Minor 7th May/June 2007: Don Ross, Iliana Matos, Devon Sproule, Jerry Douglas, Abby Ahmad, Hands on Strings, Doug Cox & Salil Bhatt, John Starling & Carolina Star, Frank Morey
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Reviewing the best in non-mainstream acoustic guitar music

May/June, 2007

Don Ross, "Live in Your Head," Goby Fish Music GFM 20062, 2006

For most performers, playing lives offers opportunities for expanding your compositions with new ideas as the creative process finds inspiration in the music itself. It's why no good jazz is too structured, too programmed. Canadian guitarist Don Ross knows that vibe all too well, and his CD "Live in Your Head" brings his creative powers to full force, showcases his mastery of the six-string, and allows for greater freedom in exploring his music. The disc represents 3 performances between 2001-2006 - some solo, and others with a three or four-part backing band. The recording quality of the shows -- often a weakness when trying to capture live music -- is excellent. Perhaps no better single cut reflects Ross' ability to get inside and around the music than his extended 12-minue rendition of "Wall of Glass." Here, Ross intersects and cross-pollinates with his band, allowing musical seeds to germinate then flower as each takes a turn at playing with the melody. The result is just wonderful music. Ross is the touchstone for each musician, and saxophonist Colleen Allen particularly grooves in her solo. Several other pieces come in much longer than their studio versions due to following the trail of the tune, like the Latin-flavored "With You in Mind". The bass, percussion, and guitar trio on "Jesse Helms Night in Havana," is almost organic in its interplay. The sanguine "Catherine" reveals Ross' understanding of feel, fingerpicking the gentle melody with accents of tapping only when the song needs them. There are 13 tunes in all. The CD concludes with "Thin Air," a song which allows the listener -- if they haven't heard Don Ross before -- to hear his signature sound, slapping and tapping and picking with a driving bass line, just man and steel and wood, but more music than one listen can take in. For Don Ross fans, this CD is essential listening as it captures his at his very best musically.
© Kirk Albrecht

Don Ross' Website Buy it at CandyRat Records
Listen to "Afraid to Dance" (mp3)
Listen to Don Ross at our podcast

Iliana Matos, "Angels in the Street," GSP Recordings 1030 CD, 2006

It's been 80 years since Heitor Villa-Lobos rejuvenated classical guitar music with his compositions, breathing a rhythm and gravitas never heard before his time. Composer Eduardo Martin, perhaps best known from the LAGQ's rendering of "Hasta Alicia Baila" and "La Trampa," proves not only his stewardship for Villa-Lobos' spirit, but for also truly drawing it into the 21st century with writing "Angels in the Street." The only limiting factor for a piece such as "Angels?" -- to find a performer who possesses the virtuosity able to handle the technical act of precisely lifting the notes from daunting page to fretboard, and to do it with a panache and sensitivity which disguises the difficulty as only subliminal. Such an artist is Iliana Matos. Matos has a long history of concert awards including first prizes in the Vila de L'Olleria, Ciudad de Vélez-Málaga, S.A.R. La Infanta Doña Cristina, and Manuel M. Ponce International Guitar Competitions. And though Matos is a dark horse, it's impossible while listening to "Angels" to believe that her name will not someday ring the same peal of recognition as does Bream and Williams. "Preludio" begins with the same slumbering but expectant legato lines of Villa-Lobos' Prelude No. 4 in E minor, and also like that piece explodes into surprising glissades of arpeggiations. "Anunciacion" (from Martin's "En Cinco Lineas") has the floating and ethereal quality of a Ralph Towner composition. Not surprisingly, since both composer and performer are Cuban, Latin influences are prominent on some pieces ("Inevitable," "Son," "Son de Barrio," De La Rumba Son") and will reward fans of Egberto Gismonti. GSP Recordings seems to have a talent for ferreting out bright new classical guitar talent, and they've succeeded once more by making this collaboration between Eduardo Martin and Iliana Matos possible and accessible.
© Alan Fark

Iliana Matos' Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to "Anunciacion" (mp3)

