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Co-founder of the pioneering chamber ensemble The String Trio of New York, virtuoso guitarist and composer James Emery has received international recognition for his distinctive and highly original approach to both improvisation and composition.  Drawing upon a full range of musical information, his sensibility draws in nearly equal measures upon formal notions of structure and technique and a robust willingness to improvise, experiment, and follow his musical intuition – both as composer and player.

Artistic Director of the highly accomplished Sound Directions, Inc., James has been highly active as virtuoso performer, oft-commissioned composer and inspiring educator on the international jazz and contemporary music scene since 1975 with over two dozen CDs as a leader or co-leader and live performances in more than 25 countries worldwide. His recordings have been described as “innovative and imaginative” and “utterly distinctive” by the Penguin Guide to Jazz, which selected his orchestral recording, Transformations for its edition titled "The History of Jazz in the 1001 Best Albums." He has received international critical acclaim for his work leading various ensemble formations of jazz and creative music, particularly the String Trio which is celebrating its 40th anniversary in 2018.

His unique artistic expression has resulted in many awards, grants, and commissions including a Guggenheim Fellowship. He has also received awards and grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Cary Trust, and the New York Foundation for the Arts. His compositions have been commissioned with funding from the Cary Trust, Chamber Music America, the Meet the Composer/Rockefeller/ AT&T program, Meet the Composer’s Commissions USA program and the MTC/Lila Wallace Jazz Program.

As a distinguished sideman Emery has performed and recorded with a variety of contemporary music heavyweights, including Steve Reich, Wadada Leo Smith, Anthony Braxton, Henry Threadgill, Joe Lovano, Leroy Jenkins, and many others. A composer of great scope and depth, he has composed for chamber groups, jazz ensembles, solo guitar, chamber orchestra and symphony orchestra. 

Emery has composed over 150 works, his most recent being a double concerto commissioned by the Skidmore College Orchestra. One of his proudest moments was performing the piece with his daughter, clarinetist Hannah Emery.



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Guitar Lecture/Demonstrations, Workshops & Master Classes


James Emery brings the knowledge and experience of many years of exploring and international guitar performance to his educational events. With more than 40 years of involvement in every aspect of both performance and professional activities, James’ hands-on, in-the-trenches experience in every aspect of creativity in the performing arts is thoroughly enriching and informative to anyone who is interested in any aspect of the artistic career. 

James Emery’s educational activities include master classes, guitar instruction, improvisation, ensemble coaching, composition/harmony/theory, and business/professional applications. Emery has taught jazz ensemble at SUNY Orange for over 6 years, arranging, coaching and conducting student concerts. He was also on the adjunct faculty of the Aaron Copland School of Music at Queens College.

Guitar-specific Activities

Guitarists have the opportunity to learn the jazz language; and studying how to make stylistically appropriate picking, phrasing and articulation choices. Information to broaden harmonic understanding - with fingerboard and chord diagrams - will be taught with an emphasis on fingerboard understanding. The balanced use of intervals, chord tones and scales in improvisation will be demonstrated and discussed. Diminished and whole tone scales explained and demonstrated with clear and easy to understand fingerboard diagrams. Quartal harmony - chords built on 4ths - will be introduced and clarified.

Various Topics Covered in Guitar Workshops

  • Learning to play in different sections of the fingerboard 
  • Octaves
  • Rakes (sweeps)
  • Bending
  • Ornamentations (turns, mordants, slides)
  • Hammer-ons & Pull-offs
  • Getting more out of scales
  • Extracting melodic material from chord forms
  • The use of color tones, chromatic passing tones
  • How modes interlock in guitar scale forms
  • Playing the guitar orchestrally


Improvisation and the Guitar 

An extensive course for students who would like to explore the possibilities of improvising on the guitar. Topics include: chromatic approaches to harmonic improvisation, legato playing in time, "open" playing, use of articulations (trills, muting, glisses, bending, etc.), extended techniques (collegno battuta, natural and artificial harmonics, ponticello, percussion, Bartok snaps, prepared guitar, playing off the fingerboard, etc.) and historic approaches.


Monk Guitar 

Thelonious Monk’s music as applied to the guitar. Several compositions, including Four in One, Evidence, Monk’s Mood, Well You Needn’t, Crepuscule With Nellie and Eronel will be explored in detail.


In the Mode 

A discussion and demonstration of the use of modes in improvisation. The D Dorian mode is examined in detail resulting in a greater understanding of the origin of “quatral harmony” (chords built on 4ths), and substitution of keys derived from modal sources. Miles Davis’ landmark compositions So What and Milestones will be explored from a variety of angles.



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General music education


Composition for Improvisers 

Examines the many connections between composed music and improvisation. Topics for discussion and demonstration include conceptual approaches, use of dynamics and sound colors. Extended techniques explained and demonstrated. Participants can create their own "comprovisation" – a roadmap of improvisational ideas - which will then be performed.


