Tag Archives: solo guitar

WARM TRANSLUCENCE: ANDY BROWN, SOLO JAZZ GUITAR

Andy Brown Soloist

Andy Brown knows and embodies the simple truth.  It’s not how many notes you can play: it’s how you convey feeling with those notes.

For some time, the guitar has been the most popular instrument on the planet. Many guitarists aspire to blazing technique that causes the fretboard to burst into flames.  If you like to blame people, you can blame Hendrix, Bird, or even Django, masters who suggested to the unwary that the way to be even better was to be faster, more densely aggressive.

I come from a different school, having heard Charlie Christian, Teddy Bunn, Herb Ellis, Barney Kessel, Mary Osborne, George Barnes, George Van Eps and others early in my development. I cherish deep simplicities, not fireworks. That is why I have delighted in the playing of Andy Brown and am especially entranced by his most recent CD, plainly named SOLOIST (Delmark Records).

Andy Brown makes music, first and always.  His music woos the ear and the brain but lodges deep in the heart.  You shouldn’t get the wrong idea about him from my somewhat reactionary description: he is no primitive, rejecting technique because he has none.  On the contrary, he can play quickly, elaborately, and dramatically when the music calls for it.  The most mature players know that the greatest displays of technique involve restraint, subtlety, and breathing space.  Andy understands this, and what you hear is a relaxed lyricism where every note counts.  He is a melodic improviser, someone in love with beautiful warm sounds, not trying to impress listeners with outlandish dramatic spectacle.

Andy sounds like himself, but if I were pressed to say what ancestral heroes his playing suggests, they wouldn’t be guitarists.  Rather, I think this CD would have made Bobby Hackett, Ruby Braff, and Count Basie grin, for its understated singing grace, its beaming pleasure in music-making.

Time for a sample? Make yourself comfortable and savor these varied performances — beginning with luminous solos, then moving to collaborations with Howard Alden, Petra van Nuis, Jeannie Lambert, the cats at the Chautauqua Jazz Party, and even Barbra Streisand.  (Don’t be disconcerted that on the Streisand video — taken from a television appearance — the words “INSIDE DEATH ROW” appear bottom right.  No hidden messages here.)

Here you can hear brief audio samples from the CD.

Andy’s idols are many — he explains all that in his delightfully understated liner notes — but this isn’t a homage to any one guitarist.  It isn’t a disc where the artist reproduces and then elaborates on an influential album or set of recordings.

SOLOIST is a love letter to beautiful songs played with affection and swing, and it is easy to listen to without being Easy Listening.  It would impress any harmonically-astute guitar whiz but it could also embrace someone who knew nothing about substitute chords.  And although most of the songs are “standards,” they are played as if they were just written. Their melodies shine through; they swing.

And — unlike many solo guitar recordings I’ve heard — the sound is plain, unaltered, but gorgeously warm.  I see that the engineer is Scott Steinman — we are no relation — and he has done a lovely job.  And all I can say is that when I began listening to this disc, I delighted in it from first to last and then it seemed the most natural thing to start it up again.  You will feel similarly.

SOLOIST is a lovely recording, and an accurate record of the music of someone I admire, having heard him in person.

Andy writes in his notes that he simply began to play in the recording studio as he would on a gig. That should give any motivated person in the Chicago area a good idea: see Mr. Brown live and buy several copies of the CD from him.

May your happiness increase!

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A NEW CD: PETER BERNSTEIN, SOLO GUITAR, LIVE AT SMALLS

If you know jazz guitar in its truest sense, the news of a new Peter Bernstein solo CD is cause for delight, especially because it is his first solo recording. If he is new to you, I offer some evidence of his way with beauty:

(Recorded 2012 with pianist Michael Kanan at the Drawing Room, Brooklyn, New York.)

I don’t know at what point the guitar became the most popular instrument in the world — surely it has been so for the last half-century and more.  It looks easy: all the notes are visible, laid out in logical ways; there is nothing to blow into, no reeds to fuss over, but the neophyte finds out in the first half-hour that the guitar is a trap for the unwary.  Yes, one can walk up and down one string at a time; one can move simple chord patterns up and down the fretboard, but making music from the guitar — beautiful music — is a far more treacherous affair.

