Joseph Taylor's "On Music": Unforgettable
Note: Previous "On
Music" installments are available in the SoundStage! A/V archives, which is where
the series originated.
In 2008 jazz guitarist Ryan Blotnick released an exciting
debut disc, Music Needs You, which he recorded while leading a quintet of
young musicians on a tour of Spain during the spring of 2007. Songlines, the
Vancouver-based audiophile label that specializes in CD/multichannel SACD hybrid discs,
released Music Needs You to warm reviews, and Blotnick has continued to sharpen his
guitar skills playing live in the U.S. and overseas with his own group and as a sideman
with other musicians. Songlines has high standards for its recordings, and the label was
quick to point out that Music Needs You wasnt an audiophile recording. They
neednt have worried. The album, a CD-only disc that perhaps lacked some of the
sparkle and force of the labels usual fare, had a warm, inviting sound.
Blotnick recorded a number of the tracks for his second
disc, Everything Forgets, with a quartet of musicians in Spain and the rest in
Portland, Maine, with bassist Perry Wortman and drummer Joe Smith, who played on Music
Needs You. This time the sound is in 24-bit/88.2kHz. The album is a bit edgier
than his debut, and it features a few tracks that are fully improvised. While he was
playing in Europe, he met Belgian reed player Joachim Badenhorst, who appeared on another
Songlines release, Equilibrium, with guitarist Mikkel Ploug and
singer/instrumentalist Sissel Vera Pettersen. Its tempting to say that Badenhorst
brings out Blotnicks experimental streak, but even Music Needs You, a
very accessible disc, was unpredictable and repaid attentive listening. Songlines
champions musicians who ask listeners to bring a high level of intelligence and curiosity
to their work, and Blotnick fits the label well. With Everything Forgets, he
also meets Songlines high standards for sound.
In my review of Music Needs You, I drew some comparisons between
Blotnick and two other guitarists, Pat Metheny and Jim Hall. After listening to the disc
for the past year (I ended up putting it on my iPod), I realized that, though I had chosen
two convenient handles upon which to hang the review, my choice was too obvious. Blotnick
favors a warm guitar tone with the treble rolled off a bit, as do Metheney and Hall, and
he occasionally uses effects, especially a chorus, which in a way makes his sound similar
to Metheneys. As with all talented musicians, Blotnicks playing shows some of
the influences hes absorbed, but hes built on them. Hes also open to
many strains of music. Everything Forgets is indisputably a jazz disc, but there
are hints of rocknroll and other genres on it, and Blotnicks openness to
different styles, and his comfort in playing them, enriches his compositions.
Blotnick, who is in his mid-20s, grew up in Kennebunkport,
Maine. "My whole world consisted of four houses down a long dirt road," he said
in an e-mail. "We had a few acres on the border of town-owned forest." His
father, a fingerstyle guitarist, used to play for him while he fell asleep. The elder
Blotnick taught his son for two years, after which Ryan began formal study that took him
to the Rhythmic Music Conservatory in Copenhagen, Denmark. While there, Blotnicks
musical education included such esoteric subjects as studying Schoenbergs Theory
Despite Blotnicks academic credentials, his music is
easily approachable, perhaps because his interests included Jimi Hendrix and other
mainstream guitarists. But Blotnicks playing has a unique feel and attack that stems
from his adapting the techniques of musicians on other instruments. "I think I was
more influenced by saxophone players," he says. "My best friends growing up
played saxophone (Ned Ferm and Will Jones) and I always went for that super legato
sound -- maybe thats why I never learned to play jazz with a pick." Because he
plays with his fingers instead of a pick, his rhythm playing has a full, rich tone and his
single-note runs are rounder and more sustained.
In the liner notes to Everything Forgets, Blotnick
writes, "Playing with great musicians, there is an amazing feeling of levity.
