Guitar heroes, virtual and actual

The phenomenon of Guitar Hero is unaccountable to most musicians. Why would anyone spend hours miming moves with a fake instrument when given similar time investment you could make music yourself, live, and with friends? Nonetheless, the game is the Christmas season’s most highly anticipated music item. As for disappointing early sales reports for “World Tour,” its just-released new edition, aren’t sales down for everything, everywhere?
Here’s my flick at stimulating the music economy — consumer alerts to recommended new cds by guitar heroes who can really play: David Fiuczynski, Mary Halvorson, Toninho Horta,Charlie Hunter, Bireli Lagrene, plus special mentions of Rez Abassi, Bruce Eisenbeil’s Totem and Elvin Bishop.

Recommended alphabetically by guit-artist:
  • David Fiucynsky on KiF Express lets loose the wild line of microtonal hard-core Middle Eastern-steeped punk-funk-jazz. Hyper-articulated, quirky-kinky melodies ‘n’ variations slink, snap, spin and resonate over desert storm backbeats and bass crawls, mostly provided by drummer Skoots Warner and’ bassist Steve Jenkins, though guests including a shakuhachi soloist spice up some tracks. Alternatingly speedy and spacey, exotic and exciting psychedelic fun. 
  • Mary Halvorson is the freshest, busiest, most critically acclaimed guitar-slinger out of downtown Manhattan/Brooklyn right now, a former student and current band member of Anthony Braxton’s at the hub of a circle of ultra-smart, almost 30-year-old players prodigiously contributing to each other’s projects. On Dragon’s Head, in transparent collaboration with upright bassist John Hebert and coloristic drummer Ches Smith, she taps a surprising range of ideas and moods, lyrically but also ironically, turning without warning from dry understatement to unabashed noise, hyper-folksiness to intellectualism, plain-spokenness to interesting abstraction, with unusual if unshowy chops. Try this MP3 track from Amazon: “Momentary Lapse.”
  • Toninho Horta is a grandiosely sensitive romantic yet serious guitar star from the scenically dramatic Brazilian state of Mina Geraise (like his former boss Milton Nascimento). To Jobim With Love gives him haut bossa nova repertoire over which to soar with companionable touches from ace jazzers including pianist Dave Kikoski, tenor saxist Bob Mintzer, bassist Gary Peacock and percussionist Manolo Bandrena, plus three vocals by Tom Jobim’s great interpreter Gal Costa. Horta wraps all this in his unabashedly rich pop orchestra arrangements, waxes Benson & Metheny-esque and does more dreamy singing than seems advisable. But if you’d be swept away, he’s got the ticket.
  • Charlie Hunter‘s Baboon Strength is the latest in avant-garde r&b minimalism, hip, hypnotic and chill — more bluesy, personalized and dynamic than mere ambience or meditation hum. The guitarist uses his custom 7-string instrument for XXX-thick lines, contrasting patterns and independent bass hooks in collaboration with  Brik Deutsch, swirling organ (title track) and Casiotone mini-keyboard, and Tony Mason, drums. The beat-focused tracks advance from the Meters, Steve Cropper, Philip Glass, Bob Marley, maybe Kraftwerk. Good for a party mix, a bit much straight through.
  • Birelli Lagrene — Overloaded with sampled sounds and similar ear-candy credit/blame to DJ Afro Cut-Nanga, as if to refute finally the Django Reinhardt-inherited tastefulness which has long been gypsy-jazzman Lagrene’s most commercial suit — Electric Side is over-the-top virtuosic jazz-rock-fusion. The guitarist may have more inherent skill than he knows how to harness —  most of the arrangements are credited to multiple members of his band — but in fusion, as Joe Zawinul may have stipulated, more is more. Check out the ridiculous version of Herbie Hancock’s “Jackrabbit.” 
Greedy for more new efforts on the guitar front?  
  • Rez Abassi contributes subtle timbral effects, among other techniques, to alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa’s unique Kinsmen with Indian alto sax virtuoso Kadri Gopalnath, and to multi-saxophophonist/composer Dave Pietro’s The Chakra Suite, which elegantly draws on traditional Indian, Brazilian and jazz elements. Abassi also has several albums of his own; I wrote liner notes to Bazaar.
  • Elvin BishopThe Blues Rolls On offers upbeat boogies from the rough-voiced mop-top Oklahoman who twined guitar leads with the great Mike Bloomfield in Paul Butterfield’s Blues Band eons ago. Still resembling Harpo Marx, Bishop gathers as guests B.B. King, George Thorogood, Derek Trucks, Warren Haynes, Angela Strehli, James Cotton, et al., resulting in a stone-blues album more varied in voices, songs, humor and nuance than might be expected, including the irrefutable advice, “Keep A Dollar In Your Pocket (a dollar is your very best friend).”
  • Bruce Eisenbeil in trio w/ Tom Blancarte (bass) and Andrew Drury (drum set) as Totem, on Solar Forge — play with fire at the edge of musical comprehension and cohesion.
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