Minor 7th Sept/Oct 2008: Laurence Juber, Alex Kabasser, David Pritchard, Joel Harrison, Alan Hovhaness, Carrie Elkin, Harp Guitarists, David Kleiner, Jim Tozier, Bruce Mathiske & George Golla
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Reviewing the best in non-mainstream acoustic guitar music

September/October, 2008

Laurence Juber, "Pop Goes Guitar," Solid Air Records, 2008

The music on this CD will reinforce Laurence Juber’s status as the ultimate feel-good acoustic guitarist. "Pop Goes Guitar" focuses on one strong aspect of Juber’s repertoire: solo instrumental versions of well-known pop tunes. Earlier in his career he recorded "My Girl" and Jimi Hendrix’s "Little Wing," delved extensively into the Beatles and Wings catalogs, and took a left turn into the Great American Songbook with "I’ve Got the World on Six Strings," a wonderful CD devoted to Harold Arlen’s music. On this new disc he gives the same treatment to iconic pop songs of the 1960s and later (the most recent being The Police’s 1983 hit, "Every Breath You Take"). Several recordings from Juber’s earlier CDs reappear, including "Let it Be," "Maybe I’m Amazed," "My Girl," "Oh! Darling," "My Love" and "In My Life." The new tracks, including Brian Wilson’s "God Only Knows," Elvis Costello’s "Alison," Jagger-Richards’ "Angie," and Elton John/Bernie Taupin’s "Your Song," are great listening and will broaden the horizons of guitarists who take their cues from Juber the teacher. Of the new recordings, my own favorite is his moody rendition of "God Only Knows." This music works on many levels; his song choices are great, as is the guitar playing. Also, by presenting these tunes as instrumental solos, Juber promotes their acceptance as standards for instrumental guitarists. Not coincidentally, Juber has published a companion book/CD package, Popular Songs for Acoustic Guitar (Hal Leonard), in which he teaches the tunes on this CD. You won’t go wrong buying "Pop Goes Guitar," either as a CD or from iTunes.
© Patrick Ragains

Laurence Juber's Website Buy it at Acoustic Music Resource
Listen to "Let it Be" (mp3)

Alex Kabasser, "Dawning," Extraplatte Music, 2008

It's the dawning of a new generation of fingerstylists, and 24 year-old Alex Kabasser is in the forefront, at the top of a list of very talented peers. Kabasser's modus operandi?... groove! It's simply impossible to listen to tracks like "Heads Up," "Foxi" or "Homebox" without feeling energized, without an awareness that one's own pulse seems driven by the music, in sync with some unknowable rhythmic archetype. Although a myriad of new players in the post-Michael Hedges world have become expert with tapping and harmonics, very few infuse their art with an authentic joie de vivre like Kabasser, the real reason any music connects with any listener. From the opening track, "Bee Fingers," it's apparent that melody and tension carry equal weight with percussive pyrotechnics in Kabasser's compositional choices. He informs the fretboard with a Tommy Emmanuel-like deftness on the introspective "Dawning," no doubt a reason he was asked to play at TommyFest 2008 in the U.K. "Sadepisara" (Finnish for raindrops) is pure musical onomatopoeia, a mesmerizing pitter-pat of chiming harmonics. Alex Kabasser is a truly remarkable young guitar talent who will undoubtedly further define the art of fingerstyle in coming years.
© Alan Fark

Alex Kabasser's Website Buy it at Extraplatte Music
Listen to "Heads Up" (mp3)
Listen to Alex Kabasser at our podcast

David Pritchard, "Vertical Eden," Morphic Resonance Music, 2008

On David Pritchard's second acoustic recording, "Vertical Eden," the artist continues to successfully and triumphantly create exceptional music with multi-tracked guitars. Originally a jazz-fusion player, Pritchard has performed with Gary Burton and Zappa alum Don Preston, as well as co-founding the influential fusion group Contraband. His solo albums have featured such diverse musicians as Freddie Hubbard, Patrice Rushen, and Chester Thompson. Borrowing from his fusion roots, the guitarist constructs his own intricate and expansive musical landscapes within his own unique musical framework. The title track uses multiple guitar parts to support a moody, pensive melody creating imagery not unlike Ralph Towner's extraordinary twelve-string work. On "Garden of Time," the guitarist offers a nod to minimalistic composer Steve Reich, by enlisting Harry Scorzo's multi-tracked violin. Also joining the artist on the album are guitarists Ken Rosser and Kevin Tierman from Pritchard's guitar ensemble. Christopher Garcia's talented percussion and Erik Kertes bass also make noteworthy appearances on this recording. "Deliver Us" finds the artist extrapolating from his fusion roots by playing long fluid intricate lines over perfectly executed cascading arpeggios. On "Winged Footprints" and "Cathedral of Rain" one hears Pritchard's trademark kaleidoscopic approach to composition. Layer after layer of sonorous textures are woven to create musical tapestries which defy categorization. From cinematic to avant-garde and from new age to minimalism, these descriptions only scratch the surface in describing Pritchard's own inimitable compositions. "Vertical Eden" is a true sonic masterpiece of multi-tracked guitar instrumentals and absolutely essential for all listeners of contemporary instrumental music.
© James Scott

