Tom Guarna: The Wishing Stones

John Kelman By

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Tom Guarna: The Wishing Stones
An unfortunate reality for too many musicians—even those who are well-known—is that most of their audiences are aware of but a portion of their true work...their fullest capabilities. Recordings only tell part of the story, since artists often tour with groups that are never documented. And even those tours, for those fortunate enough to experience them, are often limited-run engagements—perhaps a few weeks in Europe here, a short tour of Japan there. Even in North America, given the vast distances that have become increasingly untenable with transportation costs, only those on one coast or the other, for example, might get the chance to catch a particular lineup and repertoire.

Even for those in the know, it's not easy to figure out Tom Guarna's full breadth. His first five albums as a leader for the Danish Steeplechase imprint were—despite plenty of original material to balance out the jazz and Great American Songbook standards—largely mainstream dates, ranging from organ trios and Latin-tinged quartet outings to more freewheeling and revelatory sessions.

Still, as fine as those recordings are, they reveal but a portion of what this keenly talented guitarist is about, especially since he began touring North America and Europe with his own bands a few years back, on the heels of playing on Lenny White's groove-laden Anomaly (Abstract Logix, 2010) and hitting the road with the fusion drummer's band, including a scorching New Universe Music Festival set that same year.

His first release as a leader for the Brooklyn Jazz Underground label, 2014's Rush, provided the largest window yet into Guarna's chameleon-like ability to adapt to any context, all while never losing sight of his own inimitable musical personality. The Wishing Stones opens that window even further.

Guarna's work with White is still just one aspect of a guitarist's who has performed with higher profile artists like Corea, Wallace Roney, Stanley Clarke, Randy Brecker and Dr. Lonnie Smith...even garnering a Grammy nomination for his participation in saxophonist-turned-pianist Manuel Valera's New Cuban Express. But as much as his work with bigger names has helped his profile, it's been Guarna's recorded work with other artists—similarly under-appreciated from a popular perspective but whose value is made similarly clear through the high profile company they keep—that has continued to fill in even more of the blanks. Not only has Guarna appeared on albums by musicians like keyboardist George Colligan (Jack DeJohnette, Don Byron, Ravi Coltrane) and Vincent Gardner (Wynton Marsalis, Lizz Wright, Nicholas Payton); he also employed a group of similarly in-demand but still lesser-knowns on Rush. Over the course of that album's 56-minute, eight-song set, Guarna traversed significant musical territory, as All About Jazz enthused:

"Not that Rush is a fusion record, per se; instead, it's simply an electro-centric set easily fitting into the same space occupied by recent recordings from other guitarists like Kurt Rosenwinkel, Adam Rogers, Jonathan Kreisberg, Mike Moreno and Lage Lund. Call it 'modern mainstream' if you must; Rush is a quintet recording that, with stellar contributions from an A-list group of New Yorkers, possesses some of the fire and energy of fusion, but without the pedal-to-the-metal, testosterone-filled overt virtuosity that can sometimes weigh lesser recordings down."

The Wishing Stones—largely inspired by Guarna and his wife's trip to Aruba—builds upon Rush's successes, in particular through the built-in chemistry of Guarna's group...all higher profile musicians now, but living in Guarna's shoes just a couple of decades ago.

Undeniably one of his generation's most esteemed drummers for work with countless artists in and out of the jazz sphere, Brian Blade has collaborated with keyboardist Jon Cowherd—another player equally regarded for his intuitive work both within and beyond the jazz arena—in their cooperative Fellowship Band for two decades. The drummer has also been working alongside bassist John Patitucci—another broad-scoped player—in saxophonist Wayne Shorter's boundary-pushing quartet since 2001. And with Blade and Cowherd having also played together in Patitucci's trio, these three musicians share a profound musical and personal connection that renders them a dream team capable of truly anything.

If Rush's more groove-infused approach and, for Guarna, broader approach to tone was a revelation, The Wishing Stone goes even further in asserting a most contemporary approach to music often rooted in the mainstream—albeit with a disposition that runs as broad as it goes deep.

Guarna's warm, full-bodied tone is given a touch of grit on "Hope," a waltz-time composition that manages to avoid overt mainstream trappings through Blade and Patitucci's lilting underpinning, over which the guitarist's spare, memorable melody is bolstered by Cowherd's series of sympathetic voicings. It's a sophisticate chart to be sure; but Guarna manages to weave through the changes with a combination of focused motivic development and an increasingly virtuosic bent to create one of the best solos of the set.

Cowherd, too, works his way through Guarna's chart, painstakingly developing his solo like threading a needle, and with a similar approach—built on mastery and an unerringly compositional mindset where every single note has a clear purpose. As the group returns to the composition's main theme, Guarna takes a final solo that, hard though it may be to believe—and filled, as it is, with deft phrases and light-speed intervallic jumps—is even more impressive than his first.

A strength that defines Guarna's quartet is its ability to imbue unmistakable technical acumen while, at the same time, never playing anything remotely superfluous. As Blade and Cowherd do so well with Fellowship (and as Patiticcui and Blade do with Shorter), they bring a complete and utter dedication to the music over the individual, making The Wishing Stones an album that reveals as much depth in some of its simplest moments as it does with its more sophisticated charts.

