December 2020 Triple E Suite
This month’s track is John Dodge’s Triple-E Suite, performed by him at a demo concert for my guitars at the Northwest Handmade Musical Instrument Exhibit, which I attend yearly, mostly to recharge my batteries staying with friends Jeff Elliott and Cyndy Burton, two of the event’s organizers. A little over a decade ago they arranged for their friend Peter Zisa to play for me. (Peter was later to charm the audience at the inaugural of my series of shop concerts). When Peter showed up the day of the demo, noticing I also made steel strings, he said that, since he didn’t normally play steel, perhaps his friend John could help us out. Summoning him on his cell phone since he was in another part of the hall, Peter called out, and got as far as “John, would you be willing to…”, before John interjected “Sure!”. They took the guitars away for half an hour before proceeding to play the mini- concert, individually and as a duo, as if they’d been familiar with my instruments for years.
I recorded John the following year on an early version of my “recording studio on a stick” , two high quality condenser microphones, phantom powered with a battery pack, feeding a small Olympus portable recorder. I put the whole thing on a 1 ft. mic stand, and plunk it down on the stage floor about 6 ft. from the player(s). That day I managed to plop it down felicitously, so you’re listening to pretty much what I and the rest of the audience heard.
While I surely appreciate a finely honed studio recording, I’m most fulfilled when a dynamic player just picks up one of my axes and intuitively mines its gifts at the service of his or her music.
John is also a fine singer/songwriter. Explore his work here: johndodgemusic.com
He’ll be playing a shop concert when it’s again safe to gather.
November 2020 The Walking Stick
This month’s track is “The Walking Stick”, composed and performed by Jack Gates, from his album Voyage of the Troubadour. Jack had one of my instruments in the late 70’s and currently has a 2013 and 2018, spruce and cedar topped respectively. This recording was done with none of those, but from a guitar he took to his home studio to record samples using strings of different composition and from different manufacturers to help me determine which sounded best on my guitars. This track was done in his home studio, recorded simply with a stereo pair of microphones, placed about 4ft. away and 4ft. above the instrument, capturing a natural room ambience.
Since I met him those many years ago, Jack has been instrumental in the development of my craft. Whenever I complete a guitar, I feel I’ve locked my musical soul in this box, with my clumsy, fumbling technique hardly the key to set it free. Jack is one of the first people I call to try to hear what the new ax has got. His strong, clear, dynamic, colorful, and lyrical playing help me determine where I’ve come, and where I want to go. And, almost more importantly, knowing my work, he can express whether he thinks I’ve retained the traits I value, while perhaps adding something new.
Learn more about Jack and access his music at jackgatesmusic.com
October 2020 Lullabies
This month’s track is “Lullabies”, a poignant picture of the end of a relationship composed and performed by Judith-Kate Friedman from her album Bigger Things.
About the time I completed my first Grande Steel Cutaway, Judith-Kate, my client, friend, and fellow Oberlin College (considerably later) graduate was in the middle of recording, and I offered her the use of my new guitar.
I was gratified that it could support her evocative vocal and Jami Sieber’s warm expressive cello.
August/September 2020 Cavatina
This month’s track is Konstantin Vassiliev’s “Cavatina”, performed by Yuri Liberzon, who commissioned the work, at a shop concert on January 25, 2020. As performing and compositional techniques are ever expanding, there’s always room for such lyrically melodic playing and composing.
Explore Konstantin's work at konstantin-vassiliev.de
Yuri's upcoming concerts and cd releases here: yuriguitar.com
Additional music from that concert can be found here.
July 2020 St Thomas
This month’s track is “St. Thomas”, played by Duck Baker during a live performance at the Freight and Salvage in Berkeley on January 7, 2011. Often attributed to Sonny Rollins ( he never claimed authorship), the tune was that of a traditional English song, “The Lincolnshire Poacher”, later evolving in the Virgin Islands into a nursery song, which Rollins' mother sang to him when he was a child.
One day I got a call from my friend Tim, relating that his friend Duck Baker had called wanting to borrow a steel string guitar for a gig that night at the Freight. Tim suggested he might enjoy using one of mine, which Duck thought sounded fine, so we all met in the late afternoon for a sound check before going to dinner.
I cringed at the first emanations from the system at its previous settings, as it sounded little like Duck playing my guitar, and not in a good way. The sound person stopped abruptly, and called down from the back of the hall, asking to hear the guitar played a bit un-amplified. After about half a minute of the the music floating back to him, the speakers poured forth pretty much what I was hearing played right in front me. Great sound people are rare, and often unsung heroes.
After a wonderful concert, the sound person, Allen Lam, with Duck's permission, graciously made me a copy of the board recording.
Duck honors the buoyant spirit of this unofficial Lincolnshire County anthem/Virgin Islands nursery song/ jazz standard, while seeing it through his own unique lens.
Explore Duck’s music and teaching offerings here: duckbaker.com
Allen Lam and his discerning ears can be reached here: firstname.lastname@example.org
Photo by Peter Gannushkin
June 2020 The Loss
This Month's Track:The Loss - Woody Harris - June 8, 2020
May 2020 Thinkin' 'bout My Home
May’s track is “Thinkin’ ‘bout My Home”, written and performed by Ron Schmalfuss from his album “Mr. Mojo, Thinkin’ ‘bout My Home”.
All of my posted tracks up to this point have been by professional musicians that I feel blessed to have heard use my guitars, sort of a “greatest hits” of recorded examples of my work. But for over 47 years the preponderance of my work as a repairer, restorer, and creator of instruments has been for amateur musicians of all skill levels playing and composing for the pleasure of themselves and friends, much as I did when actively playing. Music has the power to move us deeply, but often as much contextually as simply being beautiful in and of itself. I would dearly love to relive the best Julian Bream concert I’ve attended, but perhaps even more I’d yearn to again hear my uncle Manny on his guitar accompanying my Dad as he sang “South of the Border Down Mexico Way” to my Mother at a family party.
I knew Ron Schmalfuss and worked on his guitars from the 70’s when my basement shop was in a downtown Berkeley music store. When it came time to move to my current location in the 80’s, I needed muscle and a truck. I didn’t feel I knew him well enough to ask, but upon hearing of the move he promptly volunteered, wrestling heavy machinery up stairs. Over the ensuing years I did some work for him, but often he’d just stop in, sometimes with his current dog, to chat and play me songs on which he was working. I liked the work ok to varying degrees and was encouraging, but mostly, I just liked him. When I started building more in earnest after a long hiatus, he stopped by and spied a guitar in process with it’s first coats of finish and declared that he wanted it, unheard. What a boost to exhibit at an upcoming festival with one axe already sporting a “sold” sign! The scenario was repeated a couple of years later with a 12 string, notoriously harder to sell than a six.
I knew Ron had wanted to set some of his stuff down, so one day I said “let’s do it!”. We met at the shop in the afternoon on a day it was closed, set up a decent (Joe Meek) vocal mic and my pair of recording mics, ran them through a little mixer, and had at it. By dinnertime we were done. He did a nice job assembling a cd and had a small run made. I lost track of Ron as he stopped coming in, and then got a call from someone who had bought one of his/our guitars. He mentioned the owner had died, but the new owner was too far down the chain of possession to offer any details. Ron and I had no mutual friends, and internet searches turned up nothing. It was as if he’d just disappeared.
This piece evokes a soldier’s simple but vivid thoughts of home while being in country during the Viet Nam War, and ends in the present, contemplating another group of men and women about to be put in the same position. If you’ve a mind, spend three minutes with my friend Ron, singing and playing from the heart in my shop on a quiet Sunday afternoon, October 15, 2006.
April 2020 Boo Marambá
April’s track is Boo Marambá, a traditional Brazilian lullaby arranged and played by Alex De Grassi from his 1996 album “Beyond the Night Sky, Lullabies for Guitar”
From the mid 70’s to mid 80’s, my then tiny shop was tucked away in the basement of Tupper and Reed, a fine full service music store in downtown Berkeley whose tenure lasted almost a hundred years. In 1984 I got a call from Alex asking to come in and try one of my classical guitars. I was familiar with his name and the Windham Hill label, but had yet to hear his playing. However, I liked him right away, friendly and interested in the craft and my work. When he tried the guitar, he didn't use standard classical position, or play any of the classical or Latin American repertoire, but immediately started to explore the instrument’s tonal landscape, pulling out the kind of sounds I was most proud of having put there, but was certainly not capable of producing myself.
