Guitars (and a dobro) at the Festival: Part One

There is a wealth of talent at this year’s festival if you want to check out the best-of-the-best guitar players in the international scene…

Jerry Douglas

The term “first-call” for a musician is an accomplishment. It doesn’t always translate into big money or fame, and quite frankly, is sometimes overused. This is not the case for Jerry Douglas, who is far and away the first-call dobro player. You need only ask the numerous and varied artists who have availed themselves of his talents.

The dobro, and really any similar instrument that uses a slide, has its own built in limitations. With only a certain number of sounds and limited note articulation, playing it even semi-competently can be a challenge. What puts Jerry Douglas above all this, probably for the last twenty years, is his melodic sense and his use of the spaces. It comes down to taste and knowledge of what the instrument can do.

There are numerous videos on the web of his work–playing with everyone you can imagine, solo stuff, and of course with Alison Krause and Union Station. But I like this rather sparse version of him doing “Hey Joe”.

I mean what reason could you possibly have for not seeing the best in the world at The Vogue on June 30?

Robben Ford

Often, it’s how you are first introduced to an artist that influences the way you will appreciate them from that time forward. Sometime in the early eighties, I’m thumbing through records at store Saint Marks Place in New York, and hear the blues. But it isn’t the usual blues guitar, or at least not the usual blues scale. It’s Robben Ford, and I bought their only copy of Talk to Your Daughter.

Now I’ve done as much time at the old Yale as anyone, and heard those endless versions of “Sweet Home Chicago” and those same damn notes. But Ford sounds different: The blues seems to have a richer musical palette in his hands. Ford himself can explain the difference through his use of the diminished scale, try it yourself.

As a member of his brother’s blues band and an early gig (at age 18) with the Charlie Musselwhite Band, Ford was well on the fast track to a Stevie Ray-Jonny Lang-Joe Bonamassa type of blues career.

That is until he got sidetracked into jazz, working with the jazz fusion group LA Express, the Yellowjackets, Joni Mitchell, and even a shift with Miles Davis.

This shift led to a dizzying array of work with other artists, (one of my favourites being Rickie Lee Jones’ album Pop Pop) as well as over 20 albums of his own, both solo and with his group The Blue Line.

The festival finds him playing with jazz legend Jerry Granelli, at Performance Works, June 25. I’m not sure if they will play the Charlie Brown theme or not.

Kevin Breit

What do Hugh Laurie, Cassandra Wilson, and the Guess Who have in common? They all play doctors on TV? No. They have all used the guitar talents of Kevin Breit. Although you might be hard pressed to dig up that Guess Who album (to be fair it was one of those latter day versions of the band, that featured no original members).

Kevin Breit is no stranger to Vancouver, having played both the jazz and folk festivals on numerous occasions.

Breit is in that clear-voiced jazz Tele-master tradition of Bill Frisell, Julian Lage, and Jim Campilongo. Campilongo and Breit have both worked for Nora Jones, although Breit can be seen playing his ancient Rickenbacker frying pan guitar as often as not (he claims it’s easier to get on the plane).

This time around he is appearing as Johnny Goldtooth and the Chevy Casanovas.

If you want more info on this incarnation check out Breit’s website. But best of all he’s free at Downtown Jazz on June 23.

Russell Malone

To many people the sound of Russell Malone is the sound of jazz guitar, and maybe they are not wrong. Personally, I know sometimes after working your way through the endless varieties of sonic permutations that is the modern guitar, to sit down and listen to some nice clean lines and big fat complicated chords reminds you of why you like this stuff.

Malone has played with a who’s who of mainstream jazz types, and most notably spent a number of years with Diana Krall.

Malone will be playing with a quartet at Pyatt Hall on June 26, which, by the way, is the perfect intimate venue for his type of thing. But I thought I’d share this lovely solo version of  “How Deep is Your Love”; it gives a great sense of his sound.

Nels Cline

No stranger to Vancouver, Nels Cline is one of the most accessible weird guitar player you are going to hear at this festival.

