Minor 7th Jan/Feb 2007: JJ Cale & Eric Clapton, Vicki Genfan, Michel Camilo & Tomatito, Martha Masters, Nickel Creek, Tim Sparks, Peter Janson, Noah Zacharin, Dorian Michael
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Reviewing the best in non-mainstream acoustic guitar music

January/February, 2007

JJ Cale & Eric Clapton, "The Road to Escondido," Reprise Records 44418-2, 2006

"The Road to Escondido" is best heard where and when you can lean back and listen. Everything feels so congenial. Cale and Clapton co-produce. They trade vocals, demonstrating the similarity in their phrasing and restrained deliveries. Guitar solos aren’t credited, though it’s clear the central characters get their licks. The support is fine -- like Derek Trucks and Doyle Bramhall II, from Clapton’s recent touring band. Everybody gets plenty of chances to work out in the blues scale (a place Clapton pretty much owns) in front of comfortable progressions ("Ride the River" and most others). Clapton plays it slowhand on some lazy tunes, like "It’s Easy." Here, I gather, Cale takes the first solo. Clapton takes over (3:12), exposing the difference in their playing. I’d be more hesitant to venture who’s who when John Mayer joins in on "Hard to Thrill" (the flip side of "The Thrill is Gone," and one of my favorite cuts). The uptempo, country "Dead End Road" (is that Albert Lee on the album’s hottest and arguably the most distinctive solo), brings some welcome liveliness. The writing -- mostly by Cale -- leans on patterns and toward the light touch. The subject matter and approach are elemental. The themes are staples: sex ("if you want a woman in bed with you..."), death ("When the War is Over" it won’t bring back "those poor boys in their graves"), life on the road, and recovery ("Don’t Cry Sister"). Clapton’s unapologetically sentimental "Three Little Girls," tacks a sequel onto "Tears in Heaven." The whimsical "Anyway the Wind Blows," another highpoint, swings. The album’s most revelatory tune, "Sportin’ Life Blues" by Brownie McGhee -- with solos on six string and, I think, hollow body electric -- is sung by two guys who know something about the subject. "The Road to Escondido" is a complete success, given its modest objective, to allow fans to eavesdrop on two old friends enjoying playing tunes together.
© David Kleiner

Eric Clapton's Website | JJ Cale's Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to "Three Little Girls" (mp3)

Vicki Genfan, "Up Close & Personal," Harmonic Touch Records HMTR CD 111-1, 2006

It dazzles, it pulses, it grooves, it weeps, it sings. There's not much that Vicki Genfan's new tour de force doesn't do aurally. "Up Close & Personal" is a double CD with two lives: disc one is all instrumental, while the second disc weds her marvelous chops with vocals. Genfan is carving a niche in the acoustic music world which few can fill, and "Up Close & Personal" is a terrific showcase for her burgeoning talents. The tunes are a mix of solo guitar, sparse fillers, and full band efforts, all performed in an eclectic cornucopia of open tunings. On the instrumental side, the particles accelerate on the opening cut "Atomic Reshuffle" as Genfan taps, slaps, bends, and beats out a danceamagific tune. Other head turners include "New Grass" (which was originally recorded on her debut CD "Outside the Box"), and the funky "Kali Dreams". While others make noise with tapping stylings, Genfan understands the power of melody and instead makes music. "Let It Rain" is a brooding bog mystified by Ian Melrose's low whistle, while "Catch Me" rifles along aided by Genfan's chanting of Sanskrit Mantras. Disc two contains Genfan originals, and covers of some well known pop tunes (The Beatles' "Norwegian Wood" and "What's Going On" made famous by the late Marvin Gaye). Her chops are more restrained here, giving way to her smoky vocals, and she shows solid pop sensibilities (she should find good airplay with many of these songs). "Norwegian Wood" is slowed and stripped down to just Genfan's tapping guitar and expressive voice. There's a lovely duet with Gil Goldstein on piano on "When You Are Winter", and Ian Melrose screams on dobro on "Si". If the music isn't enough, there are bonus videos on each disc showing how some of the songs were recorded. This is a great CD.
© Kirk Albrecht

Vicki Genfan's Website Buy it at iTunes
Listen to "Atomic Reshuffle" (mp3)
Listen to Vicki Genfan at our podcast

