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52 Guitars: Week 52

Andrés Segovia

I wanted to close out this series with a really important guitarist, and it would be hard to find a more suitable candidate than Segovia, who did so much to bring the guitar into the mainstream of classical music. In a career that spanned the greater part of the 20th century, he advanced the repertoire of the instrument and made technical contributions that assisted its spread, notably the use of nylon strings, which stay in tune much better than the old gut strings. And of course his career coincided with an enormous surge of interest in the guitar in all kinds of music, so that people who might otherwise have had little interest in classical music were interested in classical guitar.

I'm not at home and have limited internet connectivity; worse, I've been pretty sick for the past several days, sicker than I can remember being for at least the past decade or more, and am still feeling pretty bad. So I'm not going to spend as much time searching out Segovia gems on YouTube as I would like. Instead, I give you the complete Guitar Concerto #1 by Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, which was inspired by Segovia. I think this is the same performance I have on some no-name LP, probably sort of semi-bootleg. The original recording is none too great, and this is just a recording of the vinyl, with a lot of surface noise. You'll need to turn the sound up some. But I think it's worth it--it's a simple and charming piece.

Moreover, for some reason the person who posted it on YouTube has disabled embedding on the first movement, so click here for it, and then proceed with the next two:

 

 

And so ends the year of guitar music. I hope you've enjoyed it. It crossed my mind the other day to wonder whether I could come up with another 52 guitarists. So I started writing down names as fast as I could think of them, and in ten minutes or so had come up with 40 or so. But I don't plan to do another year.


52 Guitars: Week 51

Mississippi Fred McDowell

I wish I could say that when I was growing up in rural Alabama I heard this kind of music alive in its native culture. But I didn't; I heard it on records in the living room of an aunt and uncle who had a great interest, very unusual for white people in that time and place, in the country blues. I was fifteen or so, and the love I soon felt for this music has never slackened. If I remember correctly, the first slide player I heard was Furry Lewis. I do remember feeling the same thing that B.B. King described on hearing the slide guitar of Bukka White: the sound "just went all through me." And beyond that immediate sonic appeal, I recognized the voice and the heart of people I knew, and was beginning to realize that I loved. 

I believe this was the first thing I ever heard by Mississippi Fred McDowell. It's among the many field recordings made by Alan Lomax. I think the woman singing with him is his wife.

"Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning": 

 

"You Got To Move": 

 

Don't be misled by the religious themes into thinking that McDowell was a purely religious writer; his work contains the mix of deep religiosity and profligate sexuality that was typical of rural black culture.

I don't know if Dylan had heard this before he wrote his famous song, but if it wasn't this, it was probably another version; it often seems that there are no original songs in the blues. "Highway 61": 

 

Here's more information about that highway.


52 Guitars: Week 50

John McLaughlin

McLaughlin is very well known in jazz circles, but I've never really listened to him very much. I heard him back in 1970 or so when he appeared on Miles Davis's Bitches Brew, which I did not really get then and still don't, although it's considered a masterpiece by many. 

But as with a couple of other people I've posted about in this series, my interest in McLaughlin was piqued by his appearance on one of the Crossroads Festival DVDs. I thought this was dull at first hearing, despite the virtuosity, but it grew on me. "Maharina": 

 

McLaughlin is probably most widely known for his 1970s work in the Mahavishnu Orchestra. As with Bitches Brew, I didn't care much for what I heard of them at the time. I remember finding it almost shocking, because I had for some reason expected a serene meditative sound, but it was fiery. Eight or ten years ago, in a period of re-considering progressive rock and other types of music that I hadn't cared for at the time, I heard the M.O.'s Inner Mounting Flame and really liked it. It's generally classified as jazz-rock fusion, and unlike much of that genre really merits that description. This is the first track, "Meeting of the Spirits": 

 

About twenty years ago McLaughlin had a trio of which the other two members were Joey De Francesco on organ and Elvin Jones on drums. Appropriately for the presence of Jones, the drummer on many of John Coltrane's greatest recordings, they released a CD which included several compositions either by Coltrane or forever associated with him, including "My Favorite Things." I don't see the album track on YouTube, but here's a live performance of it, not without flaws--the guitar actually sounds out of tune in places, though I think that may be due to a slightly misused or badly-adjusted chorus effect--but still worth hearing. The drummer here is not Jones, however.

  

 


52 Guitars: Week 49

Frank Zappa

I want to say more or less the same thing about Frank Zappa now that I did in a 2007 review of Hot Rats, so I may as well not bother rephrasing it, and just quote:

I must say right off that I had never taken very seriously Zappa’s ambition to be taken very seriously as a musician. Maybe “ambition” is the wrong word, since the general air of dadaist clownishness with which he invested his work certainly encouraged one to treat it as a joke. That was my original difficulty. Zappa and the Mothers of Invention were essentially a musical comedy act, and when albums like Lumpy Gravyand Hot Rats came out, people didn’t know what to make of them. I think I heard each of them approximately once. I have a faint memory of hearing them in the company of friends, all of us waiting for the jokes to start, puzzled and bored when they never arrived.

