Scenes from Guitar Marathon 2002

On January 20th, 2002 we held our first ever all-day guitar extravaganza. The 10-hour musical event brought together guitarists from around the world and received extensive coverage in the local and national media. Here are a few snapshots from what Jazz Times called "a veritable guitar orgy." Below is a review titled "Celebrating Six Strings -- More or Less" that ran in the Wall Street Journal.

As if to reinforce their instrument's vitality and versatility while demanding a need for a varied repertoire, dozens of guitarists, famous and virtually unknown, gathered at the 92nd Street Y here recently to participate in a 10-hour marathon, the capstone of the six-day New York Guitar Festival. Though the festival's finale was an epic event, with 20 performances of 15 to 30 minutes each, the misnomer in the proceeding's title is the word guitar. While guitarists like Bill Frisell, Bucky Pizzarelli, Andy Summers, Alex de Grassi and the remarkable Assad Brothers played guitars in their singular styles, musicians performing on the guitar's predecessors -- the pipa, oud, lute and kora -- turned in some of the most compelling music.
But as the event demonstrated, unintentionally so, the challenge for guitar duos, trios and quartets is the lack of a canon for the instrument in a chamber setting. Thus, guitarists are compelled to transcribe songs written for other instruments or rearrange jazz and pop standards. It's one thing for Mr. Pizzarelli and Frank Vignola to take "Stompin' at the Savoy" and swing with it ˆ la Django Reinhardt, with an emphasis on improvisation. It's another for the Brazilian Guitar Quartet to transcribe meticulously a Ronaldo Miranda composition for wind quintet and preserve the harmonic depth and colors of the original. Fortunately, the group's leader, Paul Galbraith, knows transcribing: He rearranged Bach's violin works for a solo recording on his eight-string guitar. In the case of Mr. Miranda's work, "Varia?›es SZrias," the composer tweaked Mr. Galbraith's arrangement, and the quartet offered a rendition that rang with invention.
The guitarists at the 92nd Street Y time and again demonstrated their creativity in finding sources for material. The New World Guitar Trio commissioned composers in Brazil and Holland for pieces to fit their repertoire, which blends Baroque classical work with flamenco and other sources. Benjamin Verdery composed "Scenes From Ellis Island" for Staten Island high-school guitar students. And Sergio and Odair Assad turned to, among others, Astor Piazzolla, the late Argentinean composer, bandone—n player and tango master.
Each performed the material with varying degrees of success. The New World Guitar Trio, clearly gifted, failed to reveal the tonal possibilities of their material, while Verdery's all-too-brief composition, performed by the 15 guitarists of the Yale Guitar Orchestra, was filled with lovely, stirring moments, as befits its source, though it's hard to know whether the piece would've been less successful with, say, 14 guitars.
As for the Assads, who performed Piazzolla's "Zita" and "Invierno Porte–o" and two gorgeous works by Egberto Grismonti, they are superb, playing with fiery intensity and tenderness. Their 2001 disc, "Sergio and Odair Assad Play Piazzolla" (Nonesuch), demonstrates their abundant gifts, which are even more evident in concert. Composers intent on creating for guitar duets would be wise to seek them out.
Sometimes, it doesn't matter what instrument a song was originally written for. The lexicon regularly plumbed by jazz and pop guitars got a nice workout during the marathon. Thelonious Monk's compositions seem indispensable: Mr. de Grassi, who is often unfairly lumped with New Age guitarists, performed a flawless medley of "Round Midnight" and "Little Rootie Tootie," and Andy Summers, formerly of the Police, opened his set with "Green Chimneys." Michael Manring offered a catchy Beatles medley on fretless bass, while Mr. de Grassi quoted the group's "Golden Slumbers" in his set. Messrs. Pizzarelli and Vignola tore into Fats Waller's "Honeysuckle Rose" after a tender reading of Reinhardt's "Nuages." As for an unusual source for material, Russell Donnellon, a "busker" -- or street musician -- reworked pop group Radiohead's "Karma Police," unlocking hidden harmonic possibilities in its simple structure.
