Minor 7th Sept/Oct 2007: Robin Bullock, Mike Errico, Dean Magraw, Chris Cortez, Nadaka, Vincea McClelland, Jamie Anderson, Eastern Blok, Drew Gibson, String Unit
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Reviewing the best in non-mainstream acoustic guitar music

September/October, 2007

Robin Bullock, "Rosewood Castle," Dancing Wolf Records DWCD-103, 2007

Brilliance isn't a word that should be thrown around very often in the arts. There are so many good, yea, so many great artists that brilliance is the realm of few artists in any genre. It's a place populated by those few who have risen to a place where their stamp is immediately felt. With the proliferation of acoustic guitar music over the past decade, the sheer volume of excellent work is daunting. But steel string wizard Robin Bullock's latest offering, "Rosewood Castle", is, well, simply brilliant -- a disc filled with fully-realized melodies played with nuance and grace. Many guitarists leave the melody stripped to its bare essentials, but Bullock is able to craft arrangements of traditional Celtic songs pregnant with everything the melody can be. This CD brings some of the genre's best and brightest alongside Bullock in some wonderful duets: the gentle "Raglan Road" with Alex DeGrassi; the well-known Irish waltz "The Southwind" with Al Petteway; an absolutely blistering, toe-tapping, dance-inducing flatpicking medley "The Savage Wee Beastie / The Limerick Lasses / The Bird in the Bush" with John Doyle; a varied "Breton-Asturias Set" with Tony McManus on guitar and Robin playing cittern; and a lush version of "Down by the Salley Gardens", the poem by William Yeats, played in tandem with Steve Baughman. The solo pieces that round out the remainder of the CD are played with style and skill -- always enough and never too much playing, so the listener is served. In reviewing some CD's, I can tire of hearing the same songs played through many repetitions; with "Rosewood Castle", I found myself happily hitting the play button once the disc's lovely concluding track, "Rebecca's Hymn", had delighted me with its closing notes.
© Kirk Albrecht

Robin Bullock's Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to "Come By the Hills" (mp3)
Listen to Robin Bullock (with John Doyle) at our podcast

Mike Errico, "All In," Tallboy 7 T7032006, 2007

Mike Errico kicks off his latest collection with a rather ersatz proclamation: "lucky break / one I'm proud to say I make / as soon as the clouds have passed away." Why this veteran New York City based singer-songwriter has not (yet) achieved the chart success and name recognition of John Mayer or Jeff Buckley is a mystery that may never be solved. For the record, you've heard Errico on numerous TV shows, most notably "CSI: Miami," "The L Word," and the ubiquitous "VH-1 Pop Up" Video theme. Regardless, Errico's fifth release in twice as many years shows the artist in a decidedly guitar hero mode as every cut is a veritable lesson in how to groove without forsaking the song. Listen closely as Errico's plucking, strumming, slashing, syncopated slinky six-string renderings push the sexually charged "Girlfriend Weather" -- it's all one player! Blindfold any classic rock fan and they'll swear it's David Gilmour fitfully sliding up and down the fret-board with clever sustained-chords and leisurely executed arpeggios in "Run." Like the finest pop rock composers Errico adheres to the time tested method of building tension in the verses and letting it all hang out in the choruses. In the solo acoustic ballad "You Could Be Anywhere" Errico employs sinewy guitar lines and abrupt moments of silence to emphasize his tale of romantic misery. Errico's proclivity for drama continues to the finale "Better Here," a mid-tempo cut which gradually builds with a pedal guitar phrase that gives way to sleepy slide licks and lush vocal harmonies. Accolades must be afforded to the artist's nimble sidemen. Comprised of bassist John Turner, drummer Jonathan Ellinghaus, and keyboardist/percussionist/producer Blake Morgan, each player epitomizes the all-for-one-one-for-all ethos of ensemble playing thereby allowing Errico ample room ply his legato melodies. However the lads do get to stretch out a bit in the new wave-ish "Whatever You Say" and the funky "Something New." Errico recently accepted a high profile senior editor gig at the gossipy rock rag "Blender" magazine. Perhaps now he'll snag a Jessica Simpson, garner coverage on "Access Hollywood" and that get that break he pines for in the opening track.
© Tom Semioli

Mike Errico's Website Buy it here
Listen to "Ever Since" (mp3)

