Tag Archives: guitar

Listening to Frank Zappa

Frank Zappa (1940 – 1993) was one of these rare geniuses that are simply impossible to classify. Composer, singer, multi-instrumentalist, lyricist, producer, as well as filmmaker and actor, he switched with ease from one genre or style to another, blending various disparate influences into a highly original musical idiom.

An accomplished guitarist, Zappa also left a rich legacy of dazzling guitar work, such as his electrifying solo in Willie the Pimp from his early masterpiece Hot Rats (1969).

His virtuosity aside, it is evident that Zappa’s unique, and constantly evolving, musical language was only one part of his multifaceted artistic expression and creative vision. His often provocative stage presence, caustic -and at times censored- lyrics, as well as controversial role as a public figure were equally important aspects of his artistic persona.

Bust of Frank Zappa in Vilnius

There are, thus, various ways of listening to Frank Zappa. First, through his innovative and unconventional music. Then, through his sharp, sarcastic, and often infuriating lyrics. Last but not least, through his public commentary and interventions.

The latter is the focus of the recent documentary Eat That Question: Frank Zappa in His Own Words. Featuring numerous excerpts from interviews and TV appearances, it provides a general overview of Zappa’s ideas and views on a variety of topics such as music, politics, education, religion, drugs, censorship, and freedom of speech.

Not unlike his music, Zappa’s talk and language are playful yet always well structured; his remarks can be humorous and sarcastic, yet extremely serious.

Unsurprisingly, many of his views, such as his stance on American culture and foreign policy, ring the same as timely and poignant today.

It is perhaps no coincidence that Zappa’s influence in Europe has been arguably greater than in his native US. The subversive character of his art had a particularly big impact in the avant-garde and underground scenes of Central and Eastern Europe during the 1970s and 1980s.

Notably, Zappa went to Czechoslovakia following an invitation by president Václav Havel in January 1990. Havel was a fan of Zappa, and would later refer to him as “one of the gods of the Czech underground.” The two men developed a friendship, further consolidating the special connection between Frank Zappa and the Czech Republic that endures to this day.

Another, more tangible, testament to Zappa’s lasting and far-reaching influence can be found in downtown Vilnius, Lithuanian’s capital city. It is a bronze bust of the American musician erected in 1995, which has since become one of the city’s most visited sights (I took a photo of it myself when I visited Vilnius some years ago).

Listening to Frank Zappa, then, has been quite tricky: his attitude towards the status quo and established processes always remained critical, his iconoclastic art causing great provocation all the way from the US (where he fought a long battle against music censorship) to Soviet countries (where his music was banned and his records had to be smuggled illegally).

Be it Zappa’s groundbreaking music or thought-provoking commentary on society and culture, it is a listen most definitely worth having.

Paco de Lucía (1947 – 2014) In Memoriam

It was a year and a half ago at the London Jazz Festival when I got to see Francisco Sánchez Gomes (better known as Paco de Lucía) play live. It was to be the first and last time I would ever watch him perform, an experience I will always carry with me for the years to come.

Paco de Lucía performing in London (16/11/2012)

Paco de Lucía performing in London (16/11/2012)

There are many things I would like to write about Paco. How he mastered his art from a very young age, expanded the vocabulary of flamenco, experimented with many genres and styles introducing various ‘foreign’ elements into his playing, while acting as an ambassador for flamenco music worldwide and becoming one of the greatest musicians the world has known in recent history.

But perhaps it’s better to let the music speak for itself. Below is a small selection of highlights from Paco’s long and extraordinary career that follow his development as a musician and demonstrate his endless curiosity and constant struggle for perfection and artistic excellence.

  •  Tico-Tico no Fubá is a renowned Brazilian choro music piece (“Tico-Tico” is the name of a bird, the rufous-collared sparrow) which Paco performed in the 1960s.

  • An intimate performance of a rumba flamenca (a style of Spanish flamenco music derived from the Afro-Cuban rumba) which became immensely popular both in Spain and internationally after the release of Paco’s album Fuente y caudal (1973).

  • Paco improvising on a famous theme by Georges Bizet in the film Carmen (1983) by Spanish director Carlos Saura.