David Pritchard's Website Buy it at Amazon.com or iTunes
Listen to "Bright Depths Revisited" (mp3)
Listen to David Pritchard at our podcast

Joel Harrison, "Passing Train," Intuition Music 2008

Recipes for successful pop songs can elude songwriters like a swirling breeze -- just when it seems within the grasp, it slipslides out of reach. Joel Harrison earnestly pursues the pop muse on "Passing Train," a 12-song collection of his own compositions. While he departs from the foundation of much of his previous work -- jazz improvisation -- this CD retains much of the jazz form, snaking in and out of jazz fusion as Harrison, by his own admission, strives toward a pop sensibility. Perhaps the most "pop" track to emerge is "Glory Days Are Gone," a stripped-down anti-war heartache. It feels true and authentic and sincere. Harrison’s vocals on "Glory Days" transmit a wasted life of disillusionment and raw disappointment. It matters not that the song is based on Harrison’s interactions with war vets as opposed to his personal battlefront experience. On the liner notes, he says, "my response in this song was to take the perspective of a soldier who has returned home." To his credit, it works, and works well. This pop composition is no easy feat, as he notes: "This record was more difficult to make than any of my previous efforts, which seems at odds with the fact that it is the most overtly pop CD I have made." With "Travel On," he enlists talented guest vocalist Toshi Reagon, and works in a catchy chorus and dance-oriented vibe, to good effect. Harrison brings on another female vocalist, Jen Chapin, on three additional tracks, a nice counterpoint to his own vocal work. Still, the overall effect throughout relies fairly heavily on Harrison’s fine, jazzy guitar work as a multihued thread to hold the collection together. Production values are top-notch, with layers of sound and subtle fills and careful harmonies. Songs unfold slowly, and fully, with each generally weighing in at a rather un-poplike five minutes.
© Fred Kraus

Joel Harrison's Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to "Passing Train" (mp3)
Listen to Joel Harrison at our podcast

Alan Hovhaness, "Guitar Concerto No. 2," Naxos 2008

While the trend in twentieth century classical music was to move away from traditional harmony and melody, there were a great number of composers who continued to privilege these musical characteristics, evolving them further into the beautiful aural world of extended tonality. Alan Hovhaness is one such composer who continued to focus upon the melodic content of his work, distinguishing it with haunting modal scales supported by subtly distorted keys and harmonies. The three compositions selected for this disc were written later in Hovhaness' life, between the ages of sixty-four and seventy-seven. Thus, all three works appear to share the common goal of creating a pastoral and serene listening experience. There is an emphasis on instruments such as the flute and the harp, frequently intermingled with lush string melodies. Aside from a rousing and defining climax in "Fanfare for the New Atlantis", which is the first selection on the disc, the recording is primarily dream-like and peaceful. The guitar concerto is distinguished from the other two works by focusing almost exclusively on the harmonic Phrygian scale, which is sometimes called the 'gypsy scale'. This gives it a very Spanish and flamenco sound, and is no doubt a homage to the guitar's rich history in that genre. The drawn out guitar melodies sound almost improvised, and are occasionally interrupted by rich string melodies that echo the ideas introduced on the solo instrument. There is a lovely balance between the guitar and the orchestra in this concerto, as Hovhaness carefully avoids any jarring juxtapositions between the two contrasting sources. This disc, with its meditative melodic content and soothingly dark harmonies is ideal for the listener who enjoys a quiet night at home.
© Timothy Smith

Javier Calderón's Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to "Allegro Guisto" (mp3)

