For many years gallerist and occasional Reader contributor John Corbett wrote a terrific regular feature for DownBeat magazine called "Vinyl Freak," an erudite celebration of obscurities yet to appear in the digital realm. (A collection of his columns will be published next year by Duke University Press.) When the feature started, vinyl hadn't yet made its resurgence, and Corbett wrote columns about lots of records I'd never heard of—one of his most memorable was a 2002 piece about an incredibly rare album by a little-known Swedish guitarist named Staffan Harde. I pleaded with Corbett to make me a copy of the record, and the music lived up to his billing.
Now Corbett is sharing Harde's self-titled record with the world—he's reissued it via his Corbett vs. Dempsey label. According to Corbett's liner notes, Harde grew up in a musical family and spent most of life on a small fishing island called Smögen. He developed a very peculiar style, playing with a clean, ringing tone but favoring weird chords and extended, snaking lines; his warped melodic sensibility seemed inspired as much by Schoenberg as by Charlie Parker. He evolved that approach at home, experimenting and recording hours of music on a reel-to-reel machine; he released some of it as "unique, personally designed documents, most of which are now lost" (to borrow Corbett's words). He made his only solo album in 1971, mixing some of those earlier efforts with duo, trio, and quartet pieces played by a band featuring pianist Lars Sjösten, bassist Lars-Urban Helje, and drummer Bengt Berger. The album was released the following year by Swedish collective SJR, and after it failed to generate much attention, the guitarist withdrew from the scene, playing only for himself and working in a bakery.
It's a shame that Harde cut short his public career, because there hasn't been much like this music since. I can only make one meaningful comparison—he reminds me a little of early Joe Morris, who came to his guitar style with no influence from Harde. Each track has a different feel and sound, but nothing expresses his uniqueness as well as the opening solo piece, "Substance 1," which you can hear below. This was one of Harde's home experiments, and the album also contains a much longer one called "Substance II," where he weaves together a series of familiar children's songs, allowing the listener to focus mostly on the weird harmonic ideas.