Dispatches from a Virgin Curator: Alternative Guitar Summit 2012

Night One: First thoughts. . .  It was a lot of work to get here, and the show is SOLD OUT. Things are going as planned for once! And this is after Rockwood Music Hall talked me into lowering the admission price and then canceled the show for a 24 hour period only three weeks ago because of lack of presales. Shame!

Then the music…

Mark Stewart seems a born raconteur, exactly the fellow you want to be next to on a barstool, master of the harmonic series and open tuning, a gregarious inventor who cares more about sound than chops. The Uboingi’s were a highlight, his invented, 30 lb. metal-sculpture-guitars, all sprockets, springs, sproings, undertones, overtones, crazy-beautiful.  Talk about post-genre. Then the Cameroonian groove he and Gyan Riley did with David Cossin…the type of circularity that one could listen to for days. We all felt invited in. The gentle humor and positivity emanating from the stage set the perfect tone for the rest of the weekend.

My set? Sarode, National Steel guitar plus electric and baritone, with Hadjini, Ududbu, and frame drum.  We did Willie Dixon’s Spoonful, a Bengali Folk tune and two original pieces, one bluesy, one full of Carnatic twists and turns that Anupam Shobhaakar blazed on. No objectivity from me! On to the next…

Anupam Shobhaakar, Todd Isler and Joel Harrison (far right)


Ben Monder- this is truly the guitar player’s guitar player. In an act of true improvisation he did a 20 minute “intro” to Wichita Lineman, and in fact I had given up on hearing the advertised Jimmy Webb music at all.  It was like Morton Feldman meets Americana, with pitch-sets, open space, alien reverb-distortion, like a hallucinogenic trip down a dark Midwest road in winter, beautiful, strange. He and Pete Rende on Rhodes had great simpatico. When the melody came in, it felt like a revelation. I’ve performed this song for years, but when I hear Ben play it, I feel overwhelmed by his mastery. His chordal melodies, rooted in Jim Hall, Tal Farlow, Bill Evans, and more modern classical composers (Messien?) are astonishing.

Ben Monder (left) and Pete Rende.


Nels and Thurston- the amazing thing about this set is almost no notes were played! It was almost all noise, growling, howling, crying, singing, whacking, ecstatic outpouring of electric mayhem. This, truly, is something only guitars can do. Nels had his customary 20 pedals or so, and manipulated them masterfully, and when I say that, trust me, I know what it means to use pedals, and there are few PEDAL-MASTERS. It takes practice- just like scales. Thurston had a few himself, most of which appeared to be at least 25 years old, primeval, worn as the walls of the Grand Canyon. It was loud as hell the whole time, 100% improv, cathartic, funny, frightening, youth-soaked, and people were absolutely riveted.

Nels Cline (left) and Thurston Moore


Virtually everything that the guitar can do was touched on over the course of three hours.

Night Two:

I went to college with Knox Chandler, but believe it or not, I haven’t heard him live since then. Knox, like Nels, is a sound-master, someone who is entrenched in funky, arcane boxes and pedals. He gets his own sounds from them, eerie, loopy, haunting and beautiful. The drummer Ismail Lawal accompanied so quietly and tastefully  that I could hardly hear him. So much of what the guitar does today is modulated through technology, which in the right hands, makes for singular, mesmerizing sounds.

Dave Tronzo (left) and Jay Granelli


Dave Tronzo still plays a Silvertone, god bless him, and he still uses paper clips, nail files, tin cans, and the ever-present slide to deliver a sound all his own. I loved his tone, and the way he used the guitar like a percussion instrument. I completely relate to his combo of old American music like ragtime and blues, and  thoroughly modern outness. Jay Granelli played Baritone bass guitar, and the connection these guys have forged over many years was very present. I think Jay’s pedal board mal-functioned, otherwise his sound world may have a bit more whacky than it was. Technology!

Liberty Ellman and Vijay could not have been more different than the other two acts (which was precisely the point). Liberty’s chops are wicked and he fired off rapid lines that were all his own, elliptical, in and out of the tonality. Vijay is a good partner for him because they share a similar rhythmic approach, circular but focused, and an ear for open tonalities. Liberty plugged straight into my Fender Bassman with no reverb. Go on Liberty! These two have a deep bag of tricks and both are really interesting composers. They have been playing together, believe it or not, for 18 years. I knew both of them in the Bay Area. Amazing to witness this journey.

Night Three:

If I sound like a wheezing, hyper-geek, full of grandiose adjectives as regards this night, forgive me! I loved the other two nights, indeed I did. But there was something special that happened on night three…maybe it was that we were honoring a dear, old soul- Jim Hall. Or maybe it was the sheer number of amazing players (8 guitarists, two pianists, two bassists, two saxophonists, and one drummer). There was a moment in the middle of it all (before my set with the String Choir) when something lit up in me. After about the 6th amazing piece I remembered  (had I forgotten?) just how deep my love is for the guitar. When you play your whole life, it becomes like a long marriage- periods where you take it for granted, yell at it, then love and forgive, then ignore, then come close again. It can be a most challenging relationship. Standing at the edge of the stage, peering up at one of the many masters who were present, that innocent, pure love hit me, the thing you feel as a kid that makes you want more than anything in the world to be a guitarist.

And another thing happened- I felt the long lineage of great jazz concerts in New York City flickering just out of sight, nights like this of unique beauty, whether at the Vanguard in the 60’s, or the Cotton Club in the 40’s, nights where music so elevated the listener that time and its worries stood still. I felt like we were a tiny part of that great line, that this night would stick in the minds of many of those who were there and be gently cherished. It wasn’t just the ability of the players- it was the intention, the intimacy, the joy they all brought, as they considered maestro Hall and then ignited into their own brilliance. And how enjoyable it was to see the tiny backstage crowded with friends, acting silly, having fun.

Nels, practically shorn of all effects, played as close to “straight ahead” as you are likely to hear from him. A great contrast to Night One.  He played an almost unknown piece of Jim’s from Dedications/ Inspirations “Miro”, as well as a short piece he wrote dedicated to Jim. Scott Colley and Chris Potter did a long, involving version of All Across the City, one of Jim’s more lovely tunes. Steve Cardenas had great chemistry with Jacob Sacks in a version of “Careful”, and Mary Halvorson and Vic Juris free-improvised in a way that gave lie to the fact that age means anything in Jazz. They bonded instantly in complete spontaneity.  And Gilad Hekselman, who was somewhat unfamiliar to me, showed me why I keep reading critical raves about this relative newcomer. It was great watching Vic play “Alone Together.” This is one standard I know really well and have played on countless occasions, but watching Vic do it I was transported to a higher plane. Like so many others on stage, he is criminally under-rated. I could go on and on- Adam Rogers, Dave Binney, Jim Ridl, Obed Calvaire, everyone played amazingly. It was an embarrassment of riches.

I stand by my original contention when booking this festival. The guitar stands alone in what it says about who we are as people today. The possibilities it invokes are virtually limitless. Not so long ago, when I was a kid, options were far more limited.  It’s a good time to play guitar.

–  Joel Harrison

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