Ben Tyree: Thoughtform Variations (2012)
On the face of it, an all-acoustic solo album may seem like something of a departure from guitarist Ben Tyree's eclectic, contemporary New York fusion of re:vision (Sonic Architectures, 2011), with his BT3 trio. Yet, in essence, these eight tracks share an equally wide arc of influences and the same spirit of adventure. Though not as raucous or urbane as re:vision, which roped in DJ Logic and keyboardist John Medeski, Tyree's acoustic sketches are, in some ways, no less modern, drawing from jazz, classical, folk, blues and rock to create some very deep grooves.
Tyree describes the composing process as a sometimes painstaking experiment. It took five years before he dared to attempt the knotty "Soliloquy" live, a sort of vamp punctuated by flights of sophisticated harmonic phrasing, colored by alternative tuning. The episodic "No Wrong Turns" shifts between fleet-fingered jazz-folk vibes and a heavy, gut-clawing riff. There's haunting melancholy in the Bach-inspired "What May Come to Be"; Tyree alternates between gently interweaving baroque lines and pockets of dissonance on a tune that ends all too soon. "Bish" revolves around a simple melody and repeated motif and has a strong rhythmic backbone. Rhythm is central to Tyree's playing, but it would be interesting to see what accents an imaginative percussionist could bring to these arrangements.
On the ambitious "David" Tyree impressively navigates a series of harmonic movements that embrace exquisite melodies, ruminative passages and more urgent lines. The powerful, blues-inspired motif at either end frames Tyree's melodic/harmonic wanderings and adds soulful gravitas evocative of singer/guitarist John Lee Hooker. "Thought Forms" sounds like a moodier cousin of "David"; similarly episodic, Tyree's alternatively tuned voicing is denser and slightly frenetic, and his playing rages like a battle between forces of darkness and light, one that ends in edgy stalemate. "Dmanisi" is another journey through shifting tempos and moods, anchored by Tyree's mantra-like riff.
"The Gatekeeper" has a somber, reflective quality. Unlike the other compositions, which evolved from half-born ideas and musical fragments that were then carefully sculpted together over a period of years, this track was conceived and recorded in pretty much a single sitting, and flows with a distinct energy. Tyree's cascading, interlocking lines have an inexorable momentum which propels the piece towards its sudden conclusion. In a way, "The Gatekeeper" seems to provide resolution for the album as a whole, and makes a fitting closing statement.
Thoughtform Variations should appeal to fans of modern acoustic guitar playing, but this is equally roots music at heart. Fans of English guitarists John Renbourn and Roy Harper will also revel in the contrasts Tyree conjures between sophisticated, blues-touched folk airs and shuddering riffs. This is an impressive, highly personal solo statement of conceptual and technical ambition. Where it really succeeds, however, is in the emotive weight that Tyree invests in his playing. The combination of serious chops, drama and deep soul marks this out as one of the more striking releases of the year. It also underlines Tyree's growing status as a voice for which to sit up and take notice.
Track Listing: Soliloquy; No Wrong Turns; What May Come to Be; Bish; David; Thought Forms; Dmanisi; The Gatekeeper.
Personnel: Ben Tyree: solo acoustic guitar.