various artists,
A Portrait for Strings
(Unitone/Rounder, 2001)

A Portrait for Strings is a melange of recordings of original works by some of the finest guitar players around today. The selections are in or influenced by classical, traditional folk, modern Brazilian, acoustic jazz and world music. The results are simply fantastic! One can sit literally for hours listening to this collection of fine material.

From the brilliance of devoted hands come the sounds of gentle but complex, highly listenable pieces, so tasteful, so deftly executed that one could literally listen all day and keep finding things one had not heard before.

The players are a diverse group, some playing out their longings after time served in rock bands or studios playing for others. Others are known as masters in Brazil where so much new and valuable guitar work is being done in a development far from new. Brazil has been producing such excellence for years now and the new works are simply the natural evolution of the older and ever respectful of them.

Here is a sampling of the sounds you'll hear and a few words about the people who play them:

The haunting melody of "Barcelona Nieve" captures the depth of the Spanish soul, which cannot be sounded artistically. This is the first cut and my favorite. What a haunting deeply stirring melody -- it captures an exquisite sadness as of a thousand loves and lives lost over centuries of rebirths. It's performed by Bruce Gaitsch, who has worked with Elton John and Madonna.

"Otonal" is a charming little piece, dulcet-toned and pleasing, like watching a child skipping or taking a nice bike ride on a pleasant country road. It's almost Brazilian in its samba-like gentleness, the type of piece you would expect to be played by the legendary Laurindo Almeida, but it's performed here by Leonardo Amuedo, a guitarist of great refinement from Uruguay. One can hear Amuedo become immersed in the mood of this piece without succumbing to maudlin antics, demonstrating his ego-free love of the instrument and its sounds.

"St. Agnes and the Burning Train" starts like a standard piano bar melody, but was composed by none other than the ubiquitous Sting. Leni Stern, a native German woman, plays this interesting adaptation of Sting's melody with a command of her instrument and a firm idea in mind as to where it should go.

The technical flights of guitar prowess, like Tommy Emmanuel gives us on "The Robin," are awe-inspiring. Oh, let's face it -- they're awesome. Here is a guy who plays the guitar like he was given one upon entering his cloud in heaven. Each arpeggio, each flourish, each pronouncement of tasteful stringed loveliness is a testimony to his ability to bring the heart of this instrument up out of his fingers and free it like a bird uncaged. Played unaccompanied, he summons an entire orchestra.

"Acadian Dance" is quite stately if you were expecting something Cajun. This French-Canadian piece has violins and other strings backing the guitar, handled by Rik Emmett from the rock group Triumph.

A South American flair makes "Old World" a lively listen. The liner notes dub performer Steve Morse "one of the most unique voices today in guitar music -- be it electric or acoustic." A sense of melodic structure has been Morse's trademark for the better part of three decades.

If you are a true guitar aficionado, you probably have immersed yourself in guitar music of all kinds. If so, then you will know Romero. He has toured with Paco de Lucia and Al DiMeola. He continues to thrill audiences with his playing. This cut, "Caminante," takes the listener on a walking tour up and down the neck of the guitar with influences of South American guitarists going back several decades and into the present, continuing a grand tradition, and the influences of Spain, where he was influenced by flamenco.

"Pavan," produced by Jan Akkerman, is played on the lute. He is credited with capturing the period of his music with great exactitude. He has played in medieval church halls on ancient instruments to get the effect occurring when sound waves hit stone floors, instead of muted studio walls and floors. "Gaillard" is a second work on the collection executed with equal prowess and respect for authenticity.

"Ascension Song" is an enigmatic and moody composition by Jamie Findlay. He plays it on an acoustic steel string unlike many of the other artists on this CD. He returns to a simply stated theme again and again, employing transitions, phrasings and multiple directions that keep the mind in a state of perpetual stimulation. Harplike arpeggios add richness.

Leonardo Amuedo moves to demonstrations of flamenco technique and melody on his composition "Corazon al Veinto/Raicies," often hitting the higher end of the neck at the top end of arpeggios. Some nice jazzy, upbeat riffs occasionally break up the more romantic and sedate portions of the tune. Anything is fair game -- a blues note here, a harmonic there. You never know what to expect as Amuedo moves with the grace of a cat along the fretboard.

"Cafˇ," played by coffee devotee Heitor Pereira, employs Afro-Brazilian rhythmic strumming in a style called Chorinho (i.e., bebop samba). The somewhat humorous analogy to the electric and energetic feeling a refreshing cup of coffee brings is made clear in a final sigh from the musician, as if to say, "Good to the very last note."

Last on this marvelous melange is "Cordoba," on which Romero strums in a flamenco traditional style but makes a rather pronounced use of the bass notes on the guitar. He also pats the guitar body like a drum while playing. Then come the melodic Gypsy arpeggios and the ascending, rambling driven momentum as if one where driving a Gypsy's cart up a bit of an incline and rocking and swaying back and forth while the dray horses do their patient work.

I cannot bring to mind a more tasteful, charming, haunting, romantic collection of guitar music in a lifetime of listening. I am drawn in every time the album begins, elated as it moves though its paces and spellbound by the time it has ended.

[ by John Cross ]
Rambles: 28 April 2002

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