October 2011

Sharon Isbin: ‘All of our passions for the guitar have drawn us together’ (Photo: J. Henry Fair)

TheBluegrassSpecial.com Interview

A Little Help From Her Friends

After winning a Grammy for Journey To the New World, Sharon Isbin explores other new worlds on Guitar Passions, with the assistance of some guests you wouldn’t expect to show up on a classical album. Chalk up another triumph for the world’s pre-eminent classical guitarist.

By David McGee

The classical world is famously the most formal of all musical worlds, but the woman who has been hailed as the pre-eminent classical guitarist of our time has evinced a playful side a bit at odds with that world almost from the onset of her storied recording career in 1978. Sharon Isbin last graced the cover of this publication in February 2010, the same month her moving Journey To the New World album won a Grammy Award as Best Classical Album, her third such honor. At the time the September issue featured Elvis Presley on the cover, and in agreeing to an interview with TheBluegrassSpecial.com she wrote in an email note, “I would be honored to follow Elvis on your cover.”

Well, our September 2011 issue featured a major appraisal of a new Elvis box set. As it happens, Ms. Isbin released another exciting new project in September, Guitar Passions, subtitled Sharon Isbin & Friends. Clearly, if there is a major Elvis release to discuss in these pages, can a Sharon Isbin feature be far behind?

“That’s very funny,” she said during a quick New York stopover after some U.S. concerts and prior to leaving on a European jaunt. “There was a period for a couple of years I never went to sleep without searching through all the channels to see if there might be an Elvis movie on.”

Regular gal, that Sharon, except she just happens to have taken classical guitar to places it doesn't always go, venturing beyond the classical repertoire to explore Latin music and various indigenous roots music styles as well. She made a “Guitar Summit” tour with jazz guitarists Michael Hedges, Stanley Jordan and Herb Ellis; her Grammy winning Journey To the New World teamed her with Mark O’Connor and Joan Baez both; she’s made trio recordings with jazz master Larry Coryell and the great Brazilian guitarist-composer Laurindo Almeida.

The Making of Guitar Passsions: Sharon Isbin & Friends

Guitar Passions continues her eclectic journey, this time with some friends with whom she shares a history. Those who have followed only Ms. Isbin’s career will find the guest list dotted with familiar names from other Isbin projects; those less familiar with or new to her work may be surprised to find her teaming with the likes of, say, rock guitar slinger par excellence Steve Vai on his arrangement of Augustin Barrios Mangoré’s “Allegro,” but they will find Vai crafting a dramatic, spacious, fuzz-toned electric guitar solo that emits a plaintive howl to Ms. Isbin’s flurry of cascading nylon-stringed retorts. Steve Morse, of Dixie Dregs fame, engages both Ms. Isbin and Romero Lubambo in the moody ruminations of the Laurindo Almeida arrangement of Joaquin Rodrigo’s 13-minute “Adagio” from Concierto de Aranjuez, Morse emerging in the last four minutes to add a bit of electric howl when the piece breaks into bossa nova stride. One of the tastiest of all the duets teams Ms. Isbin with the singular Stanley Jordan, famed for his unusual “tapping” technique, on a lively romp through Quique Sinesi’s “Sonidos de aquel dia,” arranged by Jordan himself. It turns out that the ‘80s rock band Heart is also one of Ms. Isbin’s passions, and she acknowledges as much by collaborating with Nancy Wilson on a lilting, dreamy version of “Dreamboat Annie,” with Ms. Wilson providing a wistful, tender vocal over Ms. Isbin’s delicate fingerpicking before the latter seizes the baton and runs with it for the final minute-plus, fashioning a breezy, laid-back bossa nova outro to close the track with a soothing Latin sigh. The album’s only other vocal comes courtesy Rosa Passos delivering a seductive, hot-blooeded reading of Alfredo Vianna’s “Carinhosa” and also playing guitar as long-time Isbin cohort Guadencio Thiago de Mello flavors the arrangement with flurries of his distinctive organic percussion that sound like sudden showers drenching the track. Ms. Isbin is also featured solo on three tracks--including the buoyant, frolicsome album opener, “Porro,” by Gentil Motaña, as arranged by Gustavo Colina--that hew to the “Friends” concept by being composed by friends of hers, including her former teacher, Andrés Segovia, whose transcription of Albéniz’s “Asturias” provides Ms. Isbin with a showcase moment of guitar virtuosity in the complex challenges of melody and rhythm the piece poses and which she executes with striking fluidity and feeling.