Devon Sproule, "Keep Your Silver Shined," City Salvage/Waterbug Records CSR16-WBG75, 2007

On your first listen to "Keep Your Silver Shined," concentrate on the musical settings for Devon Sproule's warm, perceptive words. With tunes owing as much to Tin Pan Alley as they do to the folk and bluegrass of her home in the Blue Ridge, think of Sproule as a "Rain Dogs" era Tom Waits if he were a happy newlywed. (Check the accordion and thumb piano she's cooked up with producer Jeff Romano for the tango-ish "1340 Chesapeake St.") Sproule can sing like an angel, but prefers to keep this affair a little rough, as proclaimed by Randall Phar's slap happy bass and the banjo chunking that open the record. While Morwenna Lasko's fiddle keeps things swinging, "Old Virginia Block" traces the speaker's steps on a long Blue Ridge walk that ends at home. Try not to tap a toe. The title track follows, with Charlie Bell's pedal steel washing over loveliness depicting young folks facing the comfort and apprehension of settling into a life that could last a lifetime ("…the best of us changed. The rest of us stuck behind to keep the silver shined"). "Let's Go Out" demonstrates Sproule's uncanny matching of lyrics and music. In homage to old time swing, she sings "though the jokes you told were splendid, the serenade had ended by January. When you wooed me in June, it was by a different tune. In spring came the ring…" The highlight of the CD is "Dress Sharp, Play Well, Be Modest." Notice how genially Sproule's vocals build and how affecting they are when they reach their crescendo. This album is about home and joy -- rare commodities on record these days. Sproule succeeds by letting the arrangements support the telling details of her observant poetry. I was once a newlywed in a house that "felt like the center of the world." "Stop By Anytime" and you might find a blaze in the woodstove and a record on the turntable that will always evoke those days for me. "Keep Your Silver Shined" does the same for a new generation looking down the long road ahead.
© David Kleiner

Devon Sproule's Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to "Dress Sharp, Play Well, Be Modest" (mp3)

Jerry Douglas, "Best of the Sugar Hill Years," Sugar Hill SUG-CD-4026, 2006

Sugar Hill draws from five CDs for this tribute to the dobro wizardry of Jerry Douglas. Though based in bluegrass, Douglas stretches and pulls that genre into new universes. About half of the tracks on this compilation are Douglas' own compositions, and which joyously display the versatility of the resonator guitar. Instrumental tracks such as "The Wild Rumpus," "Takarasaka," "Senia's Lament" and "We Hide and Seek" feature Dougles' seamless interplay with his fellow musicians and provide a virtual soundtrack to Americana. It's Aaron Copland for the 21st century modern common man. Douglas evocatively haunts "Lullaby of the Leaves" on his Weissenborn guitar behind Peter Rowan's vocals (one of three non-all-instrumental tracks). Other luminaries making appearances include Tim O'Brien, Bela Fleck and Sam Bush, and the musianship and production is squeaky clean throughout. Douglas shows his bravado by ably taking on fusion ("Cave Bop"), rock ("Hey Joe" -- amazing what he does with that dobro, but some things are best left unbluegrassified), jazz (Weather Report's "Birdland"), Texas swing, and, of course, plenty of bluegrass, complete with fiddle, banjo and mandolin. Yet despite all of this flash and dance, Douglas shines best when his simply places his instrument at the forefront, and trusts it to work its distinctive, soulful magic, as with "A Tribute to Peador O'Donnell" and with "In the Sweet By and By." Those tracks, to me, define and illustrate the special purity of what Douglas brings to the musical table. A much in demand musical sideman, Douglas has garnered his share of awards, including Best Bluegrass Album for "The Great Dobro Sessions." Still, while Douglas' skill is well displayed on "Best of the Sugar Hill Years," the disparity is such that the effect created is ultimately more that of promo than showcase.
© Fred Kraus

Jerry Douglas' Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to "Cave Bop" (mp3)