Peter Bernstein has long since become a Master of that instrument, and a Master of sweetly elongated melodies.  He doesn’t affect a hard-edged tone; he doesn’t need many notes to show us how vigorously he has practiced his scales; his solos don’t leave us exhausted.  Rather, he has a sweet, temperate sound on the instrument, but it’s not aural wallpaper: his notes ring and chime; his chords shimmer.  On this disc, he explores medium-tempo classics and ballads in a leisurely manner, but his approach is full of surprises: he plays orchestrally, so that a single-line statement will be punctuated by pulsing, mobile chords, with harmonies that offer new ways of hearing the familiar. At the end of a Bernstein performance of the most familiar song, one feels it has been revisited lovingly, its virtues shining, its faults (if it has any) tenderly concealed.

A Bernstein solo at first seems like a collection of delicate traceries, an iridescent spiderweb in the sunlight.  Then you realize that although his playing is easy to listen to, it is never Easy Listening, a lullaby for the half-conscious listener.  Heard attentively, one realizes that Bernstein’s delicacy is based on assurance and strength — a strength that isn’t expressed in volume or power, velocity or granitic chord-clusters, but a certainty: he is exploring but never indecisive, never tentative.  One listens to a small symphony unfolding, chorus after chorus, building structurally from note to note, phrase to phrase, until the whole improvisation has its own shining three-dimensional shape.

BERNSTEIN cover

The CD was not a thing of splices and patches, not created in the laboratory of the recording studio, but performed “live” in front of a quiet audience at Smalls (183 West 10th Street) in downtown Manhattan on October 16 and 17, 2012. The songs are a deliciously melodic mix: DJANGO / I LOVE YOU / CREPUSCLE WITH NELLIE / PANNONICA / STAR EYES / YESTERDAYS / DON’T BLAME ME / GIANT STEPS / WISE ONE / THE TENDER TRAP / TWO DIFFERENT WORLDS / AUTUMN IN NEW YORK / GONE WITH THE WIND / PUT YOUR DREAMS AWAY — a welcome emphasis on medium-tempo saunters and deep romantic ballads.  Even if you feel you’ve heard these songs a thousand times, you will make room in your memory for these new interpretations.

The disc is well-recorded, with empathic notes by pianist Spike Wilner . . . and I believe that profits from its sale benefit not only Peter but the club itself, a small quirky landmark of the world jazz scene.  It is an honor to hear Peter Bernstein go his own way as he does on this CD.

All albums (I believe the label has issued forty so far) are currently available through iTunes, Amazon (CD only), HDtracks (high-resolution) and at www.smallsjazzclub.com.

May your happiness increase!

BILLIE, GEORGE, IRA, THELONIOUS, BEAUTY and a SURPRISE: HOWARD ALDEN at JAZZ at CHAUTAUQUA (Sept. 21, 2012)

Howard Alden brings subtlety, swing, and an astonishing orchestral majesty wherever and whenever he plays.  The evidence, anew: a recital in the parlor of the Athenaeum Hotel during the 2012 Jazz at Chautauqua extravaganza.  In less than half an hour, Howard created magnificent mini-concertos — each with a theme, and the last one ending with a Surprise.

IF YOU WERE MINE and MISS BROWN TO YOU:

A very tender ISN’T IT A PITY?:

CREPUSCLE WITH NELLIE and a SURPRISE:

P.S.  Before Howard began his jazz sorcery, I overheard an illuminating piece of innocently surrealistic dialogue from two patrons seated near the piano; they had heard several solo recitals on that very instrument.

Lady (motioning to Howard): “Who is that?”

Gentleman Companion: “That’s Howard Alden.  He’s a guitarist.”

Lady: “Oh, that means he’s not playing piano.”

May your happiness increase.

ATLANTA 2012: BUCKY PIZZARELLI, ROMANTIC MAGICIAN (April 20, 2012)

Bucky Pizzarelli knows how to do it.  He can quiet a crowd and hold their attention — magically make us spellbound as he sweetly makes his way through music full of light and shade.  He did this once again at the Atlanta Jazz Party, all by himself, with a set that was simultaneously a work of art and the sort of thing our Mister Bucky does quite naturally.  Listen, watch (his facial expressions show that creating such high art is never easy), and be moved.

