California Guitar Trio's Elegy: Echoes August 2020 CD of the Month
I’ve been playing the California Guitar Trio on Echoes for 30 years now, about as long as the group has existed. They’ve performed live many times and been interviewed many times. But they’ve only had one CD of the Month pick, last year’s In a Landscape with the Montreal Guitar Trio. Well, now they have a second one, with their beautiful new album, Elegy. It’s a set of pristinely-crafted instrumentals, with many of the compositions coming from friends who, along with CGT’s Paul Richards, Bert Lams and Hideyo Moriya, went through Robert Fripp’s Guitar Craft courses in the 1980s and 90s.
CGT have taken those teachings and deployed them across an eclectic range of music that includes covers of Queen and Lynyrd Skynyrd songs, pieces by John Cage and Pink Floyd, along with many original compositions. Elegy may be their most coherent and finely-crafted album yet, even though it was recorded in Airbnb living rooms while on tour this past winter. The album features a lot of compositions from friends they met over the years including “Hallitussilmad,” written by Estonian composer Argo Vals. It’s the kind of track that exemplifies the meticulous sound of CGT, with cycling arpeggios and staccato decrescendos, accented here by a bit of electric guitar sustain from Fabio Mittino, who brings the song to an unusually fiery peak. There’s also a more ambient mix of this song at the end of the album.
“Where It Goes, We Go” is written by Argentinian guitarist Alex Anthony Faide and American guitarist Steve Ball, both of whom are Crafty Guitarist alumni. It’s another energetic piece, tapping more of a virtuoso folky finger-style guitar sound that evokes Leo Kottke, but also moving into dark, churning grooves.
There is the usual assortment of covers that the band indulges in. For me, CGT covers are a mixed-bag. If it’s a song I don’t love, they don’t make me love it more. That’s the case with The Beatles’ “Get Back”, a fun, but lightweight Paul McCartney tune that they approach with humor and a shouted “Get Back JoJo.” If it’s a song I do love, however, like Radiohead’s “Daydreaming,” they make me stand in awe at how they translate it to their acoustic guitars and reinvent it. On Radiohead’s 2016 album, A Moon Shaped Pool, “Daydreaming” is a drifting, lysergic reverie. CGT turn it into a more pastoral meditation.
“Daydreaming” is one of the songs that features the “circulation” technique they learned from Robert Fripp. It entails passing a melody between the three players, one note at a time. They do that overtly in Claude LaFlamme’s “Droning Circulation” and more subtly in other songs like “Daydreaming.” It’s one of the reasons why CGT albums are such great headphone material, something you don’t often consider with acoustic guitar. It’s the best way to hear the interlocked synchrony of their melodies which ping across the stereo spectrum, sending riffs through your head in a lattice symmetry, like watching a dance of stars.
Centering the album is the “Gaudela Trilogy,” a three-part work, each movement composed by a different member of CGT, and scattered across the album in random order. Each part is distinctive. Bert Lams’s “Part I: Alva,” has more of a classical bent, with arpeggiated melodies circling around each other as a subtle, flute-like sustain creates a building tension. Hideyo Moriya’s “Part III: Mondego Rio Esperanca” creates a multi-structured work of cyclical crescendos and a bit of a Flamenco flair. Paul Richards’s “Part II: Ribeira de Gouveia” charges out of the gate with a chase-theme groove, leading to a string of solos and hard-picked rhythms.
The title track of the album, “Elegy,” was written by Collin Landinguin, another Crafty friend who passed away. The album is dedicated to him. It’s a spatial envelopment, with CGT joined by some 24 musicians including guitarists, violinists, and singers, playing interlocking unison lines that ring out in space, along with some wailing, ululating wordless vocals by Beth Fleenor.
After 30-plus years, the three-headed, six-handed guitar monster known as the California Guitar Trio has released one of their best albums. Elegy is a remarkable feat that should not go unmarked, and I’m marking it right here.
Hear California Guitar Trio and Montreal Guitar Trio Live on Echoes here.