Tommy em­manuel back in town

Aus­tralian gui­tarist Tommy Em­manuel re­turns to Malaysia to spread the love he has for fin­ger-pick­ing gui­tar mu­sic.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - FRONT PAGE -

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 tick­et­ Call 03-9133 2822. You can also browse the­gui­tar­ or penang­ for more in­for­ma­tion.

Fin­ger-pick­ing good: Aus­tralian acous­tic gui­tarist Tommy Em­manuel per­form­ing in Lodz, Poland, re­cently.

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