  • Paco’s performance of Joaquín Rodrigo’s famous Concierto de Aranjuez was a remarkable achievement (it was released as an album in 1991), showcasing his brilliant technique and ability to infuse a unique flamenco feel in this staple of classical guitar repertoire.

  • While ever expanding his musical horizons, Paco met and collaborated with numerous great artists including celebrated jazz guitarists  Al Di Meola and John McLaughlin with whom he recorded the acclaimed album Friday Night in San Francisco (1981). Thirty years later, Paco would meet Meola again in Germany for an astonishing performance of Mediterranean Sundance.

Richard Thompson in concert (Paradiso, Amsterdam)

The multi-talented mr. Thompson

British guitarist and songwriter Richard Thompson started his long recording career in 1967 as a member of Fairport Convention. His exceptional guitar technique and songwriting skills soon earned him a highly acclaimed status among peer folk-rock musicians, and many of his songs have been subsequently covered by a wide range of artists (including Elvis Costello and David Gilmour).

Mostly known for his skilled acoustic playing, Thompson has deployed several styles over the years. He often plays bass notes using a pick between his thumb and first finger, adding the melody and extra ornamentation by plucking the treble strings with the rest of his fingers. Sometimes he also makes use of a thumb-pick, as in the motorcycle ballad 1952 Vincent Black Lightning.

A ‘folky’ power trio

His latest album Electric was released earlier this year, peaking at number 16 on the UK Album Chart (the highest charting album of his career so far). I recently had the chance to see Thompson perform live with his “electric trio” in Amsterdam, in one of the stops of his ongoing tour on both sides of the Atlantic.

It was interesting to watch such a revered acoustic player going electric, trying to emulate the sound of good old power trios like Cream or The Jimi Hendrix Experience. Towards the closing of the concert, however, Thompson made this telling confession: “You know, we are too folky to be a real power trio.”

With that, he grabbed his acoustic guitar and offered the audience a couple of excellent acoustic solo performances. He came back with his trio for a final tune: a magnificent, electrifying version of Hey Joe à la Hendrix.

Whether folky, acoustic, or electric, one thing about Richard Thompson is certain: He surely remains a guitar powerhouse and a great inspiration for players worldwide.

Great moments of Greek(lish) rock, pt.3: Drunken Socrates

Socrates Drank the Conium were undoubtedly the most important exponents of the Greek rock scene throughout the 1970s and up to the early 1980s. Their name has attained a somewhat legendary status and commands considerable respect among Greek rock fans and critics up to this day.

Although the name ‘Socrates Drank the Conium’ first appeared in 1969, the story of the band goes back to the time when fellow high-school students Antonis Tourkogiorgis and Yiannis Spathas formed The Persons. The impeccable synchronization and exemplary blending of Spathas’s guitar playing with Tourkogiorgis’s distinctive use of bass was evident from early on, as was the potential for the remarkable compositions that were about to emerge.

Socrates Drank the Conium (1972)

After releasing three singles and making several live appearances as Persons, they changed their name to Socrates Drank the Conium (or simply Socrates, as friends and fans would end up calling them) and made their recording debut (Socrates Drank the Conium, 1972) as a trio, with Elias Boukouvalas behind the drums. The album is characterized by an explosive mix of blues, heavy rock and psychedelic elements much akin to the sound of bands like The Jimi Hendrix Experience and Cream. Apart from such obvious influences, other artists that had a significant impact on Socrates included Ten Years After, Fleetwood Mac, John Mayal, Free and Led Zeppelin. Despite the rather poor production and the unhelpful recording conditions, which also concern their next album (Taste of Conium, 1972), Socrates’ powerful message got through and resulted in a warm reception from both Greek public and press of the time.

The band’s biggest asset was undeniably the astonishing technique of guitarist John Spathas whose virtuosity and musicality produced results of exceptional power and expressiveness when combined with the band’s rock-solid rhythm session. In addition, the frequent incorporation of traditional Greek elements in Spathas’s guitar passages and solos would also become one of the band’s trademarks and most significant innovations.

The introduction of Live in the Country – the very first song in Socrates’ recording career – is a brilliant demonstration of Spathas’s skillful guitar playing and highly idiomatic musical language, which arises from a combination of a Hendrix-like sound and elements of Greek folk music.