The brief album-opener, "Prelude," feels a certain kinship with both Pat Metheny's Midwestern dispositions and, indeed, Fellowship Band's folkloric undercurrents. Through-composed, in the interpretive hands of Guarna and Cowherd, however, this gentle duet acts almost as an aural palate cleanser, creating a firm line between whatever has come before and the compelling 74 minutes of music to follow. Still, its apparent simplicity is enmeshed with deeper complexities and an imaginative combination of tender lyricism and near-classicism, in particular with Cowherd's underlying arpeggios underscoring Guarna's expressive melodies.

But if Rush tended to simmer rather than boil, The Wishing Stone absolutely turns the heat up and changes the vibe immediately following "Prelude" on "Song for Carabello." A bright 7/4 pulse drives Guarna's warmly overdriven guitar, as an initially singable melody leads to a sudden shifting of gears, as a second section finds Guarna's theme leaping across broad intervals as he moves into a delay-infused trade-off middle section with Cowherd, whose firm touch and inward-reaching melodic ideas dovetail perfectly with the guitarist's increasingly searing lines. Patitucci anchors the group as does Blade, though the drummer injects his playing with plenty of the unexpected explosive punctuations for which he's become so well-known.

The episodic "Moment = Eternity" provides a touch of respite. Another waltz-time piece, this time it's in a more decidedly balladic context that still moves from slow-building atmospherics to unexpected energies before a quick dissolve into Patitucci's first solo of the set. Softly supported by his bandmates, the bassist demonstrates how far he has come, striking a perfect balance between thoughtful lyricism and the occasional demonstrative flurry. He still possesses the chops that defined his early days as a member of Chick Corea's Elektric Band, but they are now well-tempered with the bigger ears and keener intuition gained through, amongst many others, his exploratory work with Shorter. Guarna follows with a solo that sounds like either a guitar synth or some form of processing that eliminates his instrument's attack to create a more vocal-like timbre.

The Wishing Stones represents a step forward in overall sophistication for Guarna as a composer and, consequently, as a player by challenging him to raise his own game. A track like "Unravel" may initially groove over an ascending three-chord pattern, reducing to an even simpler bass pedal tone for its modal-based solos; but with its combination of far-reaching linear phrasing and self-accompanying chordal injections, Guarna proves, as he slowly, inexorably ratchets up the tension, that real excitement sometimes builds best over the long haul.

"Modules," with its knotty stop/start theme, makes clear that the straight-ahead tradition remains a part of Guarna's DNA. If the guitarist's solo is as impressive as any throughout the rest of the set, it's Cowherd—rarely heard in such a straightforward setting—who proves the biggest surprise. Throughout The Wishing Stones, he demonstrates the kind of empathic interaction for which he's become so well-known, but it's the pianist's solo work on tracks like "Modules" and the Latin-tinged title track which follows that suggest he deserves to be considered in the same breath as peers like Craig Taborn and Jason Moran, when it comes to possessing an encyclopedic knowledge of his instrument.

If Guarna is in fitting company with contemporary guitarists like Rosenwinkel and Rogers, his minute-long, a cappella solo intro to "The Wishing Stones" suggests his roots go farther back to guitarists like Joe Pass, Tal Farlow and beyond, albeit brought harmonically forward into the 21st century. And if the brief, delay-driven, single-note intro is meant, indeed, to be the "Beacon" of the next song's title, from there it turns into a dark-hued ballad, as Guarna's overdriven tone allow notes to sustain at length for a solo as impressive as the rest, but in this case for its spare thematic tendencies. "Sometimes less is more," is a commonly used phrase, but rarely does a composition demonstrate it with such refined finesse; even as Guarna's solo slowly builds, the rest of the group holds tightly to the space that so defines the composition, even as Cowherd, Patitucci and Blade, at the same time, move alongside Guarna with the kind of telepathic intuition they've evolved through their own work together.

Ending the album with the spry "Native Tongue," Guarna once again employs an attack-less, synth-like tone that references his love for Allan Holdsworth—in particular the recently deceased guitar great's use of the admittedly unwieldy but more expression-capable SynthAxe—even though the two guitarists couldn't be more different. Cowherd follows with a shimmering electric piano solo—one of two where the pianist turns to Fender Rhodes rather than grand piano—that leads to an abrupt end to the song...and the album.

Some careers seem to emerge out of nowhere; others take more time. Guarna, who turns 50 in 2018, may already have enough experiences and accolades to satisfy any musician. But even though he's far from a household name, his recent work—in particular, beginning with Rush, but even more so now with the larger palette and higher profile contributors on The Wishing Stones—it's clear that Guarna is a guitarist whose name is on the ascendance...and most deservingly so.

Track Listing

Prelude; Song for Carabello; Surrender Song; Hope; Moment = Eternity; Unravel; Modules; The Wishing Stones; Deacon; Run Signal; Native Tongue.


Tom Guarna: guitar; Jon Cowherd: piano, Fender Rhodes; John Patitucci: upright bass; Brian Blade: drums.

Album information

Title: The Wishing Stones | Year Released: 2017 | Record Label: Destiny Records

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