January 2010

Joseph Taylor's "On Music": Unforgettable

Note: Previous "On Music" installments are available in the SoundStage! A/V archives, which is where the series originated.

In 2008 jazz guitarist Ryan Blotnick released an exciting debut disc, Music Needs You, which he recorded while leading a quintet of young musicians on a tour of Spain during the spring of 2007. Songlines, the Vancouver-based audiophile label that specializes in CD/multichannel SACD hybrid discs, released Music Needs You to warm reviews, and Blotnick has continued to sharpen his guitar skills playing live in the U.S. and overseas with his own group and as a sideman with other musicians. Songlines has high standards for its recordings, and the label was quick to point out that Music Needs You wasn’t an audiophile recording. They needn’t have worried. The album, a CD-only disc that perhaps lacked some of the sparkle and force of the label’s usual fare, had a warm, inviting sound.

Blotnick recorded a number of the tracks for his second disc, Everything Forgets, with a quartet of musicians in Spain and the rest in Portland, Maine, with bassist Perry Wortman and drummer Joe Smith, who played on Music Needs You. This time the sound is in 24-bit/88.2kHz. The album is a bit edgier than his debut, and it features a few tracks that are fully improvised. While he was playing in Europe, he met Belgian reed player Joachim Badenhorst, who appeared on another Songlines release, Equilibrium, with guitarist Mikkel Ploug and singer/instrumentalist Sissel Vera Pettersen. It’s tempting to say that Badenhorst brings out Blotnick’s experimental streak, but even Music Needs You, a very accessible disc, was unpredictable and repaid attentive listening. Songlines champions musicians who ask listeners to bring a high level of intelligence and curiosity to their work, and Blotnick fits the label well. With Everything Forgets, he also meets Songlines’ high standards for sound.

In my review of Music Needs You, I drew some comparisons between Blotnick and two other guitarists, Pat Metheny and Jim Hall. After listening to the disc for the past year (I ended up putting it on my iPod), I realized that, though I had chosen two convenient handles upon which to hang the review, my choice was too obvious. Blotnick favors a warm guitar tone with the treble rolled off a bit, as do Metheney and Hall, and he occasionally uses effects, especially a chorus, which in a way makes his sound similar to Metheney’s. As with all talented musicians, Blotnick’s playing shows some of the influences he’s absorbed, but he’s built on them. He’s also open to many strains of music. Everything Forgets is indisputably a jazz disc, but there are hints of rock’n’roll and other genres on it, and Blotnick’s openness to different styles, and his comfort in playing them, enriches his compositions.

Blotnick, who is in his mid-20s, grew up in Kennebunkport, Maine. "My whole world consisted of four houses down a long dirt road," he said in an e-mail. "We had a few acres on the border of town-owned forest." His father, a fingerstyle guitarist, used to play for him while he fell asleep. The elder Blotnick taught his son for two years, after which Ryan began formal study that took him to the Rhythmic Music Conservatory in Copenhagen, Denmark. While there, Blotnick’s musical education included such esoteric subjects as studying Schoenberg’s Theory of Harmony.

Despite Blotnick’s academic credentials, his music is easily approachable, perhaps because his interests included Jimi Hendrix and other mainstream guitarists. But Blotnick’s playing has a unique feel and attack that stems from his adapting the techniques of musicians on other instruments. "I think I was more influenced by saxophone players," he says. "My best friends growing up played saxophone (Ned Ferm and Will Jones) and I always went for that super legato sound -- maybe that’s why I never learned to play jazz with a pick." Because he plays with his fingers instead of a pick, his rhythm playing has a full, rich tone and his single-note runs are rounder and more sustained.

In the liner notes to Everything Forgets, Blotnick writes, "Playing with great musicians, there is an amazing feeling of levity. Everything unimportant is quickly forgotten, giving one the sensation of being alive and hurtling through time." The music often has a dreamlike quality, which is enhanced by bassist Simon Jermyn’s occasional use of electronic effects. "Mansell" has a ringing snare drum that gives the track a rock feel, and Blotnick plays a deliberate, textured rhythm guitar interspersed with angular, single-line runs. Notes sustain and melt into each other, reinforcing the feeling of floating (rather than hurtling) through time. The song builds at points to a higher, harder volume, and it’s in those moments that Blotnick’s natural affinity for rock is most apparent.

Joe Smith gives "Mainstream I" a driving rock beat that also swings hard, and Perry Wortman plays a simple but effective bass line. Blotnick’s main theme is built around slightly distorted guitar chords, and it ends with a single-note melody that Joe Pass might have played. He plays a beautifully developed solo that shows a deep understanding of jazz guitar harmony and technique, but he uses volume, dynamics, and walls of chords to create a powerful effect. Smith and Wortman also played on Music Needs You, but on Everything Forgets they sound more confident and at ease with Blotnick’s compositions.

Blotnick has sometimes called his music post-jazz, and though it’s often hard to classify, it fits comfortably in jazz much like the music of Bill Frissel. But it won’t do to compare Blotnick to anyone else. He’s excitingly difficult to nail down. "Dark Matter (for Benoit Delbecq)" invites comparisons to Wilco and Erik Satie without really sounding like either (Simon Jermyn plays a particularly effective bass part for the tune). "Mainstream II" takes another, slower pass at the themes of "Mainstream I," with a thick major chord strum at the end of each section contrasting sharply with the fluid melodies that precede it. One of the improvisational pieces, "Funes the Memorious," named after a story by Jorge Luis Borges, uses electronics and feedback to evoke the complexity and randomness of thought.

Blotnick doesn’t play on "Funes the Memorious" (Jermyn plays bass and creates the electronic effects), and Joachim Badenhorst solos on another of the improvisations, "Slowdozer." The other free-form pieces use the full quartet featured on roughly half the disc. Those pieces give Everything Forgets a great sense of daring and adventure that carries through to the more structured compositions. The disc as a whole has a pleasing balance of form and freedom.

Blotnick chose to divide Everything Forgets into two parts. "The sequence I went for was an expansion/contraction thing between the more conscious, deliberate, structured tunes and the more subconscious, free pieces," he says. "The decision to divide the CD in half was out of consideration for the listener. I rarely find time to listen to an hour of recorded music uninterrupted, and I think a half-hour is much easier to commit to, especially since this album is pretty dark and intense. I would rather people listen to half the album and then put something else on than listen to the whole thing but lose focus toward the end. Think of it as a two-course meal, or a three-course meal with silence for desert."

I found that listening to Everything Forgets in a single sitting wasn’t terribly daunting, mainly because the tunes are sequenced well. I liked the symmetry created by dividing the disc into two sections. A 30-second pause at the end of the eighth track, "Slowdozer," serves the same function as taking the time to flip over an LP. It gives the listener a few moments to absorb what has occurred before moving on to the next phase. Still, I don’t want to paint Everything Forgets as a difficult disc that requires any kind of mental or emotional preparation. Blotnick is a strong melodist, and even the album’s free-form sections are engaging and maintain a sense of direction. There are also some familiar touchstones. "Funes the Memorious" is reminiscent of Terry Riley or Soft Machine, and anyone with a passing familiarity with European and American avant-garde music should feel comfortable with the disc’s occasional dissonant passages.

Blotnick’s experiences as a professional musician touring Europe over the last couple of years have no doubt broadened his musical horizons and allowed him to try new things. "I would say that having the opportunity to play and be appreciated in Europe and Canada has given me a lot of creative fuel and confidence in my music that I might not have otherwise had," he says. That confidence shows in Everything Forgets, a step forward in a career that, even after just two discs, merits close attention.

. . . Joseph Taylor