Saturday, January 14, 2012

Davy Graham - The Guitar Player

If you're interested in delving into the influential and often mind-blowing rabbit hole that is Davy Graham's guitar playing and inimitable fusion of jazz and blues with folk from across the world, I urge you not to start here!  That's right, it's another installment of the only-very-occasionally-controversial Know Your Enemy series.  This time it's not really poor Davy or his fleet fingers, but rather his presumed audience who's the enemy.  It's got to be pretty much impossible to reckon how many great artists' originality and instincts have been stifled (either by their record labels or by themselves) in hopes of presenting their music as inoffensive and appealing to the largest and most middle-of-the-road audience possible.  By this album's 1963 release, Davy had already been doing the things that made him a legend among many British musicians who would find considerably more fame (things like showing up to a party and playing a single-guitar arrangement of Ravel's Boléro).  Instead of committing his unrivaled guitar excursions to tape, Pye subsidary Golden Guinea decided it would be more commercially accessible to pair Graham with a jazz session drummer and record an inoffensive mix of jazz and blues standards.

And so, we have The Guitar Player, whose title and cover promises an aural vision of Graham it doesn't deliver, at least in relation to his historical reputation.  We get "Take Five" and "Cry Me A River" (an earlier filmed version of which secured Graham this record deal) as well as Cannonball Adderly's "Sermonette."  While the material is in places somewhat mundane, Graham's playing is always flowingly organic (the tempo ebbs and flows with quite a bit of endearing imperfection) and it's fascinating to hear him collapse all the vocal and instrumental parts of a song like "Ray Charles' "Hallelujah, I Love Her So" into a single fingerstyle guitar part.  Disappointingly, most of the songs veer toward jazzy blues (or maybe bluesy jazz, as many Graham's mini-fills tend to riff on blues scales), though there are a few outliers that hint at the man's true passion--"The Ruby and the Pearl" injects a satisfying amount of minor Latin into the mix (and the drummer manages to play the sticks in a considerably more complementary way than he often does elsewhere, or maybe it's the fact that it's just acoustic guitar and drums that makes some of the arrangements sound  just a bit hollow).

Re-listening to this album, I'm reminded how much of a joy it is to listen to Graham's guitar playing, no matter what the context--sort of the guitar equivalent of saying you'd be OK listening to your favorite singer singing names out of the phone book.  It's just the knowledge that Graham had much bigger ideas to share and the way the songs are all so self-consciously happy sounding that rings somewhat forced.  The liner notes Davy writes "I sincerely hope you enjoy this record either to listen to or as a background to a good conversation," which just about sums it up--cowering in submission to your hoped-for audience so very rarely produces the stuff from which legends are born.  The CD reissue of this album seems determined to apologize for the original album's timidness, including examples of what actually made Graham legendary (raga-infused Irish folk in "She Moved Thru' The Bizarre/Blue Raga," Greek folk in "Miserlou" and a considerably more eclectic selection of songs from Graham's later-70's All That Moody, including his legendary instrumental "Anji").  Still, the unfortunate truth is that, pleasant as it is, this album doesn't come close to doing Graham's contributions justice.  While Graham would have career-long troubles finding a marketable niche for himself and regularly seemed to make artistic choices in hopes of endearing himself to an intangible audience, he at least managed to create a concurrent legacy of music that more successfully represented his unique and unprecedented vision.  While it's frustrating that he never produced an epic, vocal-less collection of his genre-shattering experiments (I'm sure partly owing to the fact that solo acoustic guitar as a genre was pretty much just getting going in the early 1960's), there are much better places to start than The Guitar Player.

You can get it here.

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