Album Review: The Ben Verdery Guitar Project: On Vineyard Sound – a bold and adventurous offering, pushing the repertoire envelope!

Wow. Wow, wow, wow. No, I’ve not gone all Kate Bush. I’ve just been listening to and reviewing one of the most incredibly adventurous and beautifully presented (both aurally and visually) recordings of entirely new repertoire I’ve had the pleasure of reviewing in the last five or so years of writing this blog.

First a little about this recording I’ve been privileged enough to review for you, dear readers…

On June 24 2016 acclaimed guitarist and teacher Ben Verdrey released his newest album,  The Ben Verdery Guitar Project: On Vineyard Sound, via Elm City Records. Ben Verdery needs little introduction (I should hope!), as one of the preeminent guitarists of our time. For those new to the classical guitar scene, or those wanting to see the latest on what Ben has been up to, I recommend heading over to his fantastic website: http://www.benjaminverdery.com

The album features Verdery performing music by his composer colleagues at Yale University’s School of Music, where he is Associate Professor of Guitar and Artistic Director of the biennial Yale Guitar Extravaganza. These featured composers include Martin Bresnick, Aaron Jay Kernis, Ezra Laderman, David Lang, Hannah Lash, Christopher Theofanidis, Jack Vees, and Verdery himself. In addition, the album features guest performers Rie Schmidt on flute and Vees on pedal steel guitar. As with his widely praised past discography, On Vineyard Sound showcases Verdery performing on a variety of guitars, ranging from Fender Stratocaster and steel string to baritone and classical.

On Vineyard Sound began with Verdery inviting his composer colleagues from the Yale School of Music to write audition pieces with relatively few interpretative indications. Verdery would then ask each prospective student to learn one of these unfamiliar compositions, which are designed to challenge and engage the musical imagination. Verdery’s project, inspired by the Rhode Island School of Design’s entrance exam for prospective students to interpret a request to draw something that involved a bicycle, has brought together the Yale compositional community in producing a new body of guitar music. Taken as a whole, the album reflects the extraordinary depth of musical talent in the community of composers at Yale, with influences ranging from indie-rock band The Nationals to English Renaissance composer John Dowland.

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The full track list looks like this:

1.  Joaquin Is Dreaming: Joaquin Imagines A Part Of His History (Martin Bresnick)

2.  Joaquin Is Dreaming: Joaquin Foresees A Future (Martin Bresnick)

3.  Joaquin Is Dreaming: Joaquin Is Sleeping, Joaquin is Dreaming (Martin Bresnick)

4.  On Vineyard Sound: With Rhythmic Drive and Compulsion (Ezra Laderman)

5.  On Vineyard Sound: Andantino (Ezra Laderman)

6.  On Vineyard Sound: Brusque, Strident (Ezra Laderman)

7.  On Vineyard Sound: With Rhythmic Drive and Propulsion – Coda (Ezra Laderman)

8.  Lullaby (Aaron Jay Kernis) *

9.  For Ben: Movement Number One (Hannah Lash)

10. For Ben: Play These Notes (Hannah Lash)

11. For Ben: This Dances Slowly (Hannah Lash)

12. January Echoes (Christopher Theofanidis)

13. The Mentioning Of Love (Ingram Marshall) *

14. En Ti Los Ríos Cantan (Ben Verdery)

15. little eye (David Lang) **

16. National Anthem (Jack Vees)

*   with flutist Rie Schmidt

Nicole’s Verdict on On Vineyard Sound

Well, let me start with the packaging and presentation of this wonderfully bold recording. I am incredibly honoured by being sent one of only 300 hard copies of this recording (so good job I seriously enjoyed it otherwise that would have been awkward huh?!). The packaging is beautifully designed in terms of its construction and its layout, text and decoration. A stunning visual invitation inside…..

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First up, I applaud Ben in undertaking this project – the more artists we have pushing the envelope in terms of classical guitar repertoire in this way the stronger it makes our instrument and legacy that we’re building for future generations of players, musicians and lovers of the form.

This album is as varied in its styles as it as stunningly presented. And I don’t just mean the packaging when I talk of its presentation. Verdery’s playing is really second to none and a beautifully direct and clear style that is unmistakably his. To compare him to any other guitarist would just be plain rude! Crystal clear, beautiful straightforward playing, with an approach that seeks every colour, every tonal nook and cranny from his instruments in just the right spots.

Given the stylistic variation and the uniqueness of each of the pieces it’s difficult to pick just one favourite. They’re all accomplished works, presented by an accomplished guitarist – some are immediate in their impact, some are pieces that take a while and a few listens perhaps for you (well, for me anyway) to “get them”. And I don’t mind non-immediacy at all when I’m coming to new music. I want something to be a bit of a surprise in where it’s going, and what it’s saying, and for me to ponder on it, and listen on repeat. Or put away and come back to and hear something else going on. That’s a sign of an interesting piece of music with longevity, to me, and the sign of a highly skilled musician in presenting the music thus.

In terms of the stand out pieces on this album that really captured my attention, I’d say there’s a good handful here.

Joaquin is Sleeping, Joaquin is Dreaming is a delightfully elegant offering, in which Verdery conveys something akin to some kind of wistful, far off distant feeling in a dream somewhere. Gossamer stuff.

