The many souls of the guitar
Leo Kottke at the Iron Horse, Lionel Loueke Trio at the Vermont Jazz Center
“You have a whole collection of musical ideas and thoughts that you’ve accumulated through your musical history plus all the musical history of the whole world and it’s all in your subconscious and you draw upon it when you play”
— Joe Pass
At its highest level, music morphs into something beyond itself; love, or passion, or truth or joy. That moment of self-transcendence is one which few of us are ever conscious of as it occurs, because when it does we have two choices — to continue hanging out in the Kingdom of Knowledge or to abandon our heads, spread our wings and fly into the Kingdom of Feeling. Most of the time — unless we happen to be a hopeless intellectuals — we wisely abandon ourselves to the latter.
And that’s when the fun really begins.
To imagine, after hearing each of the artists below, that these two gentlemen are playing on remotely similar instruments — much less the selfsame guitar (give or take a string or an amp) — seems somehow preposterous. Yet, it also happens to be true. They are.
And yet, having heard as many of these guitar-playing creatures as I have, I have to confess, I think it’s more of an optical illusion than anything else. The instruments these performers are embracing merely seem to be guitars; but they are really soul-grids — mere superstructures whose sole function is to funnel and focus the very unique content of the entities playing them.
Anyone who has ever wanted or actually dared to set fingers to fret board and strings in hopes of coaxing out a bit of delight out a guitar should seriously consider taking in one of Leo Kottke’s two appearances at the Iron Horse, Thursday, and Friday, Oct. 18 and 19. Kottke enjoys truly legendary status in just what one man with 10 fingers can do with a six- and 12-string instrument.
The man has had nothing if not an interesting journey; his dossier reports that Kottke was born in Athens, Ga., harbored a love for the country-blues of Mississippi John Hurt, John Phillip Sousa and Preston Epps, flirted with violin and trombone and took up the guitar at age 11.
Even a brief earful of Kottke’s Muse will result in something approximating an altered state of consciousness; the rhythmically infectious, pulsing swarm of notes he spawns simply seems beyond the possibility of any single performer.
Yet there he sits — a lone player and his guitar. Tickets are $30 at Northampton Box Office, 76 Main St., 413-586-8686 and online at IHEG.com.
Also worth noting is that an intriguing trio of musicians, which shares its blended colors in the form of the Lionel Loueke Trio, is appearing at the Vermont Jazz Center Saturday, Oct. 13, at 8 p.m. A singer-guitarist and native of Benin, West Africa, Loueke joins forces with Ferenc Nemet, a Hungarian drummer, and Massimo Bilocati, a Swedish-Italian bassist. All three were classmates at Boston’s Berklee School of Music.
“I have two heritages,” says Loueke. “One is from my ancestors from Africa. But also I have the heritage from the Occident, from the West, from Europe and the U.S.”
Herbie Hancock shares: “I’d never heard any guitar player play anything close to what I was hearing from him. There was no territory that was forbidden, and he was fearless!”
A brief hearing of Loueke’s art on YouTube will reveal just how out-of-box he is. At times, we could swear we’re hearing a tribal musician sounding an ancient prototype of the guitar, its muted, percussive thumpings replacing the fluid electric peals of its modern counterpart. This is a result of Loueke’s “preparing” his instrument in various ways. The ethnic effect becomes even more pronounced when he spontaneously allows his vocal apparatus — quite apart from singing, which he also does — to join the mix, eliciting a delightful array of syncopated oral percussings that magically spatter themselves amidst the guitar’s jagged rhythms. When the all-out battery of Nemet’s percussion leaps into the fray, his wonderfully off-kilter ingenuities belying his mid-European origins, we’re quite near to believing we’ve stumbled upon an authentic Ivory Coast bazaar, replete with music.
This is not too surprising once we learn that Loueke began his musical adventures as a vocalist and percussionist. Nor did the privations of circumstance give pause to his passion — Loueke’s first guitar was strung with bicycle brake cables!
However, Loueke is nothing if not eclectic and the currents of his invention soon flow beyond the soundscape of his birth, broadening into vistas of the New World — the many tributaries of contemporary American jazz, with smoother, slicker sounds replacing the raw, rumbustious rhythms heard earlier on.
Yet, even with this, there is a difference; so often contemporary jazz tends to lose itself in its own musico-intellectual foragings, turning what might have been a genuinely musical experience into a merely sonic one. Indeed, this happens with such regularity that it would seem as if there are more than a few jazz initiates who no longer even care to distinguish between the two.
Not so with Loueke. This is due, I think, largely to the profound imprint that native rhythms have made upon his musical soul and also to the seemingly generic buoyancy of that culture. His music is very often suffused with a gentle, but irrepressible, joyfulness. Notes may fly, or bend, or scatter, or collide — but the jostling, pulsating rhythms tell us that we still know where we’re going and that the going is good-hearted and fun.
There is also some bossa nova, some lingering vestiges of the African sound-world, some pure American-style ballads and a dozen other gracefully blended influences flowing through his fingers. Yet, there is no indigestion, no discomfort; it’s all part of a soul for whom these are intimately cherished colors and flavors.
Tickets are $20 general admission, $15 for students with I.D.
Purchase tickets at
www.vtjazz.org/ , In the Moment, downtown Brattleboro, or call the VJC ticket line, 802-254-9088, ext. 1 (There is a $1 surcharge for credit card orders). Tickets can also be purchased at the door (no surcharge). The venue is handicapped accessible, but call in advance, 802-254-9088.
An author and composer, columnist Joseph Marcello of Northfield focuses on music and theater. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.