Brooks Williams: Little Lion -- by George Graham
(Signature Sounds 1255 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 1/26/2000)
The acoustic guitar is the indispensable instrument of folksingers and singer-songwriters. However, most such performers tend to concentrate on their lyrics, vocals and composing, rather than being known for their guitar work. There are a few exceptions, and there are also the performers like Leo Kottke who came in from the opposite direction, the guitarist who took up singing.
This week we have a CD from one of those exceptions, an acclaimed singer-songwriter who also known for his guitar work: Brooks Williams, who has just released a solo instrumental guitar album called Little Lion.
Brooks Williams is based in the Boston area, which has long been a hotbed of the so-called New Folk scene. Over a decade-long recording career, he has developed a solid reputation for his thoughtful songs and appealing vocals that some have compared to James Taylor's. His last CD, Hundred Year Shadow, released about a year ago, was one of his best, and like most of his half-dozen or so previous albums, included a pair of guitar instrumentals. Such tracks have showcased his considerable fretwork prowess, though the instrumental tracks tended to be eclipsed by Williams' songs. So Little Lion gave him a chance to concentrate on his guitar work, in a solo acoustic setting, with a bit of help on a few tracks from a guest guitarist and a small amount of overdubbing.
This is not the first instrumental CD that Williams has made. In 1997, Williams did joint instrumental album with guitarist Jim Henry called Ring Some Changes. But this is his first solo CD without vocals.
Solo instrumental acoustic guitar records, though never in any danger of getting onto the pop charts, have nevertheless had a long history on the contemporary music scene. Also, venerable rock bands including the Jefferson Airplane, The Allman Brothers, Mountain and Yes all included on their albums acoustic guitar instrumentals that have become classics. In the late 1960s, John Fahey attracted attention with his slow, bluesy style. For 25 years, Leo Kottke has been the premier practitioner of the solo folk-influenced acoustic guitar instrumental genre, though he also does sing some. And during the 1980s and 1990s, the New Age scene brought to prominence artists like William Ackerman and the late Michael Hedges.
So Williams' album certainly has a lot of good precedents. Little Lion is a pleasing and beautifully-recorded CD that highlights Williams' tasteful playing that generally resists the temptation to be very flashy, or for that matter, to be too slow either. He draws inspiration from a variety of sources, including folk finger-picking, Brazilian, African, blues, an Appalachian hymn, Celtic and reggae. But the result does not sound overly eclectic. It's just a very nice album that should find audiences among guitar fans and those who are generally attracted to acoustic music.
Seven of the 13 pieces on the CD are originals, and they draw on a variety of influences, which are mentioned in Williams' liner notes. It's interesting that sometimes the style that was the catalyst for the piece turns out not to be the way the it ends up sounding, while at others such as the blues, it's unmistakable. The amount of sound, and fullness of the arrangements that Williams gets with just one guitar, is impressive.
But the opening piece involves two guitars, with the other played by John Daniel. O Leaozinho was written by the Brazilian composer Caetano Veloso. The song title translates into the CD's title "Little Lion." Despite the Brazilian origins, the piece sounds like a bluesy folk song. It's appealing, but hardly the most impressive track on the CD. <<>>
Rather more virtuosic is the original piece that follows, Frenzy at the Feeder, played an open alternate tuning. Williams wrote the composition in the late 1980s when, according to his notes, he was heavily into the open tuning style. The piece is one he regularly performs live, and it's likely to be a crowd pleaser with its great energy level. <<>>
One of the bits of eclecticism on the CD is the track called Joyful Joyful, based on the famous Ode to Joy theme from Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. Williams describes his rhythmic approach as bossa nova, but there are other interesting cross-currents woven into his arrangement. <<>>
Most folk acoustic guitar players try a little slide style playing, and Williams is no exception. The original composition Goodbye Walker Percy is a slow bluesy piece played on a Hawaiian style instrument. <<>>
Among the influences listed by Williams are the so-called folk-baroque English guitarists like Bert Jansch. An original tune called Belfast Blues is interesting in that it's inspired by the sound of English folk guitar players themselves interpreting the blues. The result, though, comes across as a kind of easy-going back-porch picking session with guest guitarist John Daniel. <<>>
Another instance of Williams' being inspired by one thing and coming out with something else musically is a piece called Lizard Logic, which also features Daniel on the second guitar. Williams writes that the piece was based on the style of West African kora players, but he notes that Daniel said it reminded him of Cab Calloway. Daniel is right. It's an infectious, swingy, minor-key blues. <<>>
Williams interprets a classic acoustic guitar piece by Jorma Kaukonen of the Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna. Water Song was originally accompanied by a rock band, but Williams slows it down and makes it rather less bluesy for his solo arrangement. Those who know the original well might be a bit disappointment in the lack of the original's energy, though Williams performance adds a level of sensitivity not previously heard on this well-known piece. <<>>
One track on which Williams' intended African influence is more apparent is Meesa Kaibash, which has the lilting rhythm of African style guitar, along with Williams' folk sensibility. <<>>
And the Celtic influence comes out on Magpie, which Williams said was inspired by a visit from some Irish musicians. The jig rhythm is appealing, though the piece is a bit short on melodic ideas, compared to some of the others on the CD. <<>>
Brooks Williams is already respected as a fine singer-songwriter who also happens to be a very good guitarist. His new all-instrumental CD Little Lion gives him a chance stretch out and concentrate on that facet of his work with a collection of mostly original pieces that span some of his musical influences. Not as flashy a guitarist as some, Williams nevertheless is a very tasteful player whose arrangements can be quite inventive, making this mostly solo acoustic guitar album both appealing to the casual listener, and quite interesting for the avid guitar fan.
The CD gets a solid grade "A" from me for its sound quality. Engineer Mark Thayer, who has worked with Williams on past albums, gets a clean, bright and fairly rich acoustic guitar sound. And the CD's mastering maintains a good dynamic range.
While there are a good number of acoustic guitar albums out, there are not many from artists who are primarily singer-songwriters. Brooks Williams excels at being both the guitar player and the composer-vocalist. Little Lion is worthy album that is on a level with the work of the best guitar specialists.
(c) Copyright 2000 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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