Pierre Bensusan is a true master guitarist, and one who has worn many hats over the years. Early records like his Grand Prix du Disque for Folk Music-winning debut, Pres De Paris, and it’s immediate follow-ups, 2 and Musiques, found their inspiration in the traditional music of the British Isles, and some of Bensusan’s arrangements of Irish melodies have become ubiquitous and beloved in the fingerstyle guitar repertoire.
As the 70’s gave way to the 80’s, the French-Algerian phenom embraced modern performance and recording technology, with reverb, looping, and sometimes even distortion finding their way into his increasingly non-traditional compositions. As time went on, the effects units were shelved… Bensusan once again wanted the voice of his unadorned acoustic guitar (often a cedar-topped Lowden, dubbed “The Old Lady”) to do the talking.
The new studio album Vividly, like his last few records, finds Bensusan exploring world music and jazz textures, with harmonic and rhythmic ideas that are often very sophisticated. The mood of the disc is romantic and reflective, its creator in total control of his abilities, taking his time and with nothing to prove. As usual, the unparalleled fluidity of Bensusan’s playing makes it all sound both elegant and effortless; but as longtime fans are probably aware, Bensusan’s musical development has gone hand in hand with a certain softening of the production values on his albums, which, with their mix of direct-injected acoustic guitar and digital reverb, can sometimes feel like they were tailor-made to be played over the sound systems of bookstore-slash-cafés. This new age, adult-contemporary smoothness might throw up a barrier for younger guitar fans, who tend to require a more visceral experience from their virtuosos… but there are several tracks on this album that should command any guitar enthusiast’s attention.
Vividly was initially conceived to be a return to solo guitar, and many of the tracks are just that… but Bensusan also decided to bring a few guests in, adding more depth and variety to the sound of the album. Guo Gan contributes ErHu (a traditional Chinese violin with two strings) to “The In-Between” and “La Blanche Biche (The White Deer)” and texturally, it’s a nice addition. While the ErHu can sometimes sound shrill in Chinese traditional music, Gan (much like Bensusan) brings a master’s touch to his instrument, and his sensitive playing blends very well with the tone of the acoustic guitar… sounding almost like a western violin, but with a subtly unique sonic footprint. Other guests include Franck Sitbon on keys, Hector Gomez on percussion, and various vocalists. By and large, Bensusan’s guitar is still most prominent in the arrangements, the other musicians mostly adding atmosphere and texture to the sound. “Les Places De Liberte”, which closes the album, utilizes many of the guest musicians in its nearly 7 minutes, and the track is the epitomy of world-fusion, diving headlong into musical traditions from France, Spain, Africa and South America.
Whether leading a group or just dancing playfully around the rhythm, Bensusan is a fine ensemble player… but I must say that on Vividly, I much prefer the solo performances. After all, the man often sounds like several guitarists playing at once, and with his almost supernatural ability to keep complex basslines moving while articulating contrapuntal melodic lines, Bensusan’s playing can truly be called orchestral. Take “La Java Du Concessionnaire”, where Bensusan’s guitar seems to play the role of accordian, mandolin, and guitar, all at once… and as if that weren’t enough, Bensusan also sings on the track! The cabaret feel on this tune reminds me a little of Jacques Brel, though Pierre is definitely more sweetness than sweatiness.
If there is one pitfall to a virtuosity like Bensusan’s, it’s that the listener can become numb to it after a while, especially when there aren’t substantial variations in tempo or dynamics between tracks. Songs like “Pirogue”, “Mille Pattes” and opener “Veilleuse” all settle into a comfortable, wistful mood, and feature chord progressions that hold few surprises. These songs are all easy enough to like, but hard to get overly excited about. This isn’t always the case, though, and there are just as many affecting moments, such as Bensusan’s heartbreaking singing on the live cut “Par Un Beau Soir De Dimanche” and the ethereal harmonics of “Coup Dans l’Eau”, to name but two.
“DADGAD Café”, a bittersweet jazz tune which takes its name from Bensusan’s chosen “standard” tuning, is a great example of what the guitarist does best, featuring fluid, sensitive improvisation, and some of the extended techniques that Bensusan has become known for… as the song moves through some gorgeous changes, the guitarist extends the melodic range of the instrument with perfectly executed artificial harmonics.
Ultimately, Vividly doesn’t really herald a new chapter in Pierre Bensusan’s playing, but it does find the accomplished guitarist in fine form. This set should appeal to fans of Bensusan’s other albums from the past decade, such as Intuite and Altiplanos, as well as those who enjoy world-fusion and contemporary fingerstyle sounds.