Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Sid Jacobs and the Contrapuntal Approach to Guitar

There is no such thing as a chord.” -Sid Jacobs

Thus began my musical re-education with Sid Jacobs, a prescient guitarist who is one of those extraordinary musicians with the capacity to draw from history and simultaneously inhabit a realm that is inventive and forward-thinking.  Sid was kind enough to spend some time describing his trademark contrapuntal guitar technique and to provide insight into the context and inspirational sources for his Maginus Project-sponsored recording currently tracking in Santa Monica, CA.

Sid’s new recording -- as yet untitled -- is being crafted under the aegis of the Maginus Project, and in many respects his approach to the guitar embodies the recondite musical treasure that the Maginus Project seeks to preserve through its sponsorship.  Sid is an educator, performer, and recording artist who is perhaps the leading proponent of a contrapuntal approach to the guitar.  And it was here that I had to pause and apologize for my limited technical knowledge of the guitar and ask just what constitutes “contrapuntal” guitar playing.

Expanding on the idea that there is no such thing as a chord, Sid notes that “a chord is what occurs when melodies intersect.  The great composer Henry Mancini once described it as melody and countermelody.”  Contrapuntalism, in Jacobs’ view, is also about the power of the individual note: “It’s amazing how a single note can change the character of a passage.”  With the guitar, given sufficient technical ability, more than one string can be played at a time within a given finger position, a physical advantage over, say, the bowing required to elicit sound from a violin or viola.  But even when there is just one line of melody being played, Jacobs notes that you can hear harmony in that line.  “Listen to the tune 'Autumn Leaves' and you’ll hear what I’m referring to.” Jacobs tells me.

Two other eminent guitarists, Joe Diorio and the late Jimmy Wyble, came to the contrapuntal style of guitar playing and informed Jacobs’ approach to the instrument.  On the 2005 recording “It’s About Time” that he made with Diorio, there is perhaps a greater reliance on energized passage playing versus the focus on melody Jacobs refers to in the current Maginus Project recording.  Wyble’s diverse career had roots in the swing music from his native Texas, and he later enjoyed a long run with vibraphonist Red Norvo.  “Wyble was a master at two-line improvising.  It’s basically melody and countermelody that engages your imagination.” Jacobs says.

Although Jacobs has traversed a vast array of musical territory during his career, referencing composers as diverse as J.S. Bach and the aforementioned Henry Mancini, he believes that there is a thematic link to his work, including a comparatively experimental-sounding solo guitar project from several years back.  “This (current) project is more about melody versus pyrotechnics.  I wanted to keep the music at a medium tempo,” Jacobs said in reply to whether there was a particular focus for his new recording.  One observation Jacobs notes is that improvisation and a continuously evolving approach are fundamental to creativity.   “Improvisation will never die.  Education (about music) points you in an expressive direction. I tend to be an improviser in life as well.  It seems that when I explore there is always something better than I would have planned.”

As far as the Maginus Project is concerned, Jacobs is effusive: “I think it’s a beautiful thing.  I can’t think of a greater gift to humanity.”  For his Maginus Project recording at Apogee, Sid has brought in a supporting cast of talented musicians, but he is equally comfortable with performing as a soloist. He believes that playing solo draws out a meditative quality as opposed to the sociable aspect of ensemble playing, but that both formats are necessary for a musician.  In keeping with the improvisational theme, Jacobs believes that having an intuition for whether a recorded track feels right is a better approach to recording than laboring too much.  With the Maginus Project recording, Jacobs was delighted to have complete creative control, but glad to have (producer and Maginus Project director) Phil Lewis and others available to lend a critical ear if necessary.

But lest one thinks that Sid Jacobs is a gadfly untethered to the essence of musical theory and tradition, he recently affirmed his devotion to the pantheon of technical masters by replacing his Paul Hindemith texts that he had to abandon during a recent sojourn to India.  “I was planning on staying, but it didn’t work out he says.  I had all my books sent over and realized I couldn’t bring them back.  I just recently replaced my Hindemith books.”  

Distribution details for the new recording are still in the works.  “I’m not sure how to materialize the tracks.” he said.  But when this extraordinary music is debuted to the public, it will simply be a bonus.  The music has been preserved, and we are all that much luckier to have it.

-Daniel Lilie, special contributor to the Maginus Project Blog