Last month, Strange Attractors Audio House reissued Sean Smith’s terrific album, Eternal.¹ Where Sean’s prior recordings: the self-titled LP, Sacred Crag Dance, Corpse Whisperer, and contributions to Berkeley Guitar, established him at the forefront of the underground solo guitar scene, Eternal reveals him to be a gifted arranger as well. Most of the album finds Smith in ensemble with combinations of Adam Snider, Fletcher Tucker and Angela Hsu on stringed instruments (violin, mountain dulcimer, banjo, etc) and Spencer Owen on percussion (claves, sandpaper blocks, drum kit, etc). As with his solo work, Sean takes on a number of different folk styles, and the ensembles allow him to superimpose a variety of textures. The result is an album that is as entertaining as it is challenging, which cannot always be said of offerings from even the most talented instrumentalists. Continue reading
When I first encountered last year’s Wayfaring Strangers – Guitar Soli compilation by the excellent Numero Group reissue label, I’ll admit that a lot of it blew right past me. The disc is a collection of music by some lesser-known guitarists who had cropped up in the era between the establishment of the watershed Takoma Records and Windham Hill labels, the recordings dating from the end of the 60’s to the dawn of the 80’s. The tracks, generally speaking, tow the line between highly physical Fahey/Kottke pattern-picking and the more heady, “New Age” atmospherics of the Windham Hill sound, without really charging headlong into either style.
Today, many pickers from Detroit’s Nick Schillace and Philly’s Jack Rose, to Israel’s Yair Yona are finding their audience by keeping the Takoma sound alive and well, boom-chicking their hearts out with the same spartan spirit and intensity as John Fahey in his heyday. In parallel, world-wide interest in atmospheric and impressionistic acoustic and electro-acoustic music has never been stronger, and a healthy lineage of avant-garde-leaning musicians from David Grubbs to Chris Brokaw to James Blackshaw to David Daniell have torn down and rebuilt “New Age” (now “Ambient”) guitar music for a new generation.
The players featured on Guitar Soli, in their day, were operating in a similar, albeit more isolated environment. Without today’s mass communication tools, like the luxury of instantaneous access to virtually any and all recorded music via the web, it would seem natural for these players to drift toward one end of the spectrum or the other, riding the respective tides of enthusiasm for more traditional or more contemporary musical ideas… but we’re talking about guitar players here. Great guitar players do what they want, when they want, regardless of the tastes and trends of their time… and that’s a beautiful thing. The world of music is not black and white, and much of the thrill of discovery, for musician and fan alike, comes from mining the rich territory in between established norms. This “in between” guitar music takes a little extra time, a little bit of attentive listening before it really starts to shine, and then it’s well worth the effort… so it is with many of the players on Guitar Soli, and so it is with Scott Witte.
Scott is a Milwaukee-born guitarist, currently residing in Washington state. Scott remains a relatively unknown quantity in the world of fingerstyle guitar. He’s bound to gain some purchase with “Sailor’s Dream”, his standout track on the aforementioned Numero Group compilation, an animated little tune which owes no small debt to the playing of Leo Kottke. Witte’s debut album, also titled Sailor’s Dream and originally released in 1980, is still pending reissue, but fans of six and twelve-string acoustic guitar music would do well to seek out Sound Shadows, his 2007 collection of originals. Recorded between 2002 and 2007, Scott’s sophomore album sees the guitarist composing and performing with astute passion and creativity, picking up where “Sailor’s Dream” left off, but with an appreciable evolution of technique, harmony and song structure.
The album starts off with “Song of the Crow”, and an eye-roll inducing sample of, you guessed it, a loud crow “KAW!” My first instinct : “How much effort would it take for me to manually edit that out of the MP3 version, so I never have to hear it again?” All is forgiven, though, when Scott launches into the song itself, which is a finger-picking tour-de-force, and a great introduction to the elements of his style. A forlorn, minor-key meditation snowballs into a gorgeous set of guitar patterns, effortlessly moving back and forth between conventional and odd time signatures. It’s quite a trip, and sets the bar very high for the rest of the record.
Scott Witte – “Song of the Crow”
“Time Enough” features some percussive fret-board whacking which segways into a 70’s-rock inspired strumming section. “Bounce” should appeal to fans of uplifting, major key picking motifs. “Sweet Reminisce” and “Land of the Setting Sun” are slow, minor-key dirges, and “Land…” contains some interesting techniques that you don’t hear very often, such as fretting the high string on the side of the neck to create high-pitched hammer-on effects, a la Davy Graham. The interwoven strumming, mournful basslines and unexpected chord changes also put me in mind of Peter Finger’s classic “Wishbone Ash”.
“One Last Time” is all joy and effervescence, the buoyant chord clusters being played in an unusual 7/8 pattern. It’s a real showcase for Mr. Witte’s clean right hand technique, but it also illustrates how he transcends the American Primitive style by thinking about the voice of the entire chord, rather than droning two or three notes and throwing down a simple repeating melody over the top.
Scott Witte – “One Last Time”
At this point in an album, and with so much ground covered, one might start to worry about the well of ideas beginning to run dry… but Scott is just hitting his stride. Sound Shadows reaches it’s creative apex with “Inward Journey”, a composition that cycles through many movements, each more striking than the last. Much like James Blackshaw, one of the better-known modern-day purveyors of the long-form acoustic guitar song, Scott deftly picks his way through some gorgeous groups of chords, alternately accentuating notes in every register. That Mr. Witte is a virtuoso shouldn’t be a mystery to anyone at this point, bouncing back and forth between finger-rolls, time signatures and melodic snippets with the greatest of ease.
The album begins to wind down with “Walking On Air”, which revisits the sad, dirge-y mood of some of the earlier tunes. A short poem, “One Day Came a Crow”, reminds us of the loose concept of the album before closer “Prayer For Peace”, a very pretty pattern-picking invention in 5/8.
Though the few quirky “New Age” devices/trappings (the crow theme, the spoken word, etc.) at times threaten to cheese-up the proceedings (I know, right? Such a literate review and the best I could come up with was “cheese-up”), they prove minor distractions, relatively benign in the greater scheme of things. Sound Shadows is a serious, and seriously accomplished guitar album. The recording quality is very good indeed, the 12-string numbers featuring nice, thick close-micing, while the 6-string compositions benefit from the added sparkle of a little electric pickup mixed in. It is no small accomplishment that this group of songs, recorded intermittently over a five year period, are so of-a-piece… this collection could be sequenced any number of ways and would be no worse for the wear, a testament to Scott’s ability to keep things consistently varied and exciting. Though Scott Witte has been off the radar for some 28 years, with Sound Shadows he proves that he is not only in step with the current acoustic guitar scene, he also has the potential to be one of its leading lights.