For a follow-up to his acclaimed debut on Favored Nations, 2001's solo instrumental recording Intuite, French acoustic fingerstyle guitar virtuoso Pierre Bensusan has put together a 10th solo album, showcasing a varied program of gorgeous vocal numbers, provocative improvised pieces, intimate ballads and strikingly original composed works on Altiplanos. "I didn't want to go back and do another solo thing in the same vein as Intuite," says Pierre. "I wanted to bring another element to this new recording, the vocal. So I have two songs sung in French -- 'Demain des L'Aube' and 'La Nuit Des Meteores' -- All together, the music hits in different places than the last album, with more textures and colors."
Recorded entirely at his home studio in the Champagne region of France, about an hour East of Paris, Altiplanos brilliantly showcases Bensusan's highly original and orchestral six-string style, which is marked by deft left-handed hammer-ons, percussive fretboard tapping, a remarkably nuanced touch and an uncanny sense of melodic ingenuity on the steel string acoustic guitar (a new custom model created for him by California luthier Kevin Ryan). Special guests on this captivating collection of guitar artistry include bassist Michel Benita, percussionist Blaise Boutlefeu and saxophonist Didier Malherbe (of the celebrated '70s prog-rock group Gong). But the primary focus here remains the accomplished and renowned fingerstyle guitarist, whom the Los Angeles Times called "one of the most unique and brilliant acoustic guitar veterans in what might most accurately be described as the world music scene today."
Says Pierre on the making of Atliplanos: "All the pieces serve to give a different insight into my feelings. For example, on three interludes -- 'Sur Un Fil,' 'Sylva' and 'Tacita' -- I am playing with other musicians and different guitar parts to create a contrast in environments to the solo guitar pieces. I think it's important that I can show that I'm not just a soloist, even if my heart is into playing alone most of the time, in order to reveal possibilities for the future."
The collection opens on a buoyant note with "Sentimentales Pyromaniaques," a number with a distinctly South African feel. "This piece has gone through different phases," explains Pierre. "It had been a vocal song at some point and I decided to stop singing it and just play it. It has been played in different forms over the years, but the mood always remains the same. It's a happy song."
The darkly elegant "La Dame de Clevedon" is a Celtic-flavored ballad, with strong French Impressionist elements. It was originally created spontaneously in the studio for a live radio broadcast, on Irish Lyric FM Radio, as accompaniment to a three-hour documentary, O'Donovan's Travels, about a famous Irish explorer. "It's dedicated to Maggie Greenall, a friend of mine who lives in Clevedon in England, near Bristol," explains Pierre. "She has been tremendously supportive, and was there in the studio when I created this music for the documentary.
I ended up extending it for this recording and it turned out to be one of my favorite pieces. This is definitely a tune which is looking at tomorrow for me."
The evocative "Sur Un Fil" is one of the "guitar environments" that Pierre created through multiple guitar and vocal overdubbing. He explains that the piece was originally commissioned for a project which premiered at the Planetarium of Poitiers, France.
The title track is dedicated to Ingrid Bettencourt, a French-Columbian woman who ran for the Green Party in the last presidential election in Columbia, and was captured and is still being held by the FARC. It is a gentle, introspective solo ballad with a more dynamic movement in the middle, which had its genesis in a piece that Pierre began to write 14 years ago, forgot about, and went back to recently. He points out that "Altiplanos" is that rare piece that he plays in standard tuning as opposed to his signature DADGAD tuning.
The poignant vocal number "Demain des L'Aube" ("Tomorrow at Dawn") is Bensusan's original music set to a poem by France's literary legend Victor Hugo. As famous Irish musician and producer Donal Lunny put it when he heard Pierre sing it in Dublin, it could very well be "a hit".
