by Larry Etscovitz
Ed Gerhard: Night Birds. Recorded at Audio Matrix, Cambridge, MA. Produced by Ed Gerhard. Engineered by Stephen Burton. J., Mastering and pressing by Wakefield. Reckless Records, #1919,
distributed by Rounder Records.
Ed Gerhard’s debut album, Night Birds will be officially released to local record stores following an album-release party at The Press Room on Saturday, April 25th. I was lucky enough to receive an advance copy of a tape of the album some time ago, so I’ve had a chance to live with the music for a while. The music is magnificent – the work of a genius and I don’t use that word lightly or often. I had hoped that the quality of the vinyl pressing and the sound of the guitar on the record would do justice to the music; I am not disappointed. Ed’s notorious perfectionism in the recording process has resulted in a superb record: the guitar sound is rich and clear, the record surfaces are flawless.
Ed Gerhard is in the process of making a profound contribution to what has become a new “school” of instrumental guitarists. My first encounter with this musical genre took place in 1966. I was struggling with my own inability to improvise on a folk guitar, ‘ not having the technical background of either a classical or jazz guitarist. I played folk and blues music and was looking for a way to improvise without resorting to the simple song structures that seemed to limit and enclose the folk musician. John Fahey’s albums on Takoma showed me the way. Fahey used what the Delta bluesmen called “Spanish tuning”-tuning the guitar to a
chord such as open G or D, instead of standard tuning E-A-D-G-B-E – and improvising what were classical structures using blues and folk motifs as building blocks. In open tunings fingerpicking patterns can become whole melodies. This realization opened a whole new pathway for me and for other aspiring guitarists and. even
songwriters as well. Joni Mitchell developed a new kind of songwriting based on open tunings, eventually moving into a jazz context from it. Guitarists such as Leo Kottke, John Renbourn, Bert Jansch, and later Alex deGrassi and Michael Hedges developed this style further. Yet each one produced unique music, entirely personal, that seemed to grow right out of the sound of the guitar itself.
Such is also the case with Ed Gerhard. His tunings are much more sophisticated than the simple open G or D that I experimented with. These more complex tunings help bring the folk guitar sound of steel strings into the realm of classical music. But of course, it’s what he does with the tunings that makes thedifference. One of my favorites on Night Birds is “No. 11,” an inspired melody in open F major 9th. Ed develops this melody in beautiful ways. Four complex and interrelated pieces make up his ”Suite,” a classical structure with a long_ tradition dating back to the Baroque period of the 17th and early 18th centuries. An extended version of the third movement of this suite will appear on a soon to be released Windham , Hill guitar sampler. “Crow,” another significant piece which almost became the album title, takes off from a subtle melody into complex changes supported by a lilting triplet on the bass strings. Gerhard’s technical prowess shines in his use of high harmonics in the melody line of the sunny folk tune ”Spike #2.” Multiple harmonics, strong picking, and fast finger-slides highlight “Lost Highway,” which closes side one in high spirits.
Side two opens with “Si Bhig, Si Mhor” by the great 17th-18th century Irish harpist, O’Carollan. I’ll bet that no one has ever heard this often played tune done with greater poetry and feeling – Ed makes it his own! “No. 7′ displays Ed’s penchant for complex harmonies. and rhythms, but never for mere technical show, always in the service of beauty – a classical masterpiece! Night Birds closes with the title tune, a haunting and mournful-sounding bottleneck slide piece on 12-string guitar that pays tribute to the Delta bluesmen of the past whose ”Spanish-tuned” blues started an incredible evolution.
That evolution has reached a new plateau in the artistry of Ed Gerhard