Heart’s Nancy Wilson in the studio with Sharon Isbin for the ‘Dreamboat Annie’ cut on Guitar Passions: Sharon Isbin & Friends: ‘What a thrill to go to something so iconic as that work with a player who is so tremendous as a singer, arranger, composer and guitarist, and have the opportunity to do a new, fresh version of it,’ Sharon says.

All in all, Guitar Passions marks another triumph for Sharon Isbin. It extends her near-career-long investigation into Latin music even as it extends the reach of this nominally classical music by dint of her interesting choices in friends from other disciplines who seamlessly integrate their signature styles with hers and discover common ground that less adventurous artists might not admit exists. Journey To the New World may have been the title of her previous album, but Guitar Passions itself explores new worlds of its own while dropping anchor on familiar terra firma. Where this album stands in a catalogue now numbering more than 25 long players, most of which have received effusive critical praise, is a tough call indeed, but without question Guitar Passions is something special from this most gifted American artist, who turned 55 this past August but in her maturity retains not only her youthful appearance but also her youthful drive to find fresh challenges and to energize the classical guitar repertoire with new ideas from seemingly disparate sources.

Speaking to Sharon Isbin is itself something special, owing to her self-confidence (not only does she not hedge in responding to questions, she speaks with unambiguous certitude in examining her work), her insightful analysis of her music and of her collaborators, and the engaging, spirited personality she reveals in the process. When we spoke on October 1, she had just returned from a performance in Oklahoma City, where yours truly was born, so we began there, and moved on to the specifics of Guitar Passions.


How was Oklahoma City?

It was fun. People in the audience are always fascinated by the instruments Thiago de Mello plays, because he’s built them and they are organic, meaning they come from the flora and fauna of the rain forest, whether it’s the turtle shell that’s been hollowed out or the bamboo, the clay pots. It’s really fascinating the way he plays melodically on those instruments as opposed to bang-bang. It’s something where he is actually following the contour of the line I’m doing, and I’ve never heard anybody else do that. (Note: Thiago and Sharon collaborated on her Journey To the Amazon album in 1997 and have played together outside the U.S. many times.)

On to the current project. The title is both specific and ambiguous, I think. Specific because it could relate simply to you, ambiguous because it doesn’t say this is a classical album, or a folk album, or exactly what it is. Why did you choose Guitar Passions as the title of this project?

We used the plural form because all of our passions for the instrument have drawn us together, and the “Friends” are my wonderful colleagues and compatriots who are guests on the album—Steve Vai, Nancy Wilson, Stanley Jordan, Steve Morse from the Dixie Dregs, Romero Lubambo, a wonderful Brazilian guitarist; Rosa Passos, also a wonderful Brazilian singer-guitarist; Paul Winter and Thiago. So it’s a guitar tribute album, thus the guitar part; and the “Passions” is how we all feel about the instrument and about the music, and our desire explore and discover.

The “& Friends” part of the subtitle also is tricky because five of the 12 numbers feature you alone. It’s almost half and half, you solo and you with guests. Obviously there’s no shortage of repertory out there. Why did you go the “& Friends” route as opposed to a straight solo project?

It was Sony’s idea to do a guitar tribute, and the concept of tribute evolved in discussions so that it would be paying tribute to people from the past with whom I’d worked—for instance, I was fortunate enough to have had some lessons with Andrés Segovia, so “Asturias,” his most famous transcription for guitar, honors him. Laurindo Almeida, the Brazilian guitarist who brought bossa nova to the west, and I had a trio for five years. The only other recording of his arrangement of Rodgrigo’s famous “Adagio” was one he and I did with Larry Coryell back in the late ‘80s. Laurindo made this arrangement for the three of us to do, so it was great to be able to revisit that, pay homage to Laurindo and bring in a new team. The way Romero Lubambo plays his part is spiced up with some lovely jazz improvisations, and Steve Morse does the rocked-out electric guitar part, in which he has several minutes of improv to really wail away on the tune in his own voice, and it’s just some of the most amazing playing I’ve ever heard anybody do. He’s so creative and so lyrical, it’s remarkable. The “Friends” had to be there in order to make this dream come true in terms of the realization of the music. Steve Vai has been a friend for many, many years, and he and I actually premiered a work he wrote for the two of us, a big work called “The Blossom Suite” in Paris. And that’s a future project. When he and I were hanging out and jamming at his house about a year and a half ago I started playing the “Allegro” from Barrios from Paraguay, improvising, and we thought, This is great. Let’s do this on the album. Because we were trying to figure out what to do that would be short enough to fit on the Guitar Passions CD. Again, he’s just an amazingly lyrical player, so creative and just a great person—I love working with him.

