Minor 7th July/Aug 2005: Eduardo Isaac, Jim Tozier, Shelby Lynne, Sylvain Luc, Pierre Bensusan, Ray LaMontagne, Fareed Haque Group, Joe Rohan, Antje Duvekot, Alan Thomas, Andrew Wrigglesworth, Amadeus Guitar Duo, Justin Roth
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Reviewing the best in non-mainstream acoustic guitar music

July/August, 2005

Eduardo Isaac, "One For Helen," GHA Records 126.056, 2005

In 1975, pianist Keith Jarrett recorded a series of sustained solo improvisations in Köln Germany, which heralded a revolution in acoustic music. On Eduardo Isaac's current release, "One for Helen," the classical guitarist meticulously adapts excerpts from Jarrett's "Köln Concerts" and also includes seminal compositions by Bill Evans and Miles Davis. The success of this recording lies in the fact that Isaac does not merely transcribe the artists' masterworks, but instead interprets each piece and arranges it to fit the sonic intricacies of his own instrument. Isaac ingeniously captures the emotion, richness, and integrity of the music itself. Assisting Isaac in this ambitious endeavor is Badi Assad on wordless vocals and percussion. Assad has a unique and extraordinary talent cleverly complementing Isaac throughout most of the recording. While at times her transcendent presence may appear to be asynchronous to the music, her creative contributions are not dissimilar to Jarrett's own vocalizations during the original improvisations. On the other hand, her poignant performance on Miles Davis's timeless "Blue in Green" is perhaps one of the finest vocal interpretations of his music. Assad skillfully articulates every nuance and emotional inflection of the legendary Jazz trumpeter's ubiquitous style. Eduardo Isaac's "One from Helen" is truly a triumph for the acoustic guitar, exploring and pushing the sonic capabilities of the instrument. His stellar performance of the Jarrett compositions is nothing short of miraculous. Isaac also proves to be a consummate interpreter of traditional American music. Although most classical guitarists can sound sterile and superficial when performing Jazz standards, Isaac swings eloquently and effortlessly throughout this recording. The guitarist redefines the parameters of his instrument and in doing so has created a true masterpiece in his own right. This is unquestionably one of the greatest acoustic guitar albums of 2005 and quite possibly many years to follow.
© James Scott

Eduardo Isaac's Website (at GHA) Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to "Introduzione" (mp3)

Jim Tozier, "Solo Guitar", Solid Air Records SACD 2044, 2005

Jim Tozier has been laying down the tracks lately. In addition to this fine collection of 16 original instrumentals, Tozier simultaneously released "Celtic Guitar," his arrangements of many standard British-Isles tunes for solo steel string guitar. From the first chord, it is apparent that Tozier has been immersed in the form and feel of Celtic music; his tunings of DADGAD and CGCGCD are widely used by modern interpreters of Irish and British music first played on fixed-pitch instruments. Many of modern fingerstyle guitar's brighter lights like Laurence Juber, Amrit Sond, the frailing of Steve Baughman, and Al Petteway echo through Tozier's work. Petteway's hand is all over the recording as co-producer and sound engineer at his Fairewood Studios. We never move too fast, or too slow, but Tozier allows us to drink in the notes as they fall off his fretboard. There are various moods conveyed in this collection. We soar and dip on the winds with "Dalliance of the Eagles" with its strumming, tapping, and gentle fingerpicking. "The Sheffield Shuffle" syncopates, while "Train Station Blues" is a brief stop along the tracks. We see the smile of his young daughter in the lilting "Song for Shannon," and gracefully take a turn with him in "The Copper Waltz," dedicated to his wife Marilouise. "New York" gives us a musical memory of a night in the Big Apple, while "Frenchman Bay" caresses our senses with an almost hypnotic melody woven against a drone bass line. All in all, it's a fine release of solo guitar music very easy on the ears.
© Kirk Albrecht

Jim Tozier's Website Buy it at Acoustic Music Resource
Listen to "Trinity"

