Jazz guitarist Tom Guarna never knows when musical inspiration might strike. If he and his wife, Catherine, hadn’t taken a trip to Aruba a few years ago, his latest album, “The Wishing Stones,” which arrives in November, might not have happened.
“There’s a beach on the underdeveloped side of the Island called Rock Wish Garden, where it’s become a tradition over the years for tourists to build their own rock formations and make a wish,” says Guarna, 49, of Hicksville. “By the time I got there, there were so many stone monuments, it made a big impact on me because each of these stacks of stones has a personal story. Anything from someone’s joy to someone’s complete sorrow. It made me wonder what everyone’s story may be.”
Joy and sorrow are layered in equal measure in the formation of Guarna’s own story, one that could occupy an entire stretch of that beach. Though he’s performed with some of the top names of the jazz world, including Branford Marsalis, and earned a Grammy nomination for a recording with Manuel Valera and the New Cuban Express, his road to success was punctuated by harsh detours and bumps. Most devastating was the shooting death of his father, Vincent Guarna, in 1989, an incident that led Tom Guarna to withdraw from the music scene for roughly 10 years.
“In retrospect, that experience has made me the person that I am, and when I draw on the music, I feel like there’s a story there. I get to tell that story when I’m improvising and when I’m writing,” Guarna says. “All the music that I play and write is not directly influenced by that, but there have been a number of things that were very influenced by that. . . . Everything I’ve experienced is encompassed in my musical persona.”
HIGH AND LOW NOTES
Guarna, who was born in Brooklyn and moved to Staten Island as a youngster, remembers music always being played in his home. His father was a guitarist and an early influence who “showed me little things here and there,” Guarna says.
Except for a few guitar lessons he took at a local music store, Guarna says he was self-taught. It wasn’t until he attended Brooklyn College, where he majored in classical guitar, that he immersed himself in music theory and practiced hours a day.
Still, the more he studied classical guitar, the more he realized it wasn’t the right path, and his interest in other styles of music began to flourish. “I reached a crossroads,” Guarna says. “I thought this is a serious program, and do I keep on with this, or do I make a change and pursue what I really want?”
At 20, he moved to Los Angeles and enrolled in the Musicians Institute, a vocational school. “There were a lot of teachers out there that I wanted to be close to and learn from,” he says. “I did a lot of practicing and learning in that two-year period.”
That time of discovery came to an abrupt end in June 1989, when Tom Guarna was 21. For the previous few years, his father’s life had taken a downward spiral in which he battled drug addiction and became involved with another woman, who was also seeing someone else, his son says. On June 15, Vincent Guarna confronted her other boyfriend in her home in Staten Island. The man shot him, fled the scene and was eventually captured. At trial, the man was acquitted.
“My father had been leading a life a few years prior to that where he was not on a good road,” Tom Guarna says. “I was old enough to realize that things weren’t right. When I got the news of what happened, of course I was devastated, but I can’t honestly say that I was completely, completely surprised.”
With his music studies now on hold, Guarna returned to New York to help his family. Through a childhood friend, he got a job working for a courier service and also gave guitar lessons. But when it came to creating new music or looking for gigs, the motivation was gone.
“Other things were going on in my life that didn’t let me devote quality time — or any time — to pursuing music as a career anymore,” he says. “My love of music didn’t stop, but it wasn’t a period where I was able to pursue it and develop as an artist. And that age, your 20s, is kind of crucial to your development to start and build a career.”
Realizing that his life was lacking direction as he entered his 30s, Guarna knew he had to refocus his energy.
“I feel like I pulled my head up out of the sand and said, ‘OK, I have to deal with all this baggage that I have if I’m going to have any kind of quality of life,’ ” he says. “After I started to get myself together mentally a little bit more, I realized music is the one thing that I really want to do, and I’m doing the least of that now. What’ll I do?”
Starting in 1995, he toured for three years with the group Blood, Sweat and Tears. Then, at 32, he enrolled in The New School in Manhattan, where he completed his undergraduate studies in jazz. He also began getting gigs at some of the city’s popular jazz spots and started establishing friendships with renowned musicians. A turning point came when he got to perform with jazz drummer Lenny White, whom Guarna refers to as one of his idols. The two immediately clicked, and Guarna ended up touring with White.
“A lot of times people don’t really understand the symbiotic relationship that happens between musicians,” says White, 69, who lives in Teaneck, New Jersey. “Music is a language, and when like minds get together and are well versed in that language, something happens. When Tom and I play, it’s as if we can talk and answer each other’s sentences.”
Guarna also was accepted to Juilliard, where he earned his master’s degree. At 38, he was considerably older than the rest of the student body, though equally motivated. “If you have talented musicians together, you will always find bonds, even when you have a pretty wide age gap,” Guarna says. “So on the musical side of it, age was a nonissue. The social side was different. I was already married and a homeowner. My responsibilities in life were completely different than those in their 20s.”
Guarna graduated when he was 40 but was unable to attend the ceremony because he was performing elsewhere. As a result, the accomplishment of earning his master’s didn’t hit him at first. “When the smoke cleared and I thought about it after that summer, I felt really good about graduating, really fortunate that I was finally at a place where I did that. If you had asked me 10 years earlier if that would have ever happened, because of the circumstances of my life, I’d have said absolutely not.”
Since then, Guarna has been on a roll, performing at Birdland, The Blue Note, Small’s and other jazz hubs, and he’s recorded seven albums, although he regards “The Wishing Stones” more like his second. His first five, for a Danish label, were all discs from the American Songbook. His sixth album, “Rush,” which came out in 2014, was his first that was strictly originals.
“ ‘Rush’ was really my first emergence as an artist, not just as a guitar player,” he says.
“The Wishing Stones” is even more personal, and the orchestra features many of his friends, including pianist Jon Cowherd. “As a bandleader, Tom is open to whatever you bring to the table,” says Cowherd, 50, of Brooklyn. “And he’s like that as a person.”
Adds Cowherd: “As a composer, he writes really beautiful melodies with equally lovely chord changes. He’s always searching to try and make things new and interesting with each tune, whether that’s in an interesting form or rhythmic complexities.”
Though the album comes out Nov. 6, the CD launch party won’t happen until February at The Jazz Standard in Manhattan since that’s the only time the musicians on the recording could appear together.
As for what’s next, Guarna’s not sure. “I can’t say what the next project is going to be, but I feel there’s still a lot in the tank,” he says. “There are some songs brewing, but I have to have a bit of down time where I can sit and reflect a little bit.”