The Many Flavors of the Jazz Guitar
Mary Halvorson, Michele Ramo, and Howard Alden
by Piotr Michalowski
From the September, 2014 issue
September of this year has somehow turned into jazz guitar month at the Kerrytown Concert House. The first installment, on September 11, features a trio with the somewhat disconcerting name Thumbscrew, made up of three well-known contemporary improvisers: guitarist Mary Halvorson, bassist Michael Formanek, and drummer Tomas Fujiwara. In the dozen years since she completed her studies with Anthony Braxton at Wesleyan University, Halvorson has become the iconic new guitarist of the so-called downtown improvising music scene. She continues to work in Braxton's groups and maintains strong ties with other former students. While she knows the history of jazz guitar, she has always been open to other kinds of music; in addition to contemporary improvisation, she performs in an avant-rock band and, in a much more subdued manner, in a folkish duo with violinist Jessica Pavone.
The seamless unity of composition and improvisation she learned from Braxton informs the way Halvorson runs her own musical groups. She writes all of her own material, and her guitar lines are characterized by a strong sense of contrastive drama, as if she were seeking a surprise around the corner--alternating fluid legato lines with chordal bursts and unusual pitch elements, and employing various sound-altering pedals much like a rock player. Continuing to develop her music in new directions, she's a consummate modernist, seeking inspiration from all directions.
Two weeks later, on September 26, two guitarists from a different generation, but in their own ways just as visionary, take to the KCH stage. Multi-instrumentalist Michele Ramo is well known in our area, having adopted Detroit as his musical home after apprenticing in his native Sicily and then hitting New York City. He is fluent on violin and mandolin, but his forte is a nylon-stringed eight-string guitar of his own design that he plays in fingerpicking manner. Originally influenced by Baden Powell, his broad repertoire encompasses American jazz and blues standards as well as Italian, French, and Brazilian songs. His style is orchestral, combining
singing solo lines with chordal accompaniment and walking bass lines with his thumb on the lowest strings.
Ramo is fascinated by other guitarists and thrives on duos. This time he is bringing in Howard Alden, one of the few masters of the seven-string electric guitar. Alden is a jazz player through and through whose style is rooted in swing and mainstream modern jazz idioms and harkens back to the classic stylings of George Van Eps, who pioneered the seven-string decades ago. For many, Alden is simply the guitarist of his generation.
His fleet solos and rich chording work in any group but are particularly well suited to the duo setting. Ramo and Alden have complementary styles, one plucking with his fingers and the other with a pick, and the contrast between the electric and acoustic instruments seems particularly apposite. But above all, they both swing!
[Originally published in September, 2014.]
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