Minor 7th Jan/Feb 2004: Peter Mayer, Wayne Johnson, Douglas Niedt, Ed Jurdi, Lisa Fraser, Pedrick-Hutson Guitar Duo, Pearl Django, Roger Wang, Chip Houston
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Reviewing the best in non-mainstream acoustic guitar music

January/February, 2004

Peter Mayer, "Earth Town Square", Blue Boat BB1206, 2002

The landscapes of Peter Mayer's songs are the very same landscapes of our innermost ponderings. We all struggle with how the cosmos might intersect with our own day-to-day. Mayer is in a position to address this conundrum with his unique gift to be able to distill the metaphysical from an earthbound anecdote, and then clinch the message with evocative open chords that uncloak a listener's emotional radar. "Earth Town Square" is Mayer's sixth release and is brimming with refreshing singer-songwriter fare that pulls off the very difficult trick of discoursing on the human plight without ever seeming trite... and even better, providing a glimmer of hope and celebration. The title track offers up one such celebratory message that thankfully runs counter to every image we see on the nightly news, and recognizes that a shrinking world also can mean a vibrant and interacting global village rather than international borders which are marred by division ("There are Germans selling Audis / Filled with gasoline from Saudis / To Australians sipping Kenyan coffee in their Chinese shoes / Argentines are meeting Mongols / Over French fries at McDonald's / and the place looks strangely tiny when you see it from the moon"). On "Astronaut Dreams" Mayer borrows some two-handed techniques from fellow Minnesotan Preston Reed and transforms fretboard to percussive keyboard, attacking rosewood as if ivory, thumping the soundbox as if a conga. "The Play" poetically expands a metaphor of life as drama ("Like a strange enchanting play of impossible dimensions / the setting and the stage run light-years in all directions / And the breathless scenes and the storyline defy comprehension"). In Peter Mayer's universe, the only difference between the centripetal forces between celestial bodies and the stuff of emotional bonds are orders of magnitude.
© Alan Fark

Alan Fark interviews Peter Mayer!! - click here

Peter Mayer's Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to Blue Boat Home (streaming mp3)

Wayne Johnson "One Guitar", Solid Air SACD 2040, 2003

Those familiar with the name Wayne Johnson will know it through the Manhattan Transfer or maybe the Trio group the artist initiated in the early 80’s, but most recently Johnson has created a new solo acoustic guitar album which displays the culmination of years of improvisational practice and learning. By utilizing a funky jazz-blues medium and a silkiness that is unique to the nylon string guitar, Johnson fashions for his listener a new set of sounds, textures, and percussive possibilities. I say percussive possibilities because there seems little in the way of describing the ingenuity at work when Johnson "hits" the guitar. He describes these very hits in terms of contrapuntal movement rather than just artistic ornamentation. Without any use of overdubbing, the assemblage of percussive taps, rolls, and thumps creates a concert-like environment whereby the musical "event" lies somewhere in between melody and percussion. On "Firefly", a seemingly simple harmonic progression becomes the medium in which just this type of interplay between melody and percussion takes center stage. In addition to the explosive performance evidenced on many of the tracks, Johnson’s musical interests are also quite keen on articulating quietude and softness, qualities for which the guitar is no stranger. The long drawn-out phrases and solid melody on "Baby" make for a wonderful opportunity to highlight how graceful a ballad can really be! In addition to original compositions there are also standards. Inspired by Ray Charles’ version, Johnson restores "America the Beautiful" to its rightful place as a classic in the American lexicon. Most impressive is how finished and well crafted the entire CD turns out to be while at the same time remaining faithful to its overall sound and improvisational format. In what we hope will mark the beginning in a long succession of solo acoustic guitar music to come, Johnson’s daringness and creativity on the fingerboard is explosive and should not go unnoticed.
© Bernard Richter

Wayne Johnson's Website Buy it at Acoustic Music Resource
Listen to Firefly (streaming mp3)

Douglas Niedt, "Pure Magic", Niedt Records 100852, 2003

Excuse the homonymous pun, but some might say this is a really neat CD. Or, a really Niedt CD (pronounced the same). However you say it, Douglas Niedt has given us a wonderful recording, though I can't really call it a classical CD. Mixed in with such classical standards as "El Noi de le Mare" and "Danza" are "Dancers in Love", a Duke Ellington tune; two arrangements of songs by the Irish-Norwegian duo Secret Garden ("Sigma" and "Nocturne", both lovely melodies played with beautiful dynamics by Niedt); a tango by Roland Dyens, "Tango en Skai", and a show tune by Richard Rogers from the 1930's, "Lover". Yet in Doug Niedt's able hands, this eclectic mix works to marvelous perfection, and reveals the power, poetry, and versatility of the classical guitar played by one with both technical acumen and a keen ear for subtlety. Nowhere is this more evident than in the Irish melody "Brian Boru's March", where Neidt brings us marching in with the army, where we hear the battlefield confrontation, and then we march out again, all done with dynamics of finger on string - no effects used here. A student of Jorge Morel's Niedt gives ample credit to the maestro, filling us with the impeccable fire of "Misionera", the dancing skittery rhythm of "Jugueteando", and the rollicking folkloric Argentinian dance "El Humahuaqueno", where both strings and soundboard serve as percussion. The CD ends with what is becoming one of the most well-known melodies of the past 30 years, "Cavatina" by Stanley Myers, the theme song from the movie "The Deer Hunter". Niedt captures its haunting beauty with all the power it brought to that melancholy film. Douglas Niedt indeed serves us some magic with this recording, and his enchanted listeners enjoy its spell.
© Kirk Albrecht

