Tag Archives: John Renbourn

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)

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Bert Jansch Visits Pittsburgh!

Raymond_Bert

Last Friday night was a night that I had been anticipating for a very long time. After two illness-related cancellations in the last two years, legendary Scottish guitarist Bert Jansch finally made it to Pittsburgh, one of only a handful of US performances this fall. The man should need no introduction, but for the unfamiliar, Bert Jansch came to prominence in the British folk and blues revival of the 1960’s, both as a solo artist and a member of the jazz/folk fusion group Pentangle. His playing and songwriting have been enormously influential in the folk world and beyond, and his praises have been sung by everyone from Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page (who pinched Bert’s arrangement of the traditional “Blackwaterside”, and without crediting him) to Neil Young, for whom Bert served as opening act on his last tour.

On this latest trek, Bert was headlining, and his support was Pegi Young (Neil’s wife) and her band, The Survivors, who were all seasoned west coast session musicians. The setting was the First Unitarian Church, which proved a great sounding venue for both Pegi Young’s country rock and Bert’s solo acoustic set. I wasn’t sure how many people would be attending the show, so I purchased tickets well in advance, not wanting to chance a sell-out. As it turns out, there were a fair number of empty pews that night, which I considered mind-boggling… this was Bert Jansch!!! How many times was he going to come back to Pittsburgh?! I didn’t dwell on it for very long… being a friend of the promotor, I knew that Bert would get paid no matter who showed up, and the modest crowd (100-125 people, maybe?) made for a memorable, intimate night. Continue reading

Martin Guitars Working On John Renbourn Signature Model

This is not my own scoop, but a re-blogging of a recent article by Marshall Newman. It’s interesting, considering that Renbourn has never been known to play a Martin… but then again, as my friend Steve commented, “Linda Ronstadt has a signature model Martin, and she’s never even played guitar!” In any event, sounds like it’s going to be a fine instrument!  Martin doesn’t seem to have made a formal announcement yet, but Newman’s article let’s us know what’s in store:

John Renbourn’s musical influences range from folk, blues and jazz to early music and classical, and all – separately and in combination – have found a place in t he rich musical landscape he has created during his long career. One of the world’s most brilliant fingerstyle guitarists, Renbourn has dazzled, confounded and inspired, whether solo, paired with Bert Jansch or Stefan Grossman or as a member of Pentangle, and he continues to create music of uncommon beauty and depth.

Over the years, John Renbourn’s acoustic guitar preference has evolved; beginning with a round-hole archtop, he moved to round and square-shouldered dreadnoughts, and eventually settled on orchestra models from both American and European builders. So joining forces with C.F. Martin & Co. – which originated the orchestra model in 1929 – to create the Martin OM John Renbourn Custom Signature Edition is the natural culmination of a lifelong quest.

“I am over the moon about this guitar,” Renbourn commented. “The goal is to combine the best of American and European lutherie; a guitar that has design features that recall the European influence on early Martins, but with all the innovative qualities that Martin has developed since. My own priority is simple – I am after the very best tonal quality and balance.” On both objectives, the Martin OM John Renbourn Custom Signature Edition succeeds spectacularly. Continue reading

Stefan Grossman’s Guitar Workshop In 2010

Acoustic renaissance man Stefan Grossman has had a busy year, to say the least. He’s been doing his fair share of globe-trotting, with various concerts and workshops taking place in England, New Zealand, Japan and the US… including a high-profile appearance at Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Blues Festival outside of Chicago this summer. Somehow, Grossman has still managed to keep cranking out new CD and DVD releases via his Guitar Workshop, from blues and ragtime guitar instruction, to the latest installments in the Guitar Artistry DVD series, to a group of indispensable CD reissues of classic Kicking Mule albums.  This new release schedule hasn’t been easy to stay on top of, but with such a wealth of acoustic guitar music to dig into, this writer certainly isn’t complaining! Continue reading

Review : John Renbourn & Stefan Grossman “In Concert” 2xCD/DVD (Stefan Grossman’s Guitar Workshop, 2010)

by Raymond Morin

Many acoustic guitarists probably have some degree of acquaintance with the work of John Renbourn and Stefan Grossman, but for the unfamiliar, allow me to offer up a short history : After cutting his teeth in clubs during the British folk and blues revival of the early 60’s, Renbourn recorded a series of classic solo albums on the Transatlantic label, and also began a fortuitous allience with Bert Jansch, resulting in their classic Bert and John duet album, and the influential folk-jazz group Pentangle. When that group initially dissolved (it would reform in assorted incarnations over the years, centering around singer Jacqui McShee… Renbourn would be an occasional participant), the guitarist delved ever-deeper into folk and blues forms, as well as jazz and ancient Medieval music. On LPs like The Hermit and The Black Balloon, Renbourn developed a sophisticated compositional style that, while complex, also overflowed with beauty and nuance.

