Tag Archives: Acoustic Guitar

Review : James Elkington & Nathan Salsburg “Avos” LP/MP3 (Tompkins Square, 2011)

AvosLife is full of funny coincidences, isn’t it?  Exactly a decade ago, I was playing guitar in The Higher Burning Fire, something of a chamber-pop group that (by my influence) dabbled with folky and fingerpicked guitar patterns.  In the middle of a full-band relocation from Kansas to New York City, I received an interesting phone call from our drummer, already in the Big Apple – “I met this guy, he’s really cool, he’s gotta be in the band…  you’ll love him, he plays just like you!”  My excitable drummer must have somehow forgotten that I also played just like me, and that I was but one of the three more-than-competent guitarists in our band… a fourth guitarist?  Did it really matter what he played like?  His mind was made up, though, and I took the whole thing as a sign that maybe I didn’t want to carry on with the band any more.  “They’ll be fine, no shortage of guitarists there!” They did the New York thing (for a little over a year) and I found my way up to Boston.

Can you tell where I’m going with this?  That mysterious fourth guitarist was none other than Nathan Salsburg, freshly arrived to NYC from Louisville and working for The Alan Lomax Archives, a post that he holds to this day.  When I went back to New York a little while later to see what my former band mates had been making of themselves in their adopted home, I found Nathan to be not only a great guitarist but a sweet guy as well, and we hit it off talking about Bert Jansch and Scott Walker.

Fast forward about seven years… the band had long broken up and gone our separate ways, and I had devoted myself almost exclusively to acoustic guitar music.  I picked up the fantastic third volume in Tompkin Square’s Imaginational Anthem series and saw who else but Nathan listed among the artists on the back of the disc.  His standout track “Bold Ruler’s Joys” was not only one of the disc’s (and series’) highlights, but was one of the most compelling and confident acoustic instrumentals that I’d heard from any of the current generation of young fingerpickers.  Nathan didn’t play “just like me” at all, he was worlds better, in a league of his own!  I quickly got a message to the man, and we started keeping in touch regularly.

Over the last couple of years, Nathan has been sending me some of his works-in-progress, mostly next-level fingerstyle jams named after race horses… for he has moved back to his native Louisville, and the Kentucky Derby is like the Super Bowl and Mardi Gras combined down there!  Last year, I began hearing from Nathan about another project, a guitar duet record involving a guy named Jim from Chicago.  Jim turned out to be James Elkington, of The Zincs and The Horses Ha, who also turned out (by yet another coincidence) to be the drummer for Brokeback, a Chicago group led by the legendary Doug McCombs (he of Tortoise and Eleventh Dream Day). I’ve shared a bill with Doug many times in the last few years, since he and my duet partner Dave are old friends from Dave’s Chicago days. It’s a small, small musical world folks, and it’s only getting smaller… but this back story and all its little coincidences could not have led to a more exciting moment, and now I have the great pleasure to review James’ and Nathan’s stellar debut Avos. Continue reading

John Renbourn Tackles Satie’s “Sarabande”

Renbourn_70sJohn Renbourn is a wonder. His recording career began in England during the mid-sixties, just as the late Davey Graham was blazing new trails with the acoustic guitar.  John followed Davey’s lead, performing on his early Transatlantic albums with a sense of abandon, cleverly weaving together musical styles and traditions from around the globe. Over time, Renbourn’s playing became more measured but also increasingly detailed, sometimes blurring the line where folk music ends and classical music begins.  While his discography features a wide variety of modes and collaborations, his solo albums from the late seventies, The Hermit and The Black Balloon in particular, feature expansive long-form guitar instrumentals that are among his most ambitious and best works.  The latest album, Palermo Snow (Shanachie Records, 2010) belongs to that lineage… I was excited to discover it included an arrangement of Erik Satie’s “Sarabande,”¹ as I’ve been absorbed in Satie’s music recently and, more importantly, imagined that interpreting it would be an interesting change of pace for Renbourn.

