|Guitar Player, January 1991|
Leo Kottke: Acoustic Pioneer Shifts Gears
By Mark Hanson
For the moment, you needn't worry about Leo trying to displace Joe Satriani: on That's What he not only fingerpicks the Charvel, but also includes a fair amount of acoustic guitar. "For all the steel-string work on the record, I use the Taylors that I play on the road," says Kottke. "I have a 555 model 6-string and my signature model 12-string. I also play a Takamine nylon- string, the first guitar I grabbed after the L-5 died. I was looking for something like the L-5, but with that completely out-front, no resonance, arch-top sound. The closest thing I could imagine was a nylon-string. It was the best-sounding one on the wall the day I went to the shop."
On "Creature Feature," Kottke plays nylon string slide, and it works amazingly well. He also uses the nylon string on "Mid Air," which features the instrument he has loved to hate, the trombone. The trombone ensemble is used only as a chordal background to the melody Kottke plays on classical guitar.
As readers of Kottke's liner notes know, he has a distinctive offbeat prose style that is manifesting itself more and more in his recent lyrics. Buoyed by the acceptance of "Jack Gets Up," which scored him a minor FM hit, and the title track from My Father's Face, he gets even further away from accepted pop song standards on That's What with "Buzzby" and "Husbandry." Both are spoken monologues over a fingerpicked vamp ("Buzzby" comes complete with vintage Farfisa organ). We may be witnessing the birth of a new genre of pop song.
Kottke has always been known to flirt with dissonance, and he continues the pattern on That's What. Always, though, it's surrounded by passages of consonance harmony. It's as if he wants to stretch his listeners' sensibilities, but not to the point of alienating his more conservative fans.
"My wife doesn't like the jazzier chords and some of the electric stuff," says Leo. "But I add dissonance to my pieces on purpose. I like to hear that war happen between consonance and dissonance. If a piece of music has a reason for sounding that way, besides the shock value of dissonance, I love it. Carla Bley does that kind of thing, especially in her ballads." (Bley wrote "Jesus Maria," the album's closing tune; the guitar arrangement is by Minneapolis' Tim Sparks.)
"Joe Pass told me that when a composer establishes a harmonic 'place' in a piece, you shouldn't leave it," Leo elaborates. "I don't think he was referring to me specifically, but he doesn't like it when a piece goes back and forth between the two. But I've always done it to whatever extent I could. One of the reasons I include some dissonance is that I like getting out of ruts. The guy I've been listening to the most recently is [pianist] Bill Evans. I'm not trying to play his stuff, but I love it. A lot of music that used to sound too dry or heady to me doesn't sound that way anymore. It just sounds more informed. It has more to offer the listener."
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