Abby Ahmad, "The Rearview," Little Whisper Records, 2007

As Sir Bono opined a generation ago, all it takes is "three chords, a red guitar and the truth." Though her acoustic six-string appears to be natural wood finish, twenty-four year old urban folk diva Abby Ahmad comes roaring in like a reality freight train on her impressive debut long player (she has two EPs to her credit). Wistful, literal, and occasionally confrontational and cathartic, the young Ms. Ahmad emerges as an authoritative singer, songwriter, and an accomplished guitarist. Akin to her more veteran contemporaries such as Ani DiFranco, Mary Lou Lord, Tori Amos and Tracy Chapman, Ahmad does not require a traditional backing band nor ornate arrangements to grab your attention - though she does employ a moody rhythm section on a few cuts, plus atmospheric / minimalist cello, banjo, dobro, violin, piano, and Hammond B-3 accompaniment on others. Fingerpicking, strumming, and riffing with impressive dexterity and harmonic expertise, Ahmad's guitar wizardry incorporates a myriad of influences ranging from traditional folk and country to blues and R&B. Ahmad's vocal delivery, which morphs from angelic to a down-and-dirty Delta blues rasp, cuts through her often hectic rhythms and tempos throughout every track. When a forceful lyric demands emphasis: "So the big bang / in the center of the sky /i gnites a light / in the pit of your mind's eye" in the stirring opener "Big Bang," Ahmad leaps on top of the beat with a rapid-fire release that commands notice. On the dirge "Seven Year Itch" she simmers beneath Matt Zeiner's gothic keyboards and the mournful, lethargic fretless bass of Chris Anderson. If you had to choose a single it would probably come down to the brisk, overtly melodic "Solo Act," an up-tempo cut that recasts a patented Willie Dixon riff in a fresh new light. For the pure-bred shredders out there, make sure to check out the instrumental "The River Song" wherein Ahmad's blazing technique catches fire on the always challenging 12 string. A talent this promising cannot go unnoticed by the mainstream for long. Ahmad needs that one big song to take her career to the next commercial level.
© Tom Semioli

Abby Ahmad's Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to "Big Bang" (mp3)
Listen to Abby Ahmad at our podcast

Hands on Strings, "Offroad," Ozella Music OZ012CO, 2006

Jazz has always been considered to be as American as apple pie... until now. That assumption is eroding to a tide of global culture washing over the national culture, and vice-versa. Just as Nissan and Honda automobiles are being manufactured in America, there is some incredible jazz being created in Europe, highlighting that music rightly has no boundaries or ownership. Case in point: "Hands on Strings," the moniker for Stephan Bormann and Thomas Fellow, a German acoustic guitar duo who simmer every bit as did memorable past duo projects like Larry Coryell & Philip Catherine and Ralph Towner & John Abercrombie. "Offroad," the opening and title track, is impossibly difficult to distinguish from Pat Metheny's music -- present not only is Metheny's trademark tone but also his virtuosity and chameleonic modulations of rhythm and chords. "Midnight Train" posits an insistent Methenyesque strum against an understated spiritual anthem -- one hears yearning versus melancholy, aspiration versus contentment... yin and yang coexisting. Influence from another European duo, Biréli Lagrène & Sylvain Luc, is palpable on "Loro," Piazzolo's "Libertango," Luiz Bonfa's "Manha de Carneval" and "Feria," all on which Bormann and Fellow do a cadenced mind-meld in a universe where the rest of us are challenged even to tap our feet. "Hands on Strings" bids you a welcome to the world of very amazing jazz, thankfully no longer limited to one shore.
© Alan Fark

Stephan Bormann's Website | Thomas Fellow's Website Buy it at Amazon.com or in Europe at Ozella Music
Listen to "Offroad" (mp3)

