Minor 7th Sept/Oct 2002: Peter Mayer, Nonato Luis, Steve Oliver, Buster B. Jones, Pierre Bensusan, Pearl Django, The Waybacks, Anyone, David Gogo, El McMeen
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Reviewing the best in guitar CDs, from jazz to folk to rock to new age, emphasizing acoustic and independent or obscure releases

September/October, 2002

Peter Mayer, "Elements", Blue Boat Records BB1205, 2001

Peter Mayer's "Elements" succeeds as an in-concert recording because it reveals what a studio recording cannot. It is an autobiographical Periodic Table charting the primary attributes of great performance, life's spiritual quest, and Peter Mayer himself. "Molly O'Malley," the opener (and one of only two studio cuts) establishes that "everybody's in the band," accompanying Mayer as musicians--whether joining in "with voices.." or simply listening "with attentive eyes and ears"--and as pilgrims together on the journey. Mayer welcomes us into a mystical watering hole where, over the door and above the bar, hang two questions which resonate throughout the CD: Is this a place of many souls or just one very large one? Are there many songs or just one that goes on and on? "Molly O'Malley" also demonstrates the elements of Mayer's appealing guitar style: alternately percussive ("Astronaut Dreams"), rhythmic ("Canoe Song"), melodic ("O Sun") or here, all of the above. In Mayer's capable hands the instrument sounds like a calliope one moment, an orchestra the next and then a cleanly picked guitar á la Dave Van Ronk ("The Dark"). As the concert continues, composed almost exclusively of cuts from venues throughout the U.S, we hear Mayer drawing in audiences with an embracing spirituality leavened with melody, poetry and humor (as in self-deprecating songs like the whimsical "Scatterbrain"). The lyrics discover universal truths in the dilemmas of individuals ("Running with the Buffalo," "Astronaut Dreams") and in the absurd. "The Birthday Party" finds Mohammed and Buddha trading "bits of news and stories from these thousand years" riding the train to Jesus' birthday bash. Jesus' departing message to the avatars and seekers who have joined him, "Hey, let's not be strangers," suits a world in which those of different faiths continue to be strangers and worse, but how sweet indeed to smile as we face such unpleasant truth. Mayer's melodies move unexpectedly enough to keep things interesting but never stray too far from something hum-able. Mayer's on-stage patter, at a minimum here, is a model for singer-songwriters, as is his work with the accompanists showcased in two tunes. Mayer is a performer at the top of his game who knows that the secret to living in a world of perplexing questions is enjoying the search for answers. "Elements" helps.
© David Kleiner

Peter Mayer's Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to a sample of The Birthday Party (streaming mp3)

Nonato Luis, "Nonato Toca Beatles", Kuarup KCD-130, 1999

It is hard to overestimate the impact of The Beatles and their main songwriters Lennon and McCartney on worldwide popular music in the 21st century. Their classic pop songs have been recorded in virtually every imaginable setting, ranging from various solo instruments to full-scale orchestrations. Of course, this rich body of melody has not been ignored by the classical guitar community, either. In the face of so many interpretations from so many quarters, it can be daunting for an artist to consider whether he is in a position to make a contribution. Even so, Nonato Luiz brings a fresh, distinctive interpretation to the eternal melodies of Lennon-McCartney (and George Harrison's "While My Guitar Gently Weeps") by employing the unique musical flavor of northeastern Brazilian culture in which he was raised. Although the album cover is cleverly inspired by the so-called "White Album", all periods of Beatledom are represented, from "And I Love Her" all the way to "Let It Be". Lesser-covered tunes such as "Penny Lane", "Piggies", "Eleanor Rigby" and "The End" are particularly welcome additions to the body of classical guitar instrumentals. Luiz has been recording since 1980, has over 16 albums to his credit, and is name-checked regularly in the company of other Brazilian guitar titans such as Baden Powell, Laurindo Almeida, Carlos Barbosa-Lima, and Bola Sete. This album confirms his position in such esteemed company, and offers fresh interpretations to a heavily worked catalogue.
© Patrick Grant

