Composer/guitarist Charlie Rauh discusses the heart of improvisational jazz on new album

Charlie Rauh is a New York-based composer/guitarist whose latest album, Viriditas, explores an adventurous, improvisational side of contemporary jazz.

Q: How did you become interested in music?

A: As a child I would hum all the time, usually something I had heard before, like music my parents listened to or something on the radio. Eventually, I began humming melodies I came up with myself, which I consider the first music I ever wrote.

Q: Growing up, was there much music around you?

A: Very much so. My father is a self-taught multi-instrumentalist and inspired me to learn guitar as a teenager. I grew up playing music in church and before I played, singing hymns with my family.

Q: What styles of music had the greatest impact on you creatively?

A: The hymns had a massive impact on my development in part due to the power of simplicity. Hymns function as a common music where groups of people come together to sing repeated melodies, most of whom have no musical training. The sound is one of pure intention, and also one of timeless longevity. My mother often watched classic films, the context that introduced me to jazz and film scores. I was very much influenced as a child by this music, particularly Duke Ellington. His music is the first I heard that sparked my interest in seriously pursuing composition

Q: How did you learn how to play guitar?

A: My father taught me how to play when I was 13. From then on guitar just took over everything for me. I had previously been a clarinetist and a saxophonist, playing in a local jazz group. Learning guitar opened up a side of music that the horns did not - I could play several notes at once. That's when I started really developing a sense of harmony and started writing more and more of my own music.

Q: What was the first song you ever wrote?

A: The earliest melody I remember consistently having in my head became the closing track on Viriditas, "Arolen," named for the street in Huntsville, Alabama where I grew up. I was around eight when I first started humming it, and it was always in my head when I would play outside. The effect of the childhood melodies I had in my head back then is really incalculable because they functioned almost as a sense. The connection to environmental elements like the scent of the air in different seasons or the image of the sky before a big storm is inextricably tied to them. I would still consider "Arolen" the best thing Ive ever written because it is pure sense memory. It could only exist in the mind of someone experiencing the specific points in time and place that created it.

Q: What is the most personal special track on Viriditas and why?

A: It's a very personal album for me, with all the tracks reflecting people and places that inspire gratitude and preciousness in my life. On that level, I would say "Breathing Pleasure" is the most personal and vulnerable track. It is totally improvised and dedicated to my friend and mentor Connie Crothers, who passed away shortly before I recorded the album. The title comes from an exercise she had her students do which essentially was just learning to enjoy relaxed posture so you could play in touch with your physicality and breath with your musical phrasing. Connie changed my life with her unbridled joy, brilliance, and singular character. One of my favorite things she ever told me in our lessons was "every note has its own little universe." I think about that every time I play (especially when I improvise). I hope I'm getting closer to living into that idea with my music.

Q: What artists influenced you?

A: I was very influenced by Jonny Greenwood, Django Reinhardt, David Gilmour, and my dad. I'd say those were the early guitarists that really made a lasting impact.

Q: How have you evolved creatively?

A: As I get older and I play more, I find that I'm drawn more and more to simplicity. When I was in my 20s my music was often notated and technical, difficult to play, and sometimes I'm sure difficult to listen to. I felt at that time that deliberate emotion had no part to play in my creative output. I saw emotional content as temporary and insignificant, two things I certainly did not want my music to be associated with. Later on, though, I began to understand that simplicity creates no safety, no wall to hide behind. Through simplicity I came to embrace vulnerability in my music. I stopped writing things out and started keeping only what I remembered, a practice that completely transformed me as well as my music. I started feeling closer to intention, memory, and purpose with the songs that were forming. I remembered the hymns, what it was like to be outside by myself with melodies swirling around in my head as a child, and that every note certainly has its own little universe.