ELDER UTAH SMITH
I Got Two Wings: Incidents and Anecdotes of the Two-Winged Preacher and Electric Guitar Evangelist
This slim 127-page book by music journalist Lynn Abbott is essentially a clearinghouse for what little is known about Elder Utah Smith, one of the most celebrated of the guitar-toting, gospel-shouting evangelists for the Church of God in Christ. Abbott does his best to put together a narrative but often merely reproduces items from a New Orleans newspaper—Smith spent the final decades of his life there—and text from advertisements. I have no complaints at all about the CD that comes with the book, though—it includes all of Smith's known recordings, plus related pieces from gospel and jazz artists like Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Johnny Wiggs, and F.W. McGee.
Born in Shreveport, Louisiana, in 1906, Smith got the calling to preach in 1923, and within two years he was taking the good word to Pentecostal congregations all over the country. According to Abbott's account, he had a keen sense of humor: in 1931 he "preached the devil's funeral," even lowering a casket into the ground. He was also believed to be able to perform spiritual healings—but he didn't become a phenomenon till he started playing the electric guitar.
Though Smith had been using an acoustic instrument for some time, going electric changed everything. His daughter Lulu makes the dubious claim that he was the first black man in America to own an electric guitar; various accounts suggest he began playing one somewhere between 1937 and 1941. Judging from the handful of recordings that survive—among them commercial singles from '44, '47, and '53, all of which featured his theme song, "Two Wings," on the A side—he quickly developed a unique style. You can hear the raunchy, overdriven chords of what would become rock 'n' roll and a touch of the jazz harmonies of Charlie Christian in the manic introduction to "Two Wings," and once he gets into the meat of the song, shouting out lyrics with bulldozer force over the steady clapping of his congregation—there's no band on any of these recordings—he bears down on his guitar and cranks out a bizarre kind of minimalist blues that seems almost like a template for the hill country trance boogie of folks like Junior Kimbrough and R.L. Burnside. On a sermon-song like "God's Mighty Hand," though, his playing is less about riffs and more about spontaneous licks that function like commentary on his message.
After Smith's last single came out, on the Chess subsidiary Checker Records, he started to slow down—by the end of the 50s the constant traveling had started to take a toll on his health, and in the early 60s he rarely played guitar anymore when he preached. He died in 1965 in the basement of his New Orleans church. Despite his efforts—and those of contemporaries like Tharpe, a much more successful musician—guitar-driven music remained a relatively small part of black gospel. But there's no doubt that his musical evangelism, which had a reach far greater than his recordings did, inspired many other players—Abbott quotes bluesman Larry Garner reminiscing about meeting him. Given how urgent and powerful this stuff sounds even today, it's hard to imagine how mind-blowing it must have been at a tent revival six decades ago.
Live at the Village Vanguard
Martial Solal's first recording session, on April 8, 1953, was the last for legendary Romany guitarist Django Reinhardt, who would die of a brain hemorrhage about a month later. I wouldn't call it a passing of a torch—Solal and Reinhardt were worlds apart stylistically, and the 25-year-old Algerian pianist was hardly catapulted to stardom by the association—but it was certainly an auspicious debut for Solal, who'd moved to Paris in 1950.
Solal, now 81, is still playing and recording, but what's even more impressive than his longevity is his undiminished creative drive. When he recorded the solo set documented on Live at the Village Vanguard, he'd just turned 80, but his dynamic performances are packed with fleet-footed excursions—his mind is clearly still sharp and lucid, and his fingers are still nimble. For years Solal has been compared to Art Tatum, and he shares some of Tatum's uncanny ability to spin florid, detailed right-hand asides. Solal never simply discards the essential kernel of a tune—this set includes "On Green Dolphin Street" and "'Round Midnight"—but he frequently renders it almost unrecognizable. He's quick-thinking and spontaneous, able to follow his own impulses—a quote from a familiar bebop number, a brief but intriguing tangle of notes like the one that opens "Lover Man"—wherever they lead, while maintaining a logical through line.
Solal commands the full bebop vocabulary, and despite his clear indebtedness to Tatum he's fond of sweeping into dissonance in a way his predecessor rarely if ever did. His displays of imagination are so unflagging they can get exhausting—he rarely gives you the chance to catch your breath during his improvisations—but he usually provides enough variety in density, rhythm, and attack that they're exhilarating instead.
Eco, Arches & Eras
Two members of this Norwegian group—guitarist and banjoist Ivar Grydeland and percussionist Ingar Zach—usually rely on an improvisational language that's more about gesture and texture than line, melody, or groove. So on first listen Huntsville, their trio with double bassist Tonny Kluften, sounds like a radical departure from their usual tempoless abstraction: on Eco, Arches & Eras they generally stay within a steady pulse, with cycling banjo arpeggios, Fahey-esque fingerstyle guitar, and percolating tabla gliding over deep drones. But though the music is mostly beat driven, neither its rhythms nor its patina of vaguely south Asian-flavored Americana really defines what it's about: like most everything else these players do, it gets its juice from highly refined interaction, exquisitely patient micro development, and an engrossing devotion to tone color.
Huntsville's second album, Eco, Arches& Eras, spreads five pieces across two CDs. Zach creates a frenetically busy shuffling beat, playing his drum kit and various unidentifiable objects along with loops from an electronic tabla machine; the tabla loops are sometimes doubled up in the mix, fed into it directly and through his snare (the machine is positioned so that its built-in speakers turn the drum into a resonator). Zach's dense groove is underpinned by drones from his electric shruti box and electronic sarangi, so that when he lets the tempo dissolve he can segue smoothly into almost ambient clatter and scrape. Kluften alternates between long tones and skittery, bowed staccato notes, shifting in and out of tempo; he also controls organ-bass pedals with his feet, reinforcing Zach's drones. Grydeland occupies the foreground by default because he's playing conventional front-line instruments, but the hypnotic guitar and brittle banjo patterns and resonating single notes blend into the group's composite sound.
Brilliant Norwegian vocalist Sidsel Endresen, who straddles jazz and folk with ease, makes a brief appearance on "Eco," but because the instrumentalists recede to make room for her, she doesn't really become part of that composite. The epic "Eras," recorded live at the Kongsberg Jazz Festival in 2007, occupies the entirety of disc two; it does a better job of integrating its guest performers, Glenn Kotche and Nels Cline of Wilco. The music is less frenetic than on the first disc, and by unfolding over nearly an hour "Eras" makes room for a greater number of distinct episodes. But in all its manifestations Huntsville creates a beautiful mosaic of sound, combining kaleidoscopic grooves with the nuanced interaction and unstructured freedom of abstract improvisation.v
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