Innerviews, music without borders

Alex de Grassi
No Strings Attached
by Anil Prasad
Copyright © 1998 Anil Prasad.

The drive from San Francisco to the tiny Northern California city of Redwood Valley is a study in evolving contrasts. Over the course of the two hour trek, tall buildings transform into gorgeous, rolling mountains. Twenty dollar-an-hour parking lots turn into lush green meadows. McDonald's and Starbucks become mom and pop shops where service with a smile is genuine, not a corporate decree. And perhaps most notably, urban paranoia disappears in favor of trust and goodwill.

Redwood Valley isn't your average country town. It's beautiful, serene and distant, yet close enough to the big city manic panic to remain accessible and familiar. Perhaps that's why the area is a haven for many ex-Frisco folk who chose to trade in two-hour traffic jams and skinny double mocha latté frappés for a more sensible and simpler lifestyle. Renowned acoustic guitarist Alex de Grassi is one of those people.

It's a sunny summer day at de Grassi's country home. It's in the modern rustic vein with a spectacular mountain view. He and his wife Alison are tending to their pair of boisterous dogs in the backyard which opens up into a large vegetable garden. Miles, the ultra-inquisitive Labrador, runs amuck and leaps about like a wild mustang. Zipping back and forth is Daisy, the younger Jack Russell terrier that's desperately trying to keep pace. Pokey, their snowshoe cat, wisely remains out of the fray and eyes the canine antics with bewilderment from the porch. Soon, the novelty of the rowdy pooch parade wears off. Using the time-tested, deviously effective 'fetch the stick' maneuver, Alison buys her husband a moment to sneak into the house for an interview.

A glance at de Grassi's living room leaves little doubt that one is in the home of a musician. An acoustic guitar sits beaming in the sun deck next to a pile of sheet music. A grand piano looms in the background with a framed photo of Antonio Giacomo de Grassi, his grandfather, residing on top.

"My grandfather came to the United States from Northern Italy in 1913 and was an old school classical violinist," said de Grassi, slouching comfortably in an easy chair, and decked out in a navy blue t-shirt and jeans. "He told me his first instrument was a cigar box with a sawed off broom handle and rubber band stretched across it—a toy violin. He played with the San Francisco Symphony, taught music at UC (University of California) Berkeley, and had his own string quartet. When I first started playing guitar at 13, he would say 'You gotta learn how to do more than strum a few chords if you want to get serious about this.'"

As it turns out, the younger de Grassi became very serious about the instrument. At 46, he just released The Water Garden, his ninth studio album. Like his classic discs Turning: Turning Back, Slow Circle and Southern Exposure, the release is a solo guitar tour-de-force. It finds him combining folk, neo-classical, and world music elements with technique that goes far beyond strumming a few chords. The album features a wide array of fingerstyle tunes that fully illustrates his diverse approach including intricate picking, dazzling arpeggios, alternate tunings and ringing harmonics. But he's careful to avoid virtuoso sterility by combining chops with the passion necessary to evoke pulsing emotion and rich imagery.

"I didn't want the music on The Water Garden be too studied. I wanted to explore the process of discovery that was the foundation for my first records," he said, emphasizing his point with sweeping hand gestures. "I started writing the music three years ago, during the first winter we moved to Redwood Valley. It was New Year's Day and I decided to work on it for the next three or four weeks. I was sitting out in the studio every day, trying new things. I wasn't writing the music down or getting too methodical about it. I came up with a whole bunch of musical ideas and tried to decide what the common thread was. Then I realized I had been staring out the window watching the rain come down every single day. I said to myself 'Wow, this all sounds like water music.' The rain grafted itself to my subconscious."

The album's theme manifests itself in the flow and structure of its pieces which range from the fiery to the reflective. Titles such as "Another Shore," "Endless Rain" and "Cumulus Rising" also provide some insight into the moods explored. The guitarist sees many parallels between water and humanity, which also encouraged him to pursue the thread.

"Water as a medium represents a lot of things on a metaphorical level," he explained. "Water is fluid, and our ability to be creative is fluid as well. We are able to adapt, and move fast and slow. Also, our bodies are largely made up of water. We're born in water. The process of climatic change is fundamental to our lives. The Water Garden has all of those connotations. In some ways, it portrays the internal landscape."

Regardless of the album's inspiration, de Grassi prefers that listeners come to their own conclusions about the music.

