Shambhu: Soothing Guitar for Stressful Times

Jakob Baekgaard By

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AAJ: Overall, how would you describe your own sound? Could you tell about the guitar you use and your approach to tunings, chord voicings and composition?

SV: My sound is evocative, intuitive, calm and laid back whether I'm playing up-tempo or slow. I use the standard guitar tuning except when I change the 6th and/or 5th string tunings to D/A of C/G to function as an Indian style drone and improvise sound paintings. Humility (on Sacred Love) features the D/A drone. Sanctuary (on Dreaming of Now) features the C/G drone. Both were created live. My writing process is simple -I record everything because my songs emerge at their own time, but generally when I'm warmed up. As I listen back to hours worth of jam sessions, I find the songs. I organize them into buckets, make demos of the ones I like, and return to them when I'm starting a new project. I typically have 40-50 ideas and whittle them down to an album's worth. What's left goes into the next album.

I play the Taylor GS6 acoustic for solo studio recording. For live gigs, I use the Taylor 816ce plugged into a Line 6 Helix with an Infinity Looper and LR Bags Para Acoustic Preamp. And I jam and loop with the T5 electric/acoustic which you can hear on the title track of Soothe.

AAJ: Your first album, Equinox (2009), was a duo collaboration with saxophonist Premik Tubbs. How did that record come about?

SV: After I met Premik Tubbs and Narada Michael Walden, I joined them as students of meditation teacher and guru Sri Chinmoy. In 1986 Premik and I wanted to do an album of improvisations on Sri Chinmoy's music and Equinox was born after a week's rehearsal in a Long Island recording studio. We each created jazzy arrangements of Sri Chinmoy's melodies, and every song led into a free improvisation. We spent 2-3 years playing small tours of the U.S., Canada and Europe organized by Sri Chinmoy's students. Premik and I continued to play together. He recorded on my albums Sacred Love, Soothe and Lilac Skies, and I introduced him to Will Ackerman who has included his work on dozens of albums.

AAJ: The title reminds me of John Coltrane and the album also strikes me as one of your most jazz-influenced records. What are your own thoughts about this?

SV: When Coltrane offered A Love Supreme he saw his music as an expression of his faith and spirit. That connection of music and spirit also inspired Carlos Santana and John McLaughlin, and it got my attention, too. For Premik and myself, Equinox was a jazz devotional album and we're both proud of this work.

AAJ: The guitar sound is very big on the record. Did you use any effects such as echo to achieve this?

SV: I used a boomy sounding and rare 1985-era Takamine roundtop acoustic electric 6-string which a natural echo, and a Takamine 12-string flat top. The roundtop never made it into production. I plugged them into a rack of Boss pedals including a chorus, flanger, compressor, echo, tremolo, etc.

AAJ: Some of the tracks have some very fast unison lines between you and Premik Tubbs. I primarily think of your music as spiritual and meditative, but this is often associated with slow tempo. What is your take on the relation between mood and tempo?

SV: We can create a rhythm free or free flowing musical calm with a deep pedal bass with open harmonics while playing free form cascading lines on a guitar like water rolling over rocks. I spent years observing Nature and Rhythm on Maui. The morning sun and vast ocean with gentle rolling waves were so calming. Small birds were chirping high in the harmonic register and darting across the seascape. The waves were breaking randomly. Yet, it felt perfectly peaceful despite fast movement. I try to act as the meditative calm in all of my songs and my guitar work is a connecting link woven through every mood and tempo. Any calm or tension we feel in music is related to how the notes play out in the harmonic overtone series.

AAJ: Your next album, Sacred Love (2010), was co-produced by Will Ackerman. Could you tell about this collaboration? How did it come about and how did he influence the sound of the album? Was he involved in arrangements, choice of songs and so on?

SV: Working with Will was illuminating. His studio is like a temple. His equipment and work standard are phenomenal. His network of instrumentalists is as impressive as he is. We met through Jeff Oster, a flugelhorn player who had been recording with Will since 2005. Jeff and I met in San Francisco Bay in late 2009 when I was doing technology public relations in San Francisco. I had a few simple songs and arrangements and Will brought in several brilliant instrumentalists like Tony Levin, Charlie Bisharat, and Eugene Friesen. I brought in Celso Alberti, Claytoven Richardson, George Brooks and Ravichandra Kulur. Together with recording engineer Corin Nelsen, we brought these songs to life. Will produced my guitar work, and several of the artists who played. Corin and I mixed the album. There's a series of YouTube videos on the Sacred Love recording project and extensive interviews with Will and Corin, along with insights into the recording process: https://www.youtube.com/playlist? list=PLXhffem0gtamRCAHOE2KWfMVh7AEx_ay

AAJ: You play a duet together, "Imagine," on the album. How would you describe the difference between your style of playing?

SV: This was a song Will brought to the table and I over-layed a guitar lead. We both play intuitively and from the heart. We both play melodically and inspire imagery among listeners. Then we diverge. I am a melodic player. I know music theory. My perfect pitch lets me make choices based on the notes and colors that I know will achieve the feelings that I'm aiming at. I use a pick and fingers. My guitar tuning is generally standard and I navigate a Western musical vocabulary of scales and chords.

