And all that jazz... Versatility breeds success for Highland Park guitarist
Bill Stieger
The Villager

Joel Shapira is that rarest of jazz musicians—a busy one. The Highland Park guitarist's secret to success is a combination of talent, flexibility and business acumen. "I play with a lot of different groups." Shapira said and not all of them are jazz-oriented. And that's OK with me. Jazz is my first love and the reason I play guitar, but I'm happy to play different styles of music." Besides booking his own jazz quartet, Shapira plays the classical guitar at weddings, performs with Vic Volare's eight-piece swing band, accompanies jazz vocalist Charmin Michelle, provides the musical entertainment at corporate functions and leads the liturgical band at a Lutheran church in Maplewood.

"Playing music is the only thing I've ever wanted to do," Shapira said. "But I have to spend as much time just making sure I get to play it, which is the business part of it."

His Joel Shapira Quartet has just released its first CD, "Open Lines," a repertoire of jazz standards, Latin and modern jazz tunes played by Shapira with Pete Whitman on saxophone, Tom Lewis on bass and Dave Schmalenberger on drums.

Jazz Times magazines Robert Sutton said of Shapira's playing on "Open Lines": "Joel Shapira approaches guitar playing like a veteran baseball player on a hot streak would approach the plate, brimming with an obvious yet calm swagger. When he swings for the fences, there's no obnoxious boasting, just an easy self-confidence that's bred from years of experience and a complete understanding of the game."

"Joel is really a top-level guitarist." said Michelle, who shares top billing with Shapira on a soon-to-be-released CD. "I've worked with Joel for years. What I like best about his playing is that he knows his music and always seems to have the right notes to fit with what I'm singing."

"I was lucky to have been exposed to jazz at an early age," said Shapira, who grew up in the Como Park neighborhood of St. Paul and graduated from Como Park High School. "My father had Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk records, and I was pretty much enamored with jazz from the beginning."

Shapira began taking guitar lessons in early childhood, then played in the stage band at Como Park as well as at private parties. "Those parties were the first events where I played jazz," he recalled. "I really didn't know what I was doing harmonically at first. We'd play So What and Four by Miles Davis. But it was a great experience and gave me a taste for performing".

After high school, Shapira enrolled in Boston's Berklee College of Music, then transferred to Mannes College, The New School for Music in New York City. "The first gigs I did as a professional were in New York," he said. "And starting out in New York was also a great experience. The level of professionalism was very high".

Financial pressures prompted Shapira to come back to the Twin Cities 16 years ago, and he hasn't regretted the move. The level of musicianship here in the Twin Cities is incredible," he said. "I learned a lot playing with the Doug Little Four. We used to play a lot at Dunn Bros. on Grand and Snelling. I spent a lot of years playing and recording with Triplicate, which gave me another great set of musical experiences. Overall, living in St. Paul has been more beneficial to me than living in New York,"

Shapira's style of playing has an airy Wes Montgomery sound, and it's no coincidence. "Wes has always been my biggest influence," Shapira said. "Joe Pass is another guy I followed. Joe was the master of playing solo guitar. But Tal Farlow, Jim Hall and Pat Martino have all influenced me as well."

"Although Joel's passion is Jazz, his experience as a rock and classical guitarist informs his personal style" said longtime bandmate and drummer Dave Stanoch. "He has a chordal style I don't hear many guitarists playing".

Shapira plays a vintage hollow body Gibson L-5 that he found, believe it or not, at a Guitar Center in St. Paul. "The store had a vintage guitar section, and the moment I began playing that guitar I knew I had to have it. The price was pretty fair for a collector-type guitar, but still more than I had. So I went to the bank and took out a loan. That L-5 has been my main guitar ever since."

The Joel Shapira Quartet will celebrate the release of "Open Lines" with a concert and party from 7:00 to 10:00 p.m. Thursday January 20, at Hells Kitchen, 80 S. 9th St. in Minneapolis. For other concert dates on Shapiras calendar or to purchase the CD, visit

Dec. 22, 2010