Stefan Grossman started as a determined young blues devotee from New York City, studying under the tutelage of Reverend Gary Davis. Grossman himself quickly became something of a guitar guru… having a keen ear, and having learned first-hand from many of the original blues masters, Grossman began authoring instructional books aimed at disseminating classic American acoustic guitar styles, from country blues to ragtime. After a short stint at architecture school, he headed over to Europe, where he lived and worked for twenty years, starting the legendary Kicking Mule record label (alongside Takoma Records cofounder Ed Denson) which was instrumental in launching the careers of world-class guitarists like Duck Baker, Peter Finger, Dave Evans and Ton Van Bergeijk. Continue reading

Bert Jansch “Acoustic Routes” Documentary (1992)

For a long time, I’d known about “Acoustic Routes”, the legendary documentary about Bert Jansch which aired in the UK in the early 90’s… now, through the magic of YouTube (and thanks to the efforts of user mrcmxoner) this obscure little film is available for all to see! There are so many great moments… Bert and John reunited, Bert playing a blues with Brownie McGhee, one of his first heroes, and commentary from Hamish Imlach, Anne Briggs, Wizz Jones, Archie Fisher… wonderful stuff! The proceedings are affectionately hosted by Billy Connolly (click link to see his nutty Flash site), and I thought I’d embed the entire thing right here, to save everyone the trouble of skipping around on YouTube. Enjoy!

Interview : Denis Turbide

Denis Turbide, playing a Larrivée 00-50

Denis Turbide, playing a Larrivée 00-50

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve gotten to know Denis Turbide, a very fine fingerstyle guitarist from up Canada way. Denis has a self-titled, self-released CD out now… you can read the Work & Worry review here. The man also obliged W&W with a nice interview, presented below.

W&W : How old were you when you started playing guitar?

Denis : I was 13 years old when my parents got me a classical guitar for Christmas, and I took lessons for a few months after that.

W&W : When did your interest in fingerstyle guitar develop?  Please talk about your early influences…  what moved you to work in the style?

Denis : There was always fingerstyle, right from the start.  It was a classical guitar my parents had given me, after all.  My dad was a classical/opera guy.  He sang on French-Canadian radio and early TV with choirs when he was younger.  He wanted me to play classical guitar.

My first teacher taught me Beatles and Supertramp…the pentatonic scale.  I had a classical teacher after that first summer but I didn’t like reading music.  At the same time, I was listening to, and trying to learn, a lot of Simon and Garfunkel, Cat Stevens, Beatles, Led Zeppelin, James Taylor, Neil Young, America… obviously anything acoustic.  Jimmy Page’s acoustic playing is still some of my favourite music.

W&W : Did your dad enjoy the rock and pop music that you were getting into?  Could he appreciate the stuff you were working to learn?

Denis : Dad was a real Bach, Beethoven, Vivaldi, Rossini, Leoncavallo kinda guy.  Glenn Gould, Yehudi Menhuin, Mario Lanza, Pavarotti, Beverly Sills, Maria Callas…  Pop [music], when he was young, was Elvis and Chuck Berry, but Dad didn’t dig it too much.  Classical music did rub off on me, though.  I love hearing Bach especially.  Some of the most incredible and powerful music ever written.   All that said, I’m sure he could sing a few Beatles tunes…

W&W : So you gave up on the lessons pretty early on, and decided to follow your ear?  How long was it before you switched over to steel strings?

Denis : The lessons I did for about 8-9 months altogether, over the course of about a year and a half.  I learned fast and nobody ever had to force me to practice.  I knew a lot of chords, found changes and learned new songs all the time. The next guitar I got after 2 years with the classical was a 12-string.  I guess I didn’t play much fingerstyle on it, but I’m sure I played some… we’re talking some 25+ years ago.

W&W : Have you always flown solo, or did you spend any time playing in groups?

I wasn’t ever really in a group.  There was a duet for while, over a decade ago, but since then it’s been pretty much me.

W&W : What tunings do you use on your recent s/t CD?

Denis : “A Little Bit” is in standard, “Derivatives” is dropped D, “After the Battle” is in DGDGBbD (open G min) and then DADGAD for “Samuel”, “Havre-aux-maisons” and “Firstborn”.  My new tune, “That Face”, is in open G or DGDGBD.

W&W : You have a lot of YouTube hits and a lot of people requesting TABs for your songs…  it has obviously been very good exposure for you, but how do you feel about the internet and social networking sites (Myspace, etc) and how it relates to the essence of playing guitar?  Do you think it’s a natural progression from learning about guitar through books, concerts and albums?

Denis : How it relates to the essence of playing the guitar?  Natural progression?  Not sure about that but it’s been helpful getting the music out there, [though] obviously it does take up a lot of time getting things together.  There are so many different sites now as well.  How does anyone choose the one(s) that will get the most exposure?  They all want you to join their site and all of them say that they will get you noticed….blah, blah, blah.

