In a departure from previous albums like The Surrealist Table (Arthur Circle Music, 2003), guitarist Ken Hatfield leaves behind his Latin-inflected ensemble work on String Theory. On this strictly solo affair, Hatfield delivers something completely unexpected.
Classical guitar has been Hatfield's mainstay for some time, and his style references many of the trendsetters who have come beforethe Latin side of Charlie Byrd, the abstract classical impressionism of Ralph Towner, and the mainstream focus of Lenny Breau. But from the first bars of "The Word, the first song of the three-part "The Gospel According to Sam, an overdubbed dobro suggests something different at play. Its folksy Appalachian vibe would be perfectly at home on Bill Frisell's Nashville (Nonesuch, 1997), although Hatfield exhibits none of Frisell's quirky idiosyncrasies. The darker "Redemption, feels more akin to a classical recital; still, when the dobro enters at the one-minute mark, it drives the tune back to the country. Similarly, the concluding piece, "Prodigal Son, places Hatfield's overdubbed dobro in a bourrée-like counterpoint with his classical guitar until things ultimately finds their way back home again.
The Appalachian strains of "The Gospel According to Sam don't mask Hatfield's love of classical music, albeit in a strangely homogenized fashion, but the roots of "Snowhill Variations are more specific. This series of thirteen miniatures for solo guitar, from 29 to 83 seconds long, provides a window to a different part of Hatfield's musical world. Only on "Variation 12 does the Latin-informed Hatfield of past albums peek out.
The three-part "String Theory marries classical guitar and mandolin, an odd amalgam on the surface. Hatfield subtly introduces elements of improvisation, but in nearly indiscernible fashion. What's most remarkable about this suite and "The Gospel According to Sam is how Hatfield managed to record the individual tracks and ultimately bring them together. There are many instances where the reference point shifts between the two instruments and the time spreads, making it a significant challenge to record each track separately and then link them upsimilar to Towner's Diary (ECM, 1974), where he accomplished the same feat with guitar and piano.
The final suite, "Borges & I, is another series of solo guitar pieces. As with the rest of the record, Hatfield's cleanliness of line and purity of tone create a soft and appealing veneer. And like Breau, his sleight of hand makes songs like "The Zahir sound like duets, despite the fact they are solo performances with no overdubs. In many ways "Borges & I is the most diverse of the four suites on String Theory, blending elements of jazz, classical and Appalachian folk music. The entire album, in fact, feels uncannily of one voice, despite its diverse influences. Hatfield is far more than his fine earlier albums have suggested, and more surprises are no doubt on the horizon.
Personnel: Ken Hatfield: classical guitar, dobro, mandolin.