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Brazilians Spice Up Annual Montana Guitar Festival

Mark Holston By

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Some of the world’s best string masters have forsaken the usual big city venues to spend a week at historic Flathead Lake Lodge, a truly off-the-beaten-path destination for an event of this stature.
Crown of the Continent Guitar Festival
Flathead Lake Lodge
Bigfork, Montana
August 30-September 5, 2015

Forget for a moment the stellar roster of international guitar greats at Bigfork, Montana's annual Crown of the Continent Guitar Festival, their inspired performances and enthusiastic, SRO crowds. This annual weeklong mixture of master classes and nightly public performances on the grounds of a half century-old traditional "dude ranch" boasts something that likely no other festival in the world can claim: a nightly parade of 50 svelte riding horses trotting from one pasture to another and right past the tent that houses the festival's main stage. They snort, prance, kick up a little dust and literally brush up against the VIP tent where artists like Lee Ritenour and Dweezil Zappa are warming up for their turn in the spotlight. It's a majestic reminder that some of the world's best string masters have forsaken the usual big city venues to spend a week at historic Flathead Lake Lodge, a truly off-the-beaten-path destination for an event of this stature.

In its sixth year, the CCGF reached the milestone of enrolling 100 student guitarists in daily classes with a faculty of hand-picked specialists and featured soloists. The emphasis on education and equipping neophyte guitarists with advanced skills has already paid off big for one young musician. The Harlem, New York-based blues and jazz guitarist "King" Solomon Hicks came last year as a student and returned this season as a certified headliner. Barely 20 years old, the affable Hicks, who also excels as a crooner and swings easily between the poles of blues and jazz, has become a staple at The Cotton Club and is on a career fast-track.

Dependent on attracting students with diverse interests and ambitions, as well as an audience eager to fill a 1,000 seat tent for nightly presentations, the festival has embraced a wide universe of styles, focusing on those with the broadest appeal. Prominent is the ever-popular "singer-songwriter" category as well as Texas blues, funk, fusion, and rock of various incarnations. The just-concluded edition of the festival boasted such headliners as Jon Herington of Steely Dan fame, singer-guitarist Madeleine Peyroux, bluesman David Grissom, and pianist Dave Grusin, who sat in with Ritenour. In a bid to assuage the pop culture-focused segment of the audience, NBC TV's The Voice participant India Carney, a festival surprise guest, was injected here and there as a dollop of vocal sweetening. Rounding out the roster were regional groups like the Z Quartet, a jazz fusion unit led by local symphony conductor and guitarist John Zoltek, and a combo fronted by guitarist Max Hatt and egg-shaking vocalist Edda Glass that performed sleepy, minimalist pseudo bossa nova.

An "odd-bedfellows" kind of program line-up, however, led to some truly head-scratching moments. The Los Angeles Guitar Quartet, kings of middlebrow "crossover classical" repertoire, performed predictable selections from their recent recordings before tackling a surprise curveball—a piece "written" expressly for them by Dweezil Zappa, for whom they opened. The Son-of-Frank, who neither reads nor writes music, told a festival insider that he recorded himself playing brief improvised snippets and shipped them off to the LAGQ to be transcribed and stitched into an arrangement for four guitars. Living up to its low expectations, the brief performance came off as what it was—a thematically disjointed collection of overlapping dissonant motifs. Feigning a lack of appreciation for what he had heard, the work's creator popped back on stage and insisted that the quartet try it again. And, to no greater ends, they did.

Those thirsting for the high level of technical brilliance, intellectual curiosity and improvisational mastery as personified by the world's best jazz guitarists, however, have been left somewhat wanting. True, Pat Metheny has performed twice in six years, and fusion-meister Ritenour, the festival's de facto artistic director, is featured every go-around. But other than a fondly-recalled set by Julian Lage several years ago, and the presence this year of Brazilian virtuoso Romero Lubambo and up-and-coming São Paulo jazzer Leandro Pellegrino, the involvement of notable jazz guitarists has been scant.

It's not surprising that the presence of the two Brazilians provided many of the festival's most memorable moments. Curiously, it had taken organizers half a decade to recognize the existence of the formidable Brazilian guitar tradition and provide an opportunity for someone of the stature of Lubambo to perform on its main stage.

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