After a bit he stopped and said “This is a really unique sounding instrument. The only guitar I've ever played that sounds like this was one by Jeff Elliott in Portland. You could have knocked me over with a feather. Jeff and I apprenticed under the same maestro, Richard Schneider, had run a repair shop together in Detroit during and after our study with Richard, and drove a 24’ U-Haul from Detroit to the West Coast when we relocated to Oregon and California respectively. We've remained close friends since, and although the physical designs of our work differ, our feelings about what makes a fine concert guitar have remained closely aligned. He had more experience than I when we met and significantly informed my craft when we worked together. I was and would be honored to have my work remind someone of his.
Alex went home with the guitar that day. I vividly remember how he was able to connect the spirits of two makers after playing their instruments months and miles apart.
Learn about Alex’s new album, teaching publications, and his upcoming Mendocino workshop here: www.degrassi.com
March 2020 For No One
March’s track is Lennon and McCartney’s “For No One” sensitively sung by Ava Victoria on her CD ”Kickin Up Life”. Ava plays guitar, with Glen Swarts on harmonica. A skilled vocalist and vocal teacher well versed in the Great American Songbook and beyond, a longtime client and friend, Ava borrowed a classical and a steel string guitar for the CD’s recording sessions.
Soon after it’s release many of us, much like today, saw our savings depleted, at least temporarily, during the 2008 recession. Rather than conservatively hunkering down, Ava gave me a call, asking if the classical she played was still available (it was), saying she was coming right down to get it, reasoning that she would use some of her remaining resources to get something not so easily spirited away. It’s her daily driver. “Unlike any of my other guitars, I can use it all day for arranging without my hands getting tired”.
February 2020 Manhã de Carnaval
February's month’s track was Anthony Weller playing Luiz Bonfa’s “Manhã de Carnaval” (Morning of the Carnival), composed for the 1959 Cannes Grand Prize winning film “Black Orpheus”, an adaptation of the Greek legend of Orpheus and Euridice.
Quite early in my career I showed three instruments to the Cuban virtuoso Rey de la Torre, who, to my surprise and delight, liked them enough to deem them concert guitars, recommending them to his students, Anthony being the first. I not only got a timely, engaging, and supportive early client, but a lifelong, nourishing friendship.
Anthony plays both jazz and classical music, in solo and chamber settings, with authority and sensitivity. He’s also a fine writer, about whose work and music you can learn here: www.anthonyweller.com/writingbio and here: www.anthonyweller.com/musicbio
On the track he plays the instrument I made for him in 1979, of which he speaks here: www.johnfmello.com/testimonials (scroll down for full quote).
Anthony’s tender rendition captures the heart of Bonfa’s bittersweet prelude to the
tragic events that follow.
January 2020 Human Family
January's track was Maya Angelou’s poem “Human Family”, recited by Danny Glover and accompanied by the Shaker song “Simple Gifts” by Elder Joseph Brackett. I’ve always had an acting itch, only scratched publicly twice, in a high school production of Thornton Wilder’s “The Skin of Our Teeth”, and in Christopher Fry’s “A Sleep of Prisoners” with people from the town of Oberlin in a beautiful church on a snowy winter eve many years ago. Thus it was thrilling to be able to perform with Danny, however briefly.
OK, so it wasn’t I, it was my guitar, and in the far more capable hands of Sudhananda, who also played recorder and was associate producer. Vocals were by Priya Swan Jae. It was produced by my long time friend Leib Ostrow for “This Land is Your Land: Songs of Unity”, on his “Music for Little People” label. A portion of the proceeds benefit The Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance Program.
The guitar was one I made for Leib in 1978, of which he speaks here: Testimonials
In our current divisive climate, Maya’s deceptively simple message is important to remember.
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