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American Threads

Featuring solo guitar music by Kevin Callahan, Phillip de Fremery, Frederic Hand, Thomas Schuttenhelm, and Frank Wallace alongside arrangements of music by Elliott Smith, Duke Ellington, Leonard Bernstein, and Edward MacDowell.

Jamie Balmer guitar, Jamie Balmer guitar


American musical life has long taken cues from an overarching mythology of self-invention. A tacit impulse to cast off old baggage and start anew is plain to hear in the originality and variety of musical voices to which it has given rise. Something of that impulse is audible here in microcosm in the diversity of styles, moods, structures, and visions - in short the personal truths - of the music on this recording. What is less plain is that which mythology often obscures: the individual and collective histories underlying these truths which give them meaning and power. Of these histories Marcel Proust writes:


… the poet was right when he spoke of the “mysterious threads” which are broken by life. But the truth, even more, is that life is perpetually weaving fresh threads which link one individual and one event to another, and that these threads are crossed and recrossed, doubled and redoubled to thicken the web, so that between any slightest point of our past and all the others a fresh network of memories gives us an almost infinite variety of communicating paths to choose from.


I find this texture of endless communicative possibility, interwoven across past and present, threaded through the works of the nine musicians featured on this album. While these pieces trace divergent musical lineages, they share a common sensibility: one of radical openness to the spells which music alone casts through memory. Like Proust's narrator, this is music that looks outward and inward in equal measure, that seeks out the germ of inspiration in the unexpected place and pursues it toward utterly personal realizations.


To a Wild Rose is perhaps the most beloved of Edward MacDowell's piano miniatures - a form he favored alongside generations of 19th-century European composers. The first of his ten pastoral Woodland Sketches, this short, lyrical piece adapts to solo guitar almost as if written with it in mind.


Kevin Callahan is largely self-taught as a composer, and his music springs from broad influences. In his words "...I’ve learned a lot by paying attention to anything that catches my ear, no matter the style, no matter the player. I’d listen, sometimes emulate and then experiment with new things. It’s not that bad a path, and eventually you may come up with your own approach." Undercurrents, the first of Callahan's Three River Moments, is an energetic moto perpetuo drawing on elements of jazz fusion and funk bass. The River Bed is a song without words and concludes the album.


Leonard Bernstein is one of the preeminent musical personalities of the twentieth century, and his score to West Side Story broadened the sonic possibilities of the Broadway musical. I started arranging this music years ago during a memorable stint in the pit orchestra of that show and have played it since.


Each movement of Frederic Hand’s Trilogy pays homage to (and takes inspiration from) a particular jazz legend. The first draws on the ECM recordings of Chick Corea and Gary Burton. The second conjures the contemplative, melancholic language of Bill Evans. And the third tips the hat to Dave Brubeck at his most rhythmically inventive and energetic. Hand's style, while in constant conversation with these greats, is always his own here, combining rare harmonic resourcefulness with the touch of a natural guitarist. Duke Ellington's In a Sentimental Mood has always been a favorite standard of mine, and, in the spirit of Trilogy, I offer this arrangement as an homage of my own.


Phillip de Fremery’s Music After Lorca was composed as the musical counterpart to a staged reading of Federico García Lorca’s Poet in New York. Just as Lorca’s work, written during his time in the United States in 1929-30, represents an artist’s coming-to-terms with a culture vastly different from his own, Music After Lorca springs from its composer’s study of the flamenco cante jondo (deep song) tradition. In de Fremery’s description,


...the work begins with Asesinado, which opens the play to a darkened house as the actors and actresses creep toward the guitarist, center stage, each sharing in the speaking of Lorca’s poem by that name; then moves to Ana Maria Dalí, which complements her two brief appearances, again in a darkened house under a single spotlight; and concludes with Duende, which mirrors Lorca’s feelings as he was coming to the realization that he was going to have to return to Spain after his year in New York and Vermont.


The music of Elliott Smith has been close to my heart since I first discovered it as a teenager. Most of Smith's best songs are quiet explorations of darker themes: depression, alienation, addiction, hopeless love. And yet he approached these overcast milieus with irony, sweetness, occasional humor, and always a great sense for melody. I've tried to let those melodies guide my arrangements, only occasionally taking liberties with their harmonization. Smith was a skilled fingerpicker, and parts of these songs - notably the introductions - called for basically no arrangement at all.


Thomas Schuttenhelm’s Epyllion draws its title from the poetic form, meaning a condensed epic. From the safe harbor of its Satie-esque opening chords, this piece sets out briefly across vast, hushed seas.


Frank Wallace's The Stubborn Oak springs from the Shaker spiritual of the same name, the tune of which is played, both unaccompanied and as a chorale, in the second movement. The original lyrics affirm:


I will not be like the stubborn oak

But I will be like the willow tree

I'll bow and bend unto God's will

And I will seek His mercy still.


After a crisp and concise Prelude, the lilting descending phrases of the Adagio quicken and intensify in the demanding three-voice Fugue that follows. The Stubborn Oak pays tribute, both to the Shakers’ enduring contribution to American folk and devotional music, and also to the inspiration of J.S. Bach, for whom teeming rows of counterpoint could grow from the seed of the simplest hymn.


-Jamie Balmer

Summer, 2016

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