Most of us play, or at least know someone who plays, the acoustic guitar. It’s the go-to weapon of choice for buskers, folkies, campfire singers, and, well, pretty much anyone who wants a flexible, portable instrument. So when an album of acoustic guitar pieces pitches up at the A Closer Listen offices, we kind of know what to expect, right? Somewhere in the field of John Fahey’s output, maybe James Blackshaw, perhaps Loren Connors, but at least a guitarist tapping into the ancient folk traditions. In this case, however, wrong on every count. There are hints of folk guitar here and there on Original Compositions for Guitar and Mandolin, but this is firmly rooted in the tradition of classical recitals; Buzz Gravelle has been a student of the instrument and is now a teacher. As such he is, I imagine, observing the correct way to do things.
Thankfully this recording isn’t weighed down by too many obvious signs of academia, aside from titling pieces “Sonata for Mandolin” and giving them movements – but there are any number of musicians guilty of similar naming practices in their work and we don’t use that as a weapon to beat them down. Not much of this sounds like it stems from the blues, but Gravelle plays with a bit of flair and swing from time to time, although not enough to make a connection. There are moments when one wishes he’d stick to more familiar sounds and techniques and it gets a bit spidery at times, but after a couple of listens it makes a lot more sense – it’s getting to the extra play-throughs that might cause the problem.
For some of the pieces just don’t work; “They Go On Mumbling…” uses what sounds like a John Cage-inspired prepared guitar but the pieces need a little bit more structure in their composition, otherwise it tends to sound like the recording was made the first time the instrument had been touched and it’s all experimentation with no end result other than a few interesting sounds. Of the other suites, “Four Pieces for Two Guitars” and “As It Rains” are more straightforward classical guitar / mandolin pieces, and agreeably listenable, but one longs for Dr Gravelle to kick free of his training, forget whatever rules he works under and embrace his inner Guitar Primitive. Welding his technique to a rootsy, more alive, style of music might be worth hearing. At the moment, however, he’s only halfway there. (Jeremy Bye)