Subsequently I heard Zappa’s music praised often enough, but usually by the sort of people who think songs like “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow” are tremendously funny, so that the commendation of the music came across as an unpersuasive afterthought, a bit reminiscent of an old-timePlayboy reader praising the magazine’s journalism. Nor did Zappa’s general air of angry cynicism—which seemed, on the basis of occasional media reports, to harden over the years, along with his liking for crudeness and obscenity—suggest that I should reconsider his music. 

I went on to be pretty positive about Hot Rats (I'm not linking to the review because it seems somehow not to have made it over to this blog and is still on the old one, which is going to be taken down Any Day Now).

Zappa's more dedicated fans remind me a little of dogmatic libertarians: intelligent in a constricted, rationalistic sort of way, a little deficient in understanding of the totality of the human. (Dogmatic Thomists can be somewhat the same way.) And Zappa's music seems similar: in the realm of pop music you couldn't get much further away from the emotional power of, say, Van Morrison. 

One thing the fans always insist upon is that he was a great guitarist. Other than "Willie the Pimp" on Hot Rats, I had never encountered much evidence of that. But it's true. I don't hear anything in any of the three clips that follow that reaches down into the emotions the way, for instance, a much more technically limited blues guitarist can do. But his playing is certainly interesting

"Shut Up and Play Yer Guitar": 

 

"Chunga's Revenge": This is one of the best Zappa solos I found on YouTube, but embedding is disabled, so click here.  This is a live performance, and there are embeddable copies of the album version, but it's not nearly as guitar-centric and generally as appealing as this one. 

And here's an interesting case study of what I said above about the head-vs.-heart contrast. I was very surprised to find Zappa playing the Allman Brothers' intense classic "Whipping Post". Zappa's solo (a couple of minutes in) is not very bluesy, and is very--here's that word I can't seem to avoid--interesting, but overall, in spite of the singer's earnest effort, this just doesn't touch the emotions in the way the Allmans' original does (click here if you don't know it).

 

More than twenty-five years ago I lent someone my original 1967 copy of the Mothers of Invention's Freak Out album, and never got it back. I wish I had. What a fascinating curio from that time it is.


52 Guitars: Week 48

Yngwie Malmsteen

Yngwie (ING-vay) is arguably the very fastest guitar player in the world. Which certainly doesn't mean he's the best musician; I have to say that to my taste, a little of this goes a long way. But dang....

"Black Star": 

 

Many minds were boggled, I understand, when his album Rising Force was released in 1984.

"Far Beyond the Sun": 

 

As a piece of music, this might be my favorite of the three that I've posted: "Leviathan":

 


52 Guitars: Week 47

Glenn Phillips

If there is anyone reading this who has heard of Glenn Phillips, I'd like to know. Without looking back over the whole list of people I've posted about this year, I feel pretty sure he is the least-known. I believe--again, without checking--that he's one of the two people I've featured whom I've seen in live performance. The other was Jimi Hendrix.

Sometime around the turn of the year 1967-8, between semesters at college, I went to visit some friends who had relocated from Tuscaloosa to Atlanta. They took me to a club to hear Ellen McIlwaine, a blues singer at the beginning of a moderately successful career. On the same bill was a group called the Hampton Grease Band. They were a strange outfit whom I would have compared to Captain Beefheart and his Magic Band if I had ever heard of the latter. Hampton, the vocalist, wandered around yelling and talking, while a pretty interesting pair of guitarists and a rhythm section played. One of the guitarists was named Glenn Phillips. Though I doubt I remembered the name from that night, I heard more about the band later.

A few years later the Hampton Grease Band put out a double LP called Music To Eat. I bought it, and only listened to it a couple of times. That was a disoriented time in my life, and it was a disorienting record, and I didn't want to hear it anymore. Hardly anyone did, apparently; it was a decidedly un-listener-friendly album, and reportedly the second worst-selling album in the history of Columbia Records at that point. I don't know what happened to my copy, but I wish I'd hung on to it, as it apparently became something of a collector's item later on.

Another decade and a half or so later, I ran across Phillips's name in Guitar Player magazine, and learned that after the Grease Band broke up he had embarked on a solo career, and though he'd had no commercial success was highly regarded by other guitarists. I've been meaning for years to find some of those recordings. I didn't find a great deal on YouTube, but what I found is quite interesting, and makes me want to hear more. Apparently he's still living in Atlanta, and for the past forty years has continued doing what he started doing in the early '70s--playing in clubs and making recordings.

These are all live  performances. Neither the sound nor the video is of very high quality, and the performances are kind of rough around the edges, but I think you can get the idea. 

"Scotland": 

 

"John Marshall": 

 

"I Say No":

 

What I like most about his soloing is that it's so melodic, and at times almost joyful.

Oh, and about the Hampton Grease Band--here's a sample:

 


52 Guitars: Week 45

Vishwa Mohan Bhatt

Just a country boy and his dobro:

  

I didn't have in mind to venture away from standard guitar in this series. The other night I was watching the 2004 Crossroads concert, a guitar festival organized by Eric Clapton to benefit a drug treatment center he founded. It's two DVDs, four hours, of mostly blues and rock guitar, and I certainly recommend it to guitar aficionados, or anyone who likes that kind of music. The performance above came as a complete surprise to me. I had seen some brief mention, years ago, of an amazing Indian musician who had taken the American steel guitar (of which the dobro is a variety) and adapted it for Indian music, but this was the first time I'd heard him. I decided immediately that he would be this week's musician.