Bird and Trane

This session will explore personal approaches to the music of two innovative pioneers: Charlie Parker and John Coltrane.  The group will hear and discuss pieces such as Confirmation, Moose the Mooche, Quasimodo, Like Sonny, Giant Steps, 26 – 2 and Mr. Sims.


Multicolors of the Blues 

Exploration and demonstration of the boundless diversity of the blues throughout American music history, from Robert Johnson to Ornette Coleman. The language and universality of the blues has provided a fundamental vocabulary for musical expression ranging from jazz and rhythm & blues to funk and rock and roll. Discussion of works including If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day, Long Distance Call, Now’s The Time, Cheryl, Some Other Blues and Blues Connotation.


Master Class 

In this session, Emery will listen to student ensembles and/or soloists and offer observations, critique and advice. Emery performs and discusses their approaches to various styles of jazz and improvisation.

The class closes with an opportunity for selected participants to perform alongside James in a spontaneously developed ensemble piece.


One Path Taken

This workshop focuses on facets of the singular approach of guitarist/composer James Emery. Take part in a discussion involving development of a personal sound, allowing ideas to flow and the creation of an individual language. Emery demonstrates his concepts through his pieces Falling River Time, The Pursuit of Happiness, Poetry in Stillness and Cosmology.


Additional topics could include:

  • Aspects of composition (composing for own ensemble, commissions for other ensembles
  • Crossing the line between genres
  • Maintaining a cooperative ensemble
  • Grantsmanship
  • Serving as artistic director of a non-profit


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“...ground-breaking...unmistakable beauty...radiance at every turn...”
-Jim Macnie, Down Beat 

“Emery is one of the world’s finest guitarists and possesses an encyclopedic jazz vocabulary as a technician and composer...staggering technical virtuosity, remarkable creative spirit...”
-Glenn Astarita, All About Jazz 

“...the guitarist succeeds in something astonishing: shaping modernistic sound dimensions in an extraordinarily delightful way and making them accessible to a wider audience...”
-Bert Noglik, Stereo 

“Mercurial, poised and thoroughly satisfying...Mr. Emery is a fleet guitarist with a personal touch and sound.”
-Robert Palmer, The New York Times 

"...innovative and imaginative and utterly distinctive."
 -Richard Cook and Brian Morton, The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, 5th Ed. 

"...alongside John McLaughlin, Emery is one of the masters of improvising on the acoustic guitar...he is also an inventive, complex composer."
-James Hale, Downbeat 

“In his fingers he focuses the tradition of the guitar as a whole, creating up-to-date and swinging forms of modern jazz with a brilliant technique... stylistically unmistakable... great variation...”
-Benno Bartsch, Jazz Podium 

“The most consistently fascinating and virtuosic improvising guitarist in the world... consistently brilliant.”
-Carl Baugher, The Tracking Angle 

“His warp speed, multi-note bursts move faster than the ear and yet remain perfectly legible. Always an awe-inspiring guitarist.”
-Jon Garelick, Boston Phoenix

“Emery has the master’s gift...his solo lines, usually fast and fluent, were filled with slashing self-commentary and flashing contrasts.”
-John Litweiler, Chicago Tribune

“Guitarist James Emery is a fiercely virtuosic player who handles the acoustic guitar with such range and control that comparison with his peers is difficult, since he doesn’t have many. His 1988 solo LP for FMP, Exo Eso, is one of the most ambitious, exciting and ultimately successful recordings I have ever heard by a guitarist.”
-Carl Baugher, Cadence 

“Guitarist James Emery was amazing, building solos that were part Julian Bream, part Django Reinhardt, part Charlie Parker.”
-Jesse Hamlin, San Francisco Chronicle 

 “Virtuosic and highly individualistic.”
-Lothar Trampert, Gitarre und Bass

“While it’s too glib to compare him to Segovia, he does, similarly and brilliantly, use the acoustic guitar for things originally conceived for quite different instruments - in this case for high-powered, free-ranging improvisation.”
-Neil Tesser, The Chicago Reader 

“Mr. Emery is an authentic groundbreaker, an innovator on his instrument.”
-Paul Razou, Le Monde 

“A superb musician...viscerally exciting and sonically spectacular.”
-James Wierzbicki, St. Louis Post Dispatch 

“James Emery is a sound alchemist of the highest order, plus he has chops to burn - definitely different and daring.”
-Bill Milkowski, Guitar World 

“A unique musical personality...dazzling technique...highly personal and original.”
-Dave Langzettel, Portland Evening Press

“One of the true pioneers of guitar playing in the world.”
-Richard Chon, Buffalo Evening News 

“James Emery is special.”
-Tom Terrell, Jazz Times