The dynamic solo piece "Scarabee," marked by forceful left-handed hammer-ons, is another piece that had a much earlier incarnation. "This is a piece which I started to imagine about 15 years ago when I was still living in Paris," says Pierre. "I remember vividly the day when that piece came to mind. I was in the metro with friends from Hungary visiting me at the time. They had a band called Kolinda which played regularly on the folk music circuit, and that band had a great impact on me. They introduced me to the music of Bartok and more Eastern European music from Romania and Bulgaria, and some of that influence can be heard in this piece."
The soulful "If Only You Knew" reveals Bensusan's affinity for American gospel music. "It sort of symbolizes the heritage of African-American culture in America," he explains. "Even though I grew up in France and Algeria, when my family moved to Paris, I listened to Otis Redding, The Platters, soul music and gospel along with my parents' blues and swing records. And that quality is definitely very much in this piece."
The stark solo piece "Hymn 11" makes dramatic use of silence, which is appropriate for Pierre to pay homage to all the victims of terrorism and intolerance. As Pierre explains, it was recorded in the solitude of his home studio in the wee hours of the morning. "Very often I sleep a little and then wake up early while all my family is still sleeping. My son goes to school at eight, but between five and seven, those two hours are all to myself. Several pieces on this record were recorded then. But for 'Hymn 11' I had the flu and had a very hard time breathing, and I'm afraid that you can hear it on the recording. The sound engineer, Daniel Rallo, was able to eliminate most of the breathing so that it's not so much in the way. But in some places, it sounds amazingly dramatic and fits, in a way, the mood of the music. What I like about that piece is that every note weighs a ton, and has a life. It may sound soothing at first but also has a dramatic quality which makes you alert."
The gorgeous ballad "Nefertari," which carries a vaguely bossa nova flavor, is an older piece that Pierre used to sing in the 1980s with English lyrics. "It was originally called 'Dreams,' he explains, but at some point I felt there was no need to sing this and decided to just play it as an instrumental, with Chet Baker and Ramses The Second's wife in mind."
"Sylva," a purely improvised piece that Pierre created for the planetarium animation project, is built upon a rhythmic guitar loop created on his old TC Electronics 2290 delay unit, a device he frequently used in concert during the 1980 and 1990s but later retired. "In Latin, sylva means forest," he explains, "and this tune really makes me think of a very green and humid place, like the Amazon jungle. And I was really able to create that kind of environment with the loops here, which is something I haven't done in quite a long while. In recent years I have been more of a purist, saying, 'This is what I can do with my two hands and my six strings, just me alone.' But it was fun to go back to the loop thing."
The other vocal number on the album, the beautiful "La Nuit des Meteores (Night of the Shooting Stars),"was previously recorded as an instrumental piece on Bensusan's 1987 breakthrough album, Spices, for CBS Masterworks. "It was originally named '4 a.m.'" he explains. "The new lyrics come from my wife, Doatea. So in a way, it's new for people but it's also familiar, because they heard the music before. Surprisingly enough, this song is a tribute to my past as a Bluegrass musician and my years with the Bill Keith Band, as a mandolin player. I am never opposed to coming back and doing things differently. These tunes receive a birth certificate when they are originally written and we meet them again along their lifetime at different stages."
"Falafel Ã Montsegur" is actually a medley of two previously recorded tunes -- "Falafel" (from 1993's Wu Wei) and "Montsegur" (from 1987's Spices). This tune which showcases Pierre's fluid whistling and operatic scat singing, reveals his Algerian roots as well as his profound love for symphonic music, and the Bahian culture from Brazil. You could call it "symphonic world jazz".
"Tacita," an orchestral piece also from the planetarium project, showcases Bensusan's command of ringing false harmonics while also featuring co-writer Malherbe on douduk and Benita on keyboards. And the collection closes on an intimate note with the lovely "Chant De Nuit."
Reviews"Bensusan's remarkable technical ability has never been in question, but it's the sheer musicality and lyricism of his body of work that has cemented his position as one of the most accomplished acoustic guitarists on the planet. Altiplanos, with its combination of solo, multitracked and ensemble pieces, simply reaffirms and builds upon Bensusan's already stellar reputation." - All About Jazz