Nonato Luis' Website Buy it at Kuarup Records
Listen to With a Little Help From My Friends (streaming mp3)

Steve Oliver, "Positive Energy", Native Language 0925-2, 2002

Smooth jazz has a reputation for sometimes being a formulaic genre, sequestered into a niche manufactured for radio play. Steve Oliver, on "Positive Energy", may be the guitarist to tear apart these unfair preconceptions. In fact, at its best, smooth jazz is an accessible and infectious mélange of Brazilian, jazz, pop, soul and funk, and Oliver segués easily between these individual styles rather than using the cookie-cutter approach to stamp out a radio-ready song. Oliver's resumé has been written by a long history of experience and road time, performing with the Rippingtons' Steve Reid (who also plays on "Positive Energy"), Peter White, Marc Antoine and Larry Carlton. Carlton's influence can be heard on "Right Direction", where several of the bluesy electric note bends and breakneck runs sound as if they came right off a late 70s-era Steely Dan album. But it's when Oliver picks up his Godin acoustic that the emotion oozes out of his compositions, from the goosepimpling and introspective "Day's End" to the celebratory "Festevo". Oliver liberally uses his own vocal scat or soaring melodic voice to accompany guitar lines. This technique most successfully augments the tune "Horizon", which with its unusual meters and deference to dynamics could very easily be mistaken for the Pat Metheny Group.
©Alan Fark

Steve Oliver's Website Buy it at Amazon.com

Buster B. Jones, "Just Us", Pazgunyak Music PM040602, 2002

A steel-string and nylon-string guitar monster, Buster B. Jones first gained notice in 1988 when his $1.50 K-Mart cassette entry was chosen on the first draw by Guitar Player Magazine out of a field of 900 entries in its International Competition. This was followed by a 1990 win of the prestigious National Fingerpicking Championship at Winfield, Kansas. Since then, "The Machine Gun" (as his French fans named him) has been a prolific recording artist and performer, as well as teacher (over 10 instructional videos attempt to show others how he does it). Although his blinding-fast fingerpicking is most impressive at first glance (and serves to draw in astounded listeners), further listening reveals that he is equally adept at what many musicians consider as a more difficult task: playing fewer notes... ones that mean more, and say more with less, as he does on album opener "A Simple Gift", title cut "Just Us", and "One Sad Clown" (the title says it all). Jones has crafted an album consisting largely of his own compositions inspired by his two main guitars "Merle" and "Pearl" (he is happiest when alone with them-"Just Us"). Along the way we are treated to a barn-storming version of "Alabama Jubilee" (it must be tunes like this that caused Chet Atkins to say of Jones "He plays like he's double-parked"), "Collage-a-Reed" and "Clawin'" (each inspired by mentor Jerry Reed), while "Let the Sun Shine In" sounds like an instant classic that you could swear you have heard before, but haven't. Well recorded, with top-notch playing.
© Patrick Grant

Buster B. Jones' Website Buy it here
Listen to Pierpaolo (streaming mp3)

Pierre Bensusan, "Intuite", DADGAD Music FN 2130-2, 2001

Pierre Bensusan doesn't play songs on guitar. He twists, turns, pulls, and pushes songs. He stretches melodies to their limits and comes back for more. He finds his own inner voice in a song, defines it, and makes it uniquely his own. Anyone hearing Pierre play knows right away to whom he is listening. For his latest release, "Intuite", Bensusan has stripped away some of the overdubbing of previous recordings to give us just him and his guitar - but oh, what guitar! He takes us on a 6-string journey through his mind's eye to the lands of Ireland, France, the Middle East, and back again. The title cut, "Intuite", is dedicated to the great Arab Oud player Munir Bachir, and I had to stop to make sure at times he wasn't plucking that ancient gut-stringed precursor to our guitar. "Bourree Voltige" is an electric exercise exhibiting both his right and left hand technique, but not losing the melody for the sake of showmanship. "L'Alchimiste" is perhaps the most straight-forward piece of the CD, with a flowing, gentle melody. The opening track, "Kadourimdou", finds Bensusan showing his varied influences within one landscape, but highlights his remarkable command of the instrument and improvisational skills like a jazz master. He weaves a subtle but beautiful melody in "So Long Michael", a nod to the late Michael Hedges which reminds us of his genius as well. The CD closes with the lovely "Silent Passenger", a refreshing dessert to this fine 11-course meal of musical feasting. Having loved his music for years, I think "Intuite" is some of his best work yet.
©Kirk Albrecht

