Minor 7th July/Aug 2001: Don Conoscenti, Freddie Bryant, Don Ross, Kelly Joe Phelps, Ralph Towner
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July/August, 2001

Don Conoscenti, "Paradox of Grace", Cogtone 010, 2001

Death is an uncomfortable and difficult topic to broach even in song, which should be a safe haven for speaking to unspeakable human dramas. Only a very few popular songs have successfully done justice to the theme of death, most notably Clapton's "Tears in Heaven" and Mike and the Mechanics' "In the Living Years". Don Conoscenti likewise succeeds with his heart-rending and chilling vignette "The Other Side", which examines the tragedy of death and grief juxtaposed against a promise of renewal and hope. The first phrases of "The Other Side" passing through Conoscenti's lips are augmented in lonely desolation by the cry of a didgeridoo, a solitary and soulful vocal delivery tolling like Jackson Browne's. Over the next few lines Conoscenti is joined by Ellis Paul in magical and meteoric harmony, emoting in a palpable and cathartic way that Browne has even never before achieved. The double capo clamped on Conoscenti's fretboard on the cover of "Paradox of Grace" is a tipoff that the music inside is indeed resonant with the ringing of open strings. "Molly" has that kind of rhythmic vibrance which David Wilcox made his signature on "Eye of the Hurricane". If one listens closely, you can catch a hint of a debt of influence from the Beatles here and there. The intro to Woody Guthrie's "Vigilante Man" is a banjo rendering of "Within You Without You" on Sergeant Pepper. "Only the Truth" features a slide riff which recalls George Harrison's "If Not For You". Within "Paradox of Grace" lies some extraordinary neo-folk befitting the desert mountain origins in which Conoscenti writes and resides: music which is at once mystical, stark and moving.

Don Conoscenti's Website Buy it at Amazon.com

Freddie Bryant: "Live at Smoke", Fresh sound Records FSWJ 015, 2000

Not every jazz guitarist whose M.O. is a nylon-string guitar sounds like Earl Klugh. Some sound much cooler. Somewhere in the musical spectrum far from the wavelength where smooth jazz is hunkered, there's a place where be-bop blends into bossa nova, and Freddie Bryant is there. Though much of "Live at Smoke" is straight-ahead jazz, Bryant makes some compelling forays into polyrhythmic and world territory on the samba-tinged "Spiral" and "Tikki Tikki Gamela" in 7/16th time. Even the tune which carries the same name as his supporting band, "Kaleidoscope", has a modal ethnic and almost Klezmer-like mood much as some of the jazz done by Dave Liebman. Kaleidoscope's lineup of guitar, two saxophones, trumpet, piano, bass, drums and percussion pretty much assures that this music is a brimming and generous ensemble sound, and never more than on the opening cut "More World... More Jazz" which plows ahead with sax and brass lines scattering helter-skelter. Unlike most CDs which front-load the best tunes first, on "Smoke" the song order seems backwards... the tunes get more interesting and the guitar playing more virtuosic with successive tracks. In fact, Bryant is barely perceptible on the opening cut, highlighting one reservation about this CD. The production occasionally leaves the spotlight on Bryant slightly askance, his excellent guitar work sometimes lost in tonal muddiness. In general though, Freddie Bryant weaves a unique musical tapestry of disparate styles exemplified by two of his mentors, jazzman Gene Bertoncini and classical guitarist Ben Verdery. Bryant's tapestry though, is all his own.

Freddie Bryant's Website Buy it here

Don Ross, "Huron Street", Narada 72438-50834-2-6, 2001

For musicians and composers there's something about young adulthood which fosters an intense creativity. There's conversely something about maturity which frees the artist to reach deeply within the heart in order to place an emphatic stylistic stamp upon his work. We get the benefit of both on "Huron Street", where Don Ross revisits twelve fingerstyle tunes he wrote when just embarking on a life journey that ultimately led to winning the prestigious National Guitar Fingerstyle Championship at Winfield twice, in 1988 and 1996. "Big Buck" opens this CD with the kind of joyful and masterful fingerpicking typical of Leo Kottke's enthusiastic early work. "Thin Air" is a conglomerate of slapping, chiming and pleasantly blindsiding chord resolutions with trade-off jamming between Ross and bassist Jordan O'Connor, recalling the telepathy of Michael Hedges with Mike Manring. Ross' music is not the plodding and timid guitarwork that sometimes is associated with new age, despite the fact that Narada is widely known as a new age label. Ross can really kick up some phosphor-bronze dust with his syncopated six-string sense on tunes such as "Loaded. Leather. Moonroof.", "Zarzuela", "Wall of Glass", "Lucy Watusi" and "Three Hands". On the other hand, the subdued intensity of "Catherine" is as subtle a musical landscape as the glint of morning sunshine on the shimmer of spring leaves.

Don Ross' Website Buy it at Amazon.com

Kelly Joe Phelps, "Sky Like a Broken Clock", Ryko P2A 310612, 2001

Fans of Kelly Joe Phelps won't have the opportunity with "Sky Like a Broken Clock" to gush over another of his collections of smooth acoustic slide guitar. There's nary one tune where steel hits the strings. The great news is that it's great music nonetheless, like discovering a brand-new artist. Phelps' excursion into acoustic fingerpicking on this disc doesn't mean that he has totally abandoned the blues. Still, I would have to say that it's the only acoustic blues recording I've ever heard which hardly flirts with a 12-bar format. He adroitly intones a pleasant gruffness similar to Mark Knopfler's vocals, and though he came into singing for a living late in his career, you can tell he knew naturally how to do it all along. Phelps' lyrical poetry may be the only vestigial hint of a career begun playing jazz in the spirit of Coltrane and Ornette Coleman. His music on "Sky" is decidely folk, pointing 180 degrees away from an abstract freejazz genre. The abstractions that Phelps captures here are not those of musical notes, but of words forming oblique and cryptic, often dark, narratives. This is KJP's first recording with a band, string bass and percussion, done live without overdubs. "Sky Like a Broken Clock" exudes a spirit of spontaneity and honesty.

Kelly Joe Phelps' Website Listen toRealAudio interview at NPR
Buy it at Amazon.com

Ralph Towner, "Anthem", ECM 1743, 2001

"Anthem" is an incredible study in understated elegance. This is a crystal pure recording that continues Ralph Towner's tradition, begun in 1980 with the live recording "Solo Concert", of musical leaps of faith using solo guitar with an approach that succeeds because of his rare willingness to take improvisational risks combined with creative genius. Towner is an expert at creating chords that hang in the air and await resolution, fostering a suspenseful expectation as on the ethereal "Solitary Woman". "Anthem" and "The Lutemaker" reveal the kind of compostional ingenuity and solemnity that inspired an Apollo crew to carry a young Towner's "Ghost Beads" to space. The darting and angular melody of "The Lutemaker" is especially unique to Towner's unconventional writing style. You don't have to strain very hard to hear the Bill Evans influence in "Gloria's Step" and "Very Late", numbers which dovetail the carefree spirit of jazz with an astonishing technical virtuosity of the classical player. Having received much of his early didactic training under classical guitarist Karl Scheit in Vienna, Towner's work in jazz has subsequently become forever indelibly imprinted with a classical nuance, but never more so than in his solo work, as here. Towner once said that vibraphonist Gary Burton was such a stalwart partner in a duet format that playing next to him was like sitting next to the Hoover Dam. With "Anthem" it's apparent that Towner, by himself, has secured that same rock-solid consistency.

Ralph Towner's Website Listen toRealAudio interview at NPR
Buy it at Amazon.com

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