On the heels of Skyscraper’s relaunch, we’ll be reviewing a number of records from mid-to-late 2010 that we missed out on covering during our semi-hiatus. Sort of a “what we missed” series of reviews, emphasizing both some of the best releases of 2010 and some of the year’s most interesting but overlooked records. This is one of those.
Throughout their multi-decade career the instrumental California Guitar Trio has put a unique mark on other musician’s work, from Duke Ellington to Queen, while creating music which crosses and combines many genres. The trio’s newest release, Andromeda, however, is the first California Guitar Trio album comprised of all original compositions and dispenses with other artists’ material. Notably, the trio’s latest project also celebrates two anniversaries: the group has been together for two decades, while the title and cover art refer to the 20th anniversary of the Hubble Space Telescope.
Paul Richards, Bert Lams, and Hideyo Moriya initially met in 1987 when they studied with guitar whiz Robert Fripp and subsequently toured as part of Fripp’s League of Crafty Guitarists. Afterward they reconvened in Los Angeles where they founded The California Guitar Trio in 1991. While the members no longer live in Southern California, they have maintained their geographically-specific name. Ever since the friends partnered, Richards, Lams, and Moriya have utilized acoustic – and on occasion electric – guitars to showcase their extensive tastes, retranslating or adapting folk, surf rock, classical, progressive rock, and other styles into a singular sound. Andromeda follows a similar path as previous outings, but the blend of acoustic (analog) and electric (digital) with various other influences is more pronounced.
The California Guitar Trio has never focused on eclecticism as the sole purpose for existence. The band’s myriad performance nature is just a means to an end. Like Frank Zappa’s oeuvre, there is a larger conception which connects the music. For example, doing cover songs is not a gimmick. For The California Guitar Trio, interpretation is related to progression, development and reevaluation: they shape familiar music, such as fan favorite “Bohemian Rhapsody,” into distinctive arrangements. Now the threesome has moved forward with 11 new tracks, which are a mix of through-composed pieces and integrated improvisational creations. The approach affords both spontaneity and careful consideration, music that is open-ended and also firmly controlled.
The 37-minute record starts out effectively with the chiming “Cathedral Peak,” which deftly merges a pastoral, acoustic tendency reminiscent of Steve Hackett’s solo work together with tempestuous sections which feature electric guitar and percussion. The bucolic inclination is echoed during the classically-tinged “Turn of the Tide,” where triple guitars repeat a melody over and on top of each other, resulting in ringing buildups where parallel notes are overlaid while arco bass glides beneath. Folk elements also ride through “Chacarera,” inspired by the Argentinean folk dance which is a rural counterpoise to the famous, metropolitan tango. The rhythmic tune uses the common pentatonic scale – five notes per octave – which furnishes cohesion to the competing chords so the guitars do not clash. The piece is also accentuated by percussion which has a vibraphone tone but probably is not. Another cut which has a dance disposition is the briskly paced “Hazardous Z,” which has a multi-tiered rhythmic sway due to a flamenco-stirred foundation. It also has a fusion quality which should appeal to Al Di Meola fans and provides food for thought: a California Guitar Trio and Di Meola alliance would be something to hear.
The expansively amplified material is subtly subversive. The acoustic/electric title track exploits reverb and digital loops to craft a wall of sound akin to Fripp’s sonic landscapes while distinctly nodding to minimalist Steve Reich. Play this track alongside “Electric Counterpoint,” Reich’s collaboration with Pat Metheny, to hear the comparison. Guitar harmonics are emphasized on the country-prog piece “Middle of TX,” which has a near razor-sharp electric attribute contrasted by a classical-music mood. The band neatly avoids a novelty effect which plagued outfits such as Sky, the 1980s quartet which endeavored to unite classical with pop or rock.
The briefest workings are the four dispersed improvisational cuts, highlighted by the too-short “Improv 8: Layered Circulation,” which uses repetitive figures to help form phased patterns; and the longer “Improv 9,” which displays the trio’s acoustic amiability. The one-minute “Improv 7” has promise but proves too undersized to be successful, while the album-concluding “Improv 1” has a proficient purity but edges too close to Michael Hedges’ new age territory.Visit: California Guitar Trio | Karate Body
Purchase: Insound | eMusic