Tapestry Through The Strings: An Interview with Dan Sistos


From the memorable intro of only five notes, Dan Sistos’ recent release “Ventura Blvd.” lets you know right off just how chill his music can be. It provides a groove that isn’t just smooth. It’s smart, sweet and melodic.

Is there a palpable difference between West Coast jazz and East Coast jazz?

Definitely. It mainly has to do with the differences in the West Coast and East Coast cultures. Here in Southern California we have a more laid-back approach to life compared to New York, which is very much on the go. I have spent a lot of time on the East Coast (studying at the Berklee College of Music and later touring as a professional).

I love New York City; it’s so rich in jazz culture, yet I could never live there. The weather alone is too brutal! Southern California is rich with Latino culture. It’s pretty hard to go anywhere without hearing a Latin rhythm, so naturally that will incorporate into jazz even for the non-Latin musicians. It’s very common to hear a straight-ahead jazz band that will sneak in a piano montuno line (in Cuban dance) or a syncopated bass groove. 

How does your connection with Latin music inform how you compose?

I am very connected to Latin music. It is in my blood and heart. I am half first generation and second generation American. My father is from Mexico. My mother was born in Los Angeles, but her parents are from Mexico. I grew up listening to a variety of Latin music. From family gatherings to parties with friends, Latin music was there with me since birth.

I grew up with a lot of other music as well such as pop, rock, classical and jazz. That is the beautiful thing about this country – you can be raised multicultural with an appreciation for different music and culture. I don’t consciously think of different musical styles when I write. It’s not like I say “this is going to be a Latin song” or “this is going to be a jazz song.” I just sit down with the guitar or piano and whatever comes out, comes out.

Why did you name the CD “Ventura Blvd.”?

The name is a tribute to all the jazz clubs that were on Ventura Blvd. here in Los Angeles. I moved to LA in 1996 and Ventura Blvd. was jumping with jazz clubs. I spent many nights honing my craft in these clubs. Sadly, very few of them exist today. But I am grateful for the experience that I gained in these magnificent clubs.

Where does your inspiration come from?

My inspiration for music is very much based on my life. I have been blessed to have a beautiful life. I had a wonderful family growing up, and now I have a wonderful family of my own. I have no complaints in life. I get to play music for a living and I have family and friends who I really love. Most of the music I write is for people in my life or experiences I’ve had. I want to write beautiful music because life is beautiful.

How do you blend jazz, classical and Latin, especially the intricate guitar-work?

I blend jazz, classical and Latin music easily because it is so much a part of who I am. As I mentioned earlier, I have a strong tie to Latin music, but my Mom was also a classical pianist. I used to listen to her play the piano as a child. I remember her playing Beethoven, Mozart, and Chopin, just to name a few. This incredible music also helped shape my musical interest and has inspired me to write.

My first instrument was the flute. When I was 9, I learned to play the main theme of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. I was captivated by how such a simple melody had so much power. At 14, I started playing the guitar and of course as a teenager I only wanted to play rock and roll. But I’ll never forget the day when my high-school bandmate gave me a tape and said, “You really need to check this out.” It was a copy of John Coltrane’s “Blue Train.”

I listened to that and my mouth dropped. The sound coming from that man’s saxophone was mind-blowing. It was like something I had never heard before; something out of this world. I was hooked. I want my guitar to be a combination of all these things. I don’t write music to show off my guitar technique. I want to write great melodies, like all my heroes I grew up listening to.

Your playing is soulful and beautiful. What do you have in mind when you play?

Thank you for saying that because that is exactly what I strive for, beauty and emotion. Technique is very important to me, but my main focus is to play with beauty and passion. In my opinion, it is so much harder to play 3 notes with beauty and grace than it is to play 300 notes at warp speed. I want to connect emotionally with my audience. Flashy technique appeals to musicians, but beautiful, soulful music appeals to all human beings.

Was there music in your household growing up?

Oh yes. There was music going on in my house pretty much every day, every style of music you could imagine. I love ALL music. I don’t think that one style is better than another. I love and respect all music. If you told me to listen to bagpipe music I’m sure I could find something that I would love about it.

When did you first pick up the guitar?

When I was 14, in San Diego. It was pretty much an instant connection. By the time I was 15 my playing had progressed so rapidly that I was offered a scholarship to the National Guitar Summer Workshop in Los Angeles. The following year I spent the summer at the Berklee College of Music in Boston studying music. When I graduated high school at 18, I immediately moved to Hollywood to study at the Guitar Institute of Technology. By the time I was 21, I was already on my first national tour. I have been incredibly blessed to have had amazing teachers, not only offering me guidance in music, but guidance in life. I’d like to give a special shout out to my former teachers Jeff Bishop, Ed Finn and David Oakes. Thank you gentlemen.

