“One day I think you should record this one.”
Alfonso said that to me as we began digging into Pasional (“Passionate”), and with that I suppose this project began. It’s just a supremely lovely romantic tune, quite simple and direct, that allows for a performance that brings out definitive qualities of solo guitar music. It’s a slow tempo with spaces to breathe that lets the ears linger on the tone of the guitar, one string at a time. I hope for some listeners it might be their favorite track on the album, if not then perhaps Los Ejes de Mi Carreta which has similar qualities.
This was the last full solo guitar arrangement that he taught me, or at least that I fully learned and held on to. I’m thinking I learned this in late 2008 into early 2009 - right before our time together was consumed by making the Los Guitarristas album. The end of my relationship with him as a solo guitar student.
In February 2009, Los Guitarristas played a very successful concert at the Old Town School of Folk Music. It was long overdue and the group had never sounded better:
We recognized there were definitely opportunities out there for the quartet to play concerts and festivals, but we needed an album. So I led the charge and set up an arrangement with a recording studio and engineer with experience in acoustic music, John Abbey, now of Kingsize Sound Labs, who also did mixing and mastering of The Panamericanist. From April through September of that year, every Monday night from 6-10pm or so, we worked on the album that became Paisajes de Sudamerica, scraping together the money as we went along.
Over the summer of 2009 we had the good fortune of getting booked for a November concert at the esteemed Kerrytown Concert House in Ann Arbor MI. It then became a hard deadline to have the album done by October so that we could promote it as a CD release show. At the time it seemed like an easy goal to hit.
But by the end of September, fully 6 months into the process, we were exhausted and project still needed more time for mixing and the percussion we were adding. We also out of family and friends to beg for handouts to help pay for more studio time. Coming into October, we got close enough to an acceptable stopping point and simply called it done – though we really needed at least another day or two of mixing, and more refinement in some of the percussion. The sudden “doneness” of it along with figuring out CD reproduction also created last minute havoc on the packaging end that resulted in some embarrassing misspellings and jumbled track listings – I take full responsibility for those mistakes, and I know how much they bugged Alfonso.
Nonetheless we finished it and had it on hand for our show in Ann Arbor, the discs arriving literally the day before. It was packed house and a great concert, and we sold a lot of discs. It was perhaps the peak moment for Los Guitarristas. People really liked the album, despite its flaws, and as proof I would offer that it has been in steady rotation as bumper music during local programming on WBEZ Chicago since its release until this writing (4 years and running). I can tell you it’s a pretty cool feeling to hear your music segue directly into Terry Gross’s voice!
Here’s the opening track, Paisaje de Argentina:
Paisajes de Sudamerica is now out of print as a CD, but is available for sale on iTunes and probably other digital places. For me it remains unfinished. If there were the opportunity (i.e., funding) to re-release it with a more complete mix I would jump at the chance. Even as is - it is a grand showcase for Alfonso’s vision of a guitar ensemble, and I am quite proud to have been a part of that project and all that we achieved.
Unfortunately, upon its release, we made a poor decision to accept the assistance of some folks who promised to help with booking who turned out to not be much help, losing internal momentum in the process. Maybe if I took on more of a proactive managerial role on the booking end at that time we could have gotten into some festivals, but after draining myself getting album done (and also at that time going through a divorce), I really had no bandwith for it.
2009 was a tough year all around. The economy had severely tanked and it affected everyone. For myself it was a time that I was trying to transition to becoming a working musician, trying to figure how to market myself to event planners and the wedding industry, and it was slow and rough going. To make Paisajes, I had taken on a producer role, which of course included tapping and depleting my own nonexistent financial resources, which as you can guess did no favors on the home front, especially after my soon-to-be ex-wife’s employer went into receivership. That happened right before the car died, about same time we were denied home refinancing and our cat disappeared for a month.
Like I said it was a tough year and part of the economic decline was no longer being able to make my monthly tithe to Alfonso. By 2008 my solo guitar lessons had become more sporadic as I was gigging myself and needed to spend more of my practice time maintaining what was already 4-5 hours worth of repertoire. By this time, instead of paying by the hour, I just paid Alfonso a monthly flat rate whether we had time or not, as an honorarium. I had transitioned from being a mere student to an apprentice, and part of that is kicking back to the master.
Between solo guitar and the quartet, in that time I just had no room on my plate for new music. But in what would be my final solo guitar sessions with Alfonso, he was insistent we forge forward in notating his arrangements. It was now less about me wanting to learning something and more about him needing to teach. He wanted to empty his cup as much as he could. He knew he didn’t have forever, and he wanted to record all his knowledge. This ultimately left me with a 5-page arrangement of the French tango Jealousy in my sketchbook that I would have no idea how to approach. It’s a limitation of the cifras method that it does not notate rhythm, only the sequence of notes, and we blazed through Jealousy so fast that I never even got to record him playing it, nor did I spend a minute practicing it.
It was deeply difficult to have to deliver the news that I had to discontinue the solo guitar lessons, ending the monthly cash, as I knew that would be a significant blow to Alfonso’s already impossibly tight situation. I kept paying for his phone bill, which I did until the end. And if I had a flush month, I’d kick him what I could.
At that time we started a new relationship, more like partners. First through the process of making the album with Los Guitarristas and then afterwards as his duet partner and he was happy to have me working for him to find gigs, which I took as a serious responsibility. If anything my opportunity to learn from him was enriched by the recording and performing processes of the quartet and then later in duet.
So learning Pasional was kind of an end of a era though I could not have seen it at the time. I had become something of a seasoned player, so the last batch of tunes came more quickly, easily and confidently. As opposed to taking weeks upon weeks to get my fingers around what seemed to impossible positionings and phrasing, at this stage I could pretty much play back whatever he could show me at the moment. While I wrote down the arrangement for reference, I don’t recall spending much time ever looking at it. I could memorize it as he demonstrated, as I now had a bit of an instinct for the form. These ideas were not so foreign anymore, and having spent years developing technique and hand strength, we could move right to working on the details of impression and getting the feeling of pasillo right.
It is for this that Pasional immediately became among my favorite and, to me, among the strongest tunes I play. I will open sets with it or have it be the first mellow track after a series of fast ones for full contrasting impact. I’ve referenced this arrangement only briefly against other recordings by Ecuadorian artists, but only to immediately sense that Alfonso’s arrangement here is a very direct representation (no interludes or abstract embellishments). I take some liberties with the introduction, drawing out the drama, but this one I would say I feel is a clear rendition of Alfonso’s vision.
This wasn’t the last solo guitar tune he taught me though, just the last one I have written down. The last solo guitar tune Alfonso showed me was from summer of 2010. I told him I had been hired to play a private party for a Mexican family. He asked what boleros I knew, and I had none. There was no way I could perform for a Mexican family, he told me (wisely), without at least one bolero, so with the suddenly new power of cell phone video capability, I recorded him giving me a quick demonstration of Perfidia, and once again I was so grateful: