Mike Cooper / Steve Gunn

Frkwys, Vol. 11: Cantos de Lisboa

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RVNG Intl's Frkwys is defined by the label as an "unrestricted series pairing contemporary artists with their influential predecessors...." This 11th volume places New York guitarist and songwriter Steve Gunn and veteran guitarist, electronicist, and experimentalist Mike Cooper in Lisbon. They spent ten days drinking wine in fado bars, and playing long informal sessions informed by fado -- the Portuguese music whose roots can be traced to the early 19th century but are reported to date back much earlier, and was originally regarded as "the music of the poor." There are six improvisations here and one free-flowing cover: an expansive reading of the Mississippi Delta standard "Pony Blues" associated with Charley Patton. The word "canto" has three meanings: "corner," "chant," and "song" (it is derived from the Latin word for stanzas in a poem). Fado's inpsiration is felt throughout the album Cooper feels it equates with the spirit of the blues. Cantos de Lisboa feels right at home in a sonic terrain somewhere between Gunn's take on American Primitive fingerpicking, his drone folk work with GHQ as well as his psych and free jazz-infused solo material, and Cooper's early folk and bottleneck blues playing and more electronic improvisation/exploration as displayed on Trout Steel and Rayon Hula, and the elusive feel of fado itself. These are all open-ended pieces, mercurial, slowly evolving without an end in view. Opener "Saudade Do Santos-o-Velho" is a silvery, mercurial, and melancholy piece. The word "saudade" is not literally translatable in English, but its meaning encompasses loss and longing. The quiet fingerpicking, slide resonances, and natural-sounding reverb, make it sound like it was recorded late at night in an open courtyard, the notes gently bouncing off buildings. "Pena Panorama" with its elusive, brooding drones, raga overtones, hallucinatory chords, and bottleneck slide, comes close to wedding blues to fado -- particularly as Gunn's near-moaned vocals become another instrument. The relaxed vibe here even applies to its most abstract pieces. "Song for Charlie" uses electronic effects, disembodied spoken voices, feedback, and drones on top of guitars; it threatens to become menacing, but never loses its relative tranquility. The repetitive, hand-strummed drone chord at "Lampedusa 2013"'s core is very close to the evocation of fado, with noisy electronic fragments; Gunn offers his own ragged, raw vocal "cantos" atop the mix, informed by the tradition's great singers Amalia Rodrigues, Ana Moura, and others. Though Cantos de Lisboa was an experimental undertaking with no real goal in mind, it is fully realized. These master musicians allowed the spirit and culture of an historic city to guide their explorations. What they created reflects not only their considerable abilities, but the magical prescence of Lisbon itself.

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