Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Music feature: Revered acoustic-guitar trio celebrates 20th on Jupiter stop

From left:‭ ‬Hideyo Moriya,‭ ‬Paul Richards and Bert Lams,
‭ ‬the members of the California Guitar Trio.

By Bill Meredith

For a group that named itself for the state where it formed‭ ‬--‭ ‬doubting that it might ever get to play elsewhere‭ ‬--‭ ‬the California Guitar Trio‭ (‬‭) ‬has achieved stratospheric success.

The CGT's three acoustic guitarists,‭ ‬Paul Richards,‭ ‬Bert Lams and Hideyo Moriya,‭ ‬have recorded a dozen CDs together and navigated several tours of the United States,‭ ‬Canada,‭ ‬South America,‭ ‬Europe and Japan.‭ ‬This‭ ‬Saturday,‭ ‬they‭’‬ll play the Lifelong Learning Society Auditorium on the Florida Atlantic University‭ ‬campus in Jupiter.‭

The group‭’‬s latest release,‭ ‬Andromeda‭ (‬Innerknot‭)‬,‭ ‬celebrates their forthcoming‭ ‬20-year anniversary,‭ ‬but this is certainly not a trio that's achieved longevity through doing what might be expected.

Andromeda is their latest blend of composition and improvisation,‭ ‬and it mixes everything from classical,‭ ‬surf and world music to rock,‭ ‬jazz and blues.‭ ‬The all-original disc also combines seemingly disparate musical mindsets,‭ ‬as the trio achieves its self-described‭ "‬super piano‭" ‬sound through its layered acoustic guitars‭ ‬--‭ ‬yet with the wooden instruments sometimes running through processors to mimic a variety of other tones,‭ ‬from electric guitars to synthesizers.

‭“‬We recorded the basic tracks using vintage analog tape gear at Funeral Home Studios in Louisville,‭ ‬Kentucky,‭”‬ Richards says.‭ “‬Then we blended in the digital Roland and Moog effects to layer things.‭ ‬We've always been interested in exploring different sounds and textures through electronics,‭ ‬and this album is probably our most extreme example of that.‭ ‬On one track,‭ ‬‘Improv VIII‭ (‬Layered Circulation‭)‬,‭’‬ we each played a note at a time in sequence to create a melody,‭ ‬or circulation.‭ ‬Then we used an old Les Paul trick,‭ ‬turning the tape machine to half-speed and recording over the top of that.‭ ‬So when you play it back,‭ ‬we're an octave higher.‭”

The three guitarists have some classical training,‭ ‬but they primarily play steel-stringed rather than common nylon-stringed classical guitars.‭ ‬And their world travel is befitting of diverse,‭ ‬United Nations-approved backgrounds,‭ ‬since Richards is from Salt Lake City,‭ ‬Utah‭; ‬Lams from Affligem,‭ ‬Belgium‭;‬ and Moriya from Chiba,‭ ‬Japan.‭ ‬They met at an instructional course taught by a British guitarist who's known more for leading the iconic‭ ‬42-year-old progressive rock band King Crimson.

‭“‬Robert Fripp was initially offering a series of week-long introductory Guitar Craft courses in‭ ‬the mid-1980s,‭”‬ says Richards.‭ “‬I was studying jazz at the University of Utah at the time,‭ ‬but my teacher had attended one of Robert's courses,‭ ‬and he suggested that I do the same.‭ ‬I did,‭ ‬and it changed my life.‭ ‬The first one I attended was held near Washington,‭ ‬D.C.,‭ ‬but then Robert bought a house in the English countryside and invited students to live and study there for extended periods of time.‭ ‬I‭ ‬was there for almost two years,‭ ‬and that was when I met Bert and Hideyo.‭”‬

Fripp is known for his unorthodoxy as both a guitarist‭ (‬his circular,‭ ‬interlocking patterns owe more to classical and Eastern music than to blues‭) ‬and bandleader‭ (‬he's purposely scrapped,‭ ‬re-shuffled personnel and re-started King Crimson several times since the band‭’‬s‭ ‬1969‭ ‬inception‭)‬.‭ ‬As a teacher,‭ ‬his outside-the-box thinking may have appealed to the three guitarists even more than his music.

‭“‬He actually didn't like us to use the word‭ ‬teacher,‭”‬ says Lams.‭ “‬Robert saw himself as an instructor,‭ ‬and thought there was a great difference between those two terms.‭ ‬He was there to share his experiences with us,‭ ‬since he‭’‬d already been a professional musician for‭ ‬30‭ ‬years.‭ ‬It was nothing like a standard school would present,‭ ‬because he even welcomed people with little to no guitar experience.‭ ‬To have someone of that stature be so giving was a great privilege,‭ ‬and it provided us with huge short-cuts.‭”

Richards called Fripp‭ “‬an amazing instructor.‭”

“I was in a great jazz program at the University of Utah,‭ ‬but I felt much more at‭ ‬home in the Guitar Craft series,‭”‬ he says.‭ ‬“Robert‭’‬s way of instruction spoke to me more directly,‭ ‬and it was more spiritual,‭ ‬but not in a New Age way.‭ ‬It was all very practical,‭ ‬and directed toward making you a better‭ ‬guitarist,‭ ‬musician and person.‭”

One of Fripp's practical methods particularly caught the students off-guard.

