For one or the other reason, plenty of guitar albums have remained unreviewed on this blog, and maybe that's due to the instrument itself, somehow less suited for free improv than sax or trumpet or piano, and maybe that's due to the reviewers, who are themselves musicians on other instruments. Or maybe the guitar is less a jazz or free improv instrument, and more of a rock tool, easier to blend genres and hence risking to fall without the already flexible criteria of this blog's profile. Whatever the reason, I thought it would make some sense to review some of the recent albums in which the guitar plays a decisive role in the overall sound, and this across all subgenres, from the nervous intimacy of an acoustic Derek Bailey to the terrifying armageddon of an electric Richard Pinhas. And yes, we cross genres here.
But let's start with the traditionalists
Ralph Towner, Slava Grigoryan, Wolfgang Muthspiel - Travel Guide (ECM, 2013)
When many years younger, "Sargasso Sea", with John Abrecrombie and Ralph Towner was one of those albums I could listen to in quieter moments, just like I like "Batik" and "Solstice", in my ECM period. Yet there is only so much I can have of this. It is beautiful music, somewhat lacking tension and intensity, but beautiful.
After their previous album "From A Dream" (2008), we find Ralph Towner back with Wolfgang Muthspiel and Slava Grigoryan. Towner on his usual classical and 12-string classical guitars, Muthspiel on electric guitar and Grigoryan on classical and baritone guitars. The music is sophisticated, refined, subtle, and inobtrusive. This is like the opposite of a Derek Bailey album. As uneventful as watching a horizon on an aquarel painting.
Bill Frisell - Solos - The Jazz Sessions (Original Spin, 2013)
Guitar wizard Bill Frisell's technical skills and innovative power keeps amazing me. This is the CD or download version of a DVD series that highlight the solo performances of some great contemporary American jazz musicians. As you can expect, Frisell is excellent at this : clear-toned, sometimes mellow on traditionals, or bluesy as on "Masters Of War" or "Boubacar". There are no real new tunes, just solo performances of material to be found elsewhere on his extensive discography. So far the whole performance is quite intimate and interspersed with short interviews. It's only on the long "Shenandoah" that he shows his other side, using dub and delay and distortion for a while, but then his softer side seems to win, quieting the inner voice of revolt into one of discipline and control. Excellent stuff.
Listen and download from eMusic.
Another approach is to mix guitars with influences from other cultures, often with success if done respectfully.
Paolo Angeli - Sale Quanto Basta (Rer, 2013)
I know Italian guitarist Paolo Angeli only from "Uotua", his duo release with Hamid Drake on percussion, but this one is slightly different. It is more welcoming and accessible, with his custom Sardinian acoustic guitar playing all the various parts of the compositions dubbed in various layers, as if you're listening to a guitar ensemble.
Angeli starts from what we know, traditional guitar playing, then adds his bowed playing, adds interesting new sounds and arrangements. On some tracks he sings, and like on his playing, he is not scared to do what he thinks needs to be done, without compromise for audience preferences. It is in this sense quite authentic and vulnerable too. Unfortunately the whole album is not of the same level, with possibly too many styles and approaches. More unity of voice and atmosphere, could have made this album even stronger.
Listen and download from the label.
Yang Jing & Christy Doran - No.9 (Leo, 2013)
Christy Doran is an incredible guitarist, yet has in my opinion had difficulties in finding his own kind of music, varying between free jazz, rock and fusion, but on this album, in the company of Yang Jing on pipa and guzheng, the collaboration and the sound are pitch perfect. This music is intimate, beautiful and wonderful. It has an aesthetic that is hard to qualify, with Jing and Doran demonstrating what accuracy and precision can mean to an overall sound, even if the notes are limited and sparse, Doran can't help himself and needs to give some fast runs once in a while, but then there not of the showing off kind.
A highly unusual yet very nice album.
Listen on CDUniverse.
Takuo Tanikawa - Music For Contemporary Kagura (Improvising Beings, 2013)
Kagura is a form of traditional Japanese dance theater, about which you can read more on wikipedia. This fantastic album has Takuo Tanikawa on electric guitar and koto, Jun Kawasaki on bass and percussion, Sabu Toyozumi and Shota Koyama on percussion, and Alan Silva on synthesizer.
On this album the atmosphere is also of the darker kind, varying between traditional and slow koto playing and unidentifiable noise, which gradually gains momentum over the various tracks, but then lo and behold suddenly a guitar is actually recognisable, creating ripple effects on the lake of sound that it trickles on, but then noise regains, all in all in a very aesthetic, well-paced flow.