"Images help guide me to finish writing music, but I don't think it matters if anybody else sees or gets that," he said. "The bottom line is that I've connected with something when I'm writing—I think people notice that connection, rather than going 'Wow, listen to those chord changes.' They pick up on the more subtle intricacies. I don't like to beat people over the head and say 'you must hear this music with this notion in mind.' For them it could be about Uncle Bob passing away and that's fine."

The only notion de Grassi prefers everyone to avoid is the potential New Age interpretation of a title like The Water Garden. After all, his records up until 1993 were released through Windham Hill, a label perennially known for its candles and sandals vibe.

"It's not necessarily about a nature theme. I decided it was going to be about water, and it was raining, but I didn't have this image of a Japanese garden or Monet's paintings," he said, bristling at the potential association. "I was thinking 'Jesus, it's flooding out there! Are the neighbors okay?' You open a window and all you hear is this wall of frog sounds! We were living in a water garden or a flood zone depending on how you perceived it."

Some perceive de Grassi's solo guitar recordings as being the work of two guitarists. His technique involves creating layered, aural illusions in which fragments of rhythms and passages build sonic bridges in listeners' minds. One hears the approach throughout the new album.

"I create patterns and set up rhythms like a percussionist would," he explained. "Then I weave other melodic lines or chords into it. But with a guitar, you can't continue to play all the notes in that percussion pattern, and then put other stuff on top. So, what I do is set that pattern up until in it gets locked into the mind of the listener. Then you can jump in and out for half a measure, or play one note of that rhythmic pattern so it becomes a bookmark for them. Now, you can play the other part, and they're still hearing the rhythmic line. Sometimes, guitarists come up to me at workshops and ask 'How can you play all of that stuff at the same time?' And I say 'Go listen carefully, because I'm not."

Will Ackerman, founder of Windham Hill Records, says fellow guitar players constantly marvel at de Grassi's methods, but few can emulate them.

"Alex is one of the most important guitar figures on earth today," Ackerman raved. "He blends a startling technique with a melodic and harmonic sensibility that goes beyond just about anybody. There are so many players who have chops who communicate nothing and he's on the opposite end of the spectrum. His technique, however brilliant, isn't the point—the music is."

Despite the fact that Ackerman is de Grassi's elder cousin, his glowing comments are motivated by reality rather than familial obligation. After all, Ackerman discovered the legendary Michael Hedges, and is a renowned guitarist in his own right—he knows what he's talking about. He notes that de Grassi's diversity and innovation have other roots too.

"Alex is a wonderful, bright, philosophical, ethical, and articulate character," he said. "I'm impatient with the western and European concept that says artists have to be irresponsible and incapable of doing anything but playing music. Alex is someone who is tremendously well rounded and capable on so many levels. He's able to talk about agrarian economics in Scotland in 1840 and a vast range of other academic and intellectual themes. He has more than just music in his life and that makes his music richer."

Ackerman played a key role in encouraging de Grassi to record his first album Turning: Turning Back in 1978. The disc is regarded as a seminal classic, and one that helped spur the renaissance of interest in acoustic guitar during the late 70s and early 80s. This year marks the landmark album's 20th anniversary, but Windham Hill chose to celebrate it in a very odd way.

"Ironically, this is the year that Windham Hill took it out of print," said de Grassi with a cynical laugh. "It's strange. It's a record that got a lot of good press. Acoustic Guitar Magazine put it in their top ten fingerstyle guitar albums of all time. Twenty years by today's standards is a long lifespan for an album, but it's still selling, so it's too bad and it's kind of foolish from the record company's standpoint."

Ackerman, who sold Windham Hill to BMG Music in 1992, and went on to found the Imaginary Road label, agrees. "In a fair world, Turning: Turning Back would be the theme song for twenty years of guitar playing," he said.

The two decades that have passed since the album's release haven't dimmed de Grassi's fondness for it either.

"Turning: Turning Back really reflects a very personal approach to playing guitar and music in general," he said. "People couldn't put their finger on the genre. It came out before people called anything New Age. There were guitar influences from the British Isles like John Renbourn and Bert Jansch. I was listening to a lot of Keith Jarrett's solo piano stuff at the time too. I really admired his playing and solo improvisations that cut across a lot of different lines and styles. Although it was jazz, it had a lot of qualities that were indefinable and indescribable. I think that was a very encouraging thing."

Unlike Turning: Turning Back, de Grassi possesses complete control over his new album's future availability. After recording Beyond The Night Sky, a one-off album of lullabies for the Earthbeat label in 1996, he chose to forego corporate associations altogether. He's now blazing his own trail with Tropo Records. He formed the indie label earlier this year in an attempt to regain complete artistic and financial autonomy. The Water Garden is the venture's first release.

