James Emery, guitarist and composer, has been active on the international jazz and contemporary music scene since 1975. He has recorded 26 CDs as a leader or co-leader and has performed his works in over 25 countries worldwide. He has received international critical acclaim for his work leading various ensemble formations, and he is recognized for his work with the String Trio of New York, which celebrated its 35th anniversary in 2012.
Emery has become known for his distinctive and highly original approach to both improvisation and composition. His sound and ideas are immediately recognizable, leading the distinguished music critic Francis Davis to observe "Absolutely nobody sounds like Emery". This unique artistic expression has resulted in many awards, grants and commissions, most notably a Guggenheim Fellowship for music composition in 1995. His sensibility as a musician draws in nearly equal measures on formal notions of structure and technique and a robust willingness to improvise, experiment and follow his musical intuition.
Emery has been acclaimed as "one of the world’s finest guitarists...[he] possesses an encyclopedic jazz vocabulary as a technician and composer ...staggering technical virtuosity, remarkable creative spirit..." (All About Jazz). The New York Times wrote "Emery is a fleet guitarist with a personal touch and sound...Mercurial, poised and thoroughly satisfying." The German magazine Stereo lauded Emery’s compositional skills, observing "the guitarist succeeds in something astonishing: shaping modernistic sound dimensions in an extraordinarily delightful way and making them accessible to a wider audience..." Downbeat magazine calls Emery’s music "..ground-breaking" unmistakable beauty...radiance at every turn." Jazz Times put it succinctly: "James Emery is special." In July, 2003, Down Beat selected Emery as one of "66 great six-stringers", and Scott Yanow included him in The Great Jazz Guitarists, the Ultimate Guide, released in 2013
Emery moved to New York City in 1974 and since that time, he has performed his works in frequent international concert tours. He has toured throughout North America and Europe many times and has also performed in East Asia, India, the Middle East and North Africa. He has performed as a soloist in many of the world’s major concert halls, including Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center in New York, the Royal Festival Hall (London), Bunkamura Music Hall (Tokyo), Philharmonic Hall (Berlin), Espace Cardin (Paris) and Wiener Konzerthaus (Vienna). He has also performed at many international jazz festivals including Berlin, Paris, Madrid, Warsaw, Zurich, New York, Philadelphia, Vancouver, Montreal, Toronto, Saalfelden, Willisau, Leverkusen, Moers, Graz, Lovere, Groningen, Cracow, Wiesen, Newport and others.
Emery leads his own trio, quartet, sextet and septet and performs solo concerts. Each project has its own distinct identity and repertoire which has been created specifically for the performers and instrumentation involved. Emery has documented these projects on 8 CDs as a leader. Luminous Cycles, a sextet release (between the lines), was selected as one of the top CDs of 2001 by Down Beat, Jazz Times, allaboutjazz.com and others. His critically acclaimed quartet CD, Standing on a Whale Fishing for Minnows (Enja), was selected on 1997 top ten lists in Jazziz magazine and The Tracking Angle. The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD calls Emery’s work “...innovative and imaginative...utterly distinctive.” As a composer, he has written over 100 compositions for chamber groups, jazz ensembles, solo guitar, chamber orchestra and symphony orchestra.
His latest CD release is titled Transformations (Music for 3 Improvisers and Orchestra), The work was premiered at the Konzerthaus in Vienna, Austria by the critically-acclaimed modern music orchestra recorded by Klangforum Wien, conducted by Emilio Pomarico. Joining Emery as soloists in this major work are Tony Coe (tenor sax and clarinet) and Franz Koglmann (flugelhorn). Down Beat raved “…[Emery] majestically succeeds in this stunning production.” His previous release is titled Fourth World (between the lines) and features Joe Lovano (saxophones, alto clarinet and drums). Emery and Lovano share compositional duties on this acclaimed release. The 2011 edition of The Penguin Jazz Guide, subtitled The History of the Music in the 1001 Best Albums included Transformations.
In 1977, Emery co-founded the chamber jazz ensemble that has been the source of some of his most popular and acclaimed work, the String Trio of New York. One of the most active and visible groups of its kind, the String Trio has performed hundreds of concerts worldwide and has recorded 18 CDs. Along with bassist John Lindberg, the String Trio features violinist Rob Thomas. Former violinists include Regina Carter, Billy Bang, Diane Monroe and Charles Burnham. In the United States, the String Trio has performed at Great Performers at Lincoln Center, Ravinia, Walker Arts Center, The Smithsonian Institution, The Kennedy Center, Houston's Da Camera Society, Stanford Lively Arts, Spivey Hall in Atlanta, San Francisco's Herbst Theatre, The Wexner Center at Ohio St., The University Musical Society in Ann Arbor, Wolf Trap and many others. Their extensive domestic touring has resulted in performances in over 40 states. The ensemble has been featured on National Public Radio's Weekend Edition and most recently on Public Radio International's Concerts from the Library of Congress.
Of the String Trio, JazzTimes observed, "No individual or ensemble has done more to demystify chamber jazz, and to realize its potential for warmth, sensuousness and beauty ...than the String Trio of New York." The New York Times reported that the Trio “...was as rhythmically alive, stylistically varied and consistently inventive as anything this listener has heard recently.” The noted British author Brian Morton writes that the String Trio of New York is “one of the most important jazz ensembles of recent times”. The Trio has commissioned Muhal Richard Abrams, Anthony Davis, Dave Douglas, Joe Lovano, Wadada Leo Smith and others to write for the group and they have featured Lovano, Davis, Oliver Lake, and the Bang on a Can All-Stars as guest artists.
Emery has recently composed two large-scale commissioned works for the String Trio. In 2006, he completed The River of Orion with funding from Chamber Music America. The work was recorded for Black Saint Records in Milan in 2007 and has been performed in Europe and America and broadcast live on All Italy Radio. In 2008, the String Trio premiered First Light, which was commissioned by Meet The Composer’s Commissioning USA program. The String Trio toured the work in America and Europe to very enthusiastic audiences. Emery is currently writing a double concerto for the Skidmore College Orchestra. He and his daughter Hannah (clarinet) will perform as soloists with the orchestra in April, 2014.
As a sideman, he has performed and recorded with many of the leading lights of creative music, including Henry Threadgill, Joe Lovano, Anthony Braxton, Steve Reich, Leroy Jenkins, Muhal Richard Abrams, Karl Berger, the Human Arts Ensemble, Gerry Hemingway, John Zorn, Kalaparusha Maurice McIntyre, Franz Koglmann, Thurman Barker, Wadada Leo Smith and others.
Emery has received fellowships from, among others, the Guggenheim Foundation (1995), the National Endowment for the Arts (1985, ‘94), the New York Foundation for the Arts (1986, ‘90, 2000) and the Cary Trust (1991, ‘96, ‘99). 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.
Emery was born in Youngstown, Ohio on Dec. 21, 1951 and raised in the Cleveland, Ohio area. He began playing organ at age six and at age ten switched to the guitar. He studied guitar with Ann Stanley, David Trader, Ralph Russo and the legendary modern jazz guitarist Bill DeArango. Emery studied composition and music theory at Cleveland St. U. and City College of NY. He has also studied composition and orchestration privately with composer Robert Aldridge of Montclair, NJ.
For 20 years, James Emery lived with his wife Colleen in Greenwich Village, New York City. After the birth of their daughter Hannah, they moved to the greener spaces of Warwick, NY, about 50 miles NW of the city. When Emery is not composing or performing, he enjoys spending time with his family, collecting art and observing nature.