Doug Cox & Salil Bhatt, "Slide to Freedom," Northern Blues Music NBM0039, 2007

Canadian dobro player Doug Cox, Indian musician and satvik veena player Salil Bhatt, and tabla player Ramkumar Mishra have found common ground between the music of the Mississippi Delta and the traditional music of India on the superbly produced "Slide to Freedom." Drawing on their respective traditions, the musicians explore such classics as Mississippi John Hurt's "Pay Day" and Blind Willie Johson's "Soul of a Man." They also offer collaborative compositions, such as the wistful and e pic instrumental "Bhoopali Dance," the meditative "Arabian Night," and the melodically and rhythmically inventive "Fish Pond." The music is for the most part laid back but at times dissonant and intense. Cox, Bhatt, and Mishra are joined on two tracks, "Soul of a Man" and "Father Kirwani," by the legendary musician V.M. Bhatt, creator of the mohan veena, a modified Indianized guitar-like instrument, and also the father of Salil Bhatt. The results are electric. The overall spirit of the album is both gracious and playful. "Slide to Freedom" is a must have for the listener who yearns for both novel sounds and true improvisatory collaboration in his music.
© Chip O'Brien

Doug Cox's Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to "Pay Day" (mp3)
Listen to Doug Cox & Salil Bhatt at our podcast

John Starling & Carolina Star, "Slidin' Home," Rebel Records REB-CD-1820, 2007

What makes this a fine set of acoustic music, happens where the pick meets the strings, at the attack. But I hesitate to use attack to describe the playing on "Slidin' Home." It's more like these guys massage sound out of the strings. A case in point is Starling's restrained yet effective version of Lowell George's much covered "Willin.'" The first notes are harmonics where, by definition, the strings are barely touched. And the touch stays light throughout. Mike Auldridge's lap steel solo is breathtaking. It starts out in the bass in a nod to the typical guitar fills of truckin' songs then moves, with a few stops along the way for some sustain, to a delicate melody up the fretboard. Starling's vocals here demonstrate how he works wonders despite the limits of his voice. When he murmurs "get burnt by the sun every time I go" listen to the way he says "time." Sure makes it sound like this guy's been across some borderlines in his time. He's willin' cause he's so easy going. You have to give him a sign or he won't move a muscle. But he does have a thing for Alice. Very nice. Song selection on the CD is tastefully all over the country side of the map. The opener's a tasty version of Jimmie Rogers' "Waiting for a Train." Auldridge's resophonic guitar introduction builds a cathedral setting for "In My Hour of Darkness," written by Gram Parsons and Emmy Lou Harris. Jon Randall contributes a sweet six-string solo. You'll know that hope in the darkest hour is possible when you hear Emmy Lou herself join in on harmony vocals. There's a Gillian Welch tune and a Ricky Skagg instrumental. At ten songs clocking in at 33 minutes, the album's too short, for all of the usual reasons, but for as long as it lasts, "Slidin' Home" is as easy on the ears as the pickers are on the strings.
© David Kleiner

John Starling & Carolina Star's Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to "Waitin' for a Train" (mp3)

Frank Morey, "Made in USA", 2006

Frank Morey takes us for another ride into his entertainingly haunted, bourbon-soaked world on his fourth disc, "Made in USA." The philosopher/poet and singer/songwriter continues his focus on the wretched scrapheap of humanity, a colorful parade of society's lowest common denominators. Morey doesn't look down upon his fascinating characters; rather, he celebrates their (and his own) struggles to find their way in a world filled with distractions and ambiguities. As an instrument, his voice can only be described as Waits-ian, all gravelly, guttural and groaning. He coaxes it to new plateaus of expression on the tender "North Atlantic Line" (accompanied by the ethereally voiced Eileen Rose). Similarly, the eerie "No Evil," which Morey says in his liner notes "might be one of the best songs I've recorded," conveys a force and power new to his work. On several tracks on "Made in USA," Morey introduces a cacophony of horns that evokes all manner of unsettling images (like freight trains and elephants) as he revisits the blues from all angles. Still, the more potent brews may be the stripped-down ones: the wrenching title track, the ironic "This Ol' Life (Seems to be Taking Forever)" and the country based, eminently hummable "I Stopped Believing in You Today." Morey's strides since his second disc, "Cold in Hand," have been impressive, interesting and unique. He's beginning to carve quite a nice niche for himself in the realm of musical Americana.
© Fred Kraus

Frank Morey's Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to "Made In USA" (mp3)

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