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Pierre Bensusan: Altiplanos

John Kelman By

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Sometimes it's all in the fingers. Give a guitar to two players, ask them to play an identical phrase and there will be a difference. It's about physiology—the physical characteristics of the fingers and how they touch the strings. It's about phrasing—the emphasis of some notes over others and the subtle nuances between those notes. And it's about personality—a more assertive player may sound harsher, or more rushed, than someone who has a generally more relaxed approach to life.

And so, approach to any instrument becomes the sum of the player's physical and emotional character—some might even add their spirituality. And while it might be presumptuous to extrapolate personality from what one hears musically, acoustic guitarist Pierre Bensusan, in a career that spans over twenty years and ten albums, would appear to be someone with a rich attention to detail, yet an easygoing personality who is comfortable with his life.

For Altiplanos, Bensusan continues, in part, with the solo guitar approach of his last disc, Intuite, but broadens the landscape with two vocal tracks, as well as a handful of pieces featuring guest percussionist Blaise Boutlefeu, saxophonist Didier Malherbe, and bassist Michel Benita. The result is a broader scope, without sacrificing the intimacy so inherent in all his work.

Starting out in life as a Celtic/folk guitarist, Bensusan has incorporated other elements into his music over the course of his career, including classical, jazz, and world music overtones. But the overall ambience of his work is still that of a folk artist, albeit one with broader interests. "Sentimentales Pyromaniaques may have a South African flavour to it, "If Only You Knew a taste of gospel/soul and "Nefarti a hint of Brazil, but at the end of the day Bensusan fits comfortably within the mould of guitarists including Leo Kottke, John Renbourne, Martin Simpson, and Bert Jansch.

Whether improvising over a rhythmic guitar loop on "Sylva, proving that he has a lovely singing voice on the haunting "Demain dès L'Aube, or demonstrating more overt technique on the lush and poignant "Scarabée, what differentiates Bensusan from his contemporaries—what ultimately differentiates any guitarist, for that matter—is his touch. There's a rich sustenance to his tone that can only come from the specific way he holds onto notes, letting them resonate deeply before moving on, even through more rapidly executed phrases.

Bensusan has also differentiated himself by relying, with rare exception, on the traditional DADGAD tuning. The tuning allows for a greater use of open strings, lending an almost harp-like quality to the guitar, but it's hard to imagine any other guitarist who has exploited the tuning to such diverse effect.

Bensusan's remarkable technical ability has never been in question, but it's the sheer musicality and lyricism of his body of work that has cemented his position as one of the most accomplished acoustic guitarists on the planet. Altiplanos, with its combination of solo, multitracked and ensemble pieces, simply reaffirms and builds upon Bensusan's already stellar reputation.

Visit Pierre Bensusan on the web.


Track Listing: Sentimentales Pyromaniaques; La Dame de Clevedon; Sur un Fil; Altiplanos; Demain d

Personnel: Pierre Bensusan- guitar, vocals, whistling; Malherbe- douduk on "Tacita;" Benita- keyboards on "Tacita."

Title: Altiplanos | Year Released: 2005 | Record Label: Favored Nations


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