A mainstay of the avant-garde jazz scene since the 1980s, Cline is probably best known for his big gig since 2004 as the guitar player for Wilco–though by no means does he limit himself to anything that passes for pop music. He pretty much plays with everyone, and they usually end up all the more interesting because of it.

This video from Guitar Player, Cline talks about how he moves between his pop rock ideas and his jazz intentions.

As a segue into the next guitarist I’ll be talking about, Julian Lage, this is Cline just tearing it up with Lage in a way that only two players like this can.

Cline is at Ironworks for two shows June 23.

Julian Lage

Another recent visitor to Vancouver, and the player who probably gets the most internet buzz on the guitar sites, is Julian Lage. Granted he has been doing well for a while, picking up the Telecaster a few years back seems to have only increased his popularity.

Though he released his first album at age 21, Lage was a child prodigy. One of things that I appreciate about his playing, and what I think has made him both popular as a performer and a collaborator, is despite his obvious massive amounts of technique (read the comments to the following video) the naturalness and ease of his playing shines through. This is a great of example of just that:

Lage is at Performance Works June 26 and missing him would mean missing one of the true highlights of the festival.

Marc Ribot

There is an apocryphal story about the young Pat Martino asking Les Paul for advice, and Paul replying, “you play pretty good son, but can your momma recognize you when she hears you on the radio?”

Chances are Marc Ribot’s mother can recognize him on the radio. Marc Ribot has a sound. A sound that was obvious in his early work on Tom Waits albums, and with his own groups, including Shrek, Los Cubanos Postizos, Ceramic Dog. But even with his work on the Grammy winning Robert Plant/Alison Krause collaboration Raising Sand, and as the guitar player of choice for prolific producer T-Bone Burnette.

It’s a very recognizable echo/reverb-drenched sound that he seems to be able to layer on any manner of material.

He is at the Blueshore at Cap June 28 with David Hidalgo of Los Lobos. Here’s a short clip of them discussing their collaboration.

Mary Halvorson

For Mary Halvorson, Downbeat poll winner and June 2018 cover girl, looks and labels can be deceiving. It is, of course, a hard enough slog being an avant-garde guitar player, not to mention a woman in a male dominated industry. Couple that with the fact that Halvorson, with her big old Guild Jazz box and horn rimmed glasses, looks like she should be playing songs for her kindergarten class.

Deeply steeped in the work of her mentor Anthony Braxton, this stuff would warp those little minds forever–hopefully.

This is a nice trio thing that starts odd and just gets weirder.

Brooklyn based Halvorsen is truly where it is all going in guitar based improvisation. Check this short clip as she outlines her take on the process.

Halvorson’s newest album Code Girl features her lyric work through vocalist Amirtha Kidambi, and the band Thumbscrew has been getting rave reviews. That’s the project that she’ll be bring to Ironworks on June 22. She’ll also play that same venue the same night in Tomeka Reid’s Quartet.

Ben Monder

Ben Monder is maybe not quite as well known as some of the other guitarists coming to the festival, but he probably should be. The New York-native has worked with Lee Konitz, Jack McDuff, Paul Motian, Maria Schneider, and was the guitarist on David Bowie’s last album Blackstar. Besides his huge list of projects as a sideman, Monder has produced a number of solo albums including, Oceana in 2005–an album with Vancouver homeboys pianist Chris Gestrin and drummer Dylan van der Schyff

It is maybe the sentimentalist in me, but I can appreciate Monder’s wispy and ambient style in what would become Bowies’ last album. This is a tune called “Lazarus” from that album.

You can hear a lot of influences in Monder’s playing from John Abercrombie to Dave Torn, and perhaps because of my love of Dave Torn, I am particularly fond of Monder’s more ambient work. This one in particular:

Having said this you’ll probably not hear much of his classic style with Dan Weiss’ Starebaby, the project Monder is bringing to the festival. Drummer Weiss and Monder are doing something closer to heavy metal meets Twin Peaks so it should be an interesting night at Ironworks June 24.

Believe it or not, this is just PART ONE of all the great guitar gigs coming the festival. Stay tuned for part two, where we’ll take a look at some of the amazing Vancouver talent.

Jim King is, obviously, a Vancouver-based guitarist and guitar enthusiast.