Shelby Lynne, "Suit Yourself", Capitol Records CDP7243 4 73404 2 2, 2005

With a live feel that hasn't been hacked to death in some big studio, this rootsy rock and sometimes country album is an absolute pleasure. Lynne's that slightly cynical friend, cigarette in hand, who tells you how she's been, with nothing pretty added, just the straight stuff. The disc opens with the good-time "Go With It." A cool smoky jazz feel starts off "I Cry Everyday" and then kicks into an old school R&B that would make Al Green proud. She repeats "I cry everyday" at the end and baby, you believe it. "Old Time's Sake" is a heart-breaking plea to a departing lover that features a weeping pedal steel. "Johnny Met June" is bare with its simply strummed acoustic guitar and Lynne's craggy vocals but it whispers like a valentine. And while she's good at the love songs, you don't want to break up with her either. Witness "You Don't Have a Heart" where she cries, "You don't have a soul." Starting with a solid southern rock groove, she adds some groovy organ, then lets the band jam at the end with a wicked electric slide guitar and a laid back rhythm section. I wish I could credit the musicians but this advance copy I have doesn't list them. Lynne produced this album and she sure knows how to pick the players. Now go buy this CD and have that conversation. She's got a lot to tell you.
© Jamie Anderson

Shelby Lynne's Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to a sampler from "Suit Yourself" (mp3)

Sylvain Luc, "Ambre", Dreyfus Jazz FDM 36650-2, 2005

Sylvain Luc is a gifted and innovative guitarist of Basque descent. "Ambre" is the latest addition to his impressive discography of solo, duo and group recordings. I first became aware of Luc with "Duet", his 2000 disc with Biréli Lagrčne and on Lagrčne's DVD, "Jazz A' Vienne", where Luc joins violinist Florin Niculescu for a fine rendition of Cole Porter's "Night and Day". He performs alone on "Ambre" in solo and multitracked settings. Luc plays steel, nylon-string and bass guitars, including a fretless nylon-string model. Throughout the disc, he maintains a spontaneous feel, whether playing solo or layering as many as four guitars on a track. His arrangements on "Ambre" are more abstract than the performances on "Duet," although his sometimes muted tone, pizzicato attack and lively rhythms are evident on both discs. "Ambre" opens with Thad Jones' "A Child is Born", featuring a bass melody and improvisational lines on the fretless guitar. Luc plays Miles Davis' "All Blues" as a bass/guitar duet. These two performances and the solo "Shadow of Your Smile" are successful interpretations of modern jazz and popular compositions -- each is enjoyable and, through Luc's interpretation, adds to the listener's appreciation of the piece. Luc composed most other pieces on the disc. My favorites are his solo works. Of these, "Ambre" recalls Joni Mitchell's "Hejira", although the comparison holds only until Luc abandons his droning bass arpeggios and moves into the guitar's higher registers. "Berceuse Basque" (Basque Lullaby) is another gem. Sylvain Luc has created a very personal sound, characterized as much by an unhurried pace and relatively soft tone as by his awesome gypsy-honed chops. Luc is already well-known in Europe; with this disc and wider touring, he is poised to gain a wider audience.
© Patrick Ragains

Sylvain Luc's Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to "All Blues" (mp3)

Pierre Bensusan, "Altiplanos", Favored Nations FN 2440-2, 2005

Pierre Bensusan creates varied soundscapes that somehow flow seamlessly through an entire performance or recording. "Altiplanos" highlights Bensusan's solo guitar, but the disc also features electric guitar, vocals, whistling, percussion, saxophone, flutes and bass. Much of his music has a familiar quality, as do the introductory rondos of "Sentimentales Pyromaniaques" and "If You Only Knew." Bensusan's solo technique is formidable, but he cleanly articulates leading voices in the bass, middle and treble registers, often answering a high-pitched phrase with one in the bass or vice-versa. The title tune is performed solo in standard tuning, ranging from modal drones to an Elizabethan feel, syncopated treble runs and rhythmic explorations on the bass strings before returning to the original theme. "Sur un Fil", "Sylva" and "Tacita" are the most radical departures from Bensusan's acoustic repertoire, presenting electric guitars, reeds, percussion and vocals in an ambient mix. To extend this analogy, the disc's entire program has a recognizable, organic quality, as if I'd always heard this music inside my head. Bensusan plays and sings passionately and the CD is beautifully recorded. "Chant de Nuit" ends the disc peacefully, moving from a Celtic sound to a second section that is more romantic and reminiscent of Ed Gerhard's ballad interpretations. Pierre Bensusan is a fine guitarist, but he is more than that. He is a mature, confident and passionate artist. This CD is a fine addition to his catalogue.
© Patrick Ragains

Pierre Bensusan's Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to "Sentimentales Pyromaniaques" (mp3)

