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Dave Brubeck Quartet and Bill Smith at the Earshot Jazz Festival

Brad Shepik

Guitar fanatics of all stripes turned out en masse for the New York Guitar Festival, a six-day celebration of the popular instrument in all its myriad manifestations. The culminating event, co-curated by festival founder David Spelman and New Sounds radio host John Schaefer, was an all-star marathon that ran from noon on Sunday, January 20, until 10 that evening, encompassing everything from folk blues and jazz to free-form improv, Middle Eastern, African, classical Brazilian and traditional Chinese music. Running concurrently with the festival was “Six String Moments,” a photo exhibit of 45 noted guitarists from around the world shot by veteran photographers Jack Vartoogian, Steve Sherman and Rahav Segev. Between the photos and the constant flow of notes from nylon and steel string acoustics, electric ax and Balkan saz, Chinese pipa, Middle Eastern oud and Renaissance lute, it was a veritable guitar orgy.

Introducing himself as “your token bassist,” Michael Manring stunned the crowd early on in the proceedings with his virtuosic technique on fretted and fretless four-string electric bass guitars. Manring, a gifted disciple of Jaco Pastorius, has dedicated himself over the past 20 years toward taking his chosen instrument beyond its traditional role, just as Pastorius had done with his own revolutionary approach to the bass. By applying a variety of extended techniques, including harmonics, chords, classical right hand fingering, thumb slapping and two-handed tapping on the neck, Manring has managed to build on the foundation that Jaco laid down back in the mid-1970s. And though Manring’s monstrous facility and ingenuity is undeniably stunning, the end result is more tenor guitar than bass guitar, more Christopher Parkening than James Jamerson. Playing unaccompanied on his Zon basses, Manring employed chords and contrapuntal lines to good effect on a Bach string-quartet piece. Two yin-yang companion pieces, “Selini” (Greek goddess of the moon) and “Helios” (Greek sun god), showcased different aspects of his extraordinary technique. Using his Hyper bass, which allowed him to deftly shift tunings in mid-song, Manring affected Indian vina articulation on the delicate “Selini,” while on the macho slap-bass feature, “Helios,” his thumb trilled notes faster than an electric eggbeater. Flaunting a wry sense of humor, he dedicated one piece to United Airlines, explaining how the carrier had once banged up his bass in flight, causing it to radically detune to a strange F#/G/B-flat/G configuration. Manring explored that unorthodox tuning and came up with the resulting piece. It’s that kind of adventurousness and creativity that has marked the bassist’s career since he started out in the early ’80s as the low-end complement to the late Michael Hedges on a series of Windham Hill recordings. And he’s never stopped exploring and pushing the envelope ever since.

Two guitar duos were particular favorites with the crowd. The veteran jazzman Bucky Pizzarelli joined with fresh-faced Djangophile Frank Vignola for a spirited set of standards delivered with an engaging air of showmanship. At age 76, Pizzarelli has not lost a step. Playing his patented 7-string guitar, he fleshed out structures with the extra low-A string on his Benedetto ax, laying down a lush chordal carpet for Vignola’s dazzling single note lines on Reinhardt’s “Nuages.” Together they summoned up the swing-era with verve on a percussively chunking “Stompin’ at the Savoy” and put a smile on everyone’s face with their enchanting rendition of Fats Waller’s “Honeysuckle Rose,” underscored by Pizzarelli’s loping bass lines and featuring some dynamic rhythmic exchanges between the two plectorists. Pizzarelli also wowed the crowd with his beautiful unaccompanied version of Ray Noble’s romantic ballad “The Very Thought of You.” After that, this grand old gentleman of jazz and beloved entertainer had them eating out of his hand.

The other dynamic duo was Bill Frisell and lap-steel guitarist Greg Leisz, a member of Frisell’s new quartet. While the source material of the Pizzarelli-Vignola set goes back to the swing-era ’30s via George Van Eps, Charlie Christian and Django Reinhardt, the Frisell-Leisz duo goes back even further for its inspiration, drawing on Stephen Foster’s plantation songs, snippets from Tin Pan Alley and memorable ditties that have become a part of our American folklore. Frisell’s genius is his unique ability to begin with these simple, precious little melodic nuggets and develop them without tongue-in-cheek irony or hip reharmonizations. He simply commits to this rootsy heartland material in a genuine way, like Sheriff Andy Taylor of Mayberry strumming out on the porch with his acoustic geetar after another Aunt Bea-cooked dinner. The only difference is Sheriff Andy didn’t have access to looping technology or backwards effects, which allow Frisell to develop these simple melodic nuggets to orchestral scope by building layer upon layer of guitarchitecture. So while something may start out alluding to “Go Tell Aunt Rhodie” or “You Are My Sunshine” it inevitably builds to a “Layla”-esque pitch. One of the highlights of their set, which was marked by an uncanny rapport between the two, was an engaging rendition of Marvin Gaye’s anthemic “What’s Goin’ On.” Frisell stated the melody in straightforward fashion as Leisz danced around it in sympathetic fashion. The piece spiraled upward until, ultimately, the floor dropped out from under them both, casting them in a rubato cloud of ambient tones before returning to the familiar theme. It was simple, poignant, weird and beautiful, an apt description of Frisell’s playing in this context.

Other highlights of the New York Guitar Festival Marathon included an impassioned solo set by Palestinian oud master Simon Shaheen performing the title track from his Blue Flame, flawless renditions of compositions by Astor Piazzolla and Egberto Gismonti by the brothers Sergio and Odair Assad, some rootsy North Mississippi folk blues by guitarist-singer Bill Sims Jr., an elegant excursion on lute by Ronn McFarlane, a brief set by classical guitarist Ben Verdery accompanied by 14 acoustic guitars from the Yale Guitar Orchestra, and a powerful closing set by guitarist Andy Summers, who revealed more of his fusion side in the company of drummer Dennis Chambers and bassist Darryl Jones.

With such a varied program, there was something for every musical palette. If you didn’t like the Chinese pipa of Min Xiao-Fen, you could stick around for the downtown ax of Brad Shepik, the classical brilliance of the New World Guitar Trio or the African kora of Keba Cissoko. If strings are your thing, this was the place to be.

Originally Published