I remember on one occasion asking someone how a certain late-60s free-jazz record sounded, and the response was that “it sounds like late Coltrane.” Later Coltrane was certainly freer rhythmically than the music he composed with the “classic quartet” of McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison, and Elvin Jones in mind, but it is distinct enough that little else sounded like it, as influential as Coltrane’s music was on a host of musicians and composers in the late 60s and throughout the 70s. And for the record, Jamaican tenor saxophonist Kenneth Terroade’s Love Rejoice (BYG, 1969) doesn’t sound like Coltrane. It must be rather difficult for saxophonists to have the Coltrane mantle floating above their heads, just as it must be difficult for steel-string guitarists to deal with the specters of John Fahey, or for that matter Robbie Basho and Jack Rose. With traditions and their variations in mind, it’s about as helpful to describe someone as a “Fahey-esque” or “Basho-esque” player as it is saying a saxophonist sounds like Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, or Dexter Gordon. Sure, one can get a general grasp of the approach, but nuances are left by the wayside.
Luckily, it’s getting increasingly difficult to pigeonhole young American steel-string guitarists, as the “new Americana” of figures like Rose, Chuck Johnson, Steve Gunn, and Danny Paul Grody differs widely. Grody might be the least well-known of these players; based in California, his music encompasses compositions for films, electronic music, and minimalist, raga-like settings for folk guitar. Between Two Worlds is his third LP under his own name and first for Three Lobed, itself a diverse contemporary analogue to the wildly open-ended catalogs of Takoma and Windham Hill. The record features seven pieces for a range of instrumental textures, mostly hinging on the guitar, each work a gently haunting slice of breezy minimalism. The opening “Lonesome George” is deceptive in its sun-dappled unfurling, a simple theme that becomes interleaved with dusky turns and chiming progressions. Grody’s instrument is rendered crisply and with a church bell-like clarity — that’s something attributable not only to the excellent recording, but also to his attack, evoking textures as much Alpine as they are of the Muir woods. The following “Time Spirals” is an interstitial masterpiece, wherein Grody’s strings and loops echo a latticework of sounds recalling zither, tambura, santur, hurdy-gurdy and 12-string guitar, a majestic string orchestra of indeterminate cultural origins, oceanic swells that return to a biting refrain just as quickly as they emerged.
“You, The Invisible” is somewhere in between the first two poles — a gentle alap precedes a resonant uptempo lope full of high and lonesome intensity. Girded by a buzzing drone and with Grody’s resonant, bell-like attack, it’s not too difficult to imagine this music transposed onto a Bösendorfer piano. The second side plugs in with the addition of lap steel, organ, piano, and field recordings of what sounds like cars on wet pavement for a filmic answer to the tape manipulations and ghostly found sounds of Days Have Gone By-era Fahey. On “Grass Nap,” the music is atmospherically full, lush, and almost psychedelic, imbued with a gentle lilt, while “Still Night” consists of a piano and bowed guitar duet that cracks with unsettled, bleary entreaties. Lengthy closer “Ojito (At Sunrise)” continues the atmospheric approach, with low electric surges giving a wide plain to the thin and dusty veneer of an amplified acoustic guitar, Grody’s sound-painting emblematic of sublime, emergent nature. Once the composer’s six-string emerges to brighten the corners, the piece takes on an odd-metered hooky brightness and, fleshed out with pulsing electronic orchestration, is slightly reminiscent of Jim O’Rourke’s excellent Bad Timing (Drag City, 1997).
On Between Two Worlds, each side is of a piece, but the whole LP builds to a near merger of folk-branded minimalism and textural orchestration. But what is beautiful about this record is also what is frustrating: while Grody has a lot of resources available sonically, the feeling that emerges is that they only scratch the surface of what is possible. In fact, I would wager that the more fully developed works are those that limit the palette, because the guitar is an instrument that itself can reflect so many diverse qualities — as on “You, The Invisible,” for example. So while there is significant beauty and stark power in Grody’s music, the fact that a lot of it feels like a veneer can be problematic. Nevertheless, on Between Two Worlds, he proves himself to be a guitarist and musical thinker to watch.