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CD/LP/Track Review

Steffen Basho-Junghans: Unknown Music 1: Alien Letter (2005)

By Published: May 13, 2005
Steffen Basho-Junghans: Unknown Music 1: Alien Letter Painter, guitarist, composer, and free author Steffen Basho-Junghans lives in Berlin and Thuringia, Germany. He has been highly influential on the eastern German guitar scene since the late '70s. Largely a self-taught artist and musician, his style is best categorized as eccentric and highly personal. Junghans uses steel-string acoustic guitars, combining archaic sounds with altered tunings and a plethora of divergent connections. Traditional European, American Indian, and Asian scales create a landscape with circuitous ties to East Indian instruments like the vina and sarong. He adds folk and spiritual music ideas for good measure.

The name Basho pays homage to the largely forgotten but seminal guitarist Robbie Basho, who was one of the innovators of what we now call New Age or world music on the guitar. A poet, father of the American raga, and champion of open tuning techniques, Basho studied East Indian music with sarod master Ali Akbar Khan and closely followed the music of Ravi Shankar. He was an early mentor of Windham Hill's founder, William Ackerman, and blazed a trail for players like Alex De Grassi, Leo Kottke, John Fahey, and Peter Lang.

Alien Letter incorporates all of these imprints in one of the more unique visions you are likely to encounter. If viewed as a suite for solo guitar, it would be unusual enough. In defining it as a jazz record, musical boundaries need major expansion. It does not swing and rarely follows a discernable pattern; the compositions often sound as if created in process.

"Kotke on Mars 1, a microcosm of this disc's features, opens with rather tame musings before the tune shifts to a consistent tempo of rapid chords, plucked strings, and pitch bends. A recurring key structure hovers, not without frequent modulations. The brightness of the strings accentuates a frenetic pace. Midway through, a repetitive chord pattern emerges, followed by a disintegrating tempo that ushers in a machine gun-like barrage of single picking. Next, chords and single notes began to fly like stones in a hurricane, before the whole thing abruptly ends.

"IX is an exploration of pitch bending on steroids. Loose strings or metal insertions combine with Hawaiian-like trills and slide devices to create a landscape not unlike those envisioned by 20th Century surrealists. At times it sounds as if it could be a mass of tuneful jangling door keys. "V deploys a repetitive pattern of quarter note chords with subtle shifts in tempo and changes in the direction of strumming motion. Echo techniques subtly follow the initial stroke, propagating a mood suggestive of a blacksmith's shop.

The engineering and recording quality are surprisingly good given this disc was captured direct to DAT in Basho's own living room, mostly live without overdubs. The characteristics of the steel-stringed guitars come through in fine form. This is not a recording for the fainthearted, nor is it suited for casual listening. Open-minded listeners and adventurous guitarists who enjoy music on the fringes may want to check it out.

Visit Steffen Basho-Junghans on the web.


Track Listing: One; Two (Kottke on Mars 1); Three; Four; Five; Six a; Six b (Kottke on Mars 2); Seven; Eight; Nine; Ten.

Personnel: Steffen Basho-Junghans; acoustic 12 steel string guitar.

Record Label: Sillyboy Records

Style: Fringes of Jazz



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