OVER THE last dozen years, the standards for guitar virtuosity have escalated steadily. Every year there's a new guitarist who can pick at faster speeds and in trickier harmonies than last year's hero. Most instrumental guitar albums have come to resemble shoot-outs at the recording studio. At long last, a growing group of guitarists has realized that no one cares about this technical one-upmanship except other guitarists.
Instead of playing lightning-fast, daredevil licks, these guitarists are concentrating on the emotional impact of a song. Though they have the chops to show off, they are instead playing at a slower pace, with more theatrical phrasing and, most importantly, with more feeling. Three recent examples of this trend include new albums by jazz veteran Lenny Breau and newcomers Van Manakas and Michael Hedges.
Lenny Breau's "Mo' Breau" (Adelphi, AD 5012) is taken from the same 1977-78 guitar solo sessions that produced his convincing 1979 comeback album, "Five O'Clock Bells." After 10 years of little music, this Maine native returned to the studio to justify his cult reputation as a leading jazz guitarist. He succeeded.
Each piece is built around a central melodic figure that serves as both starting and return point for Breau's insightful variations. Thus each song builds and sustains a momentum that carries the listener through Breau's instrumental story.
For example, Breau uses McCoy Tyner's compelling piano phrase from "Ebony Queen" as the basis for his musical retelling of a love affair. The Tyner phrase establishes the syncopated sensuality of first-meeting excitement. Then Breau inserts his own composition, "Pam's Place," as a quiet, intimate interlude before bringing the piece back home. Two lovely Johnny Mercer melodies, "Autumn Leaves" and "Emily," are stated glisteningly as single note lines before the rhythm chords assume the momentum, thus freeing the single note solos to soar into giddy falsettos or to dive into rumbling bass lines.
Side two is devoted to four originals that explain why Breau cites both Chet Atkins and John Coltrane as prime influences. After quoting Tyner -- Coltrane's pianist -- Breau salutes Hank Williams with "I Remember Hank." Breau's lovely melody is enhanced by the fluid transitions between glowing sustained notes, as taught him by Atkins. The album's one vocal, "New York City," has a gorgeous ballad melody sung longingly by Breau's limited voice and given musical dimension by short, parenthetical guitar asides. The album's strongest track is "Lone Pine," written for Breau's country-singer father; the affectionate lead lines seem to escape from the darker, pursuing chords.
Van Manakas is an accomplished guitarist, but it's his compositions that make his new album, "Love Songs" (Rounder, 3063), so special. Though this album features no vocals, the seven Manakas originals are so memorable in melody and so eloquent in mood they deserve the album's title.
Manakas leads a sympathetic quartet featuring veteran ECM drummer Bob Moses and newcomers Mike Richmond (whose sinuous, varied bass lines remind one of Steve Swallow) and Mario Parent (whose restless piano arpeggios remind one of Keith Jarrett). Manakas leads the way with impatient guitar solos that strike out boldly but always slip back into the melody, with never an awkward transition. Manakas is capable of dark moods, as on "Refugee," where an unsettling guitar figure forlornly seeks resolution. "Open E" is the one song with a funky, string-popping rhythm, but it too never loses touch with its catchy melody or lapses into repeating riffs. The album's most appealing melody is "A Lion in Love," which rises with great yearning and then sighs with stoic melancholy.
Until last year, Michael Hedges lived in Baltimore, where he built up a loyal Maryland following for his original folk songs and his classically trained guitar work. Only the guitar work is featured on his California-based debut album, "Breakfast in the Field" (Windham Hill, WHS-C-1017). His impeccable playing reveals his training, but his 11 original instrumentals reveal his fondness for folk forms.
Yet there is an austerity to this album that separates it from similar work by John Fahey and Leo Kottke. Hedges' songs are filled with sharp finishes and conscious pauses that give them a stark solitude at times. The music has a meditative, almost lonely quality that many listeners should identify with. This mood is most powerful when Michael Manring's sliding bass notes wash across the background of Hedges' pinpoint picking. But despite its solitary character, Hedges' music often sounds optimistic as it sets a circular folk figure in motion and spins sprightly solos off its momentum. One can only hope that Hedges will soon get a chance to record an album of songs.