Carrie Elkin, "The Jeopardy of Circumstance," 2007

Carrie Elkin inhabits characters caught in "The Jeopardy of Circumstance." Their hearts -- a word oft repeated -- are "drunk with whiskey and crime," "like an orange when the blood leaves the day," fragile as your heart and mine, and as delicate as Elkin's voice can get. They fight time ("the clock was like a brick on her chest"). They fight God ("sacrifice ain't no good 'til you give God his due"). They fight each other ("He swung his arm round and tore my heart out."). There is no victory, just a place between acceptance and defeat. In "Black Lung" we're intruders, in the room at the "strangely sweet" moment of a longtime miner's death. His family, six-pack of beer and the tin he's been spittin' in at his side, he dies, "his lungs... full of something other than air." Its simple melody is sung over an organ drone and a banjo deep in the mix. Then all the instruments drop out, leaving one frail voice. Even in Elkin's uptempo tunes, there's a catch. "Ode to Ogallala" (co-written with co-producer Colin Brooks, and the album's standout track) charms with delightful details ("a town too tough for Texas"). It builds on a foundation of bass with pedal steel, imaginative backing vocals, and piano joining in. But even playful rhymes ("Nebraska, I meant to ask ya") can't mask a life where "a hard day's work means a drinkin' night." In "Did She Do Her Best" (proof the gentle-voiced Elkin has some growl in her), "all she wants to know is... did she do her best to put her man at rest?" despite an abusive relationship. Mark Addison's melodica adds spice to the portrait of a woman you can look through "like a 'Broke TV.'" "Gospel Song" closes, asking, "Why won't you share this gospel with me?" We, however, happily accept everything Elkin has to offer, especially the way she finds humanity in her heartworn heroes.
© David Kleiner

Carrie Elkin's Website Buy it at Amazon.com or iTunes
Listen to "Ode to Ogallala" (mp3)

Various Artists, "Harp Guitar Dreams," 2008

I had the privilege to review the initial compilation of Harp Guitar virtuosity called "Beyond Six Strings" (see Minor 7th Sept/Oct 2006), and I remain haunted by the textures of sound these amazing instruments produce. Led by the efforts of Gregg Miner, the harp guitar -- a novelty originally introduced near the turn of the 20th century, but never with a solid home in the acoustic music world previously -- is opening the ears of a new millennium to the aural possibilities of instruments with dozens of strings, and the artists who dare venture into their realm. This second collection of pieces by various guitarists is called "Harp Guitar Dreams," as much for the ethereal effect they have as the imagination behind the compositions. Of the 13 pieces in the CD, eleven are new, while two have been released previously -- but it's nice to hear them anyway. Andy McKee -- who seems to be able to do anything on a guitar -- sets the disc on a solid course with his "Into the Ocean," putting to good effect the droning of the long-scale bass strings while delicately picking the melody and keeping his groove intact. Every cut on this CD is excellent. Some other standouts for me: Alex DeGrassi on "Reverie for Greensleeves" playing an amazing Fred Carlson creation called the New Dream 39-string Harp-Sympitar, where the melody undulates in and around the traditional tune; Muriel Anderson's "View from Space" with its cascading harmonics introducing one of her trademark sweet melodies; and the title cut played by the brilliant John Doan, "Harp Guitar Dreams," which taps into the full spectrum of tonal tastiness found only on harp guitars. It's a fitting finale to a wonderful disc. Oh -- and don't download this one from iTunes -- the pictures of the artists with their instruments along with a description of their piece is worth the full price.
© Kirk Albrecht

Harp Guitar Music Website Buy it at Amazon.com or iTunes
Listen to "Into the Ocean" by Andy McKee (mp3)

David Kleiner, "The News That's Fit to Sing," 2008

There was a time when troubadours brought us the news set to song. While these days we get most of our news from the net and other sources, there are still those singers who give us the news of the day. David Kleiner is one of those and like the title says, he's got a lot to tell us -- from war to drug busts, all with a set of characters taken right from the headlines. There are even birth announcements and an obit page. The lyrics are really the focus here, with his folky guitar and pleasingly plain voice in the center, surrounded by arrangements of banjo, Dobro, harmonica, light drums, bass and more. In fact, the band could've come straight out of a 60's coffeehouse (if they had drum kits). The title cut sets up this theme disc well. Following that is "Rooting for a Loser." It muses about why we might keep supporting the home team even if they don't win. An article about an American air strike inspired the moving "Nine Afghan Children." A challenge from a talk show host brought "That's Why I Fight." Loosely based on the blogs at www.soldierlife.com and bootsonground.blogspot.com, it speaks to the real experiences of military life: "I don't fight for the president... I fight for you. I got a friend on my left and a friend on my right. That's why I fight." In the liner notes for "A Stranger at Christmas Time" he offers, "Only the technology has changed since Joseph and Mary arrived in Bethlehem for the census. The Romans still rule." In the song he poignantly sings, "Mary and her kinfolk showed up inconveniently, what with the baby and their poverty. Accepted the fate they were assigned: the first strangers at Christmas time." What I love about his songs is that Kleiner doesn't look down his nose at any of the people in his songs. He treats them with dignity. After relaying a horrifying story of crack addiction and despair in "Massacre on Lex Street" he sings, "If I lived down on Lex Street, I don't know who I'd be." One of my favorites is a satirical gospel tune sung from the viewpoint of the End Timers, a Christian fundamentalist group. It proclaims, "Pray for famine in South Africa, AIDS in Ethiopia, floods in Russia, fires in Arizona. When these things come to pass, we will be lifted up at last. Redemption is drawing near." Hallelujah. "Stand Up for Freedom" is an uplifting folk anthem great for singing along and "Phil Ochs as I Knew Him" is a tender reminiscence of his musical hero. It's Ochs' work that I am reminded of when I listen to this disc. To some, the arrangements may sound dated but maybe that's what Kleiner wanted. What better tribute to someone you admire? And besides, like his promo material says, it's "news that never grows old."
© Jamie Anderson

