New England Conservatory holds a special place in Justin Purtill’s ’07 MM heart. The Contemporary Improvisation program encouraged Justin to change the way he thought about music and explore his creativity, leading him to a successful career as a guitarist and improvisational singer-songwriter. Justin even met his wife while they were both studying at NEC!
“For a kid like me, who was very musically curious but also restless for growth and illumination, NEC was like a candy store for musicians! I never got the sense that our teachers wanted us to be anything other than great musicians and it was a very safe place for me to explore new ways of expressing my ideas.”
What are some of your favorite memories from your time at NEC?
To be honest, there are too many wonderful musical memories to mention. I loved my time at NEC!
My typical week consisted of lessons; countless gigs and jam sessions with Ra Kalam Bob Moses and John Lockwood—both of whom completely changed the way I think about music; Contemporary Improvisation class with Ran Blake; Microtonal studies with Joe Maneri; North African rhythms with Jerry Leake; and so much more. For a kid like me who was very musically curious but also restless for growth and illumination, NEC was like a candy store for musicians! I never got the sense that our teachers wanted us to be anything other than great musicians, and it was a safe place for me to explore new ways of expressing my ideas.
But the best thing about NEC is it was where I met my wife, opera singer Yulia Van Doren. We’ve been together for almost 14 years!
Share a story about one of your favorite faculty or studio instructor.
Joe Maneri’s concept was really on another level. He helped all of us to see music in a different way. In one of our first classes, he asked everyone to come to the front of the room one at a time and play an improvisation for the class. The only rule was that we were not allowed to play any patterns, scales, or melodic shapes—basically anything resembling music whatsoever. Oh, and no repetition either. To which we all replied, “what?” I don’t think a single one of us got past four or five notes before he stopped us for breaking the rule. It was as if he was saying “it’s nice you all have your bag of tricks/techniques, but we are going to leave all of that at home and search for something else.” We all walked out of class a little humbled, but also eager to figure out what he was talking about!
How have your NEC experiences shaped your artistic approach?
I am a multi-instrumentalist and before my time at NEC I was a little worried about becoming the clichéd “jack of all trades, master of none.” Faculty like Joe Morris and Ra Kalam—both of whom are fantastic multi-instrumentalists/composers themselves—gave me the confidence to stick with it and follow the muse wherever it was going to take me!
What have you been up to since graduating from NEC? What projects have you been working on?
For the last three years I was on the road touring with Residente. When I was home from touring, I played a lot of local jazz and rock gigs (prior to Covid-19, of course). In 2020, I played guitar on Residente's Latin Grammy-winning song "Antes Que el Mundo Se Acabe", which has over 33 million views on YouTube.
Before that, I divided my time between teaching guitar and touring with artists like Leo Genovese, Melvin Seals and the JGB, Stu Allen, Hassan Hakmoun, to name a few. I’ve also released seven albums of improvisational singer-songwriter music: Permanent Mystery, Raw, Sore Eyes for Sight (Ayva Records), The Sun in Splendor (Constant Clip Records), The Avant-Gardist, Justin Purtill, The Crook In The Road, and Re-imaginings.
Learn more about Justin:
Major and Degree: Contemporary Improvisation, MM
Class year: 2007
Current job: Touring and recording guitarist for Latin popstar, Residente