Douglas Niedt's Website Buy it here
Listen to Dancers in Love (streaming mp3)

Ed Jurdi, "Long Shores Drive", Red Fez Records EJ 77253, 2003

Big, expressive and earthy, Ed Jurdi’s soulful voice propels itself into a room like a Mardi Gras parade. The 11 tracks on "Longshores Drive", Jurdi’s second release, revolve around that powerful voice to create a pleasant amalgam of uplifting, rootsy music. Jurdi fittingly describes his work as cosmic American soul. In terms of feel, think Van Morrison, Leon Russell and early Elton John. Heady company for a 27-year-old, but Jurdi gets in touch with a nice array of emotions without losing his focus on the notion of creating enjoyable tunes. A skilled musician, he shows his chops on guitar, piano, harmonica and banjo. Even more impressive is his ability to arrange a song for a full band that features horns and a kickass female chorus -- which Jurdi dubs the Funky Divas. On "Stop, Drop and Roll", the band gets into a groove capable of bringing down the house, while "Walking and Talking" kicks into some wondrous New Orleans funk. He airs his pipes out on the piano-heavy ballad, "Philadelphia". The songs feel real, drawn from life, with characters and stories and observations drawn from Jurdi’s discerning eye. In addition, Jurdi takes his work on the road, logging more than 250,000 miles of travel and 600 shows over the past three years, according to the CD’s liner notes. In the process, Jurdi has created his own distinctive sound, a high accomplishment indeed. © Fred Kraus

Ed Jurdi's Website Buy it at iTunes
Listen to Love Me til the Sun Shines (streaming mp3)

Lisa Fraser, "Midday Songs", Abish Music 1, 2003

It's quirky, tuneful, spiritual, and just a little sexy. It's universal, personal, conversational, and inscrutable. To do justice to "Midday Songs," I have to reinvent my use of language. That's exactly what Lisa Fraser does in the opening cut, "Mr. Builder." Its lyrics fall somewhere along a continuum from scat to John Lennon's "In His Own Write." But check out the lyrics on her website (lisafraser.com). You'll find every word of her sense-filled gobbledygook -though gobbledygook can't make sense by definition-lines like "Subitylime cathedral oh shedrill to die hothot." Opening with "Mr. Builder" puts Fraser's oh-so-easy-to-take eccentric-pill-to-swallow right in your face. It also showcases her idiosyncratic guitar style. It's percussive and often driven by insistent bass thumping contrasted with some quick, clean runs in the treble. (Fraser plays all the instruments on the CD, so listen carefully for the guitar duet that closes "Lean Into Heaven.") Placing "Overloaded" second serves to show Fraser's range. Here's a chorus you can sing. Here's singer/songwriter self-disclosure, the musings of a seeker whose "good old answers / Would never again be good enough." Have I mentioned the voice? Sure, Fraser has a smoky whisper effective for cooing that his goodnight kiss "is my favorite part" ("City Street Song"). But there's much more. Her full-bodied tone surrounds you like a dive into a swimming hole where the water feels thicker than water. Fraser's vocal power is highlighted throughout but especially in "Lonely Child," "Deliverer," and the lovely little capper, "Such a Day." Fraser goes so many places and reaches so far, there is bound to be some unevenness, as in the "Heart and Soul" riff behind "I See a Time." Don't worry, all is forgiven by the time she belts out the last chorus. One must never modify "unique," but Fraser makes me do it. "Midday Songs" is accessible, deceptively unique, surprisingly unique, almost completely unique.
© David Kleiner

Lisa Fraser's Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to Mr. Builder (streaming mp3)