Joined by Greg Leisz on lap-steel guitar, Mr. Frisell performed a characte ristic set filled with spacey effects and tasteful if otherworldly sounds. Rubbery and skewered, "Eli" was standard-issue Mr. Frisell as it moved from avant-garde jazz to country, and a medley featuring Stephen Foster's "Hard Times Come Again More" and his own "That Was Then" found Mr. Frisell and Mr. Leisz playing carefully crafted unison lines. Mr. Frisell is a fountain of interesting ideas, but his brief, unspectacular set left a sense of unfinished business in the hall.
The best moments came when the guitars were back in their cases and their predecessors took the stage. Simon Shaheen performed traditional Middle Eastern songs and his own compositions on an 11-string oud, while Min Xiao Fen offered songs she wrote as well as a piece by Tan Dun on the pipa, a four-string instrument from China that dates back some 1,800 years. Mr. Shaheen and Ms. Fen, who each performed two sets, play with fluid virtuosity; living in New York City and working with musicians from other cultures, their traditional sound has taken on a modern flair. A Palestinian by birth, Mr. Shaheen is a relentless musical explorer and dogged proponent of Middle Eastern music: He's worked with klezmer musicians and produced the Arab Festival of Arts in New York. His group, Qantara, which fuses Arabic music with jazz and other Western sounds, issued its dZbut disc, "Blue Flame" (ARK 21), in 2001. The taste of it he gave during the marathon suggests it's a disc worth having.
Ronn McFarlane, for his part, is a master lutenist who's seemingly distilled countless influences and yet maintained the uniqueness of his instrument. He played 450-year-old John Dowland pieces as well as his own compositions with a casual intensity that belies his rhythmic style. And anyone impressed with the dexterity required by speed rock ought to see what Mr. McFarlane does when he flashes his fingers across the fret board of a stout lute. Little wonder his performance drew a standing ovation.
Whereas Mr. McFarlane drew on 16th- and 17th-century English traditions for his snappy performance, Keba Cissoko performed his take on the timeless music of the griots of West Africa. On his 21-stringed kora, Mr. Cissoko offered a dazzling array of tones and interacting percussion sounds, radically expanding the definition of guitar.
Mr. Cissoko's performance brought forth a yearning for more music from Africa, particularly as it relates to, and serves as a wellspring for, American delta blues. And while Bill Sims Jr. played several 12-bar blues, including Charlie Patton's "My Black Mare," blues guitar was sorely underrepresented. If one point of the program was to display the universality of stringed instruments, it was best made by Brad Shepik, a New York-based guitarist who plays so-called downtown jazz but has a hankering for Bulgarian gypsy songs and music from the Balkans. To perform the latter, he played a saz, a long-necked lute made in Turkey that he found in a restaurant in Holland. He went at it with the same snap and drive he brought to the American electric guitar.
© Wall Street Journal
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The Brazilian Guitar Quartet.
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Kebbo Cissoko (with his 21-string Kora) and 
WNYC’s John Schaefer.
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Mark Stewart peforming on his electric “Uboingi”.
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Alex De Grassi during his soundcheck .
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Bill Frisell and WNYC’s John Scheafer greet
guitarist Brandon Ross backstage.
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Bucky Pizzarelli visits with Sergio and Odair
Assad in their dressing room .
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The Assad Duo in concert.
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Some younger guitar aficionados take a break
in the art gallery.
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Bucky Pizzarelli and Frank Vignola audition a
new member for the Trio...
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Russell Donnellon performing his arrangement
of RadioHead’s Karma Police.
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Russell & Alex De Grassi in the auxiliary dressing
room (A.K.A The Children’s Library).
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New World Guitar Trio just before they take
the stage.
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Guitarist (and Turkish saz player) Brad Shepik.
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Andy Summers and David Spelman.
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Ben Verdery and Andy Summers meet for the
first time... they return the following year to
perform together on the NYGF’s “Bach, Brazil
& Beyond” at Joe’s Pub.
This article originally appeared in the Wall Street Journal on January 29, 2002.
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