In June, Work & Worry interviewed Oakland-based guitarist Ava Mendoza as part of its week-long series celebrating Tompkins Square Records’ new Beyond Berkeley Guitar compilation. Ava’s contribution, the ebullient “Regional Redwood Park Blues: Between Hay and Grass” is one of the collection’s highlights, sounding rather exotic in context with the other, more contemplative entries. Ava studied classical guitar technique while growing up, then traditional music theory at Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan and modern classical/electronic theory at Mills College in Oakland. Her formal musical background will come as no surprise to anyone hearing “Regional Redwood” for the first time, given its sophisticated chord movement and voicings. Yet, Ava plays with a sense of wonder, a sort of illusory naiveté, using a gritty-sounding, amplified Gibson ES125, exaggerating bends and ripping through runs with abandon. This dichotomy between sophistication and sense of wonder is in full bloom on her new solo guitar album, Shadow Stories.
Ava remarks that her solo work “draws a lot from early country and blues tunes, reworked (mangled?) in my own way” — she is self-taught in these styles, having picked up material from listening to records. For a good chunk of Shadow Stories, Ava takes on various country and blues staples, arranging them in a charismatic manner that mimics her playing technique. A rendition of Redd Stewart and Pee Wee King’s “Tennessee Waltz” opens the album, and contains one of its wonderfully nutty runs (at 1:12 and repeated at 4:16, if you have access to the track) as well as a lively ad-libbed passage between refrains.
Two nicely contrasting versions of Skip James’ oft-covered tune, “I’m So Glad,” also figure prominently on the disc. The more up-tempo version that closes this album is eerie in its channeling of the iconic Bentonia bluesman. The decision to play in B (as opposed to E) and reduce the amplification to a minimum, provides a sense of levity that is missing from the “Track 2” version.
Leadbelly – “Goodnight Irene”
Mendoza’s rendition uses a healthy amount of distortion and vibrato, expanding on the original form with a beautiful, moody passage of harmonics and minor chords in the second half:
Ava Mendoza – “Goodnight Irene”
“Shadowtrapping,” the re-titled, alternate take of “Regional Redwood Blues,” feathers seamlessly among the vintage selections, working particularly well back-to-back with “Kiss of Fire,” the tango based on Argentine composer Angel G. Villoldo’s “El Choclo.” Translated to the guitar, this tune will probably remind some listeners of hot jazz master Django Rheinhart.
The country and blues material bookends a lengthy sequence of original solo work in the chaotic styles of Mendoza’s numerous Bay Area ensembles. “Don’t Pity Me (Up In Flames)” feels like the alter-ego of “Kiss of Fire,” with its heavy doses of delay-driven skronk forming a demented march. “The Furious Harpy Who Followed Me Everywhere” is introduced with a playful improvised passage, then morphs into a long and increasingly ominous section of pedal-manipulated noise. On “Penumbra: The Age Of Almost Living,” Ava employs her Jaguar reissue in lieu of the Gibson for a frenzied, acid-rock dirge. “In My Dreams” is a sort of inverse of “Furious Harpy,” with the noise section giving way to a delicate melody at the end, attributed to Gussie Lord Davis. The sequence of the album has a curious arc to it, and I’ll make no attempt to decipher it in this article… I will say that Ava’s facility on guitar, exhibited on the country and blues arrangements, made me more eager to fully absorb the chaotic pieces than I would have been with a player with an average skill set. I certainly hope Shadow Stories gets the attention it deserves, and look forward to the next solo offering by this very talented guitarist.