The Pedrick-Hutson Guitar Duo, "Environs", HGS Records 102, 2003

A young generation of classical guitarists is finding a voice that not only articulates anew the visions of past masters, but is also granted the freedom and perspective of the times to combine the elegance of classic traditions with forward-thinking musical experimentation. The Pedrick-Hutson Guitar Duo is one such pointed example, fluent both with the now-prim genre that Segovia long ago dignified on a once-considered boorish instrument, and with more modern, dazzling jaunts into cutting edge musical ventures. In fact, "Environs" is a kind of musical time-travel through four centuries, hopping forward via waystations by Bach, Beethoven and Brahms, and on thereafter into the 21st century. Steadfast to Segovia's legacy, David Pedrick has masterfully transcribed renditions of Bach's Partita No. 3 (BWV 827), Beethoven's Seven Bagatelles (Op. 33) and Brahms' Waltzes (Op. 39) from keyboard to two guitars, and the duo performs these programs with a verve that would likely have astounded those venerable masters. But the highlight of the disc, in my opinion, is Thomas Smith's (of the Philadelphia Classical Guitar Trio) "River Rising". Robust with imagery, "River Rising" paints an aural picture of lumbering currents, rivulets and eddies carrying sparring notes downstream to denouement. "Materna", a motif written by Samuel Ward and better recognized as "America the Beautiful", is an angular and pleasantly discordant version of the well-known tune, made poignant by the duo's dedication of the piece to the victims of the 9/11 attacks. Pedrick inflects his own "Erin Sketches" with the same moving and melancholic air to cathartically close the CD.
© Alan Fark

The Pedrick-Hutson Guitar Duo Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to Beethoven's Bagatelle No. 2, Scherzo (streaming mp3)

Pearl Django, "Swing 48", Modern Hot Records MHR 008, 2003

"Swing 48", the eighth release from the Seattle based hot jazz ensemble Pearl Django, is very polite. It's smart, too, and the sounds of its arrangements and compositions would add a touch of class and culture to any cocktail party. The problem with polite, however, is that it's rarely, if ever, "hot". And whatever heat may exist during the band's live performances is only sporadically captured here. Included are Django Reinhardt classics, standards, and mostly original pieces, all beautifully written and arranged, but some of which don't seem to fit. "Holiday for Guitars" and "Polo Verde" take the listener on unexpected detours to cooler, breezier climes, landscapes once inhabited by writers like Antonio Carlos Jobim, very different fare from the Gypsy jazz repertoire. And readings of standards seem like just that, readings. The group's recording of "I Can't Believe You're in Love with Me" sounds cold, as if the musicians are reading charts. Throughout, solos are brief, never really giving the band a chance to simmer and finally boil over. Eventually the mercury does rise, though, like on "Samois Swing", an original track based on a minor riff, which swings hard and hints at the feverish temperatures these musicians are capable of, and on the frenetic "Freeway", another original and perhaps the hottest track here.
© Chip O'Brien

Pearl Django's Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to Swing 48 (streaming mp3)

Roger Wang, "Journey Home", EQ Music EA70395, 2003

Roger Wang's "Journey Home" alternates between solo fingerstyle guitar arrangements and tracks with minimal to full band accompaniment. Musical selections range from jazzy renderings of Korean, Indonesian, and Chinese traditional folk tunes to compositions by twentieth century Asian composers and originals. Included in the notes are brief explanations for Wang¹s choice of material. He informs us that the first track, "Arirang", is a Korean folk song with over 6,000 different lyrics and 50 different versions, then humbly offers us his own. Except for a slight problem with intonation, Wang's rendition, accompanied by bass and percussion, is sweet, precise, flawless. Wang tears it up on tracks like "Bangawan Solo", a song from Indonesia on which he displays his formidable blues chops, and "Give You My All", a tune by Harlem Yu, one of the first to bring rock and blues to Taiwan. Wang seems most at ease, however, on solo guitar. The finest examples of his playing can be found on "Wild Orchids", a reworking of a traditional Chinese melody, "In My Thoughts", and "Student Boy", where Wang is joined by harmonica, evoking images of Doc Watson, perhaps, sitting on a riverbank in Southeast Asia somewhere playing his heart out.
© Chip O'Brien

Roger Wang's Website Buy it at iTunes
Listen to Arirang (streaming mp3)

Chip Houston, "Chasing the Dark", Lone Wolf Records 2003

Chip Houston may inspire you to wax nostalgic for the most memorable heartland rock of 1980s chart-toppers John Cougar Mellancamp, Bob Seger, and Tommy Cochrane & Red Rider. "Chasing The Dark" explodes with a forceful, organic bravura. Houston's warm acoustic guitar sits front and center, and every chord, lyric, and melody his crack studio posse purvey are strongly stated and slickly rendered. And Houston's resonant baritone is the perfect vehicle to cut loose on songs which detail love, loss, redemption, and hope. The syrupy word-play of "I Can Carry You" is the melodramatic stuff of Dr. Phil, especially during the acapella coda when our hero bears the burden of his woman's sensitivity sans accompaniment. The arpeggios, power-chords, and soaring harmonies of "Can't Get Past You" emerge as the disc's strongest bid for a hit song, as the Hammond B-3 affords a soulful vibe punctuated by a frenetic electric guitar solo which unexpectedly fades. World-beat poly-rhythms coupled with jazzy guitar textures fuel "Alli's Song," a seductive tale of long distance yearning. Consistently engaging, occasionally pedestrian, Houston undoubtedly has a bright future.
© Tom Semioli

Chip Houston's Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to Written On My Heart (streaming mp3)

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