Check this one out for yourself:

Then, the slightly lulling Little Eye, a wistful, dream-like piece, but set against an interesting backdrop of pedal steel guitar notes dropped in and an interesting metallic, sliding sound. A beautifully hynoptic and mesmerising piece.

It’s in the slightly left of centre pieces, however, that I feel Verdery really comes into his own, really excels and really seems to revel in the newness and the excitement of these works. And believe me they are exciting!

Play These Notes  from For Ben, a nutty little piece, on distorted jazz guitar, actually made me chuckle. I’m not sure if that was the intention or not, but as a piece of music it tickled me!

I love, love, loved the Brusque, Strident movement from On Vineyard Sound – strident is certainly a really good word to capture the essence of this piece and Verdery conveys that expertly with bold, brash (meaning that in a good way in keeping with the nature of the piece!), vibrant playing that just feels so alive!

And also bristling with this intense energy is the final movement of On Vineyard SoundWith Rhythmic Drive and Propulsion/ Coda. Oh my goodness. Exciting stuff!

If you’re into checking out the latest, leading edge guitar music then this is the recording for you. A bold, adventurous tour de force of a recording that will leave you breathless.

To view videos, composer bios, credits, photos and digital downloads to get your own copy of this marvellous recording head to: http://www.elmcityrecords.com/ben-verdery-guitar-project

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Album Review – Enchanted Guitar Forest by Alex Lubet & Maja Radovanlija

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Once again I have been highly privileged to sit and listen to some wonderful original music – this time with a bit of an Eastern European flavour – presented by some equally wonderful guitarists.

But before I leap in to the review, some info for you on who these wonderful guitarists are

Alex Lubet

A native of Chicago, composer, multi-instrumentalist, author, and educator Alex Lubet has lived in Minnesota since 1979.  While having written works in many idioms, he has long devoted himself principally to performing his own music, as a solo acoustic guitarist and in collaboration with artists including Maja Radovanlija, Swiss free jazz pianist Guerino Mazzola, and his wife, taiko and fue (Japanese drums and horizontal flute) player Iris Shiraishi.  In addition to guitars and ukuleles, Alex plays electric and double bass and mountain dulcimer. Alex has received hundreds of performances of his works on six continents.  His album Spectral Blues:  New Music for Acoustic Guitar (Ravello) received unanimously excellent reviews in the US, Italy, and Brazil.  Well known critic and author Ted Gioia named it a “Best Album of 2013.”  Alex joined the faculty of the University of Minnesota in 1979.

Alex plays a Taylor guitar, a National Steel Guitar, and a Kamaka ukulele.

Maja Radovanlija

A native of Belgrade, Serbia, Maja Radovanlija received her initial training at the University of Belgrade, with graduate studies at Indiana University.  She was won several awards and competitions, including second prize at the Petar Konjevic International Competition in Belgrade.  A student of early music, Latin American music, and jazz, Maja began composing and performing her own works in graduate school.  She is distinguished by her passion for improvisation, rare among classical guitarists.  Having performed widely in Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, and throughout the US, Maja is a member of the Minneapolis Guitar Quartet and often performs in the US with (among many) ImprovIsAn’Do and Improvised Ecosystems; in Belgrade with the ImprovE Collective, and with Hungarian violist/composer Szilard Mezei.  Maja has taught guitar at the University of Minnesota since 2011.

Maja plays a double top guitar, made in West Branch, Iowa by luthier John H. Dick.

The Review – What Did I Think?

The title of the recording Enchanted Guitar Forest is a pretty spot-on one actually. The whole recording really does have a light, ethereal, and slightly musical quality to it. Not that I normally like to compare artists with one another as all are different and uniquely special in their own ways, but this reminds me somewhat of a Johannes Möller recording (albeit with a lot of steel string guitar, which incidentally really lends itself to this music and is quite colourful in a way that I’ve not heard too much from our steel string cousins) in that mystical, lyrical and thought-provoking manner.

So what about the pieces on the recording? Shallow go with my favourite track? Always a good one to start with. Let’s just say I bloody love Los Bibilicos – all melancholic, sultry, Spanish-inflected minor pentatonics, and the most wonderfully expressive tremolo playing, sensitive little tambour touches and etouffé muted playing, and the sweetest, dolce harmonics. A delicious piece most definitely worth tasting. An utterly mesmerising piece of music that I’ve listened to several times over, on repeat.

Up there next for me would have to be Ein Keilheinu, a fantastic piece (the opening passage of which comes from a synagogue hymn) with the steel guitar to the fore, a lulling Eastern melody, and wonderful nylon string arpeggios supporting in the background. This piece is beautifully enchanting; a colourful guitar forest I’d be happy to wander in and around for a while.

Also worth a mention is the nostalgic Ma Yafeh hayom  – a gentle and pretty pathway out of the Enchanted Guitar Forest and back out into the light, with a wistful melody and that delightful tremolo playing in spots again.

This is a truly delightful recording, displaying the many wonderful characteristics of the broader guitar family through sensitive idiomatic writing and arranging, and equally sensitive and wonderfully expressive guitar playing. A beautiful recording, and a must listen for those who enjoy the best of new contemporary guitar music.

Enchanted Guitar Forest is available for download on iTunes and Alex Lubet is on Spotify with this recording and his excellent 2013 Spectral Blues.