So when you have the human component to this, it’s really fun. Steve Morse, for example, and I go way back, to when I first presented him at a festival I created at Carnegie Hall, 1985. He was just really getting started then, it was one of his big breaks, and it was great to be able to reconnect with him on this project and do something together. Jobim and I had worked together in the context of his music; I had opened one of his sets in Lincoln Center in New York. He was a lovely, lovely person, and when the first memorial concert took place after his death, I was asked to perform with Romera Lubambo in Carnegie Hall, the piece we chose for this album—“chovendo na roseira,” the double rainbow. So it made sense to revisit that in a recording, which we’d never done before. To honor Jobim’s work with guitar and to pay tribute to Romero as well, whom I’ve known for a number of years and who is one of the great unsung heroes in the bossa nova world.

Sharon Isbin performs Albéniz’s ‘Asturias’ as transcribed by her former teacher, Andrés Segovia. From Guitar Passions.

I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me that on those solo numbers the composers were people with whom you have or have had personal and musical relationships with, so they are “Friends” as well.

That’s right. Rodrigo and I met, for example, when I won a big competition in Spain and he heard the live broadcast I did of his concerto, the one that the slow movement is from, and tracked me down and invited me to his home. That was the beginning of a twenty-year friendship. I actually worked on the concerto with him, so this pays tribute to him and to our friendship. And Augustín Barrios Mangoré is the Paraguayan composer who wrote literally several hundred works for guitar and is a legend in South America. Coincidentally, I had the honor of performing for a big festival as part of the bicentennial of the birth of Paraguay, in May of this year. While I was there I visisted the home where Barrios grew up, which is now a museum, played on one of his guitars from the 1800s, and really got a sense of his spirit and soul, so it’s great timing that all of this would happen. And Gentil Montaña (“Porro”), from Columbia, was a guitarist-composer who sadly passed away at the age of 59, just about a month ago, before he knew about this album or could have had a chance to have heard it. I loved one of his works in particular, a Columbian dance called “Porro,” and this is the first time I’ve recorded it with the two-guitar version; the second guitar part was added by another South American, Gustavo Colina. I played both parts. I put down the first track and then added the second guitar part. A totally delightful work and it’s the first track on the album. So every time I play the solo version of that now I dedicate it to Montaña. No one had any idea he was ill--I certainly didn’t--and would not be with us.

Stanley Jorda and I had done a tour together in the late ‘90s, and I was just awed by his innovative approach, the tapping technique, on electric guitar. As a jazz player what he does is truly brilliant and remarkable. I had heard a work by an Argentine composer, Sinesi, and had filed it away in the back of my mind as something I wanted to record. When this project came up I revisited that work. It’s unpublished, I’d never recorded or even learned it before, and I thought, Somehow this is perfect for Stanley to improvise to. So I learned the original parts and Stanley created his own part—not a word of what he does is written down—and it was just amazing, what he did. That’s the second track. So this pays tribute to Stanley, who changed history in the jazz guitar world.

You mention in your notes about the album’s Latin theme, and this is certainly not your first foray into Latin music; it’s been part of what you do almost from the beginning. Why is Latin music so attractive to classical artists? Is there a challenge in it that other styles don’t offer?

Well, the rhythm is so special, and each country has its own approach to rhythm, so the sophisticated Brazilian rhythms, that’s something I’ve been doing for the twenty-plus years I’ve been playing with Thiago de Mello, the organic percussionist who is from the Amazon rain forest and was trained as a soccer player, which is where I think he got his sense of rhythm. He’s a guest on this album as well with Paul Winter on soprano sax doing a work by Thiago, called “O Presidente,” which does have a guitar context to it in terms of the history of the piece. I think that what drew me first to Brazilian music was the complexity of the rhythm and the way it is so satisfying to play and so challenging, so diverse and so creative all at once. As I began to explore when I was a teenager, by studying various Latin American composers, I was drawn to its endemic nature with guitar, because guitar really is something that is so much a part of South American and Spanish culture. And it makes sense as a guitarist to have that as part of what I do.

