Tommy emmanuel back in town
Australian guitarist Tommy Emmanuel returns to Malaysia to spread the love he has for finger-picking guitar music.
ERIC Clapton describes him as the best acoustic guitarist in the world. Guitar Player magazine concurred by bestowing the Legend Award on the Australian musician early last year, an accolade which previous recipients include Les Paul, Duane Eddy, Larry Carlton and Dick Dale.
Tommy Emmanuel (born William Thomas Emmanuel) is clearly in good company. And he will continue to be when he turns up for a series of concerts here in Malaysia, starting with a concert in Kuala Lumpur on Dec 3, and an appearance at the Penang Island Jazz Festival on Dec 5.
It won’t be the acoustic guitarist supremo’s first or second visit, in fact, he’s been here enough times to name drop places like “Johor”, sounding completely like a native.
“Yes, I remember playing a charity show (only last month) for the Rotary Club in Johor to raise funds for a home for disabled people. We drove there from Singapore. I was so amazed at how great a will for life the people there had for overcoming their disabilities, which were severe in some cases,” he said over the phone from Limerick, the Republic Of Ireland, while on his European tour.
Emmanuel, 55, is always excited to come to this part of the world.
“I’ve been working in so many different places, especially Europe, so it’d be nice to go back to the places I love,” he added.
Through all his travels, performances and records, if there’s one thing that has remained unwavering, it is his love for the guitar. It’s a make-up of wood and wire that continues to intrigue him half a century or so after he picked the instrument up, when his family band travelled around the country in two station wagons.
“It’s a weapon of mass construction ... it just brings people together. I’ve come to accept that I have a talent and realise that I have a responsibility to do good with it.”
So how does it feel to be branded the best acoustic guitarist in the world, not just by Clapton but by many other of his contemporaries, then? “I’ve been fortunate enough to meet many of them. Music is never about competition. I can’t play like Joe Satriani, George Benson or John Williams. I always strive to reach for the stars but I always look to play naturally. I just love writing songs and stories, because first and foremost, I’m a songwriter and entertainer,” he revealed, indicating that while he’s no fan of reality TV music programmes and competitions, he also sees their place in all things music.
Isn’t the man the least concerned about the possibility of someone coming up to him and playing circles around him? Emmanuel doesn’t worry too much because it’s already happened ... numerous times, too.
“I just got the best guitar lesson I could get from a 13-year-old-boy. His name is Andreas Varady and he comes from Slovakia. He came to my show and afterwards showed me how he plays in that George Benson style,” Emmanuel enthused with utter humility.
His own roots don’t exactly lie in jazz. Emmanuel’s life changed when he heard the late great country guitar picker Chet Atkins when he was seven years old. “I was drawn to the country guitar styles of Chet Atkins, Jerry Reed and Merle Travis because they were great songwriters, too. When I heard Chet, my heart leapt in my chest and I knew right away that’s what I wanted to do.”
Emmanuel was fortunate enough to spend some time at Atkins’ home in Nashville where both men often talked about the philosophy of playing guitar. “We would talk in the morning, as we made coffee, about taking our music out to the world and sharing it with people. His compositions taught me to make my songs interesting and to say something,” he said. One of Emmanuel’s greatest achievements is having recorded an album with Atkins, 1997’s The Day Finger Pickers Took Over The World.
Much of Emmanuel’s success only arrived in the 1990s, so it’s unsurprising that people have often thought of him as an overnight success. “What they don’t seem to be aware of is the 40 years or so I worked on my craft,” he quipped in typical Aussie humour.
He credits the Internet for providing musicians a great platform to get themselves heard.
“There are so many players on YouTube ... the Internet is a great way of bringing attention to players,” he said, sharing that videos of his performances in China and Eastern Europe have earned him 40 million hits on YouTube.
Everything he’s achieved, though, he puts down to good grounding from his parents, especially his mother, who raised both him and his fellow guitar-playing brother Phil from 1966 when their father died.
“I sold out B.B. King’s Blues Club & Grill on 42nd Street in New York City a few years ago and I remember when I called my mother to tell her about it, her first question was: ‘Do you have anything nice to wear?’” he said of his beloved mother who passed on in 2003.
In 2000, when Emmanuel performed at the Dewan Filharmonik Petronas in KL, he told the story of how when he told his mother he was performing in the tallest building in the world in Malaysia, he said his mother replied: “Aren’t the people there fighting and killing each other?”
He joked to his mother: “No ma, that’s Indonesia.”
Tommy Emmanuel and Michael Jackson are two names that would probably never appear in the same sentence but it will from now on.
“Keb Mo told me that a Michael Jackson album was being put together, so he recommended me to Quincy Jones, knowing that they were looking for something I could offer.
“So the production team rang me and asked if I could come to Los Angeles but I was with my family in London then,” he said of his appearance on the song Much Too Soon from Jackson’s first posthumous release of new material, Michael, revealing that the session was eventually conducted in London and the tracks sent via e-mail to LA.
“It was such a privilege to play on this recording because I’ve been a fan of his since I was a kid. He was the chosen one. He’s such an innovator, mover and performer ... there’s been nothing like him,” Emmanuel waxed lyrical of Jackson’s genius.
Charity is also close to Emmanuel’s heart. He recently raised US$48,000 (RM150,000) by selling three of his guitars on eBay to raise funds for Unicef’s campaign to vaccinate 200,000 children from disaster-struck Haiti.
“The human spirit is so passionate for the survival of the human race. This was just something I had to do,” said the father of two daughters who contributes to a charity every year.
Come Dec 3, with guitar and humour in tow, Emmanuel will be performing at Auditorium Wisma MCA in KL at 8.30pm. The guitar man is excited about his imminent return to Malaysian shores. “I haven’t played in KL for a long time ... I recall being there for a workshop the last time around and people were so enthusiastic. It’s gonna be interesting because some people are going to know what I’m about and others won’t.”
Emmanuel is not letting the cat out of the bag by revealing what he’s going to play for the shows. “I’ll just walk out on stage and see where that takes me,” he quipped before retiring to embark on his next European date in Belgium. n Tommy Emmanuel plays a concert at Auditorium Wisma MCA, Jalan Ampang in Kuala Lumpur on Dec 3 and he appears at the Penang Island Jazz Festival on Dec 5. For schedules and ticketing info, go to ticketpro.com.my. Call 03-9133 2822. You can also browse theguitarstore.com.my or penangjazz.com for more information.
Finger-picking good: Australian acoustic guitarist Tommy Emmanuel performing in Lodz, Poland, recently.