NY. But that being said there is enough commonality between my own life experiences to be able to relate to what is largely spoken of in the blues music: Heartbreak, mistreatment, joy, sadness, depression, etc. I've got a better sense of self, who I am as a person and musical artist, and just being in the music business and dealing with varying degrees of acceptance/rejection it can be humbling too. What this music means to me is something on a spiritual level. When it's played or sung right, it can move you to those depths and heights and affirm your time and place.

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

The whole free-file sharing thing has made it extremely hard to get compensated for your work. Every time I release something, within days it shows up on file sharing sites and torrents. While it's a compliment that people want to steal your music, and it may increase brand awareness, if you think of how much that money could help artists make a living and survive it's pretty staggering. I'd hope for a way to correct or help that problem out and to level the playing field for royalty calculations on the internet because the revenue from streaming services is just an abysmal embarrassment. Really? Fractions of a penny? Come on now!

What has made you laugh from "Blizzard Of Blues" studio sessions How do you describe your sound and songbook?

When my bass player Jerry Livingston and I get together there are always fun moments, we just have that mutual respect and chemistry.  He was playing so great, as he always does, on this one particular song it was just surreal hearing and watching him bring the song to life in the moment that we just look at each other and laugh...almost in a childlike giddy way.

Which memory from Blues Traveler, B.B. King, Carey Bell and Pinetop Perkins makes you smile?

Again with the exception of Carey Bell and Pinetop I was just a support/ opening act for those you listed. But there are a lot of things about Pinetop that make me smile, his support of my playing, a funny story that Albert Collins told me about him, a BBQ at his house on S. South Chicago Ave. Sharing a room with him when he warned me about his snoring. I should have listened!

Are there any memories from Buddy Guy, Johnny Winter, and Fabulous T-birds which you’d like to share with us?    (Photo: Tommy Z & Buddy Guy)

I remember Buddy Guy was kind enough to sign my Fender Stratocaster when I opened for him.  We went to Anchor Bar for Wings with the T-Birds when they still had the late Nick Curran in the band, and the Johnny Winter show I was just the opener but it was an honor nonetheless to support any of the aforementioned artists.

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Blues with Soul and continue to Jazz and Red Hot Chili Peppers music? 

The one line that connects them all is the Blues and also rhythm. Like I mentioned earlier you can dress it up with different clothes and technology, produce and arrange it differently but I see it all as the Blues logically and with that feeling. Step on a Fuzz Face and it's tagged something different, it's “rock” or whatever, but Hendrix was still playing blues. His influence was major on the Chili Peppers' guitarists, and it was why I got the call for that gig, to write and record a bunch of music for the Chili Peppers Biography on A&E. But with that stuff, it's more about riffing and funky rhythm than lead playing which I enjoyed. I also gained a new appreciation for Flea's bass playing because I had to learn to play bass like him.

What is the impact of Blues and Rock n’ Roll culture to the racial, political and socio-cultural implications?

It definitely has helped bring people together in many ways. There are many videos you can watch on youtube of blues artists playing at the White House, and receiving recognition. It seems to be the go-to musical style that everyone can agree on. It's one of Americas greatest contributions to the world.

Would you tell a little bit about your gigs at US bases overseas? What are your conclusions?

I've taken my bands all over the world to places in Iraq, Afghanistan, Africa, Europe, Asia and all over the Middle East for US Troops since 2003 and I loved it. We were flown and trapped onto the flight deck of the USS JFK in the Persian Gulf and did a show for them there.  Lots of great experiences. Our forces are such hard-working, dedicated, resourceful people and to bring them a bit of home with our music was an honor. Whatever you feel about war, intervention, politics, and the reasons for it all it's still important to recognize and support the sacrifice of the people on the front lines.

The son of a Vietnam-era veteran, he has been bringing a taste of home to US troops overseas since 2003 with blues-based concert tours in Iraq, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, UAE, Bahrain, Qatar, Djibouti, Guam, Europe and other distant locales on behalf of USO/AFE.

Make an account of the case of the blues in New York. What are the differences from the other local scenes?

We have a very healthy scene here in WNY/Buffalo, where WBFO has more than one blues DJ, although Anita West is certainly a big voice and proponent of the music via her radio show and showcase every Thursday Night at the Central Park Grill. As with other scenes it has it's variety of styles and pro's and amateurs, but the people here know and love their blues, and as long as it's served up respectfully it continues to be supported. Although where the Blues mecca used to be the Lafayette Tap Room (where many of the greats frequently played), it's gone and there are fewer places to play. However since my band is diverse and flexible to play either my stuff or whatever we tend to fit in in many different venues and crossover to a wider audience.  I don't really know the difference with other scenes.

What your experiences are from contributed to Ian Gillan’s Inn album with Jeff Healey and Jon Lord?

Well it certainly was an honor to play on Ian's record and especially with such great players. I had originally recorded a solo for the track When a Blind Man Cries but then they got connected with Jeff Healey and he came down and played a great solo which in retrospect was a very beautiful thing to happen for that song. Both he and Jon Lord sadly are now passed. I ended up playing the leslie guitar and also chords on the backbeat as tapped harmonics to imply tears falling down. My friend and Buffalo native Michael Lee Jackson also played some pretty guitar on it and the producer was Canadian Nick Blagona both who felt it was important for me to be on the track.

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go for a whole day..?

I'd like to go back and see how the pyramids were built, catch a live Robert Johnson performance, try and trace the origins of the Blues all the way back to Africa and experience it.  I'd like to eat what the food was like before GMO and pollution; it must have been so potent.  I'd like to witness all kinds of historical and biblical events just to see what really happened.  I'd also like to get the winning numbers for a Mega-Millions or Powerball jackpot to myself somehow ahead of time.  This would certainly help finance my music career...That would make for a pretty interesting day don't you think?  When are we taking this trip by the way?

Tommy Z - official website

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