It is fun being an indie artist, though.  Everything I’ve acheived so far is all because of the effort I put into it.  The fact that people actually ask for my tabs is still a bit mindblowing for me, though.  Sure, I’d love for more people to hear my music and to love it, but the fact that some out there want to actually learn my stuff is pretty exciting.

W&W : What was the process of getting the TABs together?

Denis : I checked around online looking for someone who tabs out tunes as it would have taken me a long time to do it.  Writing out a few bars on some tab paper with a pencil and doing a whole tune on a computer are two different things.  Alois Kleewein checked out the tunes… he really liked “Samuel”. He sent me some Tabledit previews, then he ran them through some software he’s got.  They came out pretty nice.  He plays in a funk band in Austria and we’ve only ever communicated online.

W&W : Talk a little bit about the guitars you’re using, string gauges, fingerpicks or no?  Do you use the ring finger when you pick, thumb and two fingers, no particular approach?

Denis : I’ve been playing Larrivées for the last few years.  Great guitars.  Late last year, some members of the Larrivée online forum came up with some specs for a custom model that I was really interested in.  It’s a smaller version of their proprietary L model, an LS, but they made it with a 12 fret neck, which I love.  Mine has an Italian spruce top and mahogany back and sides.  Outstanding.

Denis' Limited-Production Larrivée LS

Denis' Limited-Production Larrivée LS

For the CD, I used an L-03R and OO-50, both Larrivées and both I no longer own.  The new LS I used for [the new recording] “That Face”. Uncoated D’Addarios are pretty much what I use when it comes to strings.  The plain old EJ16, phosphor bronze light gauge. Their quality is consistent, they’re cheap and everyone has them in stock pretty much all the time.  I’ve never been able to use finger/thumbpicks.  I use a combination of flesh and nail when it comes to the picking, and I do use the ring finger as well.  When I used to teach, I would tell the students to use the ring finger for the first string, middle for the second, index for the third and the thumb was for the top three.  But then, no rule is written in stone.

W&W : Earlier this year, you talked about pursuing gigs again, after a pretty good hiatus…  how has that been going?  Do you see any touring in your future to promote this or future releases?  Any upcoming gigs to report?

Denis : I would love to tour and stuff but I’ve got shared custody of my 3 and 6 year old sons, a full-time job, a mortgage… responsibilities.  I’m not 20 anymore either!  I should be more proactive, more aggressive but I’ve got so much going as it is.  I’d love for this to become a career but, as everyone knows, the music business isn’t exactly a steady job with a regular paycheck.  I have a regular monthly gig in Ottawa, Ontario at a pub called Woody’s.  Great place.  I started playing the open mic on Mondays about 2 years ago.  It’s a relaxed, no pressure kind of place.

No future releases in the works right now but that could change if I come up with something new.

W&W : What cover songs are in your current repertoire?  Which songs, cover versions or originals, do you find the most challenging to play? 

Denis : My repertoire includes just about anything I can remember!  I’ve been learning songs and pieces for nearly 30 years so there’s a lot that I forget I know how to play.  Some of my favourites are up on YouTube now… “Little Martha”, “Never Going Back”, “That’s the Way”, and “Take Five”.  I do a fingerstyle/vocal version of “Whiter Shade of Pale”, “Fragile” by Sting… I’m a big Beatles fan, so I do a bunch of their tunes like “Blackbird”, “Norwegian Wood”, and “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away”.  I do a couple of [Pierre] Bensusan tunes, John Renbourn’s  “Luke’s Little Summer”… that’s one of my all-time favourite pieces on the guitar.

W&W : Your picking style seems to have a healthy dose of American Primitive influence (Kottke, Fahey, Takoma Recs… steady boom-chick with melodies in the high strings, etc..)  Would you say that that was an important influence, and have you kept an eye on the current crop of American Primitive-style players?

Denis : Well, I started learning the alternating bass thing way back with tunes like “The Boxer” and “Dust in the Wind”… still play those live too!  But Leo Kottke, Fahey… amazing players.  I don’t really play any Kottke tunes but there are some that I love… anything off of 6 and 12 String Guitar… wow, what a great album!!  Jerry Reed’s “Heavy Necking” book… great stuff for any picker in there!  I’m not really familiar with much new music/players these days.  It appeals to me but I just can’t seem to find the time to really listen and enjoy.  I barely have time to sit and play myself!

W&W : Your children seem to be one of your biggest inspirations.  Do you think your children might follow your lead and become players?

Denis : My kids are my life.  I’ll love them no matter what.  I’m not sure if they’ll ever want to play, let alone want to play with the old man!  I just want them to be happy with whatever they choose to do.  That’s all any parent can hope for.

Interview by Raymond Morin

Buy Denis’ CD from CD Baby
Check out Denis on Myspace