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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.

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