November 2003

Larry Coryell, Badi Assad, John Abercrombie - Three Guitars
Chesky CD JD248
Released: 2003

by John Crossett

Musical Performance ***1/2
Recording Quality ****
Overall Enjoyment ****

I’m sure you’ve all heard those hoary old expressions, "Too many cooks spoil the broth," or "Too much of a good thing" (is that even possible?) used in regard to musical super-sessions. Of course you have, and so have I -- many times. And in most cases, those old adages hold true. Yet consumers continue to purchase and listen to these recordings, hoping against hope that sooner or later one will fulfill its promise and contain musical nirvana.

Chesky Records latest CD, Three Guitars, combines the talents of Larry Coryell, perhaps the godfather of fusion guitar; Badi Assad, among the foremost practitioners of Brazilian jazz/folk guitar; and John Abercrombie, one of the more adventurous modern jazz guitarists. This gathering would seem to have all the ingredients to prove the expressions above true. Here we have an audiophile label uniting three disparate guitarists in an all acoustic setting and recording them in high-resolution audio in only two (cold) December days. Yep, the recipe for failure is there.

But surprise, surprise, something here clicks. Instead of marching off separately, following their musical muses, these three strive for, and find, a common ground. They proceed to fashion a wonderfully consistent and highly musical album. But what really makes Three Guitars work so well is that while the musicians always try to remain in a harmonious working relationship, each continues to be true to his or her own musical calling. And when you consider how diverse their backgrounds are, that becomes a neat trick -- and one well worth listening to.

You can pick almost any track from Three Guitars and find an example of what I’m referring to, but let’s take the aptly named "Metamorphosis" as an example. The instrumental set up on this track is similar to others on the disc: Coryell is on a Grimes acoustic guitar in the left channel, Assad is in the center playing a Fisher nylon string classical guitar (she also plays Kalimba, copper flute, or mouth and body percussion throughout the disc), and Abercrombie is playing a Gruen acoustic on the right. The tune starts off with a very simple interaction between Abercrombie and Assad. Coryell then joins in with a completely different, almost fusionesque line. Abercrombie begins to use his guitar almost as a synthesizer, and Assad’s gentle background vocals, together with her Latin/folk guitar work, add a touch of warmth to the proceedings. It’s magical and adventurous at the same time -- which about sums up this entire album.

As is usually the case with any Chesky production, the sonics are as top flight as the music. Each guitarist (and guitar) is set in his or her own acoustic space, but the harmonic interaction among the three allows you to hear that they were recorded in the same room and at the same time -- no sound booths or differing studios. The individual sound and tone of each guitar is laid out for you to hear. And, wonder of wonders, the recording level is set higher than I’ve found to be the custom from Chesky, so you won’t have to be wicking up the volume higher than you’re used to in order to obtain realistic levels. Bravo.

My expectation for Three Guitars was not, I admit, particularly high. I’ve been burned far too many times by similar recordings to have high hopes for this session. I was pleasantly surprised to realize, about a third of the way in, that I was actually enjoying this album immensely. This is what should be offered by any grouping of big-name musicians -- a melding of disparate ideas into a whole that is very defiantly more than the sum of its parts. About the only way this recording could be improved upon would be for Chesky to have released it in high-rez (my vote would be SACD) audio. If you have even the remotest interest in any of these musicians in particular, or guitar music in general, pick this album up. It’s pure musical satisfaction.