Tag Archives: Pierre Bensusan

Interview : David Surette

davidsurette3Earlier this year, Work & Worry received a CD from David Surette, a fantastic instrumentalist and songwriter who resides up in Maine. Surette is my kind of picker : equal parts British folk revival, country blues, ragtime and traditional… well, that’s not totally true, his playing at times actually leans a little bit more to the British school than most American fingerpickers, which I guess is what I really love about it!

The performances on Sun Dog, all done in a single evening on a single microphone, are absolutely impeccable. All eight tracks feature clean, confident picking and a finely honed sense of composition, structure and ornamentation. It’s the kind of accomplished, out of nowhere record that is not only a joy to listen to, but makes a guitarist want to up his or her game… from the John Renbourn-esque “A Lot of Sir John” and “Cold Rain” to the feel-good raggin’ blues of “Frog’s Legs” and “Ukelele Stomp”,  Sun Dog is easily one of the best guitar recordings I’ve heard in a long time.

Surette’s liner notes on the CD do a fine job of describing the inception of these songs, and he also denotes the tunings… so I wanted to talk to Surette more about some of his perspectives on guitars, playing, and some of his influences.

W&W : Calling David Surette.. David, are you there?

Hey man, how’s it going?

W&W : Very well, how are you?

Good, it’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood.

W&W : Let’s talk about where you are and where you’ve been. You seem to have extremely strong ties to the music scene up in Maine… have you always lived in that part of the world? Where were you when your interest in guitar first developed, and what did you concentrate on when you were first starting out?

Well, I grew up in northern New Hampshire in the mountains, North Conway, which is right on the border with Maine. So I’ve always been a NH/ME kind of guy. I moved down to this area when I was going to college at UNH, from ’81-’85, and ended up sticking around. There’s a good local music scene here, and it’s close to a lot of other great spots, like Boston and Portland.

I started to play guitar when I was 14, and I’m 47 now.  I started out on electric and acoustic, mostly ’60s-’70s rock. I loved blues-rock, too, and rootsy stuff like The Dead, The Band, The Allmans, so I got into the blues and folk stuff that way, like checking out this guy Robert Johnson that the Stones were covering. I’m probably like a lot of other folks in that regard. I got into fingerpicking in college. Continue reading

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Review : Pierre Bensusan “Vividly” CD (DADGAD Music, 2010)

vividly_cover_sitePierre 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. Continue reading

Pierre Bensusan, New Box Set and Documentary Film

Pierre Bensusan

Pierre Bensusan

French-Algerian guitarist Pierre Bensusan is a unique and fascinating player. After cutting his teeth in bluegrass bands, he switched from mandolin to acoustic guitar, adopted the DADGAD modal tuning as his “standard” tuning, and began a long musical journey. Along the way, his dizzying technique and boundless musical scope have proven that almost anything that can be imagined can be played on the guitar.

After releasing a handful of albums on Rounder Records and Favored Nations in the late 70’s and into the 80’s, Bensusan set about purchasing back his master tapes, and started his own label, DADGAD Records. Now, to mark the 35th anniversary of his career in music, Bensusan is releasing a box set of his entire recorded output : Complete Works, 1975-2010.

…and what a body of work it is! Bensusan’s first few albums (the classic Pres De Paris, 2 and Musiques) found inspiration in the folk music of the British Isles and France, with the young Pierre steadily expanding on the instrumental innovations of Brit-folk revival giants like Martin Carthy and Davy Graham. Bensusan also proved himself an exceptional interpreter of Irish melodies, as evidenced in one of his most popular pieces, “Merrily Kissed The Quaker”. This track shows Bensusan’s agility on the instrument, effortlessly adding ornament in every voice of the chord, including the bassline.

As time went on, the sound that Bensusan developed drew from many sources… classical, folk, world, new-age and rock ideas were seamlessly fused together and played in his singular, elegant style. The guitarist began restlessly experimenting with both sonics and song structure, adding a variety of tone-altering effects to color the sound of his Lowden acoustic, as well as a phrase sampler so that passages could be looped, layered and improvised over. These techniques can be heard on the atmospheric Intuité and Altiplanos albums, as well as on Spices, which features Pierre bouncing ideas off of a group of world-jazz musicians.

Pierre_Box_Set

Though the box is attractively designed, the price of the collection (99,90 Euros, roughly $150 USD) might be a little prohibitive. There is no new material on offer, and for the most part all of these albums are still available, with the few out-of-print titles coming up regularly on sites like Ebay. (UPDATE — according to DADGAD Records, the discs Wu-Wei and A la Carte both contain bonus tracks. Also worth noting, there will soon be a US manufactured box, which should retail for closer to $120 USD + shipping!) I think this package will appeal mostly to collectors, gift-givers with a guitarist in their lives, and perhaps those hoping to replace original vinyl records. Don’t let me discourage you, though… Pierre Bensusan’s music is an absolute treasure, and I highly recommend it to anybody who is interested in folk music, world music or the acoustic guitar. I’m frankly stunned that so many of the younger guitar players that I talk to these days have yet to discover Bensusan’s work. Hopefully that will start to change with the release of Complete Works and with the upcoming new documentary about Bensusan, entitled Strings Without Borders.

The feature-length film is being directed by Roger Sherman, of Florentine Films. The work is currently in production, and fans and supporters can donate to the project here. Donors who give in excess of $100 will be featured in the film’s closing credits. From the selected preview scenes featured below, it looks like it’s going to be a great documentary!

Vodpod videos no longer available.

When a release date is announced, I’m hoping to talk to both Pierre and Roger Sherman about the film. In the meantime, to learn even more about Pierre Bensusan, I highly recommend this interview, conducted by Todd Ellison. For guitarists, there is also The Guitar Book, Bensusan’s thoughtfully prepared printed collection of (challenging) sheet music, tablature, recipes, poetry and philosophies about life and music.

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