Dean Magraw, "Unseen Rain," CandyRat Records, 2007

Dean Magraw's "Unseen Rain" consists of ten elegant tone poems played in an intimate trio setting. The guitarist hails from Saint Paul and has studied at the University of Minnesota as well as the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston. Magraw has worked with such diverse artists as Japanese musician Nitta Masahiro, classical violinist Nigel Kennedy and Celtic accordionist John Williams. He has also appeared on Garrison Keillor's popular radio show "Prairie Home Companion." Joining the eclectic guitarist on "Unseen Rain," are the extremely versatile Jim Anton on bass and JT Bates on drums. All of the tracks were recorded live in the studio capturing the delicate interplay between the musicians, not unlike the seminal Blue Note albums of the 1960's. The strength in this recording lies in the ability of the three to play as a cohesive unit. While some of the pieces showcase Magraw's innovative electric playing, his introspective acoustic work really separates the artist from other players. For example, he produces long ethereal phrases and subtle delicate chord melodies on the pensive ballads "Keep the Faith" and "These Voices." On "Eva Arriving" the guitarist creates an infectious groove in the Pat Metheny vein and on the title track offers a nod to Bill Frisell. One can also hear the echoes of the great jazz masters from John Coltrane to Charlie Parker throughout this recording. However, Dean McGraw is not content with merely sounding like the artists he emulates, but has created his own unique voice within the parameters of his influences. "Unseen Rain" is an alluring collection of sound paintings and is highly recommended for all fans of jazz, rock, and world music.
© James Scott

Dean Magraw's Website Buy it at CandyRat Records
Listen to "Mali" (mp3)

Chris Cortez, "Awakenings," Blue Bamboo Music BBM008, 2007

Light as a feather, "Awakenings" skims along like a frisbee buoyed by an ocean breeze. Reminiscent of Chick Corea's jazz/fusion groups of the mid-'70s, this 10-track collection features Chris Cortez's flying-fingered guitar work as well as nine of his compositions. But in true fusion fashion, it's an ensemble CD, with each band member afforded ample time to shop his chops. After Cortez, Devin Collins' shows a nice touch on keys, and percussonist Jeff Mills is a virtual rhythm machine, especially on the opening track, "Arlington Park." Kudos as well to contributors Glen Ackerman on bass (most notably on "Territorial Imperative") and Ryan Ogrodowicz on drums. These gents sound as if they have been playing together for years, and they have. High production values, although saxophones veer too much front and center in what is generally a deft mix. In a departure from his previous collections, Cortez eschews all vocals, resulting in completely different feel from, say, the more traditional takes on his previous collecton, "Mum is the Word." A Latin feel permeates the mood, especially with "The Rose of Shalimar" and "Palmettos." All in all, this is a pleasant aggressive/acoustic set from musicians at the top of their craft. They lose themselves in the composition without losing their focus on their individual role in each piece. Quietly dazzling.
© Fred Kraus

Chris Cortez' Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to "Palmettos" (mp3)
Listen to Chris Cortez at our podcast

Nadaka, "Live in Paris," Rain Tree Records, 2007

Nadaka's current release, "Live in Paris," finds the guitarist once again collaborating with the Basavaraj Brothers to produce an innovative collection of contemporary Indian music. Nadaka's personal journey is as interesting as the rich and colorful melodic landscapes he creates. Originally from Canada, the guitarist emigrated to India while still in his teens, completely immersing himself into the culture and music of his adopted country. In order to overcome the harmonic limitations of his chosen instrument, he created a unique hybrid guitar with a scalloped neck and moveable frets. The result is an instrument that can capture the unique nuances of Indian music without sacrificing the inherent richness of the acoustic guitar. With the Basavaraj brothers, Nadaka surrounds himself with some of India's finest musicians who play flute, violin, sitar, and various forms of percussion. While the guitarist's command for his instrument is noteworthy, Nadaka is completely egalitarian with his arrangements, allowing his talented collaborators ample opportunities for improvisation. However, each member never uses their solo sections to exploit their own virtuosity. Instead, improvisations are vehicles to enhance rather than detract from the beauty of the compositions. Collectively the group sounds like an orchestra filling the room with vibrant sonorous imagery. Their melodic creations are passionate, spontaneous, and meditative. Nadaka has found a unique and innovative way to assimilate Western and Eastern musical styles. While an acoustic guitar played within the framework of traditional Indian setting draws inevitable comparisons to John McLaughlin's "Shakti," this association is somewhat misleading. Nadaka's work is his own and represents the very best in contemporary improvised music and is highly recommended.
© James Scott

