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January & February Short Takes

Don Alder "Not a Planet," 2008 Acoustic fingerstyle soloist Don Alder branches out to sit in with a number of players on nine of the 13 tunes on this recording. The 2007 Winfield International Guitar Fingerstyle Champion even sings on two tracks. (He sings well enough to front a band.) Collaborations like "The Wall" yield a polished, rootsy pop. The ambient textures of "Syonara.calm," a duet with Michael Manring, border on a new age vocabulary. The solo "He Said, She Said" puts the melody right out front of a shuffle. The track reveals Alder's remarkable fluidity and ability to make clear statements. "Taiwan Traffic Jam" cuts out in a Willy Porter vein, with a driving urgency that showcases pure chops rooted in a strong, chiming melody. Overall, Alder proves he plays well with others on this outing. The emotional content is amorphous, yet specific to the moment at hand. At times you can feel an almost cinematic sensibility behind it. © Steve Klingaman

Danny Combs "Guitar Out Front," 2008 Debut albums can sometimes receive kind notices, with reviewers not wanting to crush the spirit of an aspiring and developing musician. For Danny Combs' debut "Guitar Out Front" on Solid Air Records (a notable achievement to start), kindness isn't necessary; it's just a fine record and stands on its own. With clear and precise playing and finely crafted melodies, Combs captures the essence of modern fingerstyle songcraft. With a background in classical guitar, Combs releases his steel string in open tunings, allowing the extra ringing quality to hang in the air, with musical depth dropping from the notes. One song that reflects this is the final cut, "Going to Kansas", that takes the listener on a journey slow enough to enjoy but not too slow to want to get off. The jaunty "Here We Go" uses descending chord progressions to effectively emphasize movement and hope. Many of the songs have a slow, contemplative air, like "Contemplation", "Cedar Creek", and "Baby Steps". Bent strings and hammer-ons punctuate the solid melody on "Contemplation". "Stained Glass" is a bit darker in color than most of the songs on the CD, but its melody is riveting and entangles the listener. Celtic flavors in DADGAD tuning touch the upbeat "Bartholomew's Jig". Combs shows some well-groomed chops on this debut CD, the recording is top notch, and anyone who likes modern fingerstyle guitar would do well to give it a listen. © Kirk Albrecht

Pete Seeger "At 89," 2008 With incredibly ambitious scope, these 32 cuts touch on events in Seeger's adult life, issues with which he's been associated, music of all kinds from all over the world, and the artist's many talents. Pete plays nylon-string guitar, 12-string, banjo, recorder, and Native American flute. He tells stories. He teaches. He sings. Seeger's voice, unlike his playing, is not what it once was. So he gets plenty of vocal help, a great chance to witness Seeger as accompanist and song-leader. Sometimes the material takes the most poetic of words (like the surprising "When I was Most Beautiful") and sets them to music. Mostly it uses plain-spoken words ("Hooray for the city of Berkeley and its Zero Waste Commission") suited to the clarity of Seeger's simple wisdom and optimistic vision. Though unabashed idealism dominates, even this cynic was moved in the end. (Disclaimer: In my youth, catching Pete at the Academy of Music in Philly was an annual ritual.) Seeger's new release is less a record that you'll play over and over, than a document folks of a certain ilk will want to own. Should such folks make this nominee the year's Grammy winner for traditional folk, no folks will object. "At 89" is a documentary, retrospective, re-visioning, and cautious prayer for the future of humanity. © David Kleiner

Kelly Valleau "Musica para la Guitarra," 2008 Those Canadians at Candy Rat Records are putting out some nice guitar music. Here's yet another debut CD that isn't just a throwaway, but offers some great guitar music played well by Kelly Velleau. As the title suggests, "Musica para la Guitarra" (Spanish for "Music for the Guitar") is a collection of nylon string instrumentals in a Spanish traditional sound. Nine of the 11 tracks are originals, with Velleau providing intriguing arrangements of Pink Floyd's "Another Brick in the Wall" and Queen's "We Will Rock You". These tunes on a nylon-string guitar give the listener another texture for these well-worn rock anthems, and Velleau does a fine job with each one. The darker tones Velleau employs at various places reminds me of some of Evan Hirschelman's work. Dance of the Dead" is a good example of these darker tones in a dance form that is both light and moody at the same time. "Requiem" is a beautiful, haunting tune that creates a space for reflection. Velleau shines on the playful, contrapuntal "Matador", where you can feel the face to face encounter between man and beast. "Hommage to Barrios" pays tribute in a waltz rhythm to Agustin Barrios Mangore, one of classical guitar's most influential figures, and a composer whose creations reflected the folklore of his native Paraguay. The disc ends with "The Duel", with quick arpeggios and shifting tempos. Throughout "Musica para la Guitarra", Velleau displays solid technical skill and a fine sense of musicality. These compositions may not be classics, yet they are songs well conceived and played. © Kirk Albrecht

