TNAG Notes #9 by Stephen Bennett
Happy Friday, aficionados and cognoscenti of all things ‘guitar’! So jam-packed with Yer Actual Culture is our latest missive that we’re moved to point out that the (first) two plural endings above differ only because the former is a Spanish import while the latter is Italian. Where else could you find such essential linguistic survival tools, alongside musings on Art, airports, Jazz and classic pick-ups? Exactly. So here we go again, furnishing all your (six-string) needs for the weekend…
And so, after the resounding success (subs please find alternative adjective, Ed.) of our legendary (likewise, Ed.) Film Issue, we present…“The Guitar in Art”…or As Art. Whatever.
“Rock Dreams”, anyone? Guy Peellaert’s heavy-metal-cartoon style was all the rage back in 1974. So much so that the Stones recruited him for “It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll” and, more memorably, the (famous!) Belgian rendered David Bowie as half-man, half-Great Dane for the cover of “Diamond Dogs”. The images in the aforementioned booked, with text by Nik Cohn, are, oddly, virtually guitar-free. Nonetheless, they may have inspired the subsequent, cheerful hobby-ist canvases of one Ronnie Wood, who, to put it kindly, has been proven over the years to do other things far better. Even that late-blooming, Post-Draughtsmanship colourist, Bob Dylan, whose current 2D work ranges from the surprisingly wonderful to the embarrassingly weak, wisely gives the notoriously hard-to-capture curves of our favourite instrument a swerve of the brush.
Luckily, though, there have been guitar-geeks down the ages who really did know their Art from their E-Bow. Some we know about from the ubiquity of their most iconic works, others remind us that our ancient forebears were just as happy as we are to sit on the couch and noodle a few tunes out on the old cittern (lute, requinto or whatever historico-culturally appropriate Strat-equivalent might be to hand).
Tuscan Baroque ‘n Roller, Pietro Paolini, kicks off our gallery tour with his bedsit-poster, C17th publicity shot, “Guitar Player Seated in an Interior”. While it’s no great masterpiece, there’s an uncanny modern echo in the left hand position, in that it could be transposed, with its weirdly long fingers, onto the famous “suit and tie” photo of Robert Johnson. On the opposite wall, lines of bewigged, axe-wielding gentlemen, many with a striking resemblance to Brian May, strut their courtly stuff alongside Jean-Baptiste Greuze’s fantastically over-the-top, “De Gitarist”, depicting the ultimate in (be)wigged-out, Back To The Future body-contortions. It might be argued that the left-handed, flash-trousered Frenchman in the image is actually tuning up in a noisy club, but the pose could well be the stage template for every showman rocker from Chuck Berry to Angus Young. It’s a miracle he held it. One refreshing aspect of guitar art is the frequent depiction of female players; a most notable example being Jan Vermeer’s luminous 1672 depiction of a fashionable young party-animal clearly having a whale of a time, mid-solo. She’s in good company, too, with mandolins and parlour guitars seemingly the must-have lady’s accessory of the era.
Edouard Manet gave us the snap-shot intimacy of “The Music Lesson”, while Renoir clearly plonked the same narrow-waisted flamenco job on any model who’d sit still with it but, as we move into the 20th century - perhaps as the music gets looser and less formal - so does the art. Picasso is once again the main (axe) man – he even built one out of cardboard – along with co-Cubist, George Braque. The former set the blue, musical mood for a million imitators while the latter may well have provided the inspiration for all manner of Teuffels, Charvel/Jacksons, Flying Vs and Firebirds (plus the outlandishly unmanageable shapes of countless, glam-rock fashion-mistakes ever since).
All of which kitsch leads us to the guitar AS art; arguably a somewhat less-rewarding area of study. If you haven’t seen Andy Manson’s “mermaid” you’re in for a mindboggling internet treat, especially if you can imagine trying to play the thing without appearing to be re-enacting one of the raunchier “Ros” moments from “Game of Thrones”. More to this column’s taste was the recent Group of Seven Project, initiated by Linda Manzer, in honour of the post-WW1 Canadian collective that remains both little known and (when acknowledged) massively underrated on this side of the Atlantic. Manzer recruited six fellow-Canadian luthiers to build a guitar (each) in homage to one of the painters and this new group of seven, including Grit Laskin – himself arguably the greatest inlay artist ever - Serge de Jonge and David Wren.
Manzer’s own contribution, a glacial blue/white tribute to the fabulously weird work of Lawren Harris, is mad, magnificent and - perhaps most important - playable. It sounds as awesome as the mountain landscapes it depicts. And maybe that’s the key to the limitations of the guitar “as art”. Looks and idiosyncratic design notwithstanding, it has to be user-friendly and sound good or it ceases to be an instrument, thus begging the question, “what’s the point?” The possibilities of manipulating the nature, purpose and technical aspects of painting are endless; those same possibilities for the guitar, less so. That being the case, or until someone can prove otherwise, the art of the guitar is probably best delivered via the sound-hole.