I included the Crossroads performance first here, because I have a feeling a lot of people won't care for this kind of music, and it's shorter than the next one, "Meeting By the River," from an album of the same name in which Bhatt collaborated with Ry Cooder. But I think this one is better.  So if you did like the first one, settle down--it's fourteen minutes long--and listen closely.

 

Now I want to dig out my old Ravi Shankar LPs. The vogue for Indian music came and went in the 1960s, and I suppose an association with a very dated sort of hippiness may still cling to it. But that's very unfair to the music, which was beautiful then and is now.


52 Guitars: Week 45

Gary Moore

When Jack Bruce died a week or two ago, all the obituaries described him as "former Cream bassist." But Cream only existed for a couple of years, and Bruce had a very long and productive career afterwards, including several albums which are more interesting to me than Cream's stuff. He worked with a lot of people, including several in a guitar-bass-drums trio format that naturally seemed an attempt to revisit or revive or surpass Cream. In reading the obits, I learned of the existence of one of these I'd never heard of before: BBM, for Baker, Bruce, and Moore, or perhaps Bruce, Baker, and Moore.

"Moore" was Gary Moore, and until he died several years ago his name meant nothing to me. I saw obituaries saying, as with Bruce, that the "former Thin Lizzie guitarist" had passed away. Well, that didn't mean much, either, as the only thing I'd ever heard by Thin Lizzie was that '70s radio anthem, "The Boys Are Back in Town." But a European friend posted this video of "Still Got the Blues" on Facebook, and it got my attention.

 

It seems that, as with Bruce, Moore's career encompassed much more than a fairly brief stint with a popular band. I've heard him described as "under-rated," and that certainly seems to be true, at least as far as attention on this side of the Atlantic (he was Irish) was concerned. 

One of the legendary Roy Buchanan's signature pieces was the instrumental "The Messiah Will Come Again." It takes a lot of nerve for anyone else to play it--not that the tune itself is difficult, but Buchanan loaded it up with such spectacular fireworks that I wouldn't think anyone would be eager to put himself in the position of being compared to him. But Moore did, and...wow:

 

 And about BBM: my opinion, after hearing their one album on Rdio a couple of times, is that it's good but the songwriting is less than inspired. And to tell the truth Baker and Bruce don't exactly seem to be on fire. You might expect that in such a combination the guitarist would suffer from the inevitable comparisons to Eric Clapton. But he's actually the strong point. I hesitate to say this, but he's at least as good and interesting a player as Clapton. Here is BBM live, "White Room":

  


52 Guitars: Week 44

Robert Fripp

I hadn't planned to include Fripp in this series, although he is a very highly regarded player. Apart from his work with King Crimson, which doesn't necessarily offer that many examples of his playing apart from the band, I really haven't heard that much of him. But having Daniel Lanois and Michael Brook in mind for the past couple of weeks, I naturally thought also of Brian Eno, who collaborated with both of them, in particular as co-producer on U2's The Unforgettable Fire. And that made me think of the Fripp and Eno collaboration Evening Star. This is the title track:

 

The long long tones you hear in that are produced with a tape delay system he calls Frippertronics. Here's a live demo (I must say, sometimes I love YouTube):

 

You may have the impression, after ten months of these posts, that I spend hours searching for the right YouTube clips to demonstrate the skills of each player. Maybe not hours, or at least not many hours, but it does take time. And an hour or so of searching for Robert Fripp solos has not turned much that demonstrates his skills distinctly from other members of various ensembles in which he's participated. So I'm falling back on this classic by The Roches, to which Fripp makes a significant contribution: "The Hammond Song." 

  

When I first heard this song, around the time it was released in 1979, I thought it was funny and poignant. Hearing it again now for the first time in many years, I find it almost heartbreaking: a slightly curious reaction, considering that now I've lived long enough to see many situations that seemed headed for catastrope resolved in something much less dire, sometimes even happily. The difference, is that in 1979 I was more sympathetic to the one leaving, and thought the warning voice of the parent (or is it older sibling?) a little ridiculous. Now I understand that side of it much, much better. 

 Where is "on down the line"? How far away?


52 Guitars: Week 43

Michael Brook

After Daniel Lanois, Michael Brook naturally comes to mind. He's another guitarist whose strength is in colors and atmospheres rather than power and speed. And Lanois produced Brook's album Cobalt Blue, which is well known among both guitar and ambient music fans--I first heard it on the ambient radio program Music from the Hearts of Space. He invented something he calls "infinite guitar", which I take to mean that it can sustain a note until the player decides to stop it.

"Ultramarine" (apparently this was used in a movie called Heat):

 

"Lakbossa": 

 

"Shona Bridge":

  

If you like these, you won't be disappointed in the album.  And if you think you hear a suggestion of Joshua Tree-period U2, especially in "Ultramarine," it's apparently not a coincidence.