Ray LaMontagne, "Trouble", RCA 82876 63459-2, 2004

One unremarkable morning, about a year after he started working at a Maine shoe factory, Ray LaMontagne's alarm went off as usual. Stephen Stills' "Tree Top Flyer" was playing. "Something about that song just hit me," LaMontagne recalls. "I was transformed." So began the journey that led to LaMontagne's debut recording, "Trouble." The story is compelling, the experience vital to LaMontagne's ambition, to create transformative music with direct impact. "Trouble" does that with astonishing economy and soulfulness. It just hits you. First there's the voice. Comparisons to Van Morrison are unavoidable yet off the mark somehow. LaMontagne's is a roughhewn, totally American voice with what technicians might call overtones. Listeners will hear undertones of sadness and vulnerability. Everyone will recognize its depth. The sound on the CD hearkens back to Band-era retro Americana. The arrangements are generally stripped down with LaMontagne on rhythm guitar and harmonica and most of the other instruments played by producer Ethan Johns. The title cut epitomizes the power with which LaMontagne can imbue a simple lyric. Both trouble and a good woman refuse to let the speaker go, but when he starts the word "saved" below pitch and slides up to his note, we're sure this soul is safe. LaMontagne also knows how to tell an affecting story. In "Narrow Escape," a few sentences chart the tragic intersection between a murder tale and a love story. "Jolene," the story of a man who finds himself "face down in the ditch / Booze on my hair / Blood on my lips / A picture of you, holding a picture of me / in the pocket of my blue jeans" also packs a wallop. Among the many homages in the record, LaMontagne manages a nod to the artist who inspired his epiphany. The thirds Johns plays in "Forever My Friend" sound very much like the guitar of Stephen Stills. Stills' daughter Jennifer supplies guest vocals on "Narrow Escape." This album is about much more than nostalgia, however. In the "Feelin' Alright" reminiscent "How Come," Johns provides some 70's sounding electric lead. But the refrain, "How come I can't tell the free world from a living hell… it's all just man killing man" is all too relevant. The closing vamp really brings it home. You can choose to dance or cry. But you will listen, again and again.
© David Kleiner

Ray LaMontagne's Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to "Trouble" (mp3)

Fareed Haque Group, "Cosmic Hug", Magnatude Records 0505, 2005

Those familiar with Fareed Haque's recordings for Blue Note in the 1990s might grapple with the conundrum of how this exceptional jazz player could become bewitched by a genre which has never before been heard by human ears. Fareed himself refers to the music on "Cosmic Hug" as "South Asian gospel music," but the label of "Techno-tantric Groove" seems more precise. Fareed is an innovator who often shocks and challenges his listeners with his gift to hybridize musical cultures and flirt with the fringes, but his past projects have been an amalgamation of relatively staid classical forms with jazz. Here, he fuses a cerebral variety of techno-jazz as pioneered by guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel with polyrhythmic world music of Indian influence. Some of this music does ring familiar, as on "fh/sk", where Fareed's fretless Godin conjures an ethereal ambiance that would slide in well between tracks of Pat Metheny's "Imaginary Day". But on the title track "Cosmic Hug" Fareed's sitar-guitar dances to-and-fro over what might be straight-up jazz were the bass, drums and keyboards to be isolated out, pulling the music to a fantastic netherworld where only Fareed knows the path. Kalyan Pathak on tabla and voice is a valuable collaborator on this recording, the one who is most responsible for the success of the Fareed Haque Group's forays into "world" territory ("Gulab Jammin", "fh/sk", "Raj" and "Lahara").
© Alan Fark

Fareed Haque's Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to "fh/sk" (RealAudio)

Joe Rohan, "These Days", Off the Map Music 634479-097300, 2005

Shawn Colvin, John Gorka, the early 90s -- a particularly fertile period for singer-songwriter types -- all come to mind upon first hearing Joe Rohan's second release "These Days." Comparisons could also be made to more contemporary aritists such as Jason Mraz, Jack Johnson, and Train, especially to Train's "Meet Virginia" or their mega hit "Drops of Jupiter." What "These Days" lacks, however, is the production to bring what Rohan's doing up to date. Perhaps this is why the tracks with the most bare bones production are the standouts. Rohan shines his brightest and comes off his most original on the brief and poignant "James Dean." The simple, modest acoustic guitar accompaniment allows the song to breathe and Rohan's personality to emerge. The groovy "Lovestruck Romeo," with its bluesy acoustic riff and soulful vocal, also manages to escape sounding dated and is one of the best songs on "These Days." While the production on "These Days" breaks no new ground, it must be said that the musicianship is highly competent and the performances flawless. Curtis Leonard's guitar, Scott Smith's harmonica, and Mark Leachąs Hammond B3 accent and flavor "These Days" throughout, keeping things interesting. The most, as they say, radio friendly track is probably "So Many Eyes," a driving, rock tune that displays best Rohan's obvious pop sensibilities. The drive present on "So Many Eyes," as well as on all tracks with drums, is provided by none other than Rohan himself. Rohan also contributes tasteful dobro and keyboards to "These Days." A truly talented artist.
© Chip O'Brien

