Various Artists 

156 Strings

Bay Area oceanographer/guitar wizard Henry Kaiser solicited a number of guitarists to contribute solo acoustic works for this compilation disc. The players, a fascinating mixture of well-known and not-so-well-known guitarists, run the stylistic gamut from folk (Peter Lang) to rock (Richard Thompson, Mike Keneally) to jazz (Raoul Bjorkenheim) to unique genre-straddlers (Duck Baker, Fred Frith, Nels Cline) to the virtually unclassifiable (Janet Feder, Steffen Basho-Junghans). As a collection of short pieces by a wildly disparate set of musicians, 156 Strings is a surprisingly consistent and absorbing listen all the way through. Highlights include the opener by Gyan Riley, with the near-modal, medieval- and flamenco-tinged "Eyes of Orion." Richard Thompson's gently musing and elegant "How Does Your Garden Grow?" brings him back to his British trad-folk roots. The pensive, gently fractured "Juxta Pose" by the East Bay's Duck Baker brings a spare, asymmetrical approach and nods to ragtime and bebop; he becomes Thelonious Monk reincarnated!

Some folks extend the very range of the guitar: Janet Feder's "Lightning Strikes" takes a carefree jaunt down Main Street, USA, where in her hands the acoustic guitar is a power tool that shreds. On the hypnotic "Kaleidoscopic Sunday," Rod Poole's guitar becomes a multiethnic orchestra that elicits the sounds of a Japanese koto, a Brazilian berimbau, and an African kalimba -- individually at first, then simultaneously.

The tracks range between two and nine minutes apiece, so there's no wretched excess -- everybody makes their point, makes every note count, then it's on to the next. It's a rare joy to hear such a guitar-oriented package where nearly everyone has such considerable -- if not downright astounding -- technique, but technique is never a surrogate for content. In other words, you don't have to be the type of person that has a lifetime subscription to Guitar Player to appreciate this exceptionally fine album.

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