Michel Camilo & Tomatito, "Spain Again," Emarcy B00007179-02, 2006

"Spain Again" reunites Spanish flamenco guitarist Tomatito with American jazz pianist Michel Camilo. Camilo is a classically trained prodigy whose influences range from Art Tatum to Keith Jarrett, while Tomatito reigns as one of his country's brightest stars, citing Paco De Lucía as one of his key inspirations. The success of this collaboration does not lie in the differences between their musical heritages, but rather in the common ground these two masters forge within the parameters of this recording. Although virtuosity is certainly not something both musicians are lacking, one never senses that the two are competing with one another. Instead the listener hears a deep and profound camaraderie between the two which amicably encompasses the music on this disc. The delicate interplay and intuitive sensitivity the artists share recalls the seminal sixties collaborations between Jim Hall and Bill Evans. Throughout their adventurous melodic excursions and thrilling improvisations, Tomatito and Camilo never lose focus of the inherent beauty of each composition. The session includes an eclectic assortment of music featuring jazz standards, moving tributes, and original compositions. Standouts include a series of three heartfelt homages to Astor Piazzolla, all brilliantly executed and performed to perfection. On the ballad "Stella by Starlight," Tomatito offers some unique and intricate rhythm playing as Camilo skillfully navigates his way through the demanding chord changes of the piece. The recording ends with the joyous "Amor de Conuco," featuring a passionate vocal performance by Juan Luis Guerra and marking an appropriate conclusion to this very memorable musical experience. "Spain Again" is a truly magical recording of extraordinary music and should be required listening for all fans of jazz, classical, and flamenco music.
© James Scott

Michel Camilo's Website | Tomatito's Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to "Stella by Starlight" (mp3)

Martha Masters, "Viaggio in Italia," GSP Recordings 1031CD, 2006

In the past decade Martha Masters has become one of the world's most respected and well-known classical guitarists. She garnered international attention in 2000 when she won top prize in two highly coveted competitions: the Guitar Foundation of America (GFA) International Solo Competition and the Andrés Segovia International Guitar Competition. Since then she ensured the longevity of her fame with a series of outstanding recordings and concert tours. In this most recent release "Viaggio in Italia" she pays homage to the classical guitar's Italian heritage, and tries to dispel the myth that it is primarily a Spanish instrument. Although the classical guitar is often called the 'Spanish Guitar' due to Spanish flamenco and popular music influences, most of the early classical guitar composers were in fact Italian. Master's selected a cross section of composers, starting with Domenico Scarlatti and ending with Simone Iannarelli, born in 1970. She chose to focus the disc on new music, which is a little surprising considering the vast wealth of repertoire put forth by Italian composers during the Classical Period, which is often referred to as the Golden Age of the Guitar. Rather, Master's chose to emphasize the valuable contributions of today's living composers, who are far too often left out of a recording market saturated with the canonized composers of the past. Her tone production and phrasing throughout the disc is rich and soulful, thanks in great part to her relaxed and flawless technique. Although much of the music is contemporary, it is all very accessible, and this disc will appeal to a wide variety of listeners.
© Timothy Smith

Martha Masters' Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to Scarlatti's "Sonata" (mp3)

Nickel Creek, "Reasons Why," Sugar Hill Records SUG-CD-4022, 2006

From the rippling mandolin opening to "The Lighthouse's Tale" onward, you feel you are in the presence of real talent here. Each song feels more beautiful, or moving, or something, than the next. After a couple of listens, you get the sense that "Reasons Why" is that rare best-of compilation that feels like its own album. That it hangs together speaks volumes about the sensibilities of these three young players and the first three CDs they authored: "Nickel Creek," "This Side," and "Why Should the Fire Die?" -- the sources of this compilation. That the program involves just enough cohesion and diversity to make it all work is a testament to their talent as writers and interpreters. Taken as a whole, the work attests to youthful exuberance -- an amalgam of imagination and chops that confounds the purists. And yet, if you like Gillian Welch, you'll love this. Nickel Creek has sparked its own wooden top revival, influencing emerging bands like the The Senate out of Seattle and Charlottesville's King Wilkie. "Out of the Woods" features lush harmonies and Sarah Watkin's supple, true-tempered violin that recalls the work of McGarrigle's sideman Joel Zifkin (this is not fiddle). "Helena" adamantly reinforces the group's adherence to boundaryless music (their term) with its powerful full-pop climax. The Sean Watkins-penned instrumental "Speak" is a hooky instrumental that recalls Pat Methany's "As Wichita Falls" on mandolin and guitar. Throughout, the rhythmic pocket is effortlessly maintained, without the tendency to rush that befalls so many bluegrass-influenced bands. All and all this release is as smooth as Kentucky bourbon. The dual-disc package includes a DVD with seven videos that documents more live youthful exuberance. And yet one gets the feeling this band is saying goodbye to the innocence of its formative years.
© Steve Klingaman

Nickel Creek's Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to "Lighthouse's Tale" (mp3)

Tim Sparks, "Roots, Rags & Blues," 2006

Tim Sparks can play the fuzz off a peach -- and he wants to show you how he does it. On Root Rags & Blues, in MP3 format, Sparks slices and dices up six tunes in what is essentially a fingerstyle masterclass. Sparks has the chops -- and a laundry list of accolades -- to perform in any genre: jazz, blues, Celtic, classical; this time, he revisits his rural North Carolina roots, where he cut his teeth. This disc also includes, when viewed on your computer, tab, power tab, and, best of all, interactive video that displays closeups of Sparks' picking hand and fretting hand simultaneously. The wow factor gets turned up pretty high, but he keeps everything simple and easy to use and understand. Tracks include three fingerstyle workouts: Willie Brown's "Mississippi Blues," Scott Joplin's "Maple Leaf Rag" and a nice take of "The Victory Rag." Other cuts include "Tanst Yiddlekh," an odd selecton, but Sparks captures its Klezmer spirit; a deliberate version of Amazing Grace; and an uptempo "Original Jelly Roll Blues." While this disc is a primo teaching aid, the actual performances of the songs lean a bit toward the pedantic. His skill is impeccable, but it's difficult to dismiss the notion that he is really, really trying to ensure every note is perfect for his viewing students. The end result is that the pure joy of the performance and the song might be off just a hint of a fraction. Still, it's an incredible and worthwhile package.
© Fred Kraus