Satie’s piano compositions are generally regarded as precursors to ambient music, which he referred to as musique d’ameublement, or “furniture music.” Their quality is atmospheric, repetitive, slightly dissonant.  Satie is identified with the avant-garde for his later associations with Dada, though his early compositions are often referred to as “impressionist.”  The series of three “Sarabandes,” introduced in 1887, just a year prior to his best known work, the “Gymnopédies,” indeed have a drifting, romantic quality.  Here is the late French pianist’s Jacques Février’s rendition of Satie’s “Sarabande No.1”²:

A “sarabande” is a dance in triple meter.  From what I’ve gathered, it was developed in Spanish colonies in the sixteenth century and later banned in Spain for its sexual undertones.  The dance was revived and commonly used as movement within a suite during the Baroque period, when the German music theorist, Johann Matthesson, declared that it “expresses no passion other than ambition.”³ It’s easy to imagine how the peculiar reputation and history of this dance would appeal to Satie, whose sense of humor is well documented.  One even wonders if the circularity of his “Sarabandes” was intended to be satirical. Interestingly, John Renbourn included an electric guitar rendition of a Bach “Sarabande” on his fourth album, The Lady and the Unicorn.  Despite the heavy vibrato effect, it sounds more formal than Satie’s “Sarabandes,” and I suspect provides a better sense of a typical, Baroque version of the dance:

Adapting ambient music to the guitar provides one with an opportunity to obsess over each individual note or chord; to allow the overtones that occur during sustain, as well as fret and room noise, to become the “detail” of the piece.  The timbre of steel string guitar seems particularly well-suited to the task, especially compared with classical guitar.  Solo fingerstyle guitar music, by contrast, is a show of dexterity, where bass and melody lines interact in a complex, sometimes dizzying manner. Renbourn is regarded as a master of fingerstyle form, and would seem to reside in a different ballpark from the ambient musician.  I know from my own attempts to feather ambient pieces into a fingerstyle repertoire that the adjustment in mindset is not easy to manage in one sitting.  Not to suggest that John Renbourn is uninterested in tonality, it seems reasonable to point out that the opportunities for him to really fuss over it have been somewhat scarce in his music.  I can’t think of many examples from his recorded works that resemble Satie’s music, save perhaps the duet rendition of the Charles Mingus’ “Theme from The Shoes Of The Fisherman’s Wife Are Some Jive Ass Slippers” with Stefan Grossman, which has impressionistic qualities.

Renbourn’s take on Satie’s “Sarabande” is similar in tempo to the Février example.  However, one gets the sensation, especially early on in the recording, that he feels slightly impatient and is struggling to lock in with the odd cadences of the piece:

In fact, it’s the sense of struggle that I find most appealing about this performance.  The voicings he selected for the arrangement also have a mundane quality that I think befits the piece.  If there’s one flaw, it would be the heavy handed use of artificial reverb on the recording, which I think obscures rather than flatters some of the details of John’s performance.  Nonetheless, I find it encouraging that this revered guitar player, who has accomplished so much with the instrument, was willing to venture into potentially uncomfortable musical territory to expand his boundaries, if even only slightly.  While this article focused only on one track, Palermo Snow is a certainly multi-faceted album worthy of celebration by guitar music fans.

¹ Renbourn’s arrangement is of Satie’s “Sarabande No. 1”
² from Piano Music of Erik Satie (Remastered, 2011)
³ from Der Vollkommene Capellmeister (1739)

Review : Nick Jonah Davis “Of Time And Tides” LP/CD (Tompkins Square, 2011)

NJD - sleeveTompkins Square has had a few homerun records in the last year… William Tyler’s spellbinding Behold The Spirit, and the Beyond Berkeley Guitar compilation would be indispensable acoustic guitar albums in just about any era, but are definite standouts in today’s fuzzy, post-everything musical landscape. The label’s winning streak quietly continues with Nick Jonah Davis’ proper debut, Of Time And Tides.

Davis, though young, is not a completely new name on the underground acoustic scene. The Nottingham-based guitarist was featured on Imaginational Anthem Volume 4, and also had a digital release called Guitar Music Volume 1, both distributed by Tompkins Square. His playing on those records, though competent, was more or less indistinguishable from any of the other Fahey-channeling pickers of recent years, on either side of the pond. On his new album, though, Davis shows a fast-maturing compositional sense, and a welcome willingness to subtly expand on Fahey’s oft-imitated American Primitive style… and though there are a number of American sounding, boom-chick tunes here (such as the short and sweet title track) I feel that Davis more and more is letting his Englishness shine through… always a good thing! Continue reading

