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Kevin Kastning’s Extended Guitars

Mark Sullivan By

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American fingerstyle acoustic guitarist Kevin Kastning has increasingly dedicated himself to two musical areas: improvisation and extending the range of the acoustic guitar. He has created a number of new instruments in this quest, including the 36-string Double Contraguitar, 30-string Contra-Alto guitar and 17-string Hybrid Extended Classical guitar he has used on recent recordings. In addition to performing solo, he has found common cause with several other musicians with whom he regularly collaborates, notably Hungarian guitarist Sandor Szabo, British guitarist Mark Wingfield, Hungarian drummer/percussionist Balázs Major and American saxophonist Carl Clements. A frequent touring musician, Kastning is also a very prolific recording artist. This is an overview of a range of his recordings from the last two years (2017-2018 at the time of writing). They are all characterized by pristine recorded sound and strikingly beautiful album cover art.

Kevin Kastning/Sándor Szabó/Balázs Major
Ethereal II
Greydisc
2018

Kastning seems to gravitate to the duet format, but this is a recurring trio. Kastning's 36-string Double Contraguitar, 30-string Contra-Alto guitar and piano are joined by Szabó's electric guitar and electric baritone guitar and Major's drums and percussion. It is an especially rich timbral mix. Kasning's acoustic guitar provides chiming double-coursed sounds reminiscent of a 12-string guitar, as well as occasional bass parts. The electric guitar provides electronic washes for accompaniment, as well as a contrasting lead voice. And the drumming is an equal partner, sometimes atmospheric, sometimes keeping time. Opener "Arrival (Second Recall)" contains all of this; "Etheriality I," which follows it, sticks to a mostly slow moving soundscape. Major includes Indian tabla drums in his arsenal: they are especially prominent on "Supernal Vapor" and "Portals I." This is a splendid improvisational session, full of variety in tempo and texture: an excellent starting place for listeners new to Kastning's music.

Kevin Kastning//Balázs Major
Kismaros
Greydisc
2018

Kastning and Major have toured and recorded together before, but this is their first duo project. It came about by accident: the pair were in the studio for trio and quartet sessions, but decided to try recording a duo piece. It went so well that they were encouraged to keep going. This album is the result, containing all seven pieces recorded, in the order they were performed. On most album projects there are extra pieces recorded but left off the final album for various reasons (run-time, or sounding outside the overall direction, for example). So there is a special quality to Kismaros, a sense of inspiration and completeness: this is the whole story. Kastning plays only 30-string Contra-Alto guitar, and Major is credited with percussion (not drums). So there is a consistent sound palette, often rubato: the opposite of a the usual jazz guitar/drums breakdown. On "Kismaros I" Major employs cymbals and Indian tabla. There is a segment of "Kismaros II" where Kastning plays in bass and treble registers simultaneously, showing the possibilities of his extended instrument. Recommended to Ralph Towner fans.

Kevin Kastning
17/66
Greydisc
2018

Kastning solo, playing three of his signature guitar designs. The music makes use of a new compositional structure he calls harmonic blocks, which he can only describe as "a rather dense concept...almost crosses the line from compositional structure into music theory." Sonically this translates into some of his most abstract music, possibly the result of his improvisational instincts being tempered by the formal structures he is working with. The program does offer the opportunity to hear all of the instruments unaccompanied and clearly identified (as well as recorded live in the studio with no overdubs). The first three tracks feature the 30-string Contra-Alto guitar; the second group of three the 17-string Hybrid Extended Classical guitar; and the final group the 36-string Double Contraguitar.

Kevin Kastning/Sándor Szabó
Ethereal I
Greydisc
2017

The first Ethereal album features Kastning's 36-string Double Contraguitar, 30-string Contra-Alto guitar and piano along with Szabó's electric guitar and electric baritone guitar—the same instrumentation as the second album, minus the percussion. There is even more acoustic/electric contrast here. Opener "Choros Nympharum" includes rich electronic soundscaping. Kastning's piano is up front on "The leaves are full of voices," with Szabó's volume-pedal guitar in the lead. Throughout the session both players seem especially in tune with each other, smoothly exchanging lead and accompanying roles. The album closes with Kastning's piano again accompanying Szabó's electric guitar on "Sylvia Nympharum."

Kevin Kastning/Mark Wingfield
The Line to Three
Greydisc
2017

Another acoustic/electric contrast, with British experimental guitarist Mark Wingfield providing electric guitar, live electronics and pre-recorded soundscapes. Kastning plays 30-string Contra-Alto guitar, 17-string Hybrid Extended Classical guitar, piano and percussion. "Invisible Landscapes I" opens the album with very legato electric guitar lines, their pitch shifting from Wingfield's sophisticated whammy bar technique—accompanied by low electronic rumbles and sparkling acoustic guitar chords. Like some of the tracks on the duo with Szabó, Kastning sometimes accompanies on the piano for an entire track, as he does here on "All the Clouds Around You," "The Gathering of Shapeless Forms" and "Momentary Books of Leaving" (which contains especially dramatic piano playing: Kastning has a strong voice on the instrument). Of all of Kastning's collaborators, Wingfield arguably has the most distinctive, well-established sound, as well as the most virtuosic technique. But he is also a sympathetic collaborator, as demonstrated on "A Nameless Unfolding II," where the two guitars alternate, Wingfield frequently providing accompaniment. Wingfield fans who have not heard his collaborations with Kastning may want to start here.

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