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Alternative Guitar Festival

August 2 – 4, 2010 at Cornelia Street Café, New York City

Since coming to New York City from the Bay Area in 1999, guitarist-composer Joel Harrison has steadfastly avoided the ‘same ol’ same ol’ approach in his visionary projects as a leader. Indeed, ambitious works like Free Country (radical reinventions of country classics by Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Woody Guthrie and the Carter Family) and Harrison on Harrison (interpretations of the songs by former Beatle George Harrison) as well as his classically influenced opus The Wheel (for double quartet and guitar) and his interpretations of music by Paul Motian (for two guitars and string quartet) have marked Harrison as something of a renegade with a tirelessly creative streak. He brought that same nonconformist attitude to bear in his role as curator of the “Alternative Guitar Festival” at the Cornelia Street Café.

“The whole point of it for me was that there’s a handful of guitarists, and a lot more than I could invite, who exemplify creativity, most of whom live in New York and who despite being lauded to some degree by the jazz world have no real traction outside that,” said Harrison after the series finale. “I wasn’t interested in well known people or people who fit into a mold or even a style of music-making. I was into asking people who have similar eclectic tendencies as me, who aren’t locked into what any idea of jazz is. And then rather than having them play with their quartets or trios, I wanted to cast some people together on the same stage who might not ordinarily be together to see if it brings out something different or something more adventuresome. I wanted it to be sort of spontaneous and raw and to some degree I think that’s what we got.”

For three nights, Harrison paired off noteworthy players on NYC’s cutting edge scene to perform in an intimate duet setting. The most unlikely pairing in six separate sets of duets was veteran guitarist Vic Juris, an accomplished player with hard bop/fusion roots and a longstanding association with saxophonist Dave Liebman, and newcomer Mary Halvorson, an Anthony Braxton protégé whose lines are more fractured and pointillistic, a la Derek Bailey and Fred Frith. In this spontaneous setting, Juris revealed his more free-spirited side (which occasionally comes out in his collaborations with Liebman). While on the surface this duet may have appeared as a case of oil and water, the two melded in the moment on some adventurous six-string explorations.

The first night also featured a series of stirring duets between two killer players in Adam Rogers and Pete McCann. While both are chops-meisters of the highest order, they chose a different route than all-out fretboard fireworks during their outstanding set. With Rogers opening on nylon string acoustic (and utilizing a classical fingerstyle approach) and McCann playing warm, reverb-soaked lines on electric guitar, they summoned up the subtle shadings and colorations of Ralph Towner and John Abercrombie on Sargasso Sea. During his flurries of more assertive picking and strumming, Rogers recalled the exhilarating, driving style of Brazilian guitarist Egberto Gismonti. Throughout their exhilarating set, Rogers and McCann switched off between acoustic and electric guitars, providing complementary tones and timbres from piece to piece. And at one tumultuous peak, they both manned electric guitars and unleashed dissonant, distortion-laced lines, building a skronkish guitarchitecture by creatively layering interlocking lines via looping technology.

The second night of the Alternative Guitar Festival (which I unfortunately wasn’t able to atted) paired Rez Abbasi and Brad Shepik followed by a duet of Brandon Ross and Michael Gregory, the latter being a primary early influence on Harrison through his ’70s work with saxophonist Oliver Lake.

Night three presented the most surprising results. For the first set, Harrison (playing National Steel guitar) joined with classical Indian sarod player Anupam Shobhakar (great nephew of the late sarod master Ali Akbar Khan) on a series of East-meet-West collaborations that ranged from authentic ragas to Indian-tinged interpretations of blues numbers (including a haunting rendition of Willie Dixon’s “Spoonful,” which Harrison sang in an ethereal falsetto voice). With both duet partners playing essentially non-tempered instruments (the sarod has a stainless steel fingerboard and no frets while Harrison played his National Steel with a slide), they wafted effortlessly between notes while showing the common ground between Hindustani music and American blues.

The festival concluded with some fretboard fireworks, courtesy of Marc Ribot and Elliott Sharp playing duets together for the first time. With Ribot alternating between a steel string acoustic and a hollow body Gretsch guitar fed through various effects and Sharp alternating between a Chinese-made Les Paul styled Luna guitar (which he bought on eBay for $99) and a lap steel guitar, they conjured up a wide palette of textures and tones ranging from subtle colorations to sheer sonic mayhem. The chemistry between these two downtown icons was as immediate as it was caustic, with Sharp unleashing torrents of ringing harmonics and razor-sharp slide abstractions and Ribot layering on dissonant chordal clusters and machine gun-picked solo lines that recalled the ‘shards of splintered glass’ approach of the late Sonny Sharrock. The two audacious experimental guitarists lowered their purely improvisational instincts on just two occasions, turning in a lovely rendition of Thelonious Monk’s “Misterioso” and Ribot offering heart-wrenching vocals on a melancholy reading of Stonewall Jackson country-blues lament, “That’s Why I’m Walking.”

Originally Published