Review : E. Ryan Goodman “Halves” CD (Self Released, 2010)

halves_goodmanThere is a pervasive tenseness that roams among the 16 guitar instrumentals that make up E. Ryan Goodman’s Halves. The music, never joyful nor despondent, informs the listener that this inner struggle is a necessary and permanent one linked to the human experience. A distinct lack of melodic predictability and the often-wandering rhythms enhance the uneasy drift of these tracks. The music unfolds in no discernible pattern and like unwrapping a crumbled ball of paper, there are creases and folds throughout. Melodies collide atop one another, lines intersect at seemingly random moments, structures are askew and the aural landscape is distorted. The tunes here are slow-moving meditations that thread the needle between consonance and dissonance, the harmony of the music illicits neither smiles or sadness while remaining surprisingly pleasant to listen to.

The music approaches an evenness in tunes like the ironically titled “Melancholy Boogie” and “When Past is Present”, but these momentary states of grace are only diversions from the koan this album explores with an uncommon persistence. This isn’t to say that the musical statements Goodman seems to be making on this record are either confusing or unclear. The perpetual ambiguity of modality is not a set up for transcendental wizardry, as so many guitar mavens today attempt with blatant un-artistry, but seems more like an honest sojourn of one man and his instrument fumbling through a set of unfamiliar keys, trying to unlock the door of his own house. A card that Goodman plays with humble effectiveness is that many of the tracks here show a good amount of humor, and it is this self-removed perspective that renders the entire work with honesty and humility. This is not a guy who takes himself too seriously, though he approaches the work with dedication. One listen to “Through Bramble”, a defiant and out of tune arpeggiated workout, proves that there are more dimensions to be found in the guitar beyond the stoic and reverent.

In many ways, the record is an inner-facing struggle to reconcile some unspoken problem, a spiritual dilemma never stated to the listener. Each track begins at the moment when some imponderable question is volleyed into the void without preamble, and ends gracefully without an epilogue. It is this bare-bones composition technique that is so appealing on Halves. What we witness is pure process at work, the churning gyrations of the mind as it solves problems, searches for equilibrium and ultimately accepts the impossibility of finality or definition. What sets this album above many contemporary six string auteurs is that it feels like an authentic effort to dig into new, personal territory for the artist and not simply an effort to mystify and buffalo an uncritical listener.

Buy this limited edition CD from E. Ryan Goodman

Interview : Maneli Jamal

maneli-jamal_picManeli Jamal is a prodigious young fingerstylist, currently residing in Toronto, Canada. He works in the contemporary, highly physical two-hand style (lots of fretboard tapping with the picking hand) popular with a lot of young players these days, but there are several things that set Jamal apart from the multitudes of Andy McKee hopefuls who play the virtual YouTube circuit.

To say that Jamal’s technique is advanced would be a huge understatement. There aren’t many players in this style that have Jamal’s balance of power and sensitivity, nor his breadth of ideas. His rhythmic concepts can be alternately short and dense, or explored carefully through several movements, as in the four part suite from which The Ziur Movement album takes its name. Jamal has absorbed a number of musical styles, and he is able to seamlessly incorporate jazz, flamenco, classical and Persian ideas into his original compositions. The resulting pieces are very impressive, both technically and musically, and his CD is one of my favorites in the contemporary style.

I recently conducted this email interview with Jamal.

W&W : Let’s talk about the evolution of your fretting hand. You played in punk and metal bands when you were younger… would you say that that’s where you built up your strength and dexterity? Talk about your beginnings in guitar, and some of the early inroads you made toward your current (high) level of technique. Which players put you on the path to your current hybrid style?

When I started to play guitar I had already played violin for a few years learning from my father, a master Persian violinist. That definitely made learning the technical side of the guitar easier at first, especially the coordination between the hands. The great thing about punk and metal playing is that it’s fast and fun as hell to play for anyone starting the guitar.

Because I was self taught I used to be the kind of player that didn’t worry too much about accuracy but rather speed and what sounds cool, which was what punk music to me was all about. Unfortunately, I didn’t teach myself the discipline of accuracy and slow practice until years later. The guitarists of Thrice and Iron Maiden really influenced me in the punk / metal genre. I felt like I had reached a plateau after 3 years of playing that genre in my right hand picking. I thought the guitar pick was the best and most efficient way of playing the guitar… little did I know. I got into the likes of Al Dimeola and that opened up a whole new world for me. Continue reading