De Grassi stretches beyond standard finger-style
Growing up in Palo Alto, just south of San Francisco, in the 1960s, Alex de Grassi had the opportunity to experience the heart of rock n roll. And indeed, de Grassi saw most of the major rock stars of the era at the Fillmore and other landmark California venues. But while they had an impact, they didnt make de Grassi reach for an electric guitar.Carlos Santana and Jimi Hendrix were thrilling. But I didnt want to be them, said de Grassi.De Grassi also dug the blues players who came to prominence in the 60s, from the Delta-style acoustic duo Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee to the Chicago-style, electrified Muddy Waters. They, too, had an influence on de Grassi, who in his early teens switched instruments from trumpet to guitar. But I wasnt fanatical about the blues, said the 51-year-old de Grassi. I was always restless and looking for a new thing.What sounded new to de Grassi was finger-style acoustic guitar. When de Grassi heard what Americans John Fahey and Ralph Towner and Englishmen John Renbourn and Bert Jansch were doing on solo acoustic guitar, he was captivated. And when he first laid ears on Leo Kottkes debut album, 6- and 12-String Guitar in 1969, de Grassi heard his future.I wore out a bunch of his early records. After I heard that, I said thats what I want to do, said de Grassi, who has lived for the past decade in Mendocino County, two hours north of San Francisco. The idea that one could play instrumental, finger-style solo guitar that could stand on its own, that seemed new to me. Leo Kottke, Ralph Towner had made this form a viable thing.Though de Grassis playing is grounded in finger-style, he sees the style as only a beginning point. He studied jazz briefly and, while earning a degree in economic geography at Berkeley, took music classes as well. More recently, he has immersed himself in the folk music sounds of South America. And the early rock and blues influences remain. I was always trying to find ways to incorporate those musical styles into what I was doing, said de Grassi, who performs at the Wheeler Opera House on Sunday, Feb. 1, his first Aspen appearance since the 1980s. Im trying to bring more and more variety of techniques, but also a classical guitar technique to finger-style, so theres a certain kind of refinement. There are other people doing this successfully [de Grassi mentions banjoist Bla Fleck and bassist Edgar Meyer, who have blended classical, folk and bluegrass to great acclaim], and its a testament to the fact that boundaries are broken down between styles.De Grassi has made a mark as well. His debut recording, 1978s Turning: Turning Back, was one of the first for the groundbreaking Windham Hill label, and was named one of the 10 essential finger-style albums by Acoustic Guitar magazine.De Grassi is in the midst of an evolution of his own. Through his 14 recordings, de Grassi has mostly composed his own music. But over the last few years, de Grassi has embraced the idea of interpreting music already written. His 1996 album, Beyond the Night Sky, reworked lullabies from around the world. Bolivian Blues Bar, from 1999, set jazz standards like Bess, You Is My Woman Now and Goodbye Pork Pie Hat to finger-style playing and South American rhythms. Several years ago, de Grassi toured as part of the International Guitar Night, which featured four guitarists from different countries. One of these, Brazilian Paolo Bellinati, intrigued de Grassi with the way he combined his classical training with native sounds.I noticed that so much of what he was doing was based on traditional ideas and rhythms from Brazil, said de Grassi. That inspired me to take a look at my own back yard, the things I grew up on Oh Susanna, Streets of Laredo and see how I could expand on them and invest them with more contemporary idioms. I wanted to reflect a more contemporary landscape with these songs we think of as being so traditional.So on Now and Then: Folk Songs for the 21st Century, released last year on 33rd Street Records, de Grassi recorded such American tunes as the jazz staple Saint James Infirmary, the spiritual Swing Low Sweet Chariot and the Civil War tune When Johnny Comes Marching Home. Staying true to his desire to modernize the familiar, Streets of Laredo gets a slight hip-hop beat, and Oh Susanna, with bass by Michael Manring and Joe Craven on percussion, has a samba feel. Everything on Now and Then gets a masterful sophistication thanks to de Grassis busy fingers, which play melody, rhythm, harmony and bass.De Grassis ambitions only seem to be growing. He is currently making efforts to record on luthier Fred Carlsons Flying Dream, a 39-string contraption comprising six-string guitar, harp and sub-bass harp strings, and sympathetic strings that run through the neck of the instrument. De Grassi is also attempting to write an extended piece for steel-string guitar and small orchestra, akin to a steel-string guitar concerto. He also busies himself producing music for other musicians; recent projects include recordings with Hebrew-language folk singer Alisa Fineman and a small womens choral ensemble.One area where de Grassis experience is limited is in rock n roll. For a short while in the mid-70s, he played in a five-piece garage band. And though his finger-style repertoire includes a version of Jimi Hendrixs Angel, de Grassi has never been part of a plug-in and turn-em-up electric band.Theres a part of me that wishes I had done that, he said. The recently announced lineup for the Wheeler Opera Houses Beyond Bluegrass Festival of Acoustic Music lacks the blockbuster names of years past. Theres no country star turned picker for a night (Vince Gill), aged bluegrass pioneer (Ralph Stanley), up-and-coming crossover pop stars (Nickel Creek), or act generally conceded the title of best bluegrass band (the Del McCoury Band) as in years past. There arent even names like Tim OBrien and Sam Bush, popular players with a particularly strong Colorado following.But this years fourth edition of Beyond Bluegrass has at least two things going for it: fresh faces and a relatively consistent high level of musicianship.Two headliners, Rhonda Vincent & the Rage and the Seldom Scene, have probably never played in Aspen. The other headliners the trio of Phillips, Grier & Flinner, the Jerry Douglas Band and Bearfoot Bluegrass are all new to the festival (although David Grier performed last year in a duo with Mike Compton).Despite her low profile locally, Vincent is among the most popular bluegrass singers nationally. Her latest album, last years One Step Ahead, debuted at No. 2 on Billboards bluegrass charts. Vincent is the International Bluegrass Music Associations four-time reigning Female Vocalist of the Year, and was IBMAs Entertainer of the Year in 2001. She has contributed to Dolly Partons recent bluegrass recordings, and was included on the Grammy-nominated tribute to the Louvin Brothers, Livin, Lovin, Losin.The Seldom Scene, a quintet formed in 1971, draws raves from bluegrass lovers, especially for its harmony vocalizing. Phillips, Grier & Flinner comprises three master pickers in bassist Todd Phillips, guitarist Grier and mandolinist Matt Flinner.Finally there is Jerry Douglas. Virtually unrivaled as a dobroist, Douglas was worthy of a 2002 profile in The New York Times Magazine, a rare, if not singular honor for a bluegrass picker. When not touring on his own, Douglas is a member of perhaps the most commercially successful bluegrass act ever, Alison Krauss + Union Station.In the up-and-coming category is Bearfoot Bluegrass, a young quintet from Alaska. The band isnt particularly well-known coming into its Beyond Bluegrass debut, but it is a past winner of the Telluride Bluegrass Festival band competition. That puts them in the same category as another band that has gone onto big things: Nickel Creek, which played the inaugural Beyond Bluegrass three years ago.The festival is set for March 24-28, with Phillips, Grier & Flinner opening, followed in order by Rhonda Vincent, Jerry Douglas, the Seldom Scene and Bearfoot Bluegrass. Opening acts have yet to be announced. Ticket packages go on sale Feb. 17, with single-concert tickets on sale Feb. 24.Stewart Oksenhorns e-mail address is email@example.com
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