A Few Random Mysteries to Ponder… Like, why (I hear you ask) was Buddy Guy so much better when he recorded with Junior Wells, both on stage and in the studio? Where is Kelly Joe Phelps and will he ever come back? Why aren’t Otis Rush’s late 50s Cobra Sessions as lauded as the best work of the Kings (Albert, Freddie and B.B.)? Will Keith ever record an acoustic set with just Mick on harmonica and vocals? If only. Anyway…and more specifically…what is the strange allure of the Charlie Christian pick-up? This thought occurs as we see more and more Teles fitted with the unmistakeable and surely archtop-specific, pointy-ended black and silver bar. It’s just wrong. Or is it?
Beyond its sleek and unique look, the Charlie Christian delivers both a velvety, mellow tone and pin-sharp clarity. The man himself used it (on his trademark Gibson ES-150) to pretty much invent the sound of amplified jazz guitar throughout the 1930s and beyond. It paved the way for a generation of acolytes from T-Bone Walker to Barney Kessel, Kenny Burrell and many more. All arch-top jazzmen. Theirs was not a solid-body sound. It wasn’t until John Lennon, on the advice of New York luthier, John Marino, had one fitted into his Les Paul Junior that the wider potential of the pick-up became more evident. Shortly after that, Danny Gatton stuck one into the neck-position of his Telecaster - no doubt with considerable difficulty as the magnets encased therein are so big – and the subsequent, big fat tone made a lot of notable Nashville Tele-pickers sit up and take note; Vince Gill being one of the first to follow suit. Apparently, they’re a pig to build; fiddly and time-consuming. Pick-up master, Jason Lollar, hasn’t been put off by any of that, though, and is currently the go-to destination for anyone interested. For the best place to hear that CC-Tele combo, meanwhile, check out the amazing Tim Lerch playing “Autumn Leaves” on YouTube. And while we’re doing “random”, imagine passing through Stansted Airport and instead of having your senses assaulted by the commercial realisation of Dante’s vision of Purgatory, you get to peruse a carefully curated history of an iconic roots record label, complete with guitars, memorabilia and hundreds of beautifully laid out album covers. Imagination won’t stretch that far? No…didn’t think so. Yet this is exactly what you’ll find should you be wandering in Terminal 2 at San Francisco International, where the current Arhoolie Records exhibition (running ‘til June 9th) provides welcome and reinvigorating respite from the increasingly wearisome drudgery of 21st century air travel. Stansted? Yeah, right.
This Fortnight’s Fab Five is Fully Focused on…Jazz (Nice!)
1. Ben Monder is a new name to us. “Day After Day”, his new double album of quietly-confident, ECM-ish instrumentals incorporates standards, originals and intriguingly off-kilter takes on ‘70s pop hits like on Bread’s “The Guitar Man” and Jimmy Webb’s “Galveston”. The highlight sees him lay the archtop aside for a lovely acoustic reading of “Just Like a Woman”.
2. Speaking of Charlie Christian pick-ups (this time in the more traditional setting of a ’78 ES-175), the most ambitious solo guitar project of last year (and probably since) is Miles Okazaki’s stunning adaptation of Thelonius Monk’s entire compositional catalogue. Who in their right mind etc.? Okazaki’s bone-dry tone - no overdubs, no effects, all wide-open spaces – strings all seventy (!) short tracks into a mesmerising marathon that’s playful, technically challenging and utterly (harmlessly) addictive. It’s all about respecting the tunes. Nothing he’s done previously has pointed in this direction. Fabulous.
3. Epistrophy (Live @ the Village Vanguard) catches Bill Frisell and Thomas Morgan at the top of their combined game and it’s good to hear Bill now so comfortably engaged with a worthy sparring partner since losing the incomparable Charlie Haden. They may have misspelt the title but that’s the only bum note in evidence throughout. For the most part avoiding the atonal in favour of audience-friendly melodic warmth, these are the superior (and beautifully unpinned) meanderings of a true, left-field genius. “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning” and the delicately reconstructed “Wildwood Flower” are as close as it gets to electric ballad perfection.
4. Biréli Lagrène’s latest, “Storyteller”, adopts an almost Earl Klugh-like smoothness in contrast to the Manouche maestro’s customary post-Django experimentation. The best thing here is an itchy-scratchy take on the Jobim classic, “Wave”, but Lagrène’s rippling, ultra-clean steel and nylon acoustic lines, driven by veteran US bassist Larry Grenadier and Parisian percussion wizard, Mino Cinélu, are an upbeat joy throughout.
5. Finally, back to where so much of the above began – with Wes Montgomery. A newly-released, double-disc set of mid-to-late 50s recordings - laid down (probably on an L4 as he’d yet to discover that iconic L5) before he became famous as a solo recording artist - illustrates in pristine clarity why the Indianapolis native would soon go on to earn such legendary status. “Back On Indiana Avenue: The Carroll DeCamp Recordings” (on home ground, then, and in cahoots with a skilled and sympathetic pianist/producer/arranger) gives us hours of clean, endlessly melodic musical invention plus a reminder, once again, that unorthodox technique needn’t be a drawback to greatness. Get working that thumb! See you next time!
by Stephen Bennett