"Where I was heading and where Windham Hill was heading were two different places," he said. "They were interested in more produced projects aimed at radio formats and I realized once you've had success doing your own thing, it's very hard to satisfy those objectives. So, I asked to be let out of my contract. I ended up talking to lots of labels, and the best offers I had wanted me to sign up for four or five records. It occurred to me that this might be a good time in my career to just keep the door open and work with a lot of different people. With label monogamy, you have to record everything with them or at least give them first option. So, why not own a record myself and put it out? The nature of the business is changing with the Internet and there is a whole network of people out there promoting music in one place or another that I can tie into. I tried to go where the enthusiasm was rather than have my attorney hash out some advance and five record deal requiring a lot of demos and direction.

"We may be crazy trying to do this but I decided that at least once in my career, I should be able to say 'I did it my way' Now, I'm getting experience with all aspects of the music business I didn't deal with before. I'm learning about getting film ready for the artwork, cutting glass masters for the CD, and dealing directly with radio and publicity. It requires a lot of time and energy, but I believe it's a positive move."

Tropo Records is a family affair. His wife Alison is playing a large role in getting it off the ground. Her impressive resume of management experience in a variety of businesses, as well as a year spent promoting Holly Near's last record, provided a good knowledge base to work from.

"I'm the business arm and Alex is the creative arm," she said. "I've been responsible for figuring out where we get the record manufactured, dealing with the graphic artist, all the bookkeeping, inventory control and getting orders out. It's been fun to do this and it's always satisfying to get things done right."

She's also in charge of the Tropo Records website which they anticipate will help create awareness for the new record. But the couple is very aware of the need to keep the inner workings of their marriage separate from those of the new company.

"We don't talk about business in the bedroom. It's a rule!" she exclaimed. "But we sit over breakfast and talk about what needs to be done that day and Alex makes his list. There have been some clashes in how we deal with things because we have different approaches. I'm much more linear than Alex is. It's very hard to have a personal and business relationship in the same house, but I think we've agreed on most of the processes and done quite well."

Although de Grassi is increasing his business acumen with the new label, his musical palette isn't taking a back seat. In addition to co-founding Jiwasa, an Andean fusion group with Bolivian drummer Alvaro Cordova and Chilean flutist Enrique Cruz, he's expanding his horizons with several other passions and ideas.

"I started to look at what I knew and didn't know about guitar playing, and took an interest in classical, jazz and South American music," he said. "I've been playing South American stuff like Astor Piazzolla, Abel Carlevaro, Agustin Barrios and Villa Lobos on a classical nylon string guitar. I've spent a lot of time learning this music. Although you don't necessarily hear it directly in my work, these musics have influenced my technical ability and what I've written."

At some point in the future, de Grassi hopes to record an album of South American music. He's waiting for the right moment, inspiration and collaborators. He's also thinking about reworking some classic American folk tunes with a twist.

"I have this idea of bringing those old songs back to life with new arrangements and some unlikely instrumentation," explained de Grassi. "I might bring guitar, tabla and bagpipes together for 'Oh Susanna' or do a collage of songs in which two or three are playing together at once. For instance, I could take 'Dixie' and 'The Streets of Laredo' and use another common thread outside of the tradition like the sound of a dumbek and create a rhythm or groove to play those pieces simultaneously."

But what about the reactions of purists and scholars who recoil in terror at such notions?

"If they don't like it, too bad for them," he responded. "The idea is to use traditions and move to the next stage. It's natural to borrow from folk and world music traditions. The bottom line is can you make something interesting and musical out of it? I don't think it's about changing traditions, it's about expanding them. It's just as important to be out there keeping traditional musics alive. Both things can and should exist."

Many musics exist in de Grassi's home listening library too. Artists scattered amongst his hundreds of compact discs include Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, and Egberto Gismonti. But fans may be surprised to learn rap and HipHop releases from Public Enemy and Digital Underground also reside in his collection.

"Digital Underground's Sex Packets is an amazing record—one of the best-produced albums I've heard in a long time," he said. "It reminds me of the Beatles' White Album or Sgt. Pepper's. Every time you listen to those albums, you hear something new. Sex Packets has that quality to it. I get inspiration from all kinds of music—I don't care what kind of music it is. But as someone known for solo guitar, it's hard for people to realize that. When I hear something that's really well done, I'm into it."