On Haptikon, Elliott Sharp moves into the more mainstream world of jazz fusion, with obvious influences from rock and Indian music. Sharp has a tendency on other albums to present too self-indulgent music, as with many fusion guitarists and tenor opera singers, yet that's less the case here. Assisted by programmed music on computer, with recognisable bass and drums, the guitarists plays layers of electric guitar in loops and manipulated sound, and the end result is really compelling, hopefully also to non-jazz fans. David Torn comes to mind at times, and that's a good reference, and on "Phosphenes" the most bluesy of the tracks, Hendrix comes to mind, and that's not a bad reference either, on "Pireps", his high bended and sustained notes are reminiscent of David Gilmour, and that's equally not a bad reference. Sharp avoids high speed solos and the kind of look-what-I-can pyrotechnics, rather focusing on creating great compositions and sound experiences, and at times incredibly strong dramatic effects. The joy of electric guitar.
Listen and download from CDBaby.
Then we have the "new sounds" on jazz guitar and improv : direct, unrestricted and often confrontational.
Derek Bailey & Simon H. Fell – The Complete 15 August 2001 (Confront, 2013)
Available from iTunes.
Totem - Voices of Grain (New Atlantis, 2013)
Totem are Bruce Eisenbeil on guitar, Tom Blancarte on bass and Andrew Drury on drums, all three well-known musicians of modern improvised music. I was quite enthusiastic about the band's debut album "Solar Forge", and rightly so. On "Voices Of Grain", they continue their journey into a land of harshness and brutal sound, without embelishments or polishing or other sophisticated treatments. Their sound is raw and energetic, but of a kind that's not often heard before, at the same time unwelcoming and fascinating, with what the label describes well as "splintered atonality", and even the slower tracks have an equally destructive force, of the kind that makes you wonder whether they want audiences to cheer or to run away, and it's possibly both, because if one thing, it will not leave you indifferent, and that's a good quality.
Listen and order from iTunes.
Toshimaru Nakamura & Manuel Mota - Foz (2013)
Foz is an album for two electric guitars, one played by Toshimaru Nakamura from Japan, the other by Manuel Mota from Portugal, and for once the guitars sound like guitars, captured in an intimate and fully improvised dialogue of loose notes, arpeggios, feedback and noise. Even if the music is pretty much "in the moment", the musicians interact well and manage to create quite a coherent vision. That said, it is an interesting listening experience, but not one that will be listened to a lot, at least not by me.
Listen on Soundcloud.
Rafael Toral - Love (2013)
Portuguese guitarist and electronics wizard brings this wonderful ode to John Cage, re-imagining the master's music while keeping its original concept, by adding ambient sounds and noises to the music. The opening track is Cage's famous 4'33" which consists of silence, but Toral turns it into street sounds in Portugal, including a passing tram, emphasising that Cage did not mean actual silence, yet forcing the listener to listen to all other surrounding noises. The next piece continues in the same vein, adding collages of street sounds with sparse guitar notes to add rhythm and some melodic context. Is this a guitar album? I'm not sure. It's electronic music, based on the guitar as the prime instrument.
Listen and download for free.
Loren Connors - The Departing of a Dream (Family Vineyard, re-issue, 2013)
Re-issue of Loren Connors' dark masterpiece of 2002. Electric guitar in slow motion and deep despair. Not to be missed.
Listen on Soundcloud.
Ernesto Diaz-Infante & Helena Espvall - A Hallowed Shell of Ash and Rust (Erototox Decodings, 2013)
In the meantime, we are far away from jazz, actually completely distant from it. Ernesto Diaz-Infante plays guitar, yes, but where is the sound of the instrument? it is here, but where? Helena Espivall plays guitar and cello, and yes, the cello can be identified on some tracks, although even that is not very clear. The duo's music is atmospheric and dark, without density but with substance, flowing inexorably forward, like red lava into the dark ocean, or back into earth. Beautiful doom.
And the track list reads like a poem.
In the spirit Interiority
These are bridges
Into subterranean heavens
Hollow earth theory
Where the archivist stands
Ringing out tomorrows
Against a realization in weathered iron
A glamour in base materials
Something ancient being born.
Listen on Soundcloud
Charbel Haber - It Ended Up Being A Great Day, Mr Allende (Al Maslakh, 2013)
Lebanese guitarist Charbel Haber uses one of my favorite authors, Chilean Roberto Bolaño as his inspiration, at least in the titles - and more specifically his novel "Nazi Literature In The Americas" (with link to my undervisited contemporary novels review blog). Charbel adds layers upon layers of guitar sounds on top of each other, leading to strange universes, which on the first track seem to come from an organ, in a perpetual stream of sound, like a huge river moving forward, but things get more interesting with the second track, on which little sounds percollate on a canvas of surprise, of intimacy and wonder and darkness, and in that sense indeed more in line with Bolaño's literature. So is the next tune, that gradually builds up to some high-pitched tones, full of menace or other unmasked intentions. The last track, "Magicians, Mercenaries and Miserable Creatures", kind of blends the previous approaches all into one, with organ-like backdrop for easily idenitifiable repetitive guitar sounds starting somewhat halfway the piece.