Joe Rohan's Website Buy it at CD Baby
Listen to Blown Away (mp3)

Antje Duvekot, "Boys, Flowers, Miles", 2005

"Boys, Flowers, Miles" showcases the intimate side of an exceptional songwriter and performer. Pairing introductions recorded live with acoustic studio (mostly) tracks, Duvekot displays her charming stage presence -- highlighted by self-deprecating humor -- alongside her prodigious writing talent. Duvekot brings a unique vocabulary to song. Juxtaposing words unexpectedly to enhance the meaning of both ("fragile anchors"), staying aware of sound ("missing the anguish"), and digging deeply into her Funk and Wagnall's ("You make me vincible. How am I supposed to fight that?"), Duvekot explores the human condition , finding universal truths in tales of complex characters. But what makes the lyrics work are Duvekot's lovely vocals and her musical sensibility. One typically potent example, "Sex Bandaid," begins with the repetition of a simple guitar figure, a broken arpeggio pairing an open bass string drone with a minor form high on the top. The wide interval and repetition are suitably disturbing. The speaker alleges, "I don't need your grief." Then, with the bass note fretted and the treble strings open, she confesses, "I need you like my whiskey." The hooky chorus ("Throw a sex bandaid on my open wounds") could be at home in a sexy song but serves even better this song about sex. Eventually, an ever more insistent strum will accompany each more heated chorus. Behind the lead vocal is a disconcerting, siren-like harmony that eschews thirds. When the speaker begs, "Kiss me," we don't know whether to feel sorry or to kiss her. Every song Duvekot writes works on multiple levels. Don't be deceived by the loping strum that opens "Pearls." The song, though told with a dose of humor, portrays a desperate character in need of a little grace. It delivers the album's most memorable line, "with all the sand that gets inside this world we should all be motherfucking pearls by now." "Erin" (covered by Irish supergroup Solas on their latest) is a stark tale underscored by an ominous guitar strum on the one. "Judas" envisions the backstory of Jesus and his betrayer, set in contemporary suburbia. Each song is a splendid act of imagination. Antje Duvekot combines vision with metaphor and melody to create songs brimming with meaning and music.
© David Kleiner

Antje Duvekot's Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to Annabelle (mp3)

Alan Thomas, "The Long & Winding Road", 2005

Fab Four purists may take umbrage to guitarist Alan Thomas covering 36 Beatles classics on "The Long and Winding Road." The two-disc project showcases Thomas’ impressive technique on several acoustic instruments: steel string guitar, classical guitar, mandolin, 12-string, bottleneck slide, bass guitar and a banjulele. The Atlanta native multi-tracks his solo playing so that some songs may have three or five or eight instruments interweaving simultaneously, a prodigious undertaking in and of itself. However, what strikes one most about this collection is Thomas’ bold arrangements. When Clapton rearranged his heart-wrenching, agonized "Layla" into a bouncy acoustic ditty a few years back, fans screamed, and not in Beatlemania fashion either. Similarly, while Thomas plays a few of these "straight," he turns a few entirely on their ears, and fusses and tinkers with the rest. Straight, with only one instrument, and quite nicely done are "Yesterday," "Here, There and Everywhere," "If I Fell," and "In My Life." Happily, no surprises there. But Thomas takes the feverishly adolescent exuberance of "She Loves You" and transforms it into a lovely, achy, mature love song. It’s a completely fresh reading and beautiful -- and it’s pure genius. On the other hand, he completely misses with "Help," his three mandolins infusing it with an upbeat circus-like aura. "Paperback Writer" gets cutesy, "Ticket to Ride" turns dreary, and "Yellow Submarine" (not a great song to begin with) grows completely bizarre when set up by banjuleles. More nits: "Michelle" is simply wrong with mandolins, and "Her Majesty" and "From Me to You" get an inappropriate American rag treatment. Thomas offers plenty of other fodder for discussion, but there’s no denying his fine guitar work. And his new arrangements of old classics allow us to chew on some chestnuts with fresh ears.
© Fred Kraus

Alan Thomas' Website Buy it here
Listen to "Let it Be" (mp3)

