For its annual fall party, Cornelia Street Café booked an enticing triple-header solo guitar show featuring David Tronzo, Wolfgang Muthspiel, and Ben Monder. Unfortunately, Tronzo was stricken with a herniated retina and could not perform. Taking his place at the very last minute was the young Aaron Grad, who usually plays at the Café with his Yoga quartet.
Wielding a beautiful seven-string and utilizing sound-on-sound and looping techniques, Grad played an off-the-cuff set that emphasized jagged motives and dissonant harmonies. His budding avant-garde sensibility is quite raw at this stage, and while his ear often takes him to interesting places, his technique could use some strengthening. Still, it takes serious guts to try and fill Tronzo’s shoes on such short notice, so hats off to him.
Wolfgang Muthspiel was in the midst of a week-long engagement down the road at Sweet Basil with Paul Motian’s Electric Bebop Band. Still, he rushed over to the Café during a break between sets to play three brilliant pieces. At least on this particular night, Muthspiel was the most straight-ahead jazzer of the three acts. Like Grad, he also used sound-on-sound, but mainly for the more conventional purpose of chordal self-accompaniment. His clean, sparkling tone, rich and colorful chord voicings, and rippling single-note lines were a veritable how-to of contemporary jazz guitar. The only bad thing about the set was its brevity. Three tunes and Muthspiel was outta there, back to rejoin Kurt Rosenwinkel and the two Chrises (Cheek and Potter) on Paul Motian’s bandstand.
With his left leg perched atop a classical guitar footstool, Ben Monder delivered the evening’s most stunning displays of technical virtuosity and compositional daring. While "Late Green" and "Orbits" had many high points, Monder’s most impressive feats were his live performances of "Mistral" and "Windowpane," the two solo pieces from his latest Arabesque CD, Excavation. Monder’s highly refined right-hand classical technique was astonishing. Sound-on-sound may be one way to pull off a solo guitar concert, but somehow Monder produced even more sound without any gadgetry at all, spinning a web of hypnotic, rapid arpeggios with unerring accuracy for minutes on end. These long-form, rigorously rehearsed selections not only seemed to defy the laws of physics, they also showed how far beyond "jazz" Monder’s music extends.
Despite the glitches in the program — Tronzo’s illness, Muthspiel’s truncated set — this guitar showcase still fulfilled expectations.
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