Everything unimportant is quickly forgotten, giving one the sensation of being alive and
hurtling through time." The music often has a dreamlike quality, which is enhanced by
bassist Simon Jermyns occasional use of electronic effects. "Mansell" has
a ringing snare drum that gives the track a rock feel, and Blotnick plays a deliberate,
textured rhythm guitar interspersed with angular, single-line runs. Notes sustain and melt
into each other, reinforcing the feeling of floating (rather than hurtling) through time.
The song builds at points to a higher, harder volume, and its in those moments that
Blotnicks natural affinity for rock is most apparent.
Joe Smith gives "Mainstream I" a driving rock
beat that also swings hard, and Perry Wortman plays a simple but effective bass line.
Blotnicks main theme is built around slightly distorted guitar chords, and it ends
with a single-note melody that Joe Pass might have played. He plays a beautifully
developed solo that shows a deep understanding of jazz guitar harmony and technique, but
he uses volume, dynamics, and walls of chords to create a powerful effect. Smith and
Wortman also played on Music Needs You, but on Everything Forgets they
sound more confident and at ease with Blotnicks compositions.
Blotnick has sometimes called his music post-jazz,
and though its often hard to classify, it fits comfortably in jazz much like the
music of Bill Frissel. But it wont do to compare Blotnick to anyone else. Hes
excitingly difficult to nail down. "Dark Matter (for Benoit Delbecq)" invites
comparisons to Wilco and Erik Satie without really sounding like either (Simon Jermyn
plays a particularly effective bass part for the tune). "Mainstream II" takes
another, slower pass at the themes of "Mainstream I," with a thick major chord
strum at the end of each section contrasting sharply with the fluid melodies that precede
it. One of the improvisational pieces, "Funes the Memorious," named after a
story by Jorge Luis Borges, uses electronics and feedback to evoke the complexity and
randomness of thought.
Blotnick doesnt play on "Funes the
Memorious" (Jermyn plays bass and creates the electronic effects), and Joachim
Badenhorst solos on another of the improvisations, "Slowdozer." The other
free-form pieces use the full quartet featured on roughly half the disc. Those pieces give
Everything Forgets a great sense of daring and adventure that carries through to
the more structured compositions. The disc as a whole has a pleasing balance of form and
Blotnick chose to divide Everything Forgets into two
parts. "The sequence I went for was an expansion/contraction thing between the more
conscious, deliberate, structured tunes and the more subconscious, free pieces," he
says. "The decision to divide the CD in half was out of consideration for the
listener. I rarely find time to listen to an hour of recorded music uninterrupted, and I
think a half-hour is much easier to commit to, especially since this album is pretty dark
and intense. I would rather people listen to half the album and then put something else on
than listen to the whole thing but lose focus toward the end. Think of it as a two-course
meal, or a three-course meal with silence for desert."
I found that listening to Everything Forgets in a
single sitting wasnt terribly daunting, mainly because the tunes are sequenced well.
I liked the symmetry created by dividing the disc into two sections. A 30-second pause at
the end of the eighth track, "Slowdozer," serves the same function as taking the
time to flip over an LP. It gives the listener a few moments to absorb what has occurred
before moving on to the next phase. Still, I dont want to paint Everything
Forgets as a difficult disc that requires any kind of mental or emotional preparation.
Blotnick is a strong melodist, and even the albums free-form sections are engaging
and maintain a sense of direction. There are also some familiar touchstones. "Funes
the Memorious" is reminiscent of Terry Riley or Soft Machine, and anyone with a
passing familiarity with European and American avant-garde music should feel comfortable
with the discs occasional dissonant passages.
Blotnicks experiences as a professional musician
touring Europe over the last couple of years have no doubt broadened his musical horizons
and allowed him to try new things. "I would say that having the opportunity to play
and be appreciated in Europe and Canada has given me a lot of creative fuel and confidence
in my music that I might not have otherwise had," he says. That confidence shows in Everything
Forgets, a step forward in a career that, even after just two discs, merits
. . . Joseph Taylor