Six-String Preacher

A testament to the importance of guitar lessons.

On almost any given night at Alligator Alley (1321 E. Commercial Blvd., Oakland Park), you can find all manner of musicians kicking out the jams, whether it's blues, funk, punk, or p-funk. On this Tuesday night, it was jazz. But after the band finished its first set, it was clear there was something very unjazzy about these songs — especially the Latin-flavored tune that kicked off the second set. Sure, it had the right style, but the tone — the ominous-sounding chord progression — was nothing like Miles Davis ever played. It sounded kind of sinister — evil, almost. There were no vocals, just guitar, bass, and drums. And it was in those guitar lines that I heard something familiar, something that had me scratching my head for a few minutes, trying to decipher what it was and where I had heard it before. For some strange reason, it brought back memories of the eighth grade, around the time I started taking guitar lessons. Back then, I was hell-bent on becoming a heavy metal virtuoso, and one of the axmen I looked up to was Alex Skolnick, of the San Francisco thrash band Testament — the very guy whose music was inspiring this bit of nostalgia. His new band, the Alex Skolnick Trio, was on stage, doing instrumental jazz versions of classic metal tunes as well as some original compositions. But the song that caught my attention was both a metal classic and an original Skolnick tune — Testament's "Practice What You Preach," part of my eighth-grade soundtrack (and one of the many requests I foisted upon my guitar teacher). This may not sound too surprising, but it was. In the five years AST's been around, it's managed to avoid doing any Testament songs. Until now.

"For the longest time, we've been combining metal and jazz, but people are always asking why we don't do Testament songs," Skolnick announced. "So here it is, 'Practice What You Preach. '"

The small crowd was ecstatic, especially the guy wearing a T-shirt that read "Let the Metal Flow." Though I'm sure he'd prefer the original, non-Latin version. It's a different style, and because of that (and because he's in South Florida), Skolnick gave it a different name — "Práctica Loca Práctica." Hearing this smoothed-out version of an old Testament song wasn't the only thing that reminded me of guitar lessons. It was the sounds and the sights — Skolnick made all those funny "jazz faces" my teacher used to make, contorting his mug this way and that while he got down to the music. Perhaps that's why I made such a bad student; I knew only how to bang my head. At the time, I couldn't give two shits about learning the blues or jazz or anything that didn't go chunka-chunka. But my teacher persisted, making me listen to his Robben Ford blues albums. He even made me buy one of Ford's instructional videos, which I probably still have somewhere, along with old issues of Guitar World magazine — issues that featured a regular column by Skolnick. But by 1992, I'd already given up my music studies. That same year, Skolnick was done with metal. He left Testament and moved to New York City, where he enrolled in New School University's jazz program. Skolnick started the Trio shortly after receiving his BFA.

It's sort of ironic that now, one of the guys whose metal licks I used to emulate is playing the type of music my teacher wracked his brain trying to get me to learn. Of course, the real irony is in the songs themselves, which include Scorpions' "Still Loving You," Judas Priest's "Electric Eye," and the standard of all hard rock standards, Kiss' "Detroit Rock City." It was cool to hear someone go that far out doing cover songs. But the coolest thing was Skolnick himself. Here's a guy who went from playing for thousands of people a night in Europe and the United States (Testament toured with metal giants Anthrax) to what are referred to as "intimate" crowds — those you count by the dozen. And Skolnick's OK with that. Of course he'd like to have a bigger audience. But Skolnick was more focused on the people who did show up than on worrying about those who didn't. He was down-to-Earth and wholly approachable, chatting with just about everyone in the club at some point. Naturally, that included Fats, who noticed that the group had several tour dates in Florida and asked, without trying to jinx our state, why they don't just skip over us like so many other bands.

"We like coming to Florida," Skolnick told me. "We had shows in places like Sarasota and Clearwater, and our next one's in Miami, at Arturo Sandoval's club."

In November and December, Skolnick plays with the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, a full-scale rock orchestra that has more members than a ska band. But the rest of the year is all about the jazz. Actually, that's just part of it. The Trio's been branching out a little lately, writing songs that cross over into other genres.

"We were asked to write a song for Attack Theatre, a dance company from Pittsburgh," Skolnick told me. "They wanted a Western-sounding song, but when we started to write it, we came up with a Black Sabbath-style riff also. We ended up calling it 'Western Sabbath Stomp. '"

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