David Kleiner's Website Buy it at Amazon.com or iTunes
Listen to "Feltonville Is Sinking" (mp3)

Jim Tozier, "Guitar Pieces," Solid Air Records 2008

In this his fourth solo acoustic guitar CD, Jim Tozier serves up another tasty menu of fingerstyle delicacies. "Guitar Pieces" puts 17 mostly short cuts into a mix of always melodic, often bouncing explorations in DADGAD and CGDDAD tunings. Like most everything put out by Solid Air Records, the recording quality of the disc is impeccable, allowing Tozier's nimble fingers to shine. "Six Mile Creek" alternates between a frenzied bass line and the melody, engaging the listener in musical movement. Many of the songs are rooted in Celtic guitar, and the influence of Al Petteway (who produced Tozier's second CD "Solo Guitar") is evident on several tracks, like "Coming Home," an almost waltz-like rhyme. "The Bridge at Poole's Mill" is steeped in a lush beauty with a surprise tapping twist at the end that morphs into "Owl at the Bridge" where Petteway joins in on lead guitar with some mighty tasty licks. Tozier shows he can not only deliver fine gentle songs, but also up-tempo numbers on "Song of the Chattahoochee," where his solid alternating bass line underscores the driving melody. "Tribble Gap" reveals a little more blues to the mostly green hues of the CD. The longest track on "Guitar Pieces," "Memories Like Rain" takes the thoughtful listener along with Tozier to the place of warmth brought on by recounting those times that remain with us and bring a smile. In recounting some bitter memories, Tozier offers "Trail of Tears" as a dirge for the Cherokees who were forced from their land in his now home state of Georgia. It's a hauntingly sad yet beautiful melody. To end the disc, Tozier plays "Never My Love," sticking pretty close to the original, but it's a nice arrangement. If you like clean, thoughtful fingerstyle guitar, you can't go wrong with "Guitar Pieces."
© Kirk Albrecht

Jim Tozier's Website Buy it at Acoustic Music Resource or iTunes
Listen to "Six Mile Creek" (mp3)

Bruce Mathiske & George Golla, "Still Got My Guitar," 2007

Bruce Mathiske and George Golla's debut collaboration, "Still got My Guitar," is an eclectic collection of enchanting guitar duets. Both hail from Australia and are masters of their own respective styles. Mathiske's dazzling, virtuosic acoustic work is at time reminiscent of Django Reinhart or Paco De Lucia, while Golla's warm and mature hollow body playing eloquently swings throughout the recording. The strength of this release lies in the ability of these gifted musicians to intuitively respond to each other's playing. Both complement rather than compete, bringing out the best in each other's performances. The result is two gifted musicians having fun and creating great music, while redefining the parameters of guitar duets. The album consists of both captivating original compositions and interesting interpretations of Jazz standards. As a case in point, their refreshing renditions of "Days of Wine and Roses" and "Autumn Leaves" breathe new life into these often covered tunes. Golla particularly shines on these standards essentially synthesizing the entire history of Jazz guitar in his heartfelt soloing and elaborate comping. There is also an upbeat, playful reworking of Bob Dylan's "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight." On original pieces like "As a Breeze" and the closing "Homecoming," Mathiske shows his strength as a composer as well as formidable improviser, creating lush musical landscapes layered with rich melodic textures. "Still Got My Guitar" is highly recommended for all fans of acoustic music who want to hear inspiring improvisations, creative arrangements, and exceptional compositions.
© James Scott

Bruce Mathiske's Website Buy it atAmazon.com or iTunes
Listen to "Stompin' at the Savoy" (mp3)

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