A strange album beyond category.
Listen on Soundcloud.
After the darkness, here comes the anger, with noise and violence.
Luis Lopes - Noise Solo At ZDB Lisbon (LPZ, 2013)
Portuguese guitarist Luis Lopes has been featured many times on this blog, lately with his Humanization Quartet's "Live In Madison", but now we find him back on this vinyl LP on his own, producing, as the title suggests, noise solo for a little over half an hour of sound and feedback and, yes, noise, with crunching notes in between to distort the feedback. The B side is more muted, with sounds reduced to short bursts, without resonance and length, compressed into bips and bleeps for the first half, then dissonant energy kicks in, with wah-wah and long screams of agony and pain. We know Luis Lopes as a direct and functional guitarist in his own bands, precise and just. Yet, on this albums he completely lets loose his inner voices and demons, a therapeutic eruption of suppressed emotions, a fuck-you of radical sound, a release of pure and unadultered noise, a liberating experience if you manage to participate in it, as the listener.
Check some Youtube footage of the performance.
Thurston Moore & Loren Connors - The Only Way To Go Is Straight Through (Northern Spy, 2013)
Two guys sitting on chairs with guitars on their laps, using every possibly other thing to stick between the strings and then pull sound out of it, literally, or hammering or sawing the sound out of their instruments, with pedals and amps doing the rest of the work, generating a sound that is bizarre or otherworldly or demonic or primal or subconscious or cosmic or industrial or whatever you want it be, depending on the moment, the mood or the mindset. In any case this is not for the faint of heart, and possibly the only way to really listen to it is to offer no resistance, but then again, these guys don't take prisoners either. Or am I wrong ... is there some tenderness in minute 18 of the second track?
Listen on Soundcloud
Nuno Rebelo - Removed From The Flow Of Time (Creative Sources, 2013)
From clear-toned experimental to raw bluesy distorted sounds, Rebelo is presenting us with an overview of solo pieces recorded between 1992 and 1012. As with some of the other albums, these are all exercises in style and sound, but far from being a compelling and coherent album. The real interesting part is to follow the evolution, with the music becoming increasingly sparse, less recognisable as a guitar, and with silence gaining a strong foothold.
Volcano Radar - Refutation Of Time (Pan Y Rosas, 2013)
"Refutation of Time" is only half an hour long, but worth mentioning in this list. Julia Miller plays sitar guitar and MIDI guitar, Elbio Barilari electric guitar, Harrison Bankhead double bass and 6 string electric bass, and Avreeayl Ra plays drums.
Despite the short length of the album, it is not quite clear what is taking place here. Sounds grow gradually, almost purposeless, with no sense of direction, or even a starting point. The MIDI guitar sounds utterly bizarre and only after halfway does the electric guitar starts sounding for what it is, luckily then the drums start really playing with energy and rhythm, giving the music some backbone.
Download for free from Pan Y Rosas.
Farbwechsel - 12z (Bandcamp, 2013)
This Hungarian trio is already worth mentioning because of the fun art work, plagiarising London Calling by The Clash, turning the picture of Paul Simonon smashing his bass into a laborer digging a ditch. The trio is Marci Kristóf on electronics and kalimba, Aron Porteleki on drums and viola, and Bálint Szabó on guitar, electronics and log drum. It is improvised music, experimental and noisy.
Listen on Bandcamp.
Richard Pinhas - Desolation Row (Cuneiform,2013)
Absolute freaking madness. The opening track is nothing but high energy drums and bass over which the guitar builds a very distant wall of sound. Blistering and grand. The next track is more melodious and mid-tempo, the third a miasma of noise and raw power. On "Moog", you get the synth sound as the title suggests, to create a backdrop that could come from Gong, the seventies British-French prog rock band, including the distant sax. This is more rock than jazz territory, but the instrumental prowess, the great coherence of the sound, the sustained anger and expressivity, make this really worth mentioning. Frightening! With Oren Ambarchi on drums, guitar and electronics, Lasse Marhaug on electronics, Etienne Jaumet on analog synthesizer and sax, Noel Akchoté on stereo guitar, Eric Borelva on drums, and Duncan Nilsson on electronics and noise.
So this offers a wide pallette of sounds and moods and styles, all improv, all guitars, but with such a span of difference. You choose. I hope the links still work when you read this.