‭“‬We all ended up playing in Robert's League‭ ‬of Crafty Guitarists ensemble,‭”‬ Richards says.‭ “‬But he'd only told us previously that we were going to have a two-month-long course on performing.‭ ‬When we showed up for the first class,‭ ‬we found out that he'd booked a tour‭! ‬His way of teaching us how to perform was‭ ‬going out and playing concerts.‭”

Those performances between‭ ‬1988‭ ‬and‭ ‬1991‭ ‬fueled the formation of the CGT,‭ ‬since Fripp was in the early stages of restarting the dormant King Crimson again.

‭“‬Robert asked Bert who he wanted to work with,‭”‬ Richards says,‭ “‬because I think he had a sense at that time that he would be moving on to other projects.‭ ‬Bert had just moved to Los Angeles,‭ ‬and he asked myself and Hideyo if we wanted to start a group there,‭ ‬so that's where the California Guitar Trio got started.‭”

The trio went from performing in West Coast clubs in‭ ‬1991‭ ‬to a tour of Japan and Italy in‭ ‬1992‭ ‬with Fripp,‭ ‬singer/songwriter David Sylvian and another of Fripp's students,‭ ‬Trey Gunn‭ (‬who plays a customized guitar/bass hybrid called a Warr guitar,‭ ‬which he'd soon employ in a new King Crimson lineup‭)‬.

The first CGT album,‭ ‬Yamanshi Blues,‭ ‬didn't appear until‭ ‬1993,‭ ‬but the guitarists toured with Fripp yet again in‭ ‬1995‭ ‬in support of their sophomore effort,‭ ‬Invitation.‭ ‬They opened shows for King Crimson's‭ ‬“double trio‭”‬ lineup‭ ‬--‭ ‬a wall of sound featuring guitarists Fripp and Adrian Belew,‭ ‬Warr guitarist Gunn and bassist Tony Levin‭ (‬who doubled on Chapman stick‭) ‬and drummer/percussionists Bill Bruford and Pat Mastelotto.‭ ‬The sextet had just released‭ ‬THRAK,‭ ‬the first full-length King Crimson studio CD in more than a decade.

The CGT's first-ever show in Florida,‭ ‬in fact,‭ ‬was opening for King Crimson on Nov.‭ ‬7,‭ ‬1995,‭ ‬at the since-demolished Sunrise Musical Theatre.

‭“‬We ended up doing‭ ‬130‭ ‬shows with King Crimson in‭ ‬1995‭ ‬and‭ ‬1996,‭”‬ Lams says.‭ “‬It was a great experience,‭ ‬and we still have people coming up to us after shows and saying,‭ ‬‘I saw you guys for the first time when you opened for King Crimson.‭’‬ Fifteen years later,‭ ‬we're still riding that wave.‭”

The bulk of the trio‭’‬s classical wave resides with Lams,‭ ‬who plays a nylon-stringed guitar on one track,‭ ‬Hazardous Z,‭ ‬on‭ ‬Andromeda.

‭“‬Growing up in Brussels,‭ ‬I figured the best way to become a professional guitarist was to study classical guitar,‭”‬ he says.‭ “‬I was able to study with Monique Vigneron,‭ ‬who'd been a student of Andres Segovia,‭ ‬and she helped me improve enough to attend the Royal Conservatory there.‭ ‬After that,‭ ‬I became a classical guitar teacher for about‭ ‬10‭ ‬years.‭”

The early CGT albums featured several Bach and Beethoven compositions,‭ ‬but Lams wasn't drawn toward Fripp through the classically‭ ‬influenced King Crimson as much as one of its leader‭’‬s side projects.‭ ‬Fripp's League of Gentlemen band released only one self-titled album in‭ ‬1981,‭ ‬but its sound was decidedly more in the pop and New Wave realms.

‭“‬I wasn't particularly a big fan of progressive rock,‭”‬ Lams says,‭ “‬but I decided to see Robert and the League of Gentlemen in Belgium,‭ ‬and I was blown away by his playing.‭ ‬His guitar lines were much cleaner than with King Crimson,‭ ‬so I even went to see them nearby on the next night.‭ ‬I was playing classical guitar at the time,‭ ‬but always on the lookout for something new and fresh.‭ ‬So when I saw the ad for Robert's Guitar Craft course after seeing him live,‭ ‬it was a no-brainer.‭”

Richards was the most rock-influenced of the three guitarists in his teens,‭ ‬which‭ ‬led to cover recordings such as‭ ‬Heart of the Sunrise by Yes and‭ ‬Discipline by King Crimson as the trio forged ahead into the‭ ‬21st century.‭ ‬And Mastelotto,‭ ‬and particularly Levin,‭ ‬have been recurring guests on CGT CDs.‭ ‬The bassist appears on the‭ ‬Andromeda‭ ‬track‭ ‬Turn of the Tide to tap out one of his inimitable Chapman stick lines.

