July-August 2012

Celebrating Great Guitarists

By Audrey Coleman

John_JorgensonWhat makes a great guitarist?  What are the ingredients of the magic Django Reinhardt conjured by melding jazz with Gypsy music? That Charlie Patton spun down in the Delta with the blues? That Gabby Pahinui drew upon to take the Hawaiian slack key style to unforeseen heights?  That Jimi Hendrix stirred up in a rock-based frenzy? The magic that John McLaughlin, Eric Clapton, Pierre Bensusan, Carlos Santana and other masters continue to create on this incredibly versatile instrument?

Two upcoming concert events at the Redondo Center for the Performing Arts will suggest answers. On August 24 and 25, the second Los Angeles Guitar Festival will host a stellar line-up of acoustic players, several of the world-class talents based in Southern California. On October 6, In the Footsteps of Django will pay tribute to the Gypsy guitarist's unique brand of jazz.

Great guitarists are not just technically superior players, but well-formed musicians. Case in point: Grammy-winner Eric Johnson who leads off the Festival on August 24. His hits, Cliffs of Dover and Desert Rose, reveal a solid musical foundation. It’s evident he’s mastered modal melodic construction for tonal coloration (Ionian for “Cliffs” and Mixolydian for “Rose”). His latest album, Up Close (Capitol, 2010) brings his distinctive, dynamic sound to rock, blues, pop, country and jazz and combines his talents with guitarists Jimmy Vaughan and Sonny Landreth plus guest singers. Musician Magazine named Johnson, who emerged as a star in the 1990s, one of the 100 Greatest Guitarists of the 20th Century. His performance on August 24 will be a lesson in brilliance.

Following Johnson is Albert Lee, Grammy-winner of the 2002 Best in Acoustic Country Instrumental Playing for Foggy Mountain Breakdown from the CD, Earl Scruggs and Friends and in 2010 for Cluster Pluck from Brad Paisley's album, Play. Based in Southern California, British-born Lee delivers exuberant rockabilly riffs and convincing country lyrics that delight audiences. He is a regular in the Crickets and has worked with such luminaries as Don Everly, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Nitty-Gritty Dirt Band.

Robben Ford and Michael Landau of Renegade Creation start off the second evening of the Festival with a gutsy program of blues/rock vocals coupled with thrilling instrumentals. Bassist Jimmy Haslip and drummer Gary Novak provide a stellar rhythm backup.  The guitar playing of Ford and Landau demonstrate another quality of the greats –expressive, nuanced tone.

Listening to the dazzling, fluid improvisations on his 2007 album, Ultraspontane, one understands why John Jorgenson was chosen for the role of Django Reinhardt in the upcoming film Head in the Clouds. His runs and chord modulations are daring without being showy, the mark of a great guitarist. A founding member of the Desert Rose Band and six-year member of Elton John's band, the Southern Californian has accompanied Barbra Streisand and played with Bonnie Raitt and Earls Scruggs. The John Jorgenson Quintet appears second on the August 25 program.

Next comes Peppino D'Agostino, bringing dashes of Italian sensibility to his finger-style playing. Dubbed "a poet" by the San Francisco Chronicle, D'Agostino uses rubato and variations in dynamics liberally as he paints moods with melody. His effective placement of harmonics make compositions such as Grand Canyon sparkle.

Southern California bluesman Doug MacLeod rounds out the Festival on August 24 with his gritty, musical storytelling.

Southern California-based bluesman Doug MacLeod, whose music may be the most familiar to locals, this writer included, rounds out the Festival. For many years has made steam rise from the dance floors of the Café Boogaloo in Hermosa Beach making me forget my peach cobbler and shake to the beat.  MacLeod’s powerfully rhythmic guitar style and earthy vocals take inspiration from blues greats for whom he has played sideman including Big Joe Turner, Charles Brown, Pee Wee Crayton, Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson, and George “Harmonica” Smith. His songs tell gritty stories with emotional honesty and it's the sign of a master musician and lyricist that he can draw tastefully from the gospel style in a piece like Ain’t No Grave to convey their raw truth. That song incorporates handclapping and female background harmonies:

From the Promised Land I’ve come

To the Promised Land I’m bound

Ain’t no grave gonna keep my soul down…

Great guitarists create music with a distinctive voice yet an indefinable simplicity. MacLeod demonstrates these qualities as a performer, composer, and lyricist. His songs have been recorded by Albert King, Albert Collins, and Son Seals. It's worth checking out his Acoustic Album of the Year-nominated disc, Brand New Eyes (Fresh! Label, 2012), and other notable recordings such as The Utrecht Sessions (Black & Tan 2008), Where I Been, (Black & Tan 2006), and Ain’t the Blues Evil (Volt/Fantasy, 1991). 

This second Los Angeles Guitar Festival, brought to you by Kala Koa Entertainment, promises two evenings that celebrate the heights great guitar playing can reach.  It may whet your appetite for the fall offering from Kala Koa, In the Footsteps of Django, which I will preview in our September/October edition of FolkWorks. 

Audrey Coleman is a journalist, educator, and passionate explorer of traditional and world music. She is entering the graduate program in ethnomusicology at the University of California, Riverside in September.


All Columns by Audrey Coleman