Smith recovers to deliver perfect suite
(Review of the second day of the 11th Bermuda Guitar Festival. Performers: Jeremiah Smith and Jody Fisher at St Andrews Church, Hamilton)
It happens to us all that we have an ‘off' day, when things conspire against us and nothing goes right. Mr Smith started his concert with two of the toughest pieces in the repertory, Tárrega's Gran Vals and Recuerdos de la Alhambra and they didn't go right. Tárrega's music makes huge technical demands on the player, the guitar is a particularly unforgiving instrument and entropy is always waiting to pounce. Mr Smith was upset and nervous so it was only towards the end of his set that he had recovered sufficiently to give us a perfect Baden Jazz Suite, a by the Czech composer Jiri Jirmal. The suite is dedicated to the Brazilian guitarist, Baden Powell de Aquino and is an interesting and unusual mixture of jazz and samba styles. In particular the second movement, a Berceuse, stood out. It's a simple, tender and sweet mixture of traditional Brazilian chôro and Western chords, a bit like some half-remembered hymn. A very moving piece, beautifully played by Mr Smith.
Jody Fisher performs in a slightly rumpled black suit, black shirt, black shoes and a dark blue and grey tie, the whole topped with a black fedora. He looks as if he's stepped off the set of a 1940s film noir. His instrument however is about as modern and high-tech as it gets. He plays one of the rare Klein electric guitars. This instrument, built from carbon fibre composites and South American hardwoods, has no apparent machine heads, giving it an oddly truncated look. The strings actually have two metal ball terminators, one at each end, and are embedded into place at the nut and tail of the instrument using worm screws. The tuning is then done by turning machine heads set parallel with the strings at what would be the tailpiece of a conventional steel strung guitar. This configuration makes for a remarkably stable and very accurate tuning; the strings maintain their correct tension almost indefinitely. The sound of the instrument is wide and warm partly due to its acoustic dynamics from its analogue as well as magnetic pickups; in a way the instrument is the technical inheritor of the famous ‘semi acoustic' Gibson series of guitars from the 1950s such as the Les Paul which combined ‘real' and ‘transduced' sounds. The shape of the body is cut away for seated or standing playing — the latter preferred by Mr Fisher — and the responsiveness of the instrument is so sensitive that the most fleeting brush on body or string will produce a note. This could yield unexpected results from a less than perfect player but Mr Fisher's touch is consummate; during the concert I couldn't detect a single note that wasn't perfectly formed, voiced or delivered.
Mr Fisher is a master of the Jazz Ballad, a form which means virtually any 16 bar composition in a moderate or slow tempo. It's by far the largest body of work in the jazz repertory. Mr Fisher takes a tune, states the theme and then performs the equivalent of Bach's Goldberg Variations on it, exploring the outermost reaches of its possibilities, adding rhythmic and harmonic elements to embellish or stretch the implications of the original and then finally returning us back to the theme. His knowledge of harmony and chord structures has to be encyclopedic and complete, so he can take any standard such as Baubles and Bangles from Kismet and upend it, add a walking bass, spangle it with shimmering stopped harmonics, stretch the melody up to the 20th fret and then bring us back without any second thought or hesitation. All is smooth and perfectly delivered. This is true mastery of the jazz medium, as pioneered by the likes of Mickey Baker, Jim Hall and the great bop guitarists. Fisher is the Fabergé of jazz guitar, giving us jewel-encrusted perfection. He is completely engaged with his audience, rewarding our appreciation with conspiratorial smiles.