Mark Murphy"To Find You There," 2008 Singer/songwriter Mark Murphy nicely straddles the worlds of pop and jazz on his 10-track debut collection, "To Find You There." Somewhat reminiscent of Michael Franks, who found success in a similar realm a couple of decades ago, Murphy assembles an able cadre of like-minded musicians. Jazz guitarist Jonathan Kreisberg, who co-wrote two of CD's tunes with Murphy, provides a number of tastefully snakey leads throughout. Bassist Ben Allison is equally accomplished, with the end result being much more of a collaborative work than the initial plan, which was to put together a few demos of Murphy's compositions. Happily, all elements complement one another, as Murphy's pleasant voice leads us through tales of romance, love's missteps, longing and loss. The jazz vibe extends smoothly into country with the whimsical "Hotel Room" and toward samba on the title track (aided by Maria Neckam's Sade-like vocals). This is a simply an unpretentious, disciplined, good-sounding collection. © Fred Kraus

Cantinero, "Better for the Metaphor," 2008 I knew it. On first, blind listen, I thought, "This guy's got the British pop gene." Sure enough, Chris Hicken is a New York-based Brit. His musical sensibility is that of a slightly cleaner mid-period Elvis Costello married to a bit of McCartney. "Cantinero,"-- a nickname conferred upon him during some earlier bartending days-grabs you on first listen with his appealing voice, centered in a very comfortable lower tenor range; catchy conceits and clean, compelling arrangements. Stand-out tracks include the opener, "My House," a bass-forward piece of sturdy melodic pop, "Goodbye Life," a delightful cabaret-style pairing with vocalist Jennifer Glass, "Selfish," a spare, emotionally compelling song that includes the CD title in its lyric, and "Long Way Home," with its darker twist on a music hall vocabulary. Cantinero mines some underutilized spectrums of the pop palette in ways that are especially notable for a contemporary male vocalist. You'll find a bit of the throwback, a bit of the timeless and a good deal of pure, unadulterated listening pleasure. © Steve Klingaman

Edward Trybek, "Images of Spain," 2008 After the successful release of his debut CD (Portrait of Edward Trybek) early last year, Edward Trybek quickly began work on his second disc: "Images of Spain." In this recording Trybek has selected a diverse mixture of Spanish guitar compositions and arrangements, spanning the Renaissance to the Twentieth Century. The disc includes some familiar works, such as "Asturias" (Albéniz) and "Recuerdos de la Alhambra" (Tarrega), as well as less familiar works by Malats, Milan, and Narváez. Perhaps most revealing are the breathtakingly difficult "Tres Piezas Espańolas" (Rodrigo), which challenge the performer both technically and musically. Here we enjoy Trybek's tender sensibility and attention to detail, particularly in the slower, more melodically driven passages. Later, Trybek's effortless phrasing throughout the two Fantasias (Milan) highlights his natural affinity towards Renaissance music. Trybek closes the disc with the first fifteen preludes by Tarrega; both simple and beautiful, these short pieces function well as a peaceful end to this oftentimes dramatic disc. © Timothy Smith

Edward Hamlin, "Rooted," 2008 This debut outing reveals a mature acoustic guitarist who is unnecessarily modest about his well-refined craft. A notable element of the work is the "Stranger's Lament Suite," an eight-part movement that feels through-composed within traditional boundaries of acoustic guitar repertoire. It represents a journey by sea that takes the listener some distance within its 12-minute span. The tone is elegiac, as if the places no longer exist, or originate in some other time. Hamlin cites Alex De Grassi as an influence and one hears those echoes. But more, as on "One More Surrender," one hears surrender to the allure of the instrument, all in itself. © Steve Klingaman

Duo Gvito, "Retrospect," 2008 Although Norway doesn't typically come to mind when one thinks of the classical guitar, the two Norwegian guitarists comprising Duo Gvito are making great strides towards putting their country on the classical guitar map. In their third CD, released in October 2008, they have compiled a collection of their own arrangements of music from both Norway and Brazil. From their home country, they selected two works by eminent Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg, as well as a debut recording of a work by Kjell Marcussen, written to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Grieg's death. All three compositions work beautifully on the guitar, taking advantage of a wide range of dynamics and timbres. The Brazilian selections are all arrangements of works by Alberto Nepomuceno and Heitor Villa-Lobos. These works each have attractive yet distinctive melodies, very much in the Brazilian style, and no doubt chosen by Duo Gvito for that exact reason. Both guitarists prove their technical acumen, as the disc is rife with complex passages, requiring not only exceptional accuracy from each individual, but impeccable ensemble skills. Meanwhile, during the softer melodic passages, they savor the moment, never rushing or casually dismissing any detail. In the end however, what makes this disc most striking, is the sheer enjoyment they seem to share in the performance of the music; there is a uniquely joyous feel to the entire disc that makes listening to it a true pleasure. © Timothy Smith

Here's some other great music we received this month:

Paul Rishell & Annie Raines - A Night in Woodstock
Matthew Montfort - Seven Serenades for Scalloped Fretboard Guitar
Magic Brook - The Source
Lorraine Leckie & Her Demons - Four Cold Angels
Matt Tyler - Jonah's Revenge
Dao Strom - Everything That Blooms Wrecks Me
Kim Richardson - True North

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