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November & December Short Takes

Keith Ganz "Music for People", 2003 The mind does a "disconnect" while listening to Keith Ganz' "Music for People", holding the CD in hand, eyes on the cover... did I mix up disc and jewel case? The musical meanderings are austere and moving solo jazz nylon-string compositions as if conceived for the ECM label, but the cover art seems to hawk hip-hop inside. If you lay the cover face-down, you'll be granted passage to some of the loveliest compositions I've ever heard be self-produced by an independent artist. Ganz' halting phrases are like tentative steps into a realm of sanctity, occasionally reminiscent of Bill Connor's early acoustic work. © Alan Fark

Lisa Sandell "Little Reason", 2003 Lisa Sandell is a protťgť of the likes of Kelly Joe Phelps, and it shows. Like her mentor, she not only feels quite comfortable contorting the guitar face-up on her lap, but can also send a steel slide intuitively to its steel-string mark with the gentle grace that a Zen archer lets off his arrow to the bullseye. Like a multitude of solo acoustic bluespersons before her, Sandell's art succeeds by juxtaposing irreconcilable moods: somber themes and minor keys with uplifting guitarwork. Her voice quality is similarly contradictory which takes some getting used to, a Joni Mitchell-like smoothness in a context where the ear expects a roughened gruffness. ©Alan Fark

Marc Douglas Berardo "As You Make Your Way" 2003 Featuring a voice in the John Gorka camp, Marc Douglas Berardo drives home this CD with fluid, melodic string arrangements based on his acoustic guitar. His lonesome, clear voice easily carries an aching beauty through introspective songs such as "Untethered" and "The Rum Diary." He digs into darker beauty in the daring 911 song "That One." One can easily imagine his ability to pull it all off with just his guitar and earnest voice -- a great quality for an active folk circuit performer. "The Story (Life After Hemingway)" is a lyrical stand-out, a kind of anti-"Starry Starry Night" for serious students of the heart. © Steve Klingaman

Johann Helton "Songs Without Words" 2003 Veteran solo guitarist Johann Helton has just released a wonderful selection of homegrown acoustic guitar pieces. Heltonís musical influences seem to come from classical, pop, and jazz. Many of the tracks offer impressive improvisational work, most recognizable on the Jazzy "Thereís A Reason". All eleven pieces feature strong melodic integrity. Also very noticeable is Heltonís ability to achieve unique textures on many of these selections. "Songs Without Words" marks a turning point for the artist: the album has only two solo guitar tracks as opposed to Heltonís 2001 release of "Where Mountains End and Clouds Begin" which was all solo work. "Going Home", the opening track, begins with catchy set of progressions and then bridges into Heltonís improvisations. The rest of the tunes showcase a host of different guitars and basses, all played by Helton himself. On "Moroccan Roll" we find a fine mix of percussions, bass, and nylon-string guitar to produce a seductive, silky ethos. Heltonís commitment to articulate every note and the fidelity of the engineering achieved on this album make for a very enjoyable listening experience. The album ends with Helton on steel-string. This acoustic/bass duo reflects Heltonís appreciation for melody and his ability to create imaginative compositions. © Bernard Richter

Tom Ball "18 Pieces for Solo Steel String Guitar", 2003 Taking approximately 16 years to produce an album may seem a little absurd for most, but Tom Ball's "18 pieces for Solo Steel String Guitar" was clearly worth the wait. Ball is known for his work with TV and film, as well as playing some very haunting blues-harmonica side-by-side with Kenny Sultan. The compositions Ball offers his listener on his newest album span a wide range of musical orientations; we find songs from Germany, Paraguay, Brazil, France, Mexico, Spain, and the USA. From the classical work of Leo Brouwer on "One November Day" to Augustin Barrios' "Julia Florida" to the more swinging up-tempo arrangements done by Ball himself the listener will find this album musically diverse as well as artistically enriching. The album is not intended to 'rock your world,' as it were, but if you give Ball's music the time and patience any good piece of music deserves, his work will move your soul. Many of the pieces are classics in their own right, so there is a kind of wonderful heritage brought home to the listener. Ball's technique has the unique quality of uniting graceful softness with a commitment to powerful, forward moving finger-picking. "Variations on Themes by Bittner," features wonderful contrapuntal movement made possible through deep bass notes and middle range harmonics. Filled with all sorts of choice licks and crisp fret action, "Police Dog Blues" provides a nice contrast to some of the more meditative ballads also available on the album. © Bernard Richter

Sal Casabianca "Living Between the Bridges", 2003 Sal Casabianca is a singer-songwriter-guitarist in the vein of artists such as John Hiatt, Freedy Johnson, Beth Orton, Graham Parker, and Dave Matthews in that he can dabble in any genre that strikes his muse and still sound like himself. "Whitestone" and "Stain On My Heart" are dirty bar band rockers pure and simple. Respectable smooth jazz emerges in the arpeggios, grooves, and harmonics of "Out There." Akin to John Mellencamp in his 1980s heyday, "In My Life" exudes infectious heartland pop via a meld of tuneful mandolin riffs and fat electric guitar textures. Electro-folkies will enjoy "Angel Sky" as Casabianca woefully croons over a robotic drum and high-hat loop with soul. A masterful guitarist with a crystal tone, warm baritone, and crisp arrangement and production values, Casabianca is just a heartbeat away from quitting his day job. If major labels would invest in artists like Casabianca, the record industry wouldn't be in the sorry shape it's in nowadays. © Tom Semioli

George Robinson "The Awakening", 2003 "The Awakening" is Portland, Oregon-based guitarist George Robinson's second solo acoustic release. Robinson uses a hybrid nylon string guitar with some modeling techniques to achieve what is a unique sound. Robinson's music takes a while to grow on you, because the songs are deliberately slow and introspective. I found myself needing to listen repeatedly to pick up the feeling, but once I took the time, I sensed the calm he is trying to communicate. By varying a contrapuntal bass line with the melody, he is able to weave a stable texture to each song. While most of the cuts like "Mystic Journey", "Recurring Dream", and "The Calling" all take you for a leisurely stroll, "Book of Secrets" picks up the pace, and here Robinson allows the melody to drive more than float along. This is the high mark of the CD. This isn't a recoding of soaring, mind-blowing licks on solo guitar. But if you're looking for something great in the background on a breezy Sunday afternoon, it delivers. © Kirk Albrecht

Glen Bonham "Glen Bonham" You might wonder, as I did, why we need another recording of bluegrass and country chestnuts like "You Don't Know My Mind," the Carter family's "I Wonder How the Old Folks Are at Home," or "Merle Haggard's "Today I Started Loving You Again." But you'll stop wondering when you hear Glen Bonham's incredible high lonesome voice in front of a crackerjack band of Nashville session players like Pat Flynn from the New Grass Revival on guitar and Glen Duncan--recently featured on the Earl Scruggs and Friends CD--on fiddle. Bonham not only has pipes, he also has an interesting story. Check it out at Grassroots Media. © David Kleiner

Paul Jones "Baptism River", 2003 Boomers never tire of well-worn tunes form the 1960s. Paul Jones uses this truism to his advantage in order to snare that particular and susceptible crowd with fingerstyle covers of Joni Mitchell ("Both Sides Now"), James Taylor ("Fire and Rain"), Neil Young ("After the Gold Rush") and The Beatles ("In My Life", "I Will"). He's a fantastic fingerstylist and a passable vocalist whose arrangements of those standards are unique enough that it's apparent you're hearing someone with a special talent more profound than that which the average coffee-shop toubadour possesses. © Alan Fark

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