Thursday, April 22, 2010

Conceptual albums, influences and more

I like to think that all the things that I create (music, poetry, programming...) are not individual creations, but just small pieces of a global creative process, and that, although the relation between them might not be obvious, there is always a link.

For these reasons, I have always liked to see albums not as a mere bunch of songs, but as a collection of somehow interrelated musical ideas. My favorite poet, Leon Felipe, conceived his complete works as a single entity, even borrowing whole parts from previous poems and putting them into new ones. It is not surprising that he took most of his inspiration from Walt Whitman (and translated his famous "Song of Myself" into Spanish), who collected all his poems under a single title: "Leaves of grass". Baudelaire was another great poet who liked to do this with his "Fleurs du mal". Whether music or poetry or any other art form, I have always loved this kind of approach.

However, this is becoming a rare thing in music, and conceptual albums are strange nowadays. It seems that the current context in the music business is giving preference to individual songs instead of albums, and an album is released just when its author has composed a certain number of songs, independently of what all these songs together tell as a whole. But sometimes one finds an exception to the rule, and I was rather pleased when a couple of weeks ago I came across a recently released conceptual album by guitar duo Rodrigo & Gabriella. Rather than a collection of disconnected songs, the album is thought as a tribute to musicians that have inspired them during their musical career, each song being dedicated to one of them. Most of those musicians are guitar players (Hendrix, Paco de Lucia, Santana...) but others (Piazzolla, for instance) are less predictable.

I must admit that I am not a big fan of Rodrigo & Gabriella's music, but sometimes music itself is not everything that a musician has to offer, and this is a good example of that. Gabriella's rhythm patterns, along with his particular technique, are the trademark of their music, and the popularity of the duo owes a lot to them, but for anyone who is familiar with the "rasgueado" techniques of flamenco this isn't reason enough to appreciate their music more than if she was just strumming simple chords with a plectrum. Also, I find Rodrigo's soloing rather dull, and most times his licks are a mere display of technique, lacking that finesse that turns a meaningless flow of notes into a soulful phrase. (unfortunately, this is becoming rather common in contemporary rock guitar, but we will always have Van Halen to remind us that lightning-fast solos can also be melodic and exciting ;-) ) When they play together, however, the result is sometimes much better and sounds more "compact", and in this latest album the chemistry between them seems to be (at least from my point of view) much more intense than in their other previous works.

So after listening to this album a couple of times, not only my appreciation for Rodrigo & Gabriella's music has increased, but also I have started thinking about starting a similar project, trying to put into songs the many influences that I have received along these years of guitar and sax playing. Composing songs in which I isolate the influence from a certain person (not necesarily a musician, since not only musicians can influence one's music...) seems to me like an interesting challenge. It is just an idea so far, but here is a little list of some of the people I would like to pay tribute to:

  • Eric Clapton: If you have read other posts in this blog, you might already know that Clapton is not an influence for me, but the root of all my playing. No matter if I play flamenco or jazz or blues, Clapton is behind every single note that I play. Before I started listening to his music, I never had the need to study music, but just to play it, and I wouldn't be able to admire the other musicians in this list if it wasn't for him. He was the door that led to all of them. So, needless to say, he is the number one in my list.
  • Jeff Healey: One of the most aggresive players ever, his playing was, however, full of tenderness and feeling, and each note was full of meaning. From him I learned how to structure my solos and add dynamics to them.
  • Oliver Nelson: He might not be the best alto sax player in the history of jazz, but his improvising skills are amazing. Unlike coltrane or Parker, every note he played was carefully thought and his economy of playing was unbeatable. Rather than improvising, Nelson composed music "on-the-fly", and that's what I really love about him.
  • Richie sambora: Being part of a band like Bon Jovi might not be the best place to demonstrate that you are a skilled blues/rock player with innovative ideas and an unmistakable style, but somehow Richie managed to do it. Don't let the leather pants and the hair fool you (the 80's were not a good time in terms of style, we all know that...), he is an awesome guitar player and very few have learned the Clapton lesson like him. Had Eric been born in New Jersey, he would probably sound like this.

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