Will is a masterful guitarist who helped create the New Age genre. He feels music. He is intuitive. His music is hypnotizing. He tells compelling stories with unique guitar tunings. No song has the same tuning. Will wears metal picks on his right hand and his finger-style touch feels magical and intimate. His music and musical approach have influenced generations of listeners (like me), and launched a musical genre (New Age) and a successful music label (Windham Hill). Yet, Will is the first to say that he knows no music theory and he could not read a note of music. Yet, he creates musical magic and he delivers it consistently through his own beautiful work and for the artists he produces.

AAJ: The album revolves around the acoustic guitar but uses a wide palette of sounds and instruments. The influence from Indian music especially shines through. Could you elaborate on this influence on the album?

SV: It was my first solo album and, like Coltrane's A Love Supreme, I wanted the music to reflect the soulfulness of love. For this album I was working in a New Age format with the acoustic guitar as the centerpiece. Everything was built around the guitar. World flautist Ann Licater had introduced me to bansuri flutiest Ravichandra Kulur who added bansuri flute to a few tunes during a concert tour in San Francisco. I added sitar to Maui Breeze. I did a vocal, Hide and Seek, featuring Claytoven Richardson. George Brooks, Ravi and I jammed Shiva Grove. We had lots of voices.

AAJ: Ackerman also helped produced the follow-up Dreaming of Now (2013). It hardly feels like a repetition of the past record. To my ears it has a feeling closer to American roots music and the guitar is more in the center, even though there are still other instruments involved. How did you prepare this album? Could you tell about the process of making the album and the dialog you had with Ackerman about it?

SV: After Sacred Love, I went back into my box of songs and kept writing. Like the Beatles, I like to keep inventing so for the 2nd album I took a new approach. I rented Fantasy Studios in Berkeley and hired the best jazz players in the SF Bay. George Brooks (sax), Frank Martin (piano), Kai Eckhardt (bass) and Celso Alberti (drums). And we cut the songs on Dreaming of Now in two days. I took that work back to Imaginary Road Studios. With Will and Tom Eaton co-producing, I redid my acoustic guitars and added cello and violin. I mixed this one with Tom Eaton. Dreaming of Now won Best Contemporary Instrumental Album at the ZMR Music Awards (2013), which honors the best in new age music.

AAJ: When you recorded Soothe (2017), you changed co-producer from Ackerman to Todd Boston, a fellow guitarist and Ackerman-associate. What did he bring to the table? How would you describe the songs and approach to this album?

SV: I met Todd in 2009 after arriving in northern California and I loved his guitar music. We played together and during the recording of Sacred Love in LA, I introduced him to Will Ackerman. Todd later recorded with Will at Imaginary Road Studios, and then he opened his own Magic Cottage Studios in northern California with his wife Andrea, a film producer who shot the Soothe trailer. I wanted to support my friends Todd and Andrea and started recording at their studio. What I love about working with Todd is that he feels the connection of Nature and conveying music in organic ways. Just like Sacred Love, we recorded Soothe one track at a time starting with guitars. We featured sax and English horn player Paul McCandless, bassist Michael Manring, percussionist Jeff Haynes, and others.

AAJ: Your latest album, Lilac Skies (2019), finds you alone in the producer's chair. Could you tell about the thoughts and considerations you had about the album and talk about some of the key tracks and musicians?

SV: From the start I wanted to create an album that was upbeat, positive and uplifting for anyone experiencing the stressed out times in which we live. I also wanted this album to feature some quiet guitar and include some of my jazz tunes from my teens and recent days ... without losing my new age audience. I also wanted to work again with drummer Celso Alberti. I rented Fantasy Studios for a full day and invited Frank Martin, Celso Alberti and Kai Eckhardt and we recorded the songs of Lilac Skies that I had been developing and transcribing over a period of months. It was the first time I had fully arranged my music in such detail, and the first time the songs had been played. It was a day-long session. We cut 12 tracks in 9 hours and used 8 of them on the album.

AAJ: Many of your titles are very poetic. Do you name the songs after they have been played or have you named a song before you composed it? Could you talk about some of the titles that are special to you and how they can be related to the music?

SV: When I was writing songs for off-Broadway shows, I wrote to evoke feelings in a title or a scene. Now I start with the song and then title it. Thematically through my life I've been working on self-awareness, so my titles often aim in that direction. "Knowingness" (on Soothe) is about those brief and passing moments when we are conscious of a higher 'awareness.' "Pondering When" (on Lilac Skies) is built on a chord progression that could live under a Stephen Sondheim song expressing moments when you're stuck on a thought and figuring out how you'll resolve it. "Sanctuary" (on Dreaming of Now) is my peaceful place inside. "Inspired by the Night" (on Lilac Skies) is one of those amazing nights that you think is the harbinger of the future, but it was just a passing moment. "Eyes of a Child" (on Sacred Love) expresses the spark of innocence in a child's eyes. "Together" (on Sacred Love) is my anthem for a United world family. "Revelation" (on Sacred Love) is the unfolding of self-knowledge. Other titles are just fun, like "Blue Whispers" (on Lilac Skies).




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