SocratesBy the time their third album (On the Wings, 1973) hit the shelves, Socrates had already attained a preeminent place amongst contemporary Greek bands. Having played at most of the major venues in Greece but also elsewhere in Europe (including club Paradiso in Amsterdam), Socrates became known for the forcefulness and electrifying atmosphere of their live performances.

The creative course of Socrates culminated in the mid-1970s, when their collaboration with keyboardist and composer Vangelis Papathanassiou (who had also been a member of Aphrodite’s Child) led to the release of Phos (1976). Vangelis’s touch gave the band a more lyrical and elegiac sound that is clearly distinguishable throughout the album. Recorded in London, Phos (“light” in Greek) stands out as the crowning achievement of not just the band, but the entire Greek progressive rock scene of the era.

The album contains pieces of profound beauty such as Queen of the Universe, as well as a popular rendition of Starvation, which had appeared on the band’s debut album. The indisputable highlight, however, is Mountains (which would be re-recorded again in 1980), where Spathas embarks on an improvisatory trip of monumental scale, showcasing his exceptional guitar technique and unique assimilation of Greek folk musical idioms.

In the early 1980s, Socrates returned with two more noteworthy attempts (Waiting for Something and Breaking Through) and a couple of years later the band released its swan song (Plaza, 1983), having a last shot at international fame. Just before the turn of the millennium Socrates came together for  a series of concerts which resulted in the release of their live album Live in Concert ’99, a record that effectively summarizes their long and remarkable career.

Blame it on the moonlight

The moon has been a source of awe and admiration since times immemorial, and the fascination of man by its mysterious nature and changing phases can be shown by the multitude of lunar deities identified in mythological accounts all around the world.

It was the same fascination that would inspire the art of Romanticism, which placed new emphasis on the intense emotions arising from the confrontation with the sublimity of the natural world. Captivating depictions of the moon can be found in several romantic works, as in the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich (1774 – 1840) or the poetry of Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792 – 1822).

“Dovedale by Moonlight” (detail), by Joseph Wright of Derby (1734-1797)

In music, the most popular composition associated with the moon is most probably Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, written in 1801. The composer, however, would never get to know it by this name (its original title is Sonata quasi una fantasia); the nickname ”Moonlight” only came about some five years after Beethoven’s death, thanks to a description by Ludwig Rellstab, a German poet and music critic, who referred to the composition in terms of “a vision of a boat on Lake Lucerne by moonlight.” Even though Beethoven did not necessarily share Rellstab’s vision, the sonata would be thereafter associated with moonlight and its mesmerising first movement would serve as a prototype for many nocturnes during the 19th century.

It was in 1890 that Claude Debussy started to compose his Suite Bergamasque. Its third and most famous movement was inspired by Paul Verlaine’s poem Clair de Lune (French for “moonlight”) and carries the same name. Originally written for the piano, Debussy’s suite has been orchestrated by many composers including André Caplet, Lucien Cailliet (whose arrangement was used in the closing scene of Ocean’s Eleven), and Leopold Stokowski.

Stokowski’s version was actually meant to feature in Disney’s Fantasia, however the scene was eventually deleted due to length limitations.

The mystique and magical quality of moonlight have continued to inspire and fuel artistic creation up to modern times.  One of the most beautiful examples can be found in Paco de Lucía’s album Fuente y Caudal, which brought him international fame. It is the wonderful granaína Reflejo de luna (“reflection of moon”), a true gem that reveals the seemingly limitless capacity of flamenco guitar for expression and color. It is, after all, no accident that the strings of the guitar have been called the “six silver moonbeams”…

Bachbird singing

While also connected with the 1960s Civil Rights movement, Paul McCartney’s Blackbird is said to have been originally inspired from the experience of being woken by a blackbird’s song just before sunrise.

Musically speaking, McCartney was influenced by J.S. Bach’s Bourrée from the Suite in E minor for Lute (BWV 996), a piece often performed on the classical guitar. George Harrison and Colin Manley had taught him how to play Bach’s Bourrée at Liverpool Institute. As Sir Paul later put it: “I bastardized it, but it was the basis of how I wrote Blackbird.”

In this recording I’ve tried to bring the two pieces together, accompanied by the singing of birds on a sunny day…