A L E X P I N T O
Guitarist/composer Alex Pinto
embodies jazz’s international reach, with a sinewy sound steeped in
North Indian classical music, rock, and exploratory post-bop forms. His
debut CD Inner State announces the arrival of a
musician brimming with stimulating ideas, an artist who also possesses
an essential gift for bringing fellow players into his singular vision.
Rather than flaunting his abundant technique, Pinto makes a powerful
first impression with his fluid phrasing, bright tone, and a program of
seven original compositions marked by engaging melodies and unorthodox
Featuring tenor saxophonist Jon Armstrong and bassist Dave Tranchina,
stellar musicians based in Los Angeles who bonded with Pinto while they
were all studying at California Institute for the Arts in Valencia, the
album captures the excitement of young artists embarking on an extended
journey. Holding the session together is San Francisco–raised drummer Jaz Sawyer,
who returned to the Bay Area in 2009 after a decade in New York City
backing luminaries like Abbey Lincoln, Wynton Marsalis, Irvin Mayfield,
and Jacky Terrasson.
“Jaz is such a powerful force on the
drums, and he’s been so supportive of my music,” Pinto says. “I met Jon
and Dave at CalArts, and they’re both extraordinary musicians, with so
many influences, from avant-garde jazz to contemporary classical music.
They were finishing right when I got there, and I connected with them
The album opens with the crunching “1 by 4,”
a subterranean blues full of surprising rhythmic shifts. Pinto’s deep
affinity for Hindustani music is apparent throughout the album, starting
with “Chai Kind of Day.” Opening with a twangy drone
reminiscent of a tanpura, the tune is based on the rag Bhairav, and
sounds like a modal excursion. He draws on the sinuous rag Todi for “CIA,” a piece written for CalArts rather than as a statement about undercover American intelligence operations. And “Two Pictures of Love” opens with a suspenseful alap, or improvised introduction, that leads to a tender, loping melody.
“My concept with ‘Two Pictures’ was to break up the 16 bars in a
different way,” Pinto says. “It’s a cowboy love song. I was listening to
a lot of Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan when I wrote it.”
can claim both classical Indian music and Midwestern troubadours as his
birthright, as his father hails from Mangalore in the southwestern
Indian state of Karnataka and his mother is from Wisconsin. While based
in the suburbs of Washington, DC (Alex was born February 8, 1985, in
Silver Spring, MD), the family spent years abroad due to his father’s
work for the World Bank. Pinto was in the midst of a three-year stay in
Warsaw when he started playing guitar around the age of five.
Back in the States he continued to explore the guitar, and got turned onto jazz by his middle school band director, Frankie Ball, and by his guitar teachers, Fred Wilcheck (early years) and Donato Soviero
(high school). His father’s posting to Moscow during Pinto’s junior
high years didn’t interrupt his studies, as he enrolled at the demanding
Gnesin Academy of Music. By the time the family moved to Bethesda,
Maryland, Pinto was a passionate jazz player who earned a chair in
several regional honor bands.
“Wes Montgomery and Jimi Hendrix were my initial guitar heroes,” Pinto says. “You can drop the needle anywhere on Smokin’ at the Half Note and I can tell you exactly where it landed. I got enamored with John Coltrane, and I still listen to recordings that span his career. And Hindustani music has been huge for me, masters like Ali Akbar Khan and Nikhil Banerjee, who makes me feel the same as Hendrix and Coltrane.”
Rather than apply to Berklee or Manhattan School of Music, Pinto
decided to enroll in Montreal’s prestigious McGill University, which
boasts a large music conservatory with a respected jazz studies program.
It was a setting in which he thrived, and by his senior year Pinto was
getting regular calls for gigs. His undergraduate years were also a time
of personal ferment, as Pinto decided to delve into his Indian cultural
roots. Frequent visits to his father’s family in Karnataka instilled a
love and familiarity with the sounds, smells, and tastes of India, but
like many college students he began to define himself once he left home.
“I distinctly remember at McGill thinking what’s my
identity, what am I supposed to be, not only as a musician but as a
person,” Pinto says. “I needed to address my Indian heritage. People
always assume I’m from Latin America and that I’m good at bossa nova and
salsa. But my father’s from a south Indian Christian family, and he
grew up listening to the Beatles and John Denver.”
He reached a career epiphany while attending the Banff Creative Music Workshop, a creative hothouse run by trumpeter Dave Douglas in the Canadian Rockies, where he forged ties with heavyweight improvisers like guitarist Rez Abbasi, drummer Gerald Cleaver, saxophonist Donny McCaslin, and Kneebody keyboardist Adam Benjamin.
Realizing that a master’s degree could open up teaching opportunities,
he got turned onto CalArts by Benjamin, a graduate of the program. Drawn
particularly by the school’s strong Hindustani music program, Pinto
studied with guitar expert Larry Koonse, bass legend Charlie Haden, multi-instrumental wizard Vinny Golia, and sarod master Aashish Khan.
“Those four people really shaped my experience there,” Pinto says.
“Larry is a master of the guitar, just incredible. Aashish Ji took me
under his wing. He’s just a beautiful man, and so willing to explore.
For my senior recital I performed pieces for quartet and a large
ensemble featuring Aashish Ji and Golia, and that still blows my mind.”
Pinto arrived in San Francisco in 2009 as part of the inaugural class
of MusicianCorps Fellows for Music National Service, and spent a year
serving as the music coordinator at Horace Mann Middle School. Now
forging ties on the vibrant Bay Area jazz scene, Pinto gained some
international attention when he placed third at the 2008 Gibson Montreux
Jazz Guitar Competition. He also earned a finalist spot in the Yamaha
Six String Theory Guitar Competition, an international talent search
engineered by Lee Ritenour in 2010.
It’s a safe bet that he’ll be back in the spotlight with the release of Inner State, an album introducing a guitarist with a sound and concept unlike any other player on the scene. ▪