Tim Sparks' Website Buy it at Acoustic Guitar Workshop
Listen to "Maple Leaf Rag" (mp3)

Peter Janson & Friends, "Beautiful Day," Eastern Woods Music EWCD 41011, 2006

In the 1980s the Windham Hill label assumed stewardship of a meditative acoustic sound which was often simplistic in composition but soaring in spirit. Although Michael Hedges (who was a label-mate) referred tongue-in-cheek to Windham Hill's new age music as "California Hot Tub Music," artists such as Liz Story and George Winston really did prove the converse to the prevailing truism in jazz that dazzling musical complexity need be a prerequisite to evoke artistic mysticism. Peter Janson has rediscovered Windham Hill's vibe on "Beautiful Day," an elemental and atmospheric collection of world-jazz fingerstyle songs. The vibe succeeds not only because of a consistent deference to introspection, but because of Janson's collaboration with well-chosen sidemen. Steve Hunt is on keyboards, bringing with him a resumé that includes stints with Freddie Hubbard, Stanley Clarke and Allan Holdsworth. Bertram Lehmann on percussion has played with Joe Zawinul, John Lockwood on bass with Pat Metheny. Jamie Bonk (on second guitar) has been nominated as "guitarist of the year" by Smooth Jazz Canada. There is a drone-like beauty to the aptly-named opening track, "Mantra for Mieka." "Waterfall" opens with sounds of placid water... to be replaced by torrents of guitar lines played with a sinusoidal urgency. "December Morning Sun" begins like an ambient overture from Brian Eno and remains on-theme as a somewhat formless tone poem even as more traditional instruments assume control. "Beautiful Day" is beautifully captivating in a way that a state of nirvana must willingly claim an ascetic practitioner.
© Alan Fark

Peter Janson's Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to Waterfall (mp3)
Listen to Peter Janson at our podcast

Noah Zacharin, "Waiting on Your Love," Soffwin Music 2007

The heart of a poet, the mind of a lyricist, the skill of a composer, the fingers of a musician -- rare attributes singly, but rarer still in one artistic package. Still, singer/songwriter Noah Zacharin often puts it all together on "Waiting on Your Love," his sixth CD. His thoughtful songs of love and ache, pairing and parting, and yearning and wistfulness may have been born in the manger of folk, but Zacharin infuses these 11 tracks with a fully realized instrumentation. He assembles a talented stable of musicians, including longtime Tom Waits alum Ralph Carney (on tenor sax and clarinet) to breathe life and mood into this collecton. Lines such as this reward the careful listener: "I wake at the crack and the creak and the least of sounds hammer my heart shut and hope the dark will take us down ..." (from the title track). Zacharin, who grew up in Montreal and now lives in Toronto, includes tuba, pedal steel, vox, tin whistle, guitar, and accordion to bring his creations to life. While repeated listenings reward the dedicated, Zacharin can be playful as well, with the infectious and mandolin-inflected "All Go Blind." Repeated listenings bring higher rewards. Nice stuff nicely done.
© Fred Kraus

Noah Zacharin's Website Buy it iTunes
Listen to "Convertible Kind" (mp3)

Dorian Michael, "Sycamore Creek", 2006

Musical chops are born of time and woodshedding, and then playing and more playing. Dorian Michael's website identifies him as a "blue collar guitarist" who has been playing professionally for over 40 years. Dorian Michael has chops which are all over his latest solo acoustic guitar effort, "Sycamore Creek". He is at ease in any number of musical genres which he reveals over these twelve tracks. Six originals are joined by six standards from the worlds of jazz, blues, and traditional music. It takes an understanding of the music to pull off a solo acoustic version of "Black Orpheus" by Luis Bonfa, but Michael does it well, keeping the groove with chordal movement while ringing along the melody in single note phrases. Also tasty is the Jimmy Van Heusen classic "Here's That Rainy Day" played with just enough douleur and panache to capture its various moods. The title cut cascades as Michael makes use of the entire fretboard. The power of fingerstyle guitar is brought to life on "Deep River Blues" as Michael carries multiple voices at once on the blues standard. "Manitoba Moon" is a dreamy nightscape, while "Uncle Al's Barnyard" is a sassy, braying beast of a blues powered by Michael's excellent chording and lyrical leads. The concluding track - the Stephen Foster ditty "Hard Times Come Again No More" - is played on a Baranik JX guitar. Dorian Michael isn't as well known outside the western U.S. as his playing deserves. Discs like "Sycamore Creek" could well change that.
© Kirk Albrecht

Dorian Michael's Website Buy it at CD Freedom
Listen to "Sycamore Creek" (mp3)

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