Pierre Bensusan's Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to Kadourimdou (streaming mp3)

Pearl Django, "Under Paris Skies", Modern Hot Records, 2002

The recognizable sound of hot club jazz as pioneered by Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli is such an archetype that it requires no introduction to even the most casual of listeners, all while culling an immediate emotion from the listener's memory. Pearl Django, the 21st century incarnation of this timeless music form, capitalizes on this connection via an apparently unspoken bargain with the spirit of Django: they will carry the torch contingent upon them making great music. The bargain appears to be enduring magnificently into this, their sixth recording, "Under Paris Skies". The dual guitars of Neil Andersson and Dudley Hill form the rhythmic backbone to Michael Gray's violin and David Lange's accordion, and though the virtuosity of these two excellent players never quite matches that of another current-day Django replica, Biréli Lagrène, they conspire to reinvent the music into their own eminently listenable voice. The seven original compositions dovetail stylistically and seamlessly with the jazz standards on this CD, including two Reinhardt numbers, "Nuages" and "Swing 39". This is music which will have you high-stepping down the Champs-Elysées on a sunlit spring day.
©Alan Fark

Pearl Django's's Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to I've Found a New Baby (RealAudio)

The Waybacks, "Burger After Church", Fiddling Cricket Music FCM-002, 2002

Like butter melting on a steaming ear of sweet corn, The Waybacks glide smoothly from one musical genre to the next, whether it's bluegrass, Texas swing, newgrass, country or Irish folk. Their infectious upbeat toe-tapper, "Bright Place," recalls the effortless rhythms of Tony Rice. "The Return" could have made the soundtrack to Mel Gibson's "Braveheart." And Blind Blake's "Police Dog Blues" probably never sounded more comfortable. But the quintet's finest moment on this 11-track collection may be their gorgeous interpretation of Floyd Cramer's "Last Date." Cramer was a session pianist who honed his "Nashville Sound" in the late '50s. His crossover hit, which made it to No. 2 in 1960, is here revived with a whole new heart. The Waybacks also demonstrate their affection vintage instruments (and list where they can be heard), including an 1896 Martin 2-27, a 1928 Gibon L-5, a 1939 Martin D-18, a 1914 Gibson "A" style mandolin and a late 19th-century Berlin-made Strad copy fiddle. Quite a few songs left in those instruments, apparently. "Burger After Church" emerges as truly friendly music, and I'd be lacking as a host if I failed to offer proper introductions of these personable gents: James Nash on guitar, mandolin and vocals; Wayne Jacques on fiddle; mandolin and vocals, Stevie Coyle on guitars and vocals; Joe Kyle Jr. on bass; Chuck Hamilton on drums. The acoustic roots music of these talented fellows should keep you as content as a hound with a bone under a shade tree.
© Fred Kraus

The Waybacks' Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to Bright Place (streaming mp3)

