Once the acoustic guitarist has mastered the basic techniques, he or she is in need of developing some serious and usable repertoire. As a guitar-playing teenager back in the 1970s I can remember ploughing through a Happy Traum book of clawhammer-style songs and instrumentals, and then happening upon a small folio of John Renbourn's guitar originals and arrangements ("John Renbourn Guitar Pieces" (Oak Publications, 1972)) in a secondhand bookshop.
In those days there were no accompanying DVDs or CDs with such books, nor, as Renbourn himself noted later, was tablature included (although all but four of the pieces - the exceptions being the Renaissance pieces "Trotto", "Saltarello", "Lamento Di Tristan" and "La Rotta" - are in (or close to) standard tuning). Still, I was inspired to search out Renbourn's solo albums, as well as his recorded collaborations with Bert Jansch and their band Pentangle.
Several of the pieces in the earlier book are revisited in the present collection, "John Renbourn Fingerstyle Guitar" and its companion volume ("Mel Bay's Complete Anthology of Medieval & Renaissance Music For Guitar"), and this time round tablature is included. It's rather a shame, however, that in the present book this is aligned with the standard notation, rather than appearing separately, as it does in the Medieval/Renaissance companion volume, since the pages acquire a congested look with the double-decker staves. Although the 1972 book contained some heartbreaking misprints (which I often lacked the experience and harmonic understanding to correct at the time) at least the presentation of the pieces was clear and concise, with most occupying a page or two at the very most (the two exceptions being "The Lady And The Unicorn" and "Lady Goes To Church", which both ran to three pages). With tablature and standard notation aligned, as they are here, the longer pieces often sprawl over several pages.
This is a small cavil, though, since the player will probably want to memorise these pieces section by section first of all, rather than reading them through at sight. As with most of the Stefan Grossman publications, what you get is often a sort of "average" version of the tune, taken from several of the performances on the CDs. (The accompanying DVDs, available separately, although helpful and interesting in themselves, are not absolutely essential.) This should serve to remind the player that the pieces are not to be treated as reverentially as one would a Bach Lute Suite movement or a Sor Study, but are to be absorbed, internalised and eventually elaborated upon.
The book is in three sections, corresponding to the DVD lessons it is culled from: "Folk, Blues & Beyond", "Celtic Melodies & Open Tunings" and "The Jazz Tinge".
The first section comprises several pieces either in standard tuning or its close relation, "Drop D". These include Renbourn's own "Judy", followed by its "folk-baroque" inspiration, Davey Graham's "Anji"; two American songs, "White House Blues" and "Watch The Stars"; the English folk-ballad, "Lord Franklin"; Renbourn's arrangement of "My Sweet Potato" by Booker T. and the MGs; finally, the hymn-tune medley, "Abide With Me"/"Great Dreams From Heaven". Apart from the common thread of standard or near-standard tuning, these pieces are remarkably varied and constitute a good introduction to Renbourn's eclectic style.
The second section may be regarded as the heart of the collection. It introduces a group of pieces from the British Isles (although the purist may balk at the English tunes being described as "Celtic") in a number of closely-related altered and open tunings. First, there is a medley, beginning in "Double Drop D" tuning, with "The South Wind", a slow, stately tune whose transition to the second (and final) tune of the medley, the lively jig "The Blarney Pilgrim", requires a retuning of the fifth string from A down to G (achieved fairly painlessly with a harmonic at the seventh fret), putting the guitar into "Open G".
This tuning serves also for the three English pieces: "Bunyan's Hymn", "I Saw Three Ships" and "The English Dance", which are again configured into a medley, although each can easily stand as a piece on its own. ("The English Dance", incidentally, also appears, in a slightly different version, in the Medieval/Renaissance volume.) The first tune is Renbourn's arrangement of the familiar English hymn tune, "He Who Would Valiant Be", while the second is his guitar version of the English Christmas carol "I Saw Three Ships". The final tune of the medley, "The English Dance" may or may not actually be English, but it is the only true folk tune of the three. Whatever its real provenance, its major-key character (like that of its two companions) distinguishes it utterly from the genuinely "Celtic" (i.e Scottish or Irish) tunes on either side of the English medley. These English tunes are especially delightful and accessible, and are perhaps the best place to start this middle section of pieces.
The "Open G" tuning is changed to a plangent "Open G minor" with the dropping of the second string from B to B flat. First there is the beautiful O'Carolan Irish harp tune, "Lament For Owen Roe O'Neill". This is followed by the Scottish tune "The Mist-Covered Mountains Of Home", which, despite its livelier tempo and triple metre, is also a rather melancholy piece. The final piece in this tuning, "The Orphan", is also Irish, and in an even quicker tempo than the preceding piece (with the 3/4 metre changed to a jig in 6/8). Although it is in the same G minor tonality it serves to lighten the mood created by its two predecessors.
The final section of this Celtic "core" of the book consists of three tunes employing the familiar DADGAD tuning. The first two, the traditional instrumental "Tramps and Hawkers" (played very freely) and Archie Fisher's vocal number (with substantial instrumental interludes), "Lindsay", are yoked together into a medley. The final tune, Dave Goulder's "Sandwood Down To Kyle", is prefaced by a long extempore introduction which the ambitious player will enjoy trying to work out by ear. Although they involve some interesting techniques, these three pieces are less immediately accessible than the earlier ones in this section (and require more individual initiative on the part of the player to arrive at a workable arrangement, since the notation and tablature in the book are only incomplete approximations of the performances). (Several or all of these tunes - perhaps together with similar ones - could easily be configured into a solo guitar set, given the gradual alteration of the guitar's tuning.)
The final section of the book, "The Jazz Tinge", closes the circle in some respects by returning (except for the very last piece) to exclusively standard tuning. First, there is Davey Graham's loose arrangement of Kenny Dorham's "Buffalo" (from the 1961 "Whistle Stop" album on Blue Note), although Renbourn mistakenly attributes authorship to Graham himself in the interview that prefaces the pieces. This is essentially a study in parallel sixths.
Graham's arrangement of "Buffalo" must have inspired Renbourn to arrange Chico Hamilton's "Transfusion", much as his "Anji" served as the model for Renbourn's "Judy". Like "Buffalo", "Transfusion" is a strongly blues-based tune. Also in a jazz vein is Renbourn's original, "My Dear Boy" (which also appeared in the 1972 Oak collection). The chromatically-rising bass of the A section may well be derived from the same Don Ellis Big Band arrangement of Eddie Harris's "Freedom Jazz Dance" that inspired Caravan's 1970 near-hit single, "If I Could Do It All Over Again..."
The jewel of this part of the collection is surely Randy Weston's "Little Niles" (which Renbourn first heard in Dollar Brand/Abdullah Ibrahim's piano interpretation), with its strong North African melodic/harmonic coloration. Played properly, this piece really will evoke in the listeners images of the Atlas Mountains and the Sahara Desert. Renbourn anatomises this complex piece in some detail in his spoken commentary.
The final piece, "Cherry", is a Dollar Brand/Abdullah Ibrahim original, which reverts to an altered tuning, DGDGBE (almost an "Open G", but with an unaltered top E). It is a driving tune with a jubilant, South African "township" feel to it (combined with strong blues colorations), and a strong melodic refrain; it offers much scope for improvisation.
Serious study of this remarkable collection (and its Medieval/Renaissance companion) will equip ambitious acoustic guitarists with a whole array of tunings and techniques that they can build upon, and apply to a limitless range of fresh repertoire. For all its shortcomings (noted by other reviewers), this really is a five-star book/CD package.