Interview by: Robert Cavuoto
Guitarist and composer Jason Becker released his newest CD, Triumphant Hearts on December 7th via Music Theories Recordings/Mascot Label Group.
Twenty-nine years ago when Jason was 19, he lost the ability to play guitar, walk, talk, and breathe on his own due to Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) but he never lost his will to live or his desire to create music. Communicating through a series of eye movements with a system developed by his father, Jason spells out words as well as musical notes and chords. He imparts his musical vision to his team who then can input the notes into a computer, edit the parts to his exacting standards, and then generate charts for session musicians.
Triumphant Hearts is the product of at least six years of hard work with friend’s of Jason coming together to record his compositions. The musicians on Triumphant Hearts reads like a hot sheet for some of the most talented guitarists of our time with Steve Vai, Marty Freidman, Joe Satriani, Neal Schon, Steve Morse, Paul Gilbert, Joe Bonamassa, Chris Broderick, Uli John Roth, and Trevor Rabin all performing songs.
I had the opportunity to submit questions to Jason to learn more about this tremendously CD and the hard work, love, and dedication from all his friends help to make his dream a reality.
Robert Cavuoto: Before I heard one note of your new CD Triumphant Hearts, I was taken back from the outpouring of support from all the musicians who are performing your compositions. Tell me about that friendship with these artists.
Jason Becker: I love them all. Many of them were my friends, and some of them became close friends. I never met Trevor Rabin and wrote him out of the blue, asking him to play a solo on “River of Longing” just because I was a huge fan of his. He wrote back with such love and played many of the instruments on the whole song. Same with the singer, Codany Holiday; we had never met, but he came to my house and recorded for five straight hours, no breaks at all, with such love. Same with Joe Bonamassa and Neal Schon; Joe kept asking me for a song to play on, even before I finished writing “Valley of Fire.”
With my long-time friends, like Marty Friedman, Steve Hunter, Michael Lee Firkins, Richie Kotzen, and Greg Howe they always tell me that they will play anything I want any time. When Marty saw my Indiegogo video online, he immediately wrote to me telling me to give him something to play over. I had sent “Valley of Fire” to Uli Jon Roth, but he didn’t want to play on that one, so I sent him “Magic Woman.” He was so happy and excited to play on that one.
It is also cool when some of my early influences like Steve Vai and Steve Morse want me to tell them exactly what I want. It is very overwhelming.
Robert Cavuoto: Was it a big undertaking to get all of these musicians to record the songs in a certain time frame?
Jason Becker: No, because when I asked them, I had no time frame, so even if it took months (and in some cases years) it was not a problem. If I had to wait until they returned from a tour, or if they couldn’t do it right away, that was fine because I was working on writing, arranging, and getting together other musicians and that took many years. It was a project that required patience and persistence and not a lot of worry about time frames.
Robert Cavuoto: How did you determine who would play on what song?
Jason Becker: Mostly I just asked my favorite players to do something on “Valley of Fire” or “River of Longing.” It depended on what I needed at the time. All of those guitar players can play anything. It is fun to hear what they will come up with. It was closer to their personal styles on a few songs though, like Marty on “Triumphant Heart” Uli on Magic Woman and Daniele Gottardo and Andrew Jay on “Hold On To Love.” It was extra easy for the pieces I play on!
Robert Cavuoto: Where you involved at any level during the recording sessions?
Jason Becker: Usually I was very involved. I had to make sure my notes were being played right and with feeling. I was the main producer, along with Dan Alvarez. With that said most of the guitar solos were done in a professional or home studio and sent back to me. Both singers came to my home and recorded while Dan and I directed them. We recorded the choir at Fantasy Studios in Berkeley, CA. The orchestra was recorded in Bulgaria; Shota Nakama orchestrated/conducted them while Dan and I watched and gave our input via Skype. It was a huge undertaking and took many years, but somehow we got it done.
Robert Cavuoto: Tell me about your ability to compose without playing guitar any longer?
Jason Becker: I understand why people are baffled at it, but I am just a musician/composer who likes what he does and is pretty good at it. If John Williams, Danny Elfman, or Steve Vai got ALS, (God forbid!), they would be doing a similar thing. I was going to mention old composers like Duke Ellington or Beethoven because they wrote music that other people played, but they could still play their instrument and speak. I do look at the guitar neck while I am writing. I can hear how things will sound in my head. Music comes out of silence, and I have a lot of silent times.
Robert Cavuoto: How long did it take you to write the CD?
Jason Becker: All together, about six years, although there are some pieces that I wrote many years ago and never used but just now incorporated into new pieces for this album.
Robert Cavuoto: Was there a song where the final version exceeded your expectations?
Jason Becker: Well, my expectations are always high, so not so much, but I watch a song evolve and turn into something I didn’t expect at first. And, what comes to mind is the remix of “Hold On To Love” by Chuck Zwicky. He gave it a whole new spin that just floored me. I loved it and wanted both versions on the album. His love for this song really gave it a new and deep beauty. I am a huge Peter Gabriel fan, and Chuck gave it that feel. Also, that song became a lot more hopeful than it started out being. I think Jake Shimabukuro and the addition of his beautiful ukulele playing on “Fantasy Weaver” was a delight to hear. I love him. And man, there is nothing like hearing a great orchestra playing one of my pieces. I didn’t know how much better and more expressive a real orchestra was compared to samples. I guess there are always parts in songs that exceed my expectations or at least take me by surprise.
Robert Cavuoto: Do you have a favorite song and why?
Jason Becker: I couldn’t possibly pick a favorite; they all have meaning to me. “Hold On To Love” was a really personal song and my first attempt at lyrics. One of my heroes is Bob Dylan, who I think has written the most profound and honest lyrics of anyone. Of course, no one could surpass him, but I knew it had to be honest and I did feel vulnerable at the time, putting it all out there. I wanted to answer the question, “how do you do it” and I wanted to help anyone who might need that answer. I built the song “Once Upon a Melody” around my favorite guitar solo from the Cacophony album, Go Off! It evolved into a sort of story of me as a child, hanging out with my friends, then as a teenage guitar player, then composer; sort of full circle. “We Are One” was my tribute to Prince and was written the day after he passed. My classical pieces are always my favorites, and I still love “River of Longing” and hearing the different versions.
Robert Cavuoto: “Hold on to Love” is a very touching song with personal lyrics, was it difficult to share that story?
Jason Becker: As I said above, it was a new experience for me, and I did feel vulnerable, at least at first. It was difficult in that way, but I think I have a pretty unique story and I wanted to try to make people see how important it is to love and be loved. I know it’s corny, but it is the meaning of life; to be happy, love and be loved. When you are faced with a “terminal disease” diagnosis, it becomes a lot clearer. It really boils down to that, and that is what I was trying to share.