Andromeda is the first all-original CGT release,‭ ‬but it follows the all-cover‭ ‬2008‭ ‬CD‭ ‬Echoes,‭ ‬which features two more‭ ‬classical-inspired pieces‭ (‬Unmei‭ ‬and‭ ‬Pastorale‭) ‬plus the Pink Floyd title track,‭ ‬Mike Oldfield's‭ ‬Tubular Bells,‭ ‬Queen's‭ ‬Bohemian Rhapsody and even Lynyrd Skynyrd‭’‬s‭ ‬Free Bird.‭ ‬The group is working on an all-classical CD for‭ ‬2011‭ ‬release.

‭“‬It'll be mostly previously recorded but unreleased tracks,‭”‬ Lams says,‭ “‬but all remixed and remastered from the original takes.‭ ‬We're trying to make it sound pure,‭ ‬like you're sitting in a room with the guitarists.‭ ‬One track is a cover of the‭ ‬‘William Tell Overture‭’‬ that turned out pretty hot.‭”

Richards still resides in Salt Lake City,‭ ‬and Lams has relocated to Mechanicsburg,‭ ‬Pa.,‭ ‬but this small,‭ ‬united league of ever-crafty guitarists remains international.

‭“‬Hideyo initially left the Berklee College of Music in Boston to study in the Guitar Craft courses,‭”‬ Richards says.‭ “‬But he decided to live in Japan and commute after we formed the trio.‭ ‬Even when we were initially based in Los Angeles,‭ ‬he'd come there for two or three months at a time and then go back.‭ ‬I can tell that he gets homesick when he‭'‬s away from Japan for too long.‭”

The CGT has,‭ ‬in fact,‭ ‬literally gone beyond international to stratospheric success.‭ ‬Other artists may have also been heard on NPR,‭ ‬NBC,‭ ‬CBS,‭ ‬CNN and ESPN‭ ‬--‭ ‬but this trio received recent airplay aboard the NASA space shuttle‭ ‬Endeavour.

“We have some fans in Houston,‭ ‬Texas who work for NASA,‭" ‬says Richards.‭ ‬“They invited some of the astronauts to come out and hear us,‭ ‬so we developed a pretty strong fan base at NASA,‭ ‬and they started using our music to wake up the astronauts.‭ ‬It was pretty unusual to hear that,‭ ‬and very exciting.‭”

“There's a clip they've sent us,‭”‬ Lams says,‭ ‬“where you hear not only‭ ‬our recording playing aboard‭ ‬‘Endeavour,‭’‬ but what the astronauts say before and after hearing it,‭ ‬even down to things like‭ ‬‘Houston,‭ ‬over and out.‭’”

The trio's actual‭ ‬20-year anniversary takes place within‭ ‬10‭ ‬days of its stop at the‭ ‬FAU campus in Jupiter.‭ ‬And the three space-approved guitarists are united in the surprise regarding their longevity.

‭“‬It was‭ ‬20‭ ‬years ago in January‭ ‬that we formed,‭”‬ Richards says.‭ “‬We'd become friends while touring with Robert,‭ ‬but there was also clearly a musical connection despite our very different backgrounds.‭ ‬Hideyo grew up learning to play surf music instrumentals by The Ventures,‭ ‬who are still‭ ‬huge in Japan.‭ ‬Bert had the European classical upbringing,‭ ‬and I had two older brothers who played guitar,‭ ‬so I was listening to The Beatles,‭ ‬Rolling Stones,‭ ‬Led Zeppelin and Rush.‭ ‬But I think we're stronger because we've been able to find ways to combine‭ ‬all of our different upbringings and influences.‭”

Lams notes that their first-ever performance was on Feb.‭ ‬7,‭ ‬1991,‭ ‬at the Natural Fudge Café in Los Angeles.

‬“And we couldn't have had any idea that it would turn into this.‭”

The‭ ‬California Guitar Trio‭performs‭ ‬at‭ ‬7:30‭ ‬p.m.‭ ‬Saturday‭ ‬at Florida Atlantic University's Lifelong Learning Society Auditorium,‭ ‬5353‭ ‬Parkside Drive,‭ ‬Jupiter‭ ‬.‭ ‬Tickets:‭ ‬$25‭ ‬for Lifelong Learning‭ ‬members‭; ‬$30‭ ‬for non-members.‭ ‬Call‭ ‬561-799-8547.

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