|The Toronto Star, November 11, 1993|
Guitarist Pass plucks first-string players
by Lenny Stoute
La guitarra, as it was known during its first popular appearance in 12-century Spain, periodically goes in and out of favor. Currently, its reputation as the instrument of the common folk is on the upswing. But the battle between keyboards and guitar still persists, probably because its psychological roots lie deep in the class thing. While the mighty in their high towers sat rigid at their keyboards, the vagabond troubadours plucked guitars beneath windows out of which daughters were wont to climb. On the edge of the 21st century, la guitarra remains under seige from the electronic children of the spinnet.
But jazzman Joe Pass doesn't see the Guitar Summit tour -- which brings him and fellow-artists Leo Kottke, Paco Pena and Pepe Romero to Roy Thomson Hall on Monday [November 15, 1993] -- as a many-stringed salvo in the continuing hostilities. Like the genuine guitar troubadour he is, Pass modestly insists that the project was born out of the love of playing. Only this and nothing more. On the phone from Miami after playing a sold-out first night of the tour, he expands on his labor of love.
"The seed of the project came about five years ago at the Adelaide Arts Festival in Australia," Pass says. "This is a huge and prestigious event and among many artists on the bill were myself, Leo, Paco and classical guitar player John Williams. We were all appearing at different times, although we did actually all play together one time.
"It was pretty improvised and scrambled, but the audience loved it. We all hung out together and it was a very pleasant experience. I got to thinking, wouldn't it be a great idea to get some very different players together on the same bill and just let it roll. I wasn't thinking of showcasing the many sides of the guitar or leaning on the similiarities or differences in styles. The reason I asked these guys is nothing more than I'd enjoyed playing with them in Australia, so I figured it would run smoothly. I didn't demand I have only these players, but I went to the people who put the tour together with some strong suggestions."
Pass got his way. Of the crew that jammed in Adelaide, only Williams was unable to be part of the Guitar Summit tour, owing to ironclad prior commitments. Here's a quick look at the players involved....
Leo Kottke is the genial wild card in the deck. Self-taught, with a style which derives from folk but defies easy categorization, he's widely regarded as one of the most innovative of living 12-string guitar players Kottke has recorded 21 albums, starting in 1968 with 12 String Blues. His latest effort, Great Big Boy, continues the maverick streak, being his first that includes vocals on every track.
"There's something in my playing to bother purists of every genre," says the 44-year-old Georgia native [ed. note: actually, he was 48 at the time of this interview -- BH]. Folk-derived is a fair call, but I feel free to throw in anything that comes by and strikes me as interesting. Being part of this show is like living a fairytale for me. I watched Paco and Joe's sets from the wings and I was knocked out to be there. I'm fired up by Joe's mandate to just go ahead and play what I like. To the dismay of my record company, I never pay attention to what I have out. I might play songs off the Great Big Boy album, but nothing's for sure. I'm trying to play things the audience hasn't heard before. We're all in agreement that ther are no set lists. Everyone will go out and play what strikes them that night. Last night, I gave my set a little bit of thought, but as the tour goes along, it will evolve in a subconsious manner."
In addition to his heavy touring schedule, Kottke has been involved in an eclectic array of side projects. They include writing and performing the music for a children's album, television programs on Paul Bunyan (for Showtime) and Raymond Carver (BBC) and "Ice Suite," a piece for guitar and orchestra.
On the guitar's place in popular culture, his view is pragamatically based on his experiences designing and helping to market his own guitar -- the "Leo Kottke 12-String" model, which is built by Taylor Guitars. Says Kottke: "With the influx of the Japanese products, and the fact they were somehow identified with what was the latest in music, keyboards ruled. They probably outsold guitars throughout most of the '80s. But funny thing, just as in the Depression, when hard times hit, guitar sales flourished and now I think it's dominating the musical instrument market.
"As far as what's happening in pop music, it's a case of whether a trend to roots music focused attension on the acoustic guitar or vice versa. Maybe it's because I'm self- taught and grew up with my guitar, but it's hard for me to imagine experiencing the range of emotions with another instrument."
This intense relationship between man and instrument leads Kottke to the mahogany forest of Central America to guarantee the proper grades of wood are shipped to Taylor Guitars. It has to be Central American wood, he says, African mahogany just won't do because of significant differences in density that affect tones and rate of resonance.
"I don't think it's that I have such a refined ear," Kottke says. "It's more like things gathered from playing a lot of different guitars. It's amazing how much you can get out of your instrument if it's built properly. My guitar has less wood and is designed to be played with heavy-gauge strings and down-tuned. That's a common mistake made by many 12-string players. Ideally, a 12-string shouldn't be tuned to pitch. It should always be down-tuned. I usually down-tune two steps. Leadbelly would go down three. All my guitars come with the advice not to tune to pitch."
The Guitar Summit format calls for four individual sets running half and hour each, followed by duets by Pass and Kottke and by Pena and Romero. Although a showcase of the many voices of the guitar may not have been the Guitar Summit's original intent, the disparate players' duets shine a spotlight on the instrument's versatility.
Versatility, of course, is key to the guitar's popular appeal. And Roy Thomson Hall programmer Pat Taylor says that appeal is strong.
"I found from the experience of presenting acts like Liona Boyd, Julian Bream and Andreas Segovia that guitar has a very broad following," says Taylor. "It seems to cross all the traditional divisions between music audiences and has a particular appeal to our growing auidence from Toronto's Latin community."
Muses Kottke: "We've only played the one date so far, but I tell you, it's magic time for me. We were talking about it last night, that it was too bad the show wasn't going to be recorded." The problem, he says, isn't the artists -- "hell, we're all for it, but we're all on different labels and the level of co-operation needed to settle who would get the eventual album is rare in this business.
"Too bad, though," Kottke finishes, ambling off to consider the evolution of his Guitar Summit set. Chances are it will have evolved a whole bunch by the time he and the others hit Roy Thomson Hall.
Comments or questions about Leo's web site? Send mail to email@example.com.