Utah has a history with jazz, and not just the basketball team. Corey Christiansen, one of the top jazz guitarists in the world, isn't just a highly renowned player, but is also a noted jazz educator, as director of guitar studies and assistant professor in the music department at Utah State University. He was the senior editor at Mel Bay Publications, and director of curriculum and artistic director of the guitar department at the Music School in American Fork. He has been a lecturer at Indiana University, and artist in residence at the Atlanta Institute of Music.
He was a natural, growing up in a musical family, influenced by his father, Mike Christiansen, himself a guitarist, author for instructional publisher Mel Bay and USU professor. "He always brought home great records for me to listen to," Christiansen says, recalling that he "just about wore out" Led Zeppelin's debut album when he was 6. "I just knew from the time I was 6 years old I wanted to be a professional guitarist." He cut his teeth with his family's band at age 10, and was playing in rock bands by 11. Playing with older musicians, he says, "helped me grow and develop. I developed a real love for jazz in my late teens."
His studies helped solidify jazz as his groove, as he earned a bachelor of arts at USU, then a master's of music at the University of South Florida, where he studied with jazz guitar guru Jack Petersen. When Petersen retired, Christiansen replaced him, and taught on campus. "When I started my professional playing and touring career, I had some amazing mentors including Danny Gottlieb, Vic Juris and Willie Akins," he says. "A lot of great musicians around the world have treated me better than I deserved, for sure, and have kind of taken me under their wing at times and really helped me understand this music."
Jazz is sometimes seen as academic or esoteric, but as an educator, Christiansen attempts to demystify the genre. "It's become an academic music, but it is also rooted in the blues," he says. "Jazz needs to be played with feeling, some soul. That kind of playing doesn't come from school. In school, you learn the repertoire and the theory of the music, but you can't learn the feel by someone writing things out on a whiteboard." Christiansen says, he learned from playing with, and listening to, great players—and listening to them play together. "So I guess I try to impart the same thing: How to practice the language of jazz in a methodical way, so you can express it in an artistic way."
Christiansen's recordings demonstrate how he's related the language of jazz to other musical idioms, in his own unique way, and they also showcase his composing and arranging abilities. His output has become a stylistic odyssey, adding influences as disparate as Hendrix and country-western to the jazz mix. This is evidenced on his latest, Lone Prairie (Origin, 2013), a collection of jazz arrangements of country tunes, plus a few Christiansen originals. "The Lone Prairie project was my journey to combine all the elements of music that have been a part of my history." He plans the follow-up—titled Factory Girl.
While teaching, Christiansen continues to tour prolifically. He performed with his Corey Christiansen Organ Trio at the June farewell celebration for KUER jazz director Steve Williams at the Gallivan Center, and had this to say about this local legend, a jazz educator in his own right: "Steve is a Utah treasure. He was more than a DJ. His program was a source of information ... and community. He was a great teacher. We all owe him a debt of gratitude." To catch his act after a number of out-of-town gigs, Christiansen will perform at a funk/soul/jazz night show at Why Sound in Logan on Aug. 24.