At the age of 33, guitarist Ron Affif has gained a reputation for his personal approach to jazz, playing with a muscular realism as he looks for new expression in tunes from the Great American Songbook on his fifth Pablo release, Solotude. It is his first completely solo recording, just Ron playing his archtop Buscarino electric guitar. On four songs he moves to a nylon-string, classical acoustic guitar. Just as he switches guitars to fit the tune, he includes a few of his own compositions among the standards, beginning with the lead-off track, "Mark," for his older brother, the first member of his family to pick up the guitar, and other tunes inspired by people close to him.
When it comes to that Vernon Duke standard, "Autumn in New York," singers and instrumentalists alike tend to take it at a happily swinging pace. Affif, who has adopted the city as his home, interprets it with a melancholy introspection as if he were sitting on the front steps of his apartment, watching red and brown leaves turn in the cool breeze as they drop to the sidewalk.
"The thing about all the standards on this record is that I didn't prepare anything," Affif explains in the liner-note conversation with his guitarist-composer uncle, Ron Anthony. "I really didn't want to go in there and have my arrangement, let's say, of 'Autumn in New York.' I was trying to be on the tightrope a little bit, trying to challenge myself to come up with something right at the drop of a hat."
Along the way he was able to revise his approach to the songs, not only because he no longer had a rhythm section to turn to for support, but because the tunes lent themselves to new interpretations. That was true even of his own compositions. He first recorded "Holly" on his 1997 live album, Ringside, but later wanted to try it at a slower tempo. Thus a new interpretation is presented here.
In Affif's process of mixing old and new, of revising his thoughts to this most intimate of settings as a soloist, Solotude becomes a series of musical sketches from his own life and those who have meant something to him. Herbie Hancock's "Dolphin Dance," for example, features an intro developed by his friend and sometime playing partner, the late pianist Kenny Kirkland, to whom Ron dedicates this album.
Even in solo setting, Solotude for the guitarist is the kind of performance that draws knowing comparisons to the titled elite of jazz guitar such as Joe Pass and Pat Martino. No less a personage than fellow Pittsburgh native George Benson has commented that "There's a kid from my hometown, an Italian fellow: his name is Ron Affif—yeah, he's a bad dude"; and "My favorite type of guitar player is one that plays with fire, and the first thing that becomes evident listening to Ron is that he has plenty of that." Yet in the course of acknowledging the praise and those who inspired him, Affif has evolved his own voice that comes from his life experiences.
Born on December 30, 1965, Affif learned all about passion from his mother Marlene, and discipline and endurance from his father Charlie Affif, a fiercely competitive middleweight boxer who numbered Miles Davis among his fans and close friends. "He had all these records around the house that my brother, Mark, started listening to," Ron recently told his hometown paper, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "Mark had a guitar in the house. I guess I was around 12, and I picked up the guitar. I just had an urge to play an instrument."
His uncle, Ron Anthony, was a superb guitarist who worked with the likes of George Shearing and Frank Sinatra. "When I was 12, Uncle Ron gave me my first guitar lesson." Affif played music with friends through high school. When he turned 18, rather than take the music scholarship offered by Duquesne University, he moved to Los Angeles to be near his uncle, who had offered to let Affif sub for him on dates he couldn't make. "From an early age, I did all kinds of gigs. I've worked with everybody from Al Martino to Roger Williams, and I learned a ton of old songs from Gershwin on up. That whole working musician vibe really helped me grow as a professional. So, if a singer comes up and wants to do a tune, it doesn't matter what key—because I'm cool."
Eventually Affif moved to his current home, New York City, drawn because it's "where all the other guys are, and that's what brings out the most of what you have. I mean there are guys who play great everywhere. But in New York there's just more of them. When I first came to New York [guitarist] Gene Bertoncini gave me some solid advice. He said to let the singers know I did that kind of work, because a lot of the joints they work don't have pianos, and when the jazz gigs dry up for a minute, they'll have work for you."
That singing quality is what distinguishes Affif from most of the other high-octane guitar-slingers, and informs his phrasing with a sense of rhythm and pace all too rare on the instrument, as he allows each note to blossom and recede with a breathlike purity and relaxation that belie his fiery chops. And unlike many hot players, Affif respects the power of melody too much to simply concoct a series of dancing bear tricks as a prelude to the blowing choruses.
As for repertoire, "When a lot of cats write tunes, they're not thinking tune, they're thinking improvise. But it's not like they've written a melody you can sing to your girlfriend. . . that's why my main man is Sinatra. There's this yearning when he sings, just like Miles—a very expressive, lonely sound."
While some moments on Solotude capture that lonely, autumn-hued quality, most of the recording allows Ron Affif to explore an array of feelings and thoughts, from the wide-open romance of "Charene" to a fresh examination of beauty in "Honeysuckle Rose." Solotude collects the guitarist's most personal and mature musical statements. "For any musician, you are truly alone. There are people all around you, but your life is basically down to you and your music."