Anyone, "Anyone", Targo Records 1998

Anyone is guitarist Hanno Giulini and vocalist Eva Mayerhofer. Akin to the jazzy, sophisti-pop musings of Sade, Everything But The Girl, Moorcheeba, and Swing Out Sister, Anyone pleasantly purveys reflective and melancholy compositions with a mellow, urbane veneer. Excelling via understated dynamics, relaxed tempos and rhythms, and subdued soulfulness, this disc falls neatly into the realm quiet storm and adult contemporary genres. Giulini's mastery of the acoustic guitar is an alluring alternative to the usual lush keyboard and string arrangements that dominate most easy listening recordings. And Mayerhofer's smooth delivery is a perfect complement to the rapid chord changes and complex harmonies that formulate each song. In the spirit of bohéme cool, the first two cuts incorporate poems by E.E. Cummings. The opening track "Anyone Lived In A Pretty How Town," bursts forth in a funky vamp propelled by Gigu Neutsch's syncopated fretless bass and Giulini's dexterous arpeggios. Track two,"The Greedy The People," takes an ethereal twist as Mayerhofer duets with herself while Guiliani multi-tracks counterpoint lines and harmonics in and out of time. Employing a sold backbeat, sharp electric lead guitar, and translucent keyboard voicings "In Between" emerges as a danceable pop tune. "Nothing To Lose" expertly works in a few inventive blues phrases between the bold hammer-on riffs and always present dominant 7th chords. "Tell Me" a coffee-house folk waltz, lovingly quotes Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell by way of a scattered harmonica licks and an improvisational falsetto vocal solo as the song fades out. Mayerhofer shines brightest on her sole solo composition, "Always" a lounge-jazz offering which allows her ample opportunity to emote with sultry expressions that show off her lower range. For new age fans there's "Rim Brim Border," a sleepy track abetted with a bubbling log drum backdrop. Anyone's Anyone avoids the musical clichés that saddle most jazz-folk duos. The only element missing from this disc is a bona fide melodic hook.
© Tom Semioli

Anyone's Website Buy it at Acoustic Music (Germany)
Listen to Rim Brim Border (streaming mp3)

David Gogo, "Bare Bones", Ragged Pup Records, 1999

With the first strum of his guitar, David Gogo makes it clear that his CD "Bare Bones" is no pop album. Acoustic blues leaves no room for pretenders, and Gogo bares his soul to show that he's a true bluesman to the bone. There's no sense that Gogo is trying to be something that he isn't. His style is smooth and honest, his gritty vocals testament that he is not just singing the words, but feels them. You can also hear that he is not using extra-lite strings on his guitar -- he plays loud with plenty of heart. Unlike his fiery electric CD "Halfway to Memphis", there is no attempt to dazzle the listener with his trademark SRV-inspired licks and blazing speed. Instead, on "Bare Bones", Gogo grabs us with the heartfelt emotion he puts into his songs, and he grabs us good. After listening to this CD I felt a little drained. The emotional beauty and depth of feeling he unleashes is overpowering. All I wanted was to grab my guitar, tune to an open G and play slide neck blues until the sun came up and the whiskey was gone. Highly recommended!
© Dan Verkerke

David Gogo's Website Buy it at Cordova Bay

El McMeen, "Breakout", Piney Ridge Music PRM109, 2002

I try to reserve words like striking, dynamic, and evocative for those musicians who stand out from the multitude - those who do more than simply add novelty to sound - but it is just these types of words that best describe the élan vital that El McMeen captures on his latest recording "Breakout". Some might think that to render everything from gospel, to Motown, to Scottish pipe jig music on a lone steel string acoustic guitar would indicate a rather misguided approach to an otherwise highly complex practice of artistic discernment and refinement. Yet it is McMeen's mixture of imagination, elegance, and non-standard tunings that successfully materializes such artistic endeavors. On his first track "Le Mans", McMeen's stunning display of quickness seems haunted by the early finger-style technique employed by Michael Hedges and/or Alex de Grassi among others. Ornamented with Joni Mitchell inspired string slaps and an impressive ability to exploit those low-frequencies some guitarists too hastily ignore, McMeen's fascination with Detroit pop and soul comes into view vis-à-vis an impressive three part medley consisting of "My Girl" / "Stand by Me" / and "It's the Same Old Song". One of the most spectacular moments of this recording is, without question, McMeen's exquisite version of "Greensleeves": the fidelity and emotion that become inscribed into this one song are truly spectacular. While "Breakout" includes only three compositions of the guitarist's own making - one of which is an improvisation on a traditional tune - the remaining nine melodies McMeen presents pulsate with his signature sound... full, confident, and precise.
©Bernard Richter

El McMeen's Website Buy it here

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Buster B. Jones In Concert!
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