When did you start composing and why?

At age 15, about a year after I started guitar. Back then all we had was a 4-track. It was an old recording device on a tape that only allowed you to record four instruments. That was it, so it better be four good ones. And there was no editing. What you played is what you heard. Now with modern computers you can record an infinite number of instruments. You can also digitally edit them. So you can take a poor performance and turn it into a good one.

I didn’t grow up with that luxury. I had to practice hard in order to sound good. I love composing, it is my legacy. Long after I’m gone, my family, friends and fans will still hear my music. And with digital music sites like iTunes it will be available (hopefully) forever.

Where have you toured?

I have been blessed to tour all around the world, either as a sideman backing up an artist or with my own project. I have toured the United States, Canada, Europe and the Middle East. However, since the birth of my children I’ve turned down tours because I want to be home for them. But I still love to travel. Although I mainly work around Southern California, I still do “flight dates” where I go for a few gigs somewhere far away, but I’m usually gone no more than a week. 

What venues would you like to play, in the US and worldwide?

I have had a life dream of playing Carnegie Hall in New York one day. I played Madison Square Garden but not Carnegie Hall. Maybe one day I’ll get a chance to do that – either with my group or as a sideman. I’d also love to play the North Sea Jazz Festival in the Netherlands.

How many band members do you have and what do they play?

My band members are always changing, not because of creative differences but because this is Los Angeles. We are all so busy and not everyone is available all the time. But I have been blessed with the same wonderful musicians on all my albums. Juan Carlos Portillo, bass. Carlos Rodgarman, piano. Paul Alexander Gonzalez, drums. Pete Korpela, percussion. Thank you guys. You’re the best.

The band features a very interesting selection of percussion instruments. What’s the most unusual one we can hear in your music?

That is a question for Pete Korpela, my longtime friend and percussionist. I first met Pete in 2001. He recorded on an album that I co-produced with another wonderful guitarist, Dirk K. Pete, who showed up to my apartment in Hollywood for the session. He asked where the tracking room was. I pointed to the bathroom and said “there.” From then on, that was known as Studio “P”. Pete is a gifted percussionist who not only plays traditional percussion instruments, but non-traditional ones as well. I do not dare say the names because I’m sure I would say them wrong. But it’s not uncommon for Pete to show up to a recording session with tin cans, metal buckets and such. If it works, it works!

The biggest challenge in marketing yourself as a musician today?

Dealing with the business part of it. I am a creative individual. I wish I could only deal with the creative aspect of music. But unfortunately this is not the world we live in. There is social media, digital streaming, music licensing and such. Trying to stay up on the latest trend is difficult for someone like myself who didn’t grow up with it. When I was in high school there was no Internet and certainly no cell phones, Facebook, Spotify and the like. So I force myself to stay up on the latest trends.

Believe me, I would rather be practicing guitar or writing music. My daughters (ages 6 and 9) know this stuff like no one’s business. Maybe I’ll hire them to handle it for me one day!

How many packs of strings do you go through in a week or month?

Great question. I hate old strings. When I was on national tours I would have my strings changed after every gig. But I had the luxury of a guitar tech who did that for me. It’s not the most enjoyable thing to change strings so I do it myself now every 3-4 gigs.

Most thrilling performance and why?

I’ve had many great performances. One of my favorites was the concert I did at The Falcon Theatre in Los Angeles. I had a large band with a string section playing all my original compositions for a wonderful audience. I had that concert videotaped and we released it as a DVD called “Live in Concert.” But honestly, I have so much fun playing that any night can become a memorable night.

I spent a few weeks touring jazz clubs in Europe and that was an amazing experience as well. Even if there were only 50 people in the room, they were into it. That’s all I need. 

What one thing do you think the public needs to know about jazz?

Another great question. Jazz is part of our country’s history. It is one of the most advanced forms of American music. We need to respect it and appreciate it. It used to be the popular music of the day, now it no longer is.

Popular music for the most part is garbage. We need to have music education in schools so that our future generation can respect it. My kids LOVE jazz. But that is because I play it for them almost every day. We must not cut funding for the arts!

Future plans?

Currently I’m writing music for my new album. I hope to begin recording it sometime next year (2018). My album “Ventura Blvd.” did very well on national jazz radio stations so my next album will most likely be a follow-up to it.

Other comments?

Please feel free to visit my website www.dansistos.com for the latest information on all the projects I’m involved in. I can also be found on Facebook, YouTube and Instagram.

(c) Debbie Burke 2017

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