Since 1976, classic jazz duo Guy Van Duser and Billy Novick have performed their style of classically-influenced swing jazz all over Europe and North America, and are frequent guests of the "Prairie Home Companion" radio show. They will appear at Lord of Life Lutheran Church in Fairfax this weekend as part of the John E. Marlow Guitar Series. Recently, woodwind player Novick and guitarist Van Duser took time out to answer some questions via e-mail.
How did you first meet?
Novick: Guy and I met over 30 years ago, when we were each independently asked to compose music for different performers in a modern dance concert. I remember coming to the dress rehearsal, hearing Guy play, and being absolutely amazed at the depth and ambitiousness of his playing. I was completely intimidated by what he could do.
For the intermission of the modern dance concert, Guy and I played 20 minutes of Benny Goodman music, backed by my bassist and drummer. We kind of stole the show. We ventured into the venerable Passim coffeehouse in Harvard Square, Cambridge, played a live Sunday afternoon radio show, were a big hit there, and have been going at it ever since.
Describe your sound.
Novick: It's really built around Guy's finger-style guitar playing. The fact that Guy can comfortably fill so many "band roles" with his guitar playing allows us to sound a lot more sophisticated than most guitar/clarinet duos.
Another aspect of our sound has to do with the warmth of the two wood instruments, and the lightness and elegance of Guy's nylon-string guitar setting. The fact we choose to do mostly older material — swing and New Orleans jazz-adds to the warmth of the overall sound.
Van Duser: What we are trying to capture these days is the spontaneous feel of the small jazz groups of the first half of the 20th century. Billy and his very improvisational clarinet playing have inspired me to try to develop my guitar style to the point where I can also create a guitar solo when it's my turn … much like the old "stride" piano players used to.
What or who is your biggest musical influence?
Novick: With Guy, it's pretty clearly Chet Atkins on guitar, but then he adapted a lot of stride piano players' styles.
My influences range from some of the great jazz horn players from New Orleans through the great swing [players] through bebop and post bebop players.
What was it like performing on "Prairie Home Companion"?
Van Duser: Back when Billy and I first did the show in the 1980s hardly anyone knew what Garrison [Keillor] really looked like, so it was fun to have the inside track on that among our friends.
The program was like a big family sing, being on stage with all of Garrison's players, real and imaginary, and we could also sit in with Butch Thompson on piano, who fit our swing style very well.
What do you hope to convey to your audience on Sunday?
Novick: I hope to demonstrate (actually, Guy will mostly demonstrate this) that you can be both a great individual guitarist, but at the same time also function really effectively in an ensemble.
Van Duser: We want to relate to our listeners as much as possible, which is one reason we continue to prefer playing smaller venues and clubs. We have played some big concerts and outdoor festivals, too, but the more intimate settings let us loosen up more and really keep the improvisational spirit going. And if there's room for some of the audience members to jump up and dance, well ... that's what the music of the swing era was written for in the first place!
The duo will perform on Sunday, Jan. 29, 3 p.m., at Lord of Life Lutheran Church, 5114 Twinbrook Road in Fairfax. Tickets $20. Call 301-654-6403 or purchase online at www.marlowguitar.org.
— Lea Mae Rice