Andrew Wrigglesworth, "In His Own Words", 2004

What do you get when you try to take modern acoustic guitar music and give it more oomph? Probably something like "In His Own Words," the debut CD from Andrew Wrigglesowrth of Australia. Wrigglesworth, who has played with the likes of Tommy Emmanuel in concert, pulls out drums, bass, keyboards, and electric guitar in the mix to showcase his playing in ensemble settings. He's a good player with a sweet feel for melody, and his compositions offer the listener catchy tunes with a pop sensibility. The title cut shows his fingerstyle chops in a tender ballad with subtle help from the band, while "The Sweetest Thing" takes us cantering down the lane on nylon string guitar by itself. "Graveyard Shift" reveals a lot more sassy energy than most of us have at that time of night! Staccato drum bursts drive "Conflicting Emotions," a denouement of descending scales. Gerry Ciavarella provides a compelling counterpoint of soprano sax on "Now And Forever." We hear shades of Tommy E on the final cut, "Words of Wisdom," perhaps reflecting some advice the 6-string wizard had offered to a young Wrigglesworth. I'm not sure if I would call this CD easy listening, but it is easy to listen to, and may make its way onto radio play lists in that category. © Kirk Albrecht

Andrew Wrigglesworth's Website Buy it here
Listen to "Amanda's Song" (mp3)

Amadeus Guitar Duo, "Baroque Moments", Hanssler classic 98.485, 2004

The Amadeus Guitar Duo in their recent CD entitled "Baroque Moments" adhered to one of the basic rules of arranging for the classical guitar: choose something Baroque, it will likely sound as good as or better than the original. And, like any good Baroque collection should, the CD features works by Bach, Handel, Vivaldi, and…César Franck? While I was somewhat disappointed that the duo did very little to explain the inclusion of this Romantic composer in the packaged program notes, apparently letting the title "Prélude, Fugue, and Variation, op.18" speak for itself, I was nevertheless delighted to hear this delicate and evocative piece on the guitar. Despite my initial confusion, I found the playing on this disc to be impeccable, showing why the Amadeus Guitar Duo is one of the most respected guitar pairings on the concert stage. One aspect of their performance that proved quite fascinating was the distinct contrast between their individual sounds. I am unsure if this can be credited to their guitars or to differences in technique, but I can say that it was ideal for the perpetual polyphony found throughout the recording. The Handel Chaconne that opens the disc also benefits from their juxtaposed sound productions as the duo exchanges the melodic content at the end of each phrase. This recording offers a fresh perspective on several well-known works, and is ideal for anyone with an affinity for Baroque composition. © Timothy Smith

Amadeus Guitar Duo's Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to Franck's "Prelude" (mp3)

Justin Roth, "Shine", 2003

I was skeptical when I heard of the comparison of Justin Roth to Michael Hedges, fearing another instrumental album with virtuosity but no soul or mass appeal. Imagine my surprise when "Shine" came on the speakers, leaving me smiling by the end of the song whilst I drove down the highway. The second track blew me away (maybe it was my good mood but does the WB have a copy of this record? I’m sure I’m not alone when I say this song should be licensed for TV). "The Only Life" is the standout pop track on this disc and has one of the best examples of what most other folk records lack: ARRANGEMENTS! And not just some mandolins in the background, I mean full-on, layered guitar, three-part harmony production. This production style is all over the album but not obtrusive to the point of obscuring any song’s original intent. This all carries over to the "dark side" of this record. The first half of this record featured sweet natured lyrics and major keys but the second half kicks off with morbid "Savior" (and John Hermanson’s eerie theramin) about the execution of a sick horse in winter. This is followed by the minor key but generic "On The Fault Line", topped off by the ebullient yet "gross" offering of "Dead Horse Trampoline" (by Bay Area native Christopher Smith). Trust that the title offers no metaphors. I was also impressed by the two instrumental tracks on the album, "The Weaver of Avoca" (by Billy McLaughlin) and Roth’s own "Bagshot Row." The latter avoids the trap of acoustic New Age music by hybridizing folk with Trilok Gurtu (courtesy of percussionist Marc Anderson and Roth’s double-hand technique). Overall, this is a great record with instrumental command, lyrical substance, and pop sensibility. © Sean Lewis

Justin Roth's Website Buy it at Amazon.com
Listen to "Shine" (mp3)

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VHS:"Pierre Bensusan In Concert"

DVD: "Keith Jarrett: Last Solo"

DVD: "Keith Jarrett - Solo Tribute"

"The Beatles Guitar"

"Best of The Beatles for Acoustic Guitar"

DVD:"A Tribute to Bill Evans"

"Waltz for Debby"

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