A sweet DARN THAT DREAM, more light-hearted than exasperated:

Harold Arlen’s lovely melodies, mixing memory, regret, and hope (LAST NIGHT WHEN WE WERE YOUNG / OUT OF THIS WORLD / A SLEEPIN’ BEE):

I didn’t know the title or origin of this song, but thanks to Song Sleuth Rebecca Kilgore (also a charter Friend of Melody and of Bucky) I now do — TRES PALABRAS, sung so passionately by the late Javier Solis:

Something for Bix and Bill Challis, IN A MIST:

Remarkable, no?  Great Romantic music accomplished with such feeling and skill.

May your happiness increase.

AT HOME WITH DAVY MOONEY: SEARCHING LYRICISM (April 4, 2012)

Guitarist / singer / songwriter Davy Mooney lights up the music wherever he is — playing obbligati to another vocalist, swinging the rhythm in the Grand Street Stompers, spinning out long lines in the fashion of early Joe Pass.  Before I knew anything about him, he had caught my ear.  And he is clearly more than simply a superb band guitarist, as his new CD, PERRIER STREET, proves.  On this Sunnyside CD, Davy is joined by Gordon Au, trumpet; John Cowherd, piano; Brian Blade, drums; Johnaye Kendrick, vocals; Matt Clohessy, bass; John Ellis, tenor sax and bass clarinet.  Here’s a link to find out more and to download the CD.

I missed Davy’s CD release party at the Cornelia Street Cafe, so I proposed a potentially radical idea: I could visit him at home, away from the crash of ice cubes and artificially-dramatic laughter, and record him at home.  He was more than amenable.  Here’s the result: tranquil readings of songs that often have dark messages.

The chiming melody and lines of CRIMSON:

PHELIA (with hints of a barcarolle, Thornhill’s SNOWFALL, and Debussy):

FIRST WORLD DEATH MARCH, a winning combination of jaunty melody and dark lyrics (when “righteous men choose the bloody way”):

The moody ONCE WAS TRUE: “all the voices in the sky are pleading,” a song about God losing faith in human beings:

A nearly hypnotic SWINGSET:

I’d asked Davy to play a “standard,” and he offered a nearly translucent LIKE SOMEONE IN LOVE — but wait for the cadenza:

The spinning orchestral velocity of CENTRAL SUPPLY:

ALL OF HER, a “sad song,” secretly based on a familiar nursery rhyme:

Davy told me that his guitar is a semi-hollow seven-string archtop tuned to a low A, created by the Louisianan Jimmy Foster, who died in 2011.  What sounds he gets from it!

If any other improvising soloists want to arrange an at-home session, let’s talk!

May your happiness increase.

CRAIG VENTRESCO, MAGICALLY AFLOAT

On Saturday, March 27, 2010, in San Francisco, I had the good fortune to meet (in person) the tireless video chronicler of West Coast jazz, Rae Ann Berry — a delightful person, as I’d expected — and two jazz friends: Barb Hauser, the energetic friend of the music and musicians, and the peerless guuitarist and philosopher Craig Ventresco.  None of them could stay long — Barb had a date, Craig had a gig at Cafe Atlas, and Rae Ann was going to document it. 

Rae Ann and Craig once again worked wonders — so through the marvel of modern technology and YouTube, we take you now to Cafe Atlas to hear delicious music. 

Playing unaccompanied acoustic guitar is a brave act in almost any context.  Put the guitarist in the middle of an active restaurant and it rises to levels of Olympian exploits.  Craig calmly sits in the midst of traffic, chatter, and distraction.  Servers cross to and fro; drinks are consumed and ordered; cardboard boxes cross our view; the restroom door opens and closes. 

But Craig plays on, apparently immune to the nonmusical forces around him.  With his own internal rhythmic engine, he keeps the pulse going in the most restorative way, never becoming mechanical.  His little rubato digressions are priceless episodes of speculation and ornamentation.  Craig finds the chords that other musicians ignore, and his unadorned sound is an antidote to the buzz and hum around us. 

How he does it I don’t know.  I would find myself glaring at the walkers and talkers.  But he immerses himself in a sea of musical inventiveness and floats above the distractions.

We are so lucky to have him and to have Rae Ann documenting it for us!

Here’s a ruminative look at I GET THE BLUES WHEN IT RAINS, even though it was sunny at Cafe Atlas:

And a stirring affirmation of possessiveness — the 1929 pop hit MINE, ALL MINE:

Life-affirming music.  Emersonian self-reliance isn’t dead, and it even has a guitar.