JOHN BISSET

Smithy
213 CD017

PAOLO ANGELI
Bucato
ReR PA1

Both these CDs are described as solo guitar sessions, which is true. But so is the fact that a rowboat and an ocean liner are both water vehicles.

John Bisset uses a standard acoustic model to improvise on seven melodies from The Scottish Students’ SongBook, which were recorded direct-to-DAT in Cheshire, England. Recorded at different concerts in Italy and France, Italian guitarist Paolo Angeli plays his 20 selections on a giant, cello-sized Sardinian guitar. It’s tuned from one-fourth to one-fifth below standard, and “prepared” with an extra bridge, pedal-operated, piano-like hammers, a bow in the form of a mechanical claw, pick ups, microphones and many additional criss-crossed strings.

Bologna-based Angeli’s conversion to free improv of this folk guitar that usually accompanies monadic singing in northern Sardinia creates spectacular aural fireworks. Yet Bisset’s low-key approach isn’t without its rustic charm. Recorded on his 43rd birthday in his hometown’s smithy, it memorializes a relative, perhaps his father, with unshowy version of simple, tunes.

Part of the widespread European imaginary folklore movement, Angeli has been a member of ethnic dance and chamber groups and played with committed improvises such as Anglo-Australian violinist Jon Rose and British guitarist Fred Frith. Ranging in length from 42 seconds to a little over six minutes, the tunes here were recorded without overdubs, even though at times he sounds like an entire string band and more.

On “E Vai!” for instance, he begins with a solid theme made up of flailing downstrokes, then begins picking out a secondary theme on other strings as he continues playing the first. Soon vibrating string tones are moving back and forth between the two lines.

Tapping his feet at the beginning of “Linee di Fuga”, the massed strings that are then brought into play produce what could be a rock ballad played on acoustic instruments. Soon cello-like tremolos appear. Suddenly the tempo doubles and cadences get more frantic, as Angeli seems to be physically beating the instrument. Sampled female singing voices enter the mix, as does the sound of a Sardinian accordion. The squeezebox appears to be amplified through Angeli’s pick up so there’s as much static as melody in its sound. Ending is a thumping bass line that threatens to become the intro to Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love”.

“Transit” resembles the sound of a jet airplane. It’s an exercise in shuffle bowing and all the overtones that can produce. Often you hear the torque of the strings popping with the pressure of the bow. “Discussione Inutile”, on the other hand, finds Angeli finger picking swinging licks on his nylon guitar strings as if was Charlie Byrd playing a bossa nova.

“Si Riprendre” has all the intense pressure of a flamenco showpiece, that is if flamencos end with what sounds like an aluminum pie plate banging on the strings. “Etterbeek” full of thumps, ponticello and shuffle bowing, and could be an Appalachian folk tune played by a hillbilly band that includes a cello. Meanwhile “A. Rieghe” features thwacks on the guitar’s wood and pick guard and a strummed line that evolves into enough slurred fingering to replicate two 12-string guitars playing at once. When claw-induced echoing scrapes and screeches are added and the tempo quickens, what results in a Gypsy Kings-like tune would sound like if improvising cellist Tristan Honsinger gigged with them.

Other places Angeli produces enough circular motion, pitch sliding and basso continuum that each sound seems to come from a different source. These include a Spanish guitar, a tenor banjo, a 10-course lute, bagpipes, generators and sequencers, a lead guitar with a delay pedal, a plinking, vaudevillian four-string ukulele and last, but not least a coffin lid opening and closing.

An encyclopedic introduction to what can be done with a prepared Sardinian guitar, BUCATO’s weakness is that Angeli often appears to be developing only one idea at a time on many tracks. Fewer tunes with a series of musical variations may have been more palatable.

A few of BUCATO’s tunes sound like standard folk airs, but contrasting his output with Angeli’s, Bisset is simplicity personified. Both men have particular agendas as well. The Sardinian has pushed a traditional instrument into the 21st century. The Englishman, who usually works with a avant improvisers such as harpist Rhodri Davies. and German drummer Burkhard Beins, may have seen this birthday CD with songs exhibiting “harmony of all pure, noble and joyous emotions” as the SongBook notes, as a way to recapture the bucolic ways of the early 20th century.

Frustratingly for an innovator with Bisset’s talents, many of the sounds are a little too down home and innocent. Lovely interpretations, without enough rhythmic impetus, a few skirt New Age background music. The more earnest ones could have come from the Ewan MacColl songbook.

“Summer - the birds of the air...” for instance, the longest track at more than nine minutes, may have been designed as requiem for the man to whom the CD is dedicated. Yet, although you’re impressed by the pure sounds of fingers sliding up and down the nylon strings, a little of this goes a long way. All and all the piece comes across as too sober and meandering. If this is what Stockport is like, no wonder Bisset lives in London.

More impressive and far livelier are pieces from the middle of the disc, although one listen to “Fire” despite its repetitive downstrokes and slurred string slashing will assure anyone that this is neither the tune recorded by Jimi Hendrix nor the Crazy World of Arthur Brown.

However the tune does end with what appears to be match strokes. These also make their appearance on “Riding down from Bangor”. In actual fact, those sounds and the vacuum cleaner-like noises that begin the track are probably what can be heard every day in Luke Lister’s smithy. On that track, Bisset melds sliding finger picks and accelerating flailing with the crackle and snaps of the hearth. As he plays more quickly the vibrations multiply and soon the smithy echoes have become part of the music.

“Funiculi, funicula” is the only other standout track. Here the Italian song is reimagined by giving it a finger-snapping intro then, double timing a set of variation, before briefly introducing the familiar theme. True to the field recording aesthetic, Bisset downshifts his chording at the end as he stops to say “hello” to a passing punter.

A shorter than 38 minute home town souvenir, SMITHY is a defiantly minor work that probably has more resonance for its creator than any one else.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Bucato: 1. Lulas 2. Mesh Plug 3. Azulejos 4. A. Rieghe 5. Etterbeek (intro) 6. Etterbeek 7. Gocce 8. Tavole a Vela 9. Si Riprendre 10. E Vai! 11. Fuori dal Bacello (intro) 12. Fuori dal Bacello 13. Transit 14. Bagagli Smarriti 15. Discussione Inutile 16. Partenze 17. Linee di Fuga 18. Via Libera 19. Passe-Partout 20. Prexau

Personnel: Bucato: Paolo Angeli (prepared giant Sardinian guitar and vocals)

Track Listing: Smithy: 1. Dedication 2. Winter rain 3. Riding down from Bangor 4. Fire 5. Cock Robin 6. Funiculi, funicula 7. Summer - the birds of the air... 8. Old cabin home

Personnel: Smithy: John Bisset (acoustic guitar)