I love it when I hear people stretch a genre, but it really doesn’t happen that often. When it does, it’s usually not only because the people that are doIng it can create in multiple genres, but also because they know the boundaries of a genre and don’t push hard enough to “break” it. That’s what I am hearing here in the latest effort to test the limits of Gypsy Jazz from guitarist / film composer Craig Sharmat and his partner of the 6 string persuasion, Neil Andersson on their new CD “Strings”.
I will say from the start that if you weren’t sure from what I’ve already said, I’m anything but a purist in music. I know lots of jazz fans disliked Charlie Parker’s “With Strings” recordings, I thought that they were masterful and where just showing another dimension to a genius musician. There are those that think that all music should be museum pieces that don’t change – this is the kind of record that should break that mindset neatly.
The record starts off to borrow a song title “softly, as in a morning sunrise” with “Perfidia”, with a sensitive guitar doing some dreamy fills and arpeggios over a waking string chord cloud. And then from “out of nowhere” (another shameless standard steal), the two guitars abruptly sail into a brisk cha-cha groove into the melody, backed at first with only light percussion and bass. Sharmat shows us all his expertise at orchestration throughout, which is masterful but always tasteful. Both guitarists have all the chops they could want, but keep things ultra-romantic no matter how they burn up the fretboard throughout.
This little guitar with strings “day” keeps unfolding with their reading of “On A Clear Day”, a delicate 6/8 rhythm groove that would be at home in a outdoor summer love scene in an Audrey Hepburn film from the 60s. The first solo is virtuosic in without constantly calling attention to the fact, and ends with some rolling string flurries. When the melody returns Sharmat lets the strings shine with a joyous churning line starting at about a minute to the end, the perfect climactic place before riding down into a great poly-chordal string arpeggio ending.
“Mood Indigo” brings things to a more traditional “hot club-ish” feeling with a very relaxed strolling situation that would have been at home on a Django record of yore. The rhythm section takes more of a front seat here, and both guitarists play polished gems of guitar solos. The orchestra gets their own very cool “8 bar break” in the spot where you might expect to hear one of the guitarists take it, and that’s another “breaking of the norms” thing that is common on this CD. The last telling of the melody has a very New Orleans Cake-Walk feel to the final guitar flourish at the end.
The ever popular “Body and Soul” gets a delicate mid-tempo walk through town, with Craig showing his expertise at inventive improvisation over the song’s tricky chord progression. It finalizes with the strings taking the bridge, and then Sharmat sails out to the sunset over a beautiful string set of chords.
It’s time for the traditional gypsy two beat treatment for “Lullaby of Birdland”. Both guitarists show an ability to play their own unique lines within the gypsy genre, with Craig taking the first solo and Neil staying a little more true to center with his. A cool unison “shout chorus” with the orchestra and guitars follows the solos, which climaxes with a very hip poly-tonal lines. The two guitarists share the melody chores on the end of the chorus, and then a very cool modulation from the strings takes us to a new key. The song ends with a very clever variation of the traditional intro to “All The Things You Are” and then they are out with “a button” ending.
The old chestnut “That’s All” shows the Sharmat and Andersson trading the melody back and forth at a leisurely pace. Craig delivers a great solo that starts to suggest a double time feel towards the end of the first section, and then Neil keeps the double time feel up to finish the chorus. The melody returns and then at the bridge Craig plays fills around Neil’s melody, and then they split into harmony to take the song out.
“On The Street Where You Live” chugs along in a jaunty two beat until a very groovy solo break by Andersson. The strings join his solo at the end with some playful pizzicato. Sharmat’s solo break jokingly quotes “I’m Getting Married In The Morning” before getting into a very adventurous harmonic boundary pushing improvisation. This is my favorite solo on the record, it reaches into all kinds of genres and turns on a dime between them, showing lots of “chops” and taste at the same time. When they return to the melody at the end, this time Neil plays the fills around Craig’s melody. Sharmat gives us yet another inventive melodic ending with the strings and guitars, and they are out of there.
At track eight, the not too fast or too slow“Twilight Time” is in perfect position to refresh before the end of this ten track collection. The intro is a great example of what Sharmat learned in his studies with LA film composing icon Spud Murphy, whose methods he still teaches to composing students. The strings do a dialog back and forth with Neil Andersson’s guitar handling the melody before segueing into his great solo, with Sharmat handling the rhythm guitar on this one. The tune chugs to a close with the guitar riffs doing a smiling ending with a little “On A Clear Day” ending vibraphone quote.
After a short string into that seems to be for a ballad, Andersson breaks into spritely solo guitar reading on “Deep Purple”. He is joined by the bass only midway through the songs form, and then Sharmat takes over the melody for the next section. Neil takes the melody on the bridge, with Craig playing a solo on the first section. Neil is back with the melody, and Craig serves up some more of his “hot buttered string swirls” to take it out.
The closing track, “Infanzia e Maturita”, features Craig Sharmat as the only guitarist and is a beautiful pastoral kind of piece, with a gorgeous violin dancing around him as he weaves his way though the lovely tune. This definitely the most “beyond gypsy jazz” piece on the record and it is a really great way to end the collection. His playing is masterful and the recording as a whole is very well defined and leaves you satisfied like a fine meal in an expensive restaurant.
I have to say that I don’t listen to gypsy jazz very often – but I think I will listen to this CD, and quite a lot.
March 10, 2021
Amazon CD pre-sale is here: https://www.amazon.com/Strings-Craig-Sharmat/dp/B08WZCCY6Q/
The digital download and streaming links are at www.ffm.to/sastrings