From her 2010 Grammy winning album, Journey To the New World, Sharon Isbin and Mark O’Connor perform O’Connor’s ‘Strings & Threads Suite.’ This live performance was filmed at New York’s Symphony Space.

I found a customer letter on amazon relating to Journey to the Amazon where the person wrote that he or she was “a fan of heavier guitar music” and specifically mentions, parenthetically, Steve Vai, and how Journey to the Amazon opened him or her up to your world and he/she bought some other of your albums as a result. I wonder if it’s more of a leap for fans of classical guitar to embrace the usual work of Steve Vai even though his playing on “Allegro” really has a lot of drama and nuance and adds an interesting texture to the track. Doesn’t it show a side of him that those who only follow him as a rock guitar slinger might not normally hear?

Oh, sure! When you hear Steve and I do collaborative works together, including “The Blossom Suite” that he wrote for us, you’ll hear his voice but you’re going to hear him in a very nuanced context that is so refreshing and so different from what he would normally do with a rock band. It’s something more intimate—in fact, that’s what he said to me. When we got off the stage in Paris, it had just been the two of us, there was no band, he said, “You know, this is such a treat, to go back to my roots. The intimacy of being able to play with just one other person onstage, and what that feels like—this is really thrilling for me.” I think that comes across in the collaborations we do, that his fans will notice as being something different than what they usually hear, which is also brilliant and great. It’s a new side of Steve.

Teaming up with Steve Morse seems like less of a stretch, on the surface, than doing so with Steve Vai because the Dixie Dregs were known for infusing jazz sensibilities into southern rock. What’s the difference that you have found in engaging the two Steves in musical dialogue?

Well, I chose a totally different kind of music for each of them to do. I think you could have easily reversed the roles and come up with something very different that would have been fascinating as well. So I don’t know what would have happened if I had asked one Steve to do the other Steve’s part. But my instincts were to guide each of them in these directions. What Steve Morse was able to do in playing to the chord chart that Romero and I were doing, he got the freedom on his electric guitar to really do whatever he wanted in taking a Rodrigo tune and turning it into a rock masterpiece. I think all these guys have such great skills at inventing on the spot and improvisation—that’s something I have great admiration for.

Were there any other collaborations you did for this project that didn’t make the final cut?

This was definitely everything we recorded. There were some people that wanted to be part of it but didn’t have time at that particular moment. The Nancy Wilson track was a big treat for me because I had always admired Heart’s music and loved their Dreamboat Annie CD. When it was suggested that she and I do something together I brought up the idea of “Dreamboat Annie” because it is ballad-like and would work with my style. She said she’d be honored to do it. What a thrill to go to something so iconic as that work with a player who is so tremendous as a singer, arranger, composer and guitarist, and have the opportunity to do a new, fresh version of it.

And did you come up with that cool little bossa nova outro?

That was my idea. I said, “Nancy, it turns out just by chance that everything on this album is Latin or Spanish. What would you think about doing a little lick at the end that’s a bossa nova improv of the tune?” She said, “Sure.” So that kind of brings it into the whole.

At the White House Evening of Classical Music on November 4, 2009, Sharon Isbin performs Albéniz’s ‘Asturias’ and Agustin Barrios Mangorés’ Waltz Op. 8, No. 4

I’m guessing you have some other projects already mapped out or in some stage of planning. Is there anything you can discuss on the record yet about what might be next?

I’m really focusing on this right now. I had the pleasure of spending a day with Carlos Santana, really an entire day, a good seven hours of playing some of his music with him at his home. It’s possible that that might lead to a project. The big thing coming up that I can talk about and that I am really excited about is a documentary that is being prepared on me for Public Television that has been filmed over the past three years. It includes interviews, work sessions and performances with many of the composers with whom I’ve collaborated in the classical world as well as Steve Vai, our session at his place, playing at the Grammys, playing at the White House for President Obama, his wife and 300 of their best friends, Joan Baez and our collaboration. Even Martina Navratilova is on it, as she’s a friend and we were exploring what the differences or similarities are between discipline in tennis and in music. It’s got lots of performance footage and archival footage, interviews and work sessions. Mark O’Connor’s on it as well. So I look forward to that coming out in 2012. If people sign up on my website (www.sharonisbin.com), they’ll be the first to know about the making of it.

Sharon Isbin’s Guitar Passions: Sharon Isbin & Friends is available at www.amazon.com

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