PACO PEÑA, THE GRIGORYAN BROTHERS, JIM PENNELL AND PHIL MANNING JOIN FORCES TO SET OFF FRETBOARD FIREWORKS ACROSS THE COUNTRY. INTERVIEW BY LACHLAN MARKS.
This August and September, Australian audiences will be treated to a veritable Avengers of extreme guitar talent when Paco Peña, the Grigoryan Brothers, Jim Pennell and Phil Manning join forces for the Guitarra tour, tackling the very best flamenco, classical, blues and jazz pieces you’re likely to ever hear.
It’s a quartet that boasts serious, serious chops: Paco Peñais one of the most respected guitar virtuosos and a Spanish cultural icon; Slava and Leonard Grigoryan are four-time ARIA nominees for their classic guitar work; Phil Manning is an Australian blues rock icon; and Jim Pennell is renowned as one of the finest jazz and Latin-style players to ever come out of the country. We managed to get the whole team together to discuss what it’s going to take to pull it off, and what we can expect from Guitarra.
What will be your practice regime like leading up to it?
Jim Pennell: I have two 90-minute daily routines-during the week, leaving weekends free for gigs. Aside from technical-demands, my routines consist of playing completed jazz material, then experimenting with the harmonic or rhythmic setting or improvisation of pieces to keep an open mind to presentation ideas. Leonard Grigoryan: I already try to spend as much time with the guitar as possible, but since I’ll be surrounded by such amazing guitarists, I’ll probably want to spend just a little bit more time with the instrument before heading off on this tour.
Paco Peña: It used to be very rigid, but it’s not so much so these days because there are many other things that take up my time. However, faced with a tour I take studying very seriously.
Phil Manning: I spend most of my time writing songs nowadays, so being in the company of such great players, I am getting back to the good, old fashioned exercises and practicing my material for these shows.
What do you admire about the other players on the tour?
JP: Their total dedication to the instrument. The depth of musical skill they display reflects the tenacity, determination and love of self expression that they all bring to live performance.
LG: All of the musicians on this tour have incredibly unique guitar voices. As a musician, I always look forward to moments where I can learn as much as possible from what other people are doing, and this tour will definitely provide me with that opportunity. Paco Peña is probably the most famous flamenco guitarist in the world, and to be able to hear and see him up close will be amazing. I had the pleasure of working with Jim Pennell not too long ago, and he’s an amazing musician – he can absolutely play anything! I haven’t played with Phil Manning before, but I’ve seen him perform and I’m greatly looking forward to playing with him. He is an incredibly soulful musician, and he has such a beautiful tone that will be great to hear up close.
PP: The guitar is such a wonderful instrument in a whole gamete of styles, and it never ceases to surprise and elate; I get a real kick out of listening to these great musicians on the road, and I’m very honoured to share the stage with them.
PM: The other players are right up there at the pinnacle of their art, and they’re all highly skilled musicians. I tend to regard myself as an old rock’n’roll-hack-turned-folk-and-blues, so I really admire their dedication and the hard work they have put in. Mind you, I’ve put in an enormous amount of work too, although mostly on the road!
What’s your daily guitar habit like in 2017?
JP: It’s all about the music – I’m always inspired to play daily. To define and refine what I hear is an ongoing goal. The endless American Songbook, interpretations of some of the great jazz composers, and new ways to express tension and release are daily considerations.
LG: 2017 has been a very busy year so far! I’ve recorded two albums with Slav, and due to this, the practice and rehearsal schedule has been intense up until now. Composition is another passion of mine, and the next few months will be spent writing more music.
PM: I tend to do most of my playing later in the day, although I have started practising more in the early morning which I find better for purely functional exercises – clearer mind, and all that.
As career player, do you have to take steps to avoid damaging your hands? Are they specifically insured?
JP: Not really. I put the instrument down for a while if I feel the occasional wrist ache. I’m extra careful in the kitchen with knives, though. I’m still a massive fan of culinary expression – I make a great spag bol. My hands aren’t specifically insured now, but they were some time ago.
LG: Most definitely! Being a classical guitarist, I have to grow nails on my right hand, which is the most annoying thing about playing this instrument. Due to this, I always have to take extra care in not breaking a nail as this can greatly affect a performance. My hands are not insured, but maybe I should try to insure my nails.
PP: They are not insured. I like doing physical things, so I am mindful of protecting them, but I use them in the normal way.
PM: I must admit, I take almost no care with my hands – I’m always using hammers, chisels, saws, power tools, knives and gardening tools around the home. I usually have cuts or abrasions on them. I do enjoy handyman stuff, and they’re certainly not insured.
What guitars will you be bringing on this tour, and what makes them special to you?
JP: My Almansa 435 cutaway, which was made in Spain. As a fingerstyle jazz player, this instrument suits my needs; it’s easier to negotiate with a full-width classical, well-balanced tone with Pro Blend mic and pickup. It’s almost sonic-neutral, and it doesn’t colour the tone or give it that “1950s jazz club” flavour like my Gibson L-4, which I play predominately with a pick.
LG: I’ll be playing a guitar that was made for me by an incredible luthier from Adelaide called Jim Redgate. Jim’s guitars are incredible instruments, but more than that, Jim is an unbelievably great guy. We share similar ideas in sound and in music in general. Just this one guitar will come on the road for this tour.
PP: I only bring one guitar, which was made by Gerundino, but I assure you that it’s a lovely instrument which I have a very close relationship with. It responds!
PM: I’ll bring my new Fender Paramount series Triple-O acoustic, which is a beautiful recent model. I haven’t made up my mind what I’ll bring as a backup – probably my Guild CV-1C. I may also bring a tiny ukelele-sized guitar made by Chris Finch – it’s a gorgeous wee thing, and it’s tuned a fifth above a normal guitar.
What can audiences expect from the Guitarra experience? What will make it different from your regular tours?
JP: They can expect boundless, varied musical entertainment, all delivered with spirit, good humour and expertise. When the worlds collide... Expect fireworks!
LG: I’m not sure what the audience should expect, because I myself am not quite sure what to expect yet. They’re sure to see some amazing solo sets, but also some spontaneous collaborations between all of the musicians. This will be an incredibly fun experience for me and hopefully for the other guitarists – and of course, the audience.
PP: I venture to say that the value in this experience is to actually discover styles that are not perhaps what you came to hear; that discovery just might expand and enrich your appreciation of the instrument in other forms.
PM: I guess the main thing for the audience – especially any guitar music fans – will be the variety of styles being played on the one concert stage. I’ve experienced this at a couple of international guitar events in the UK and here, and it makes for a really uplifting experience. On my regular tours, there wouldn’t normally be such a diverse range of styles.
As a very advanced players, what goals do you still have in terms of your own playing?
JP: To be able to compose and play what I hear I my head, spontaneously.
LG: The beauty about music is that you can never stop learning. I’m never satisfied with where I am as a musician, and this drives my to listen to more music and learn as much as I possibly can. PP: I’m still trying to learn! PM: The blues and roots music I play is generally fairly simple, but needs to be played with a lot of deliberation, so I’ve always managed to get by with what I do and connect with the audience. Nowadays, my goal is to simply ensure that I perform to the best of my ability.