Nadaka's Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to "Gamapa" (mp3)
Listen to Nadaka at our podcast

Vincea McClelland, "Classique!," Coda Productions 8007-1, 2007

Over the last half-century, Canada has become well-known for producing several outstanding classical guitarists. These musicians, through their recordings and concert tours, have brought international attention to Canadian guitar festivals, as well as the pedagogues that organize and support them. One such guitarist is Vincea McClelland, who for more than twenty years has been dazzling audiences in countless countries around the globe. Her most recent disc, "Classique!", is a selection of works from three distinctive, guitar-rich regions: Spain, North America, and South America. Interestingly, McClelland not only showcases how the music contrasts from one region to the next, she also reveals the vast varieties of compositions within each individual region. McClelland's well-tempered musical voice ensures that her interpretations are an ideal combination of mature sophistication and soul-moving energy. She unabashedly utilizes her distinctive color palette to guide the listener through rich, sonorous melodies, as well as bright, fast paced dances. Meanwhile, her distinctive quick attack on the treble strings is perfectly suited for the many compositions which feature rhythmic bursts and sudden flourishes. In this recording, McClelland has shown that despite all of her previous accomplishments, she has much more music yet to share with the world.
© Timothy Smith

Vincea McClelland's Website Buy it at Guitare Diffusion
Listen to "Un Dia de Novembre" (mp3)

Jamie Anderson, "Three Bridges," Tsunami Recordings TS-1032, 2007

The promotional snapshots from the back cover of Jamie Anderson's CD "Three Bridges" are telling. Spanning more than a decade of performance they show the evolution of this talented "singer-songwriter-parking lot attendant" from a young woman with circa-1980s owl-eyed glasses to a mature woman with postmodern Elton John frames... but always sporting the same infectious smile. The song themes, too, have matured and are now the stuff of baby boom concerns which belie the smile: divorce, cancer, bariatric surgery. The title tune, "Three Bridges," is a metaphorical peek in the rearview mirror of her career and recaps Frost's "The Road Not Taken" using three bridges over the Salt River instead as allegory for the obstacles and rewards of an unconventional life. "Beautiful" is an indictment of our culture's obsession with slenderness, told via a conversation with a friend who underwent weight-loss surgery ("Gone are her lovely curves and the shine in her eyes / she wants me to be happy but I just want to cry / because I thought she was beautiful before"). "One Out of Three" cites a statistic of those women affected by breast cancer and is a rallying cry to fight this heart-rending scourge. Anderson is not all sweetness and introspection, though. She's able to very convincingly articulate that most indelicate of expletives when addressing an ex-spouse who was stupid enough to spurn her on "I'm Too Busy Being Blue" (hint: rhymes with "blue"). "Grace" is the name of the pre-teen protagonist who gets bussed to church camp to find religion, but instead finds love with another girl... there's more than a twinge of irony in the refrain "Hallelujah, praise the Lord." Anderson expertly intersperses these heady themes with comedy on "I Wanna Be a Straight Guy" (her answer to Loudon Wainwright's "I Wish I Was a Lesbian"), "Menstrual Tango" (a tongue-n-cheek ode to... well... you figure it out) and "When Cats Take Over the World" (a bizarre bit of science fiction that must be a first in the history of songwriting). Indeed, Jamie Anderson's strength is her ability to distill both the humor and pathos from life, and to present them side-by-side artistically and poetically.
© Alan Fark

Jamie Anderson's Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to "Three Bridges" (mp3)

Eastern Blok, "Folk Tales," 2007

This Chicago-based quartet is comprised of Serbian transplant Goran Ivanovic (Guitar), Doug Rosenberg (Saxophone), Matthew Ulery (Bass), and Michael Caskey (Drums). Formerly the Goran Ivanovic Group, the group released its first self-titled CD in 2005. Ivanovic also has two duo CDs under his belt with guitarist Fareed Haque. Downbeat magazine has praised Ivanovic and Eastern Blok, declaring that the group "offers up fire rather than ice, and the guitarist's amalgamation of flamenco, Balkan, classical, blues, and jazz keeps his band pushing forward almost all of the time." Virtuosity is a constant with this quartet, and the breakneck tempos on "Tango Pajdusko," "Balkan Healer," and "Sapik" typify the group's approach. Ivanovic often opens on nylon-string guitar or bouzouki, establishing rhythmic and harmonic underpinnings, after which the group develops each piece with complex, rapid-fire unison lines. "Sorrow's Secret" departs from this formula, incorporating great rhythmic and melodic subtlety, with Ivanovic and reedman Rosenberg alternately in the forefront. "Kopanitsa" strongly evokes an Eastern European dance, with each soloist stepping out in turn before the guitar and reeds play some lines in unison. The short "Moon in the Labyrinth" features Ivanovic's guitar in an impressionistic setting. The closer, "Tricycle," opens with a jagged rhythmic statement, leading into a brief, jazzy section with obvious American influences (Steely Dan), combined with a bit of klezmer and Eastern Blok's trademark dissonances. The band sounds spontaneous and live on this well-balanced recording. With releases like this disc supplementing this group's active performance schedule, Eastern Blok should have a bright future.
© Patrick Ragains

Eastern Blok's Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to "Tricycle" (mp3)

Drew Gibson, "Letterbox", Cragmont Records CMR-0101, 2007

A Minor 7th dream. An independent release deserving mainstream attention. An artist with enormous writing, picking, and vocal chops. A sound centered around acoustic guitar. Start with "Running from You" to hear Gibson-playing solo-putting it all together. Lyrics? "A stepping stone for my brittle bones," and a refrain that morphs from "Since I didn't do, running from you just might" to "ain't gonna run back to you this time." We're not sure we believe him, but the music has something to say about that. Throughout, the six-string generally sticks to two chords, the one (G) and four (C) with only a brief D7. So little resolution! Then, a brief instrumental ends with a run down the scale to a full on D7 and a hint of swing that feels like a smirking kiss-off to the lady in question. "Here in the Evening Too," the highpoint of the album, opens the set. It will arrest you on first listen, guaranteed. Gibson and producer Marco Delmar contribute layer on layer as the guitars build over Robbie Magruder's insistent brushwork. The bed for "A Country Heart," a Dear Sally letter from a country boy to a city lady, is a quiet guitar duet with Paul Curreri. A nod to Gibson's influences turns up in "Blue Shirt," a meditation on goodbye ("love you Elmore, Johnson, and McGhee / Got my shirt across the dashboard / Darling, I don't want to leave."). The atmospheric "Maybe No One" uses a slinky '60's psychedelia setting for some sensual singing ("Maybe you'd be a miracles cure"). "Letterbox," much gentler than its lurid cover implies, could actually use a murder ballad or story song. Its rather cryptic tales deal, in confessional style, more with loss than gain. "Letterbox," effectively showcases Gibson's spare short stories, smooth guitar picking, and smoldering sexuality. The musical settings, consistently lovely, supply the necessary edge. Gibson's words and hunky delivery supply a hint of melancholy and a healthy dose of male pheromones.
© David Kleiner

Drew Gibson's Website Buy it CD Baby
Listen to "Country Heart" (mp3)

Böhm/Reuter/Lantos, "String Unit", Ozella Music Oz003CD, 2007

When I loaded my CD version of "String Unit" into iTunes, the all-knowing Apple software proclaimed the genre to be "unclassifiable." Steve Jobs got this one exactly right. Dagobert Böhm, the production mastermind behind Ozella Music, has made a career of seeking out music for his label which is unclassifiable and challenges preconceptions of rhythm and melody. Böhm is also an acoustic guitarist, and on "String Unit" is joined by Markus Reuter on touch guitar and Zoltan Lantos on 5-string violin. Although promo materials draw comparisons to Oregon and Shakti, I can't appreciate more than a superficial likeness to either one. The virtuosic improvisational interplay which is so much a part of Oregon and Shakti is only subliminal on "String Unit," with most of the responsibility for soloing falling on Lantos' very capable shoulders. If one is able to step away from the solo and "virtuosity" as the only determinants of merit, however, there is much to enjoy on "String Unit." There is a hypnotic beauty to this recording. Though many would refer to the music as "ambient," there is a harmonic cohesiveness which places this music many planes above most ambient music which can be directionless and dysphoric by design. Böhm, Reuter and Lantos are masters at creating a mood that lives somewhere between mystery, cosmology and tranquility... and, yes, that is unclassifiable.
© Alan Fark

String Unit's Website Buy it at Amazon.com or Ozella Music
Listen to "Indiaespara" (mp3)

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