He does his home­work

Pasatiempo - - Book Reviews - Paul Wei­de­man I The New Mex­i­can

The propul­sive and in­ven­tive gui­tarist Leo Kot­tke, who plays in Santa Fe, Taos, and Al­bu­querque this month, first put notes to vinyl in the year of man’s first moon land­ing, 1969. The record was called Leo Kot­tke: 6-and 12-String Gui­tar, and it was re­leased on gui­tarist John Fa­hey’s Takoma la­bel. It was Fa­hey who, sev­eral decades ago, es­tab­lished the prece­dent for mu­sic to be per­formed on a stage by one per­son with a sixstring gui­tar and no singing. Kot­tke ex­panded the prac­tice slightly by some­times play­ing a 12-string and some­times singing, but his debt to Fa­hey (who died in 2001) is clear.

“John re­ally did some­thing,” Kot­tke said in a phone in­ter­view from Min­neapo­lis. “I haven’t known re­ally how to char­ac­ter­ize it, but to me it was pretty pro­found. It seems to be all around his point of view and the way he brought his ex­pe­ri­ence to it. There’s a guy who did an­other kind of home­work. He re­ally got into the deep end of what he was play­ing.”

Fa­hey was a rare mu­si­cal in­no­va­tor. His source ma­te­ri­als in­cluded play­ers in the South­ern folk mu­sic genre such as Charley Pat­ton, Blind Blake, and Ri­ley Puck­ett, but he also found ways to ex­press his life­long fas­ci­na­tions with trains and rail­roads, com­par­a­tive re­li­gion, and the nat­u­ral his­tory of tur­tles. “It all meets in that mu­sic; it just floats through there,” Kot­tke said. “Like a lot of those re­ally gen­er­a­tive moves, John’s mu­sic was ob­scure, and it still is, but its ef­fects have been huge. I’m not sure that any of the solo steel-string play­ers would be here if it weren’t for him. I re­ally miss him. He’s prob­a­bly the best friend I ever had. I mean, he gave me my whole ca­reer.”

Kot­tke, like Fa­hey, has a predilec­tion for telling sto­ries— on stage, be­tween songs, and with his evoca­tive mu­sic. He was born in Athens, Ge­or­gia, and grew up in Cal­i­for­nia, Ok­la­homa, and other Amer­i­can places. Dur­ing his ca­reer of 40-some years, Kot­tke has re­leased more than two dozen al­bums. Among his con­tri­bu­tions to other projects is a song for Terrence Mal­ick’s 1978 film Days of Heaven and mu­sic (along with gui­tarist Duck Baker) for the 1990 record­ing of Paul Bun­yan, fea­tur­ing JonathanWin­ters.

His most re­cent al­bums un­der his own name in­clude One Gui­tar, No Vo­cals (1999); Try and Stop Me (2004)— ex­cept for one song, it’s an­other set of solo in­stru­men­tals; and Sixty Six Steps (2005) with Phish bassist Mike Gor­don.

Kot­tke has been at work on a new disc, but he’s not sure how he’s go­ing to release it. “I quit RCA, and I owed them two more but I just kind of didn’t know— af­ter all this time, I be­gan to see the dif­fer­ence be­tween the first record I made and all the ones af­ter that, and I de­cided to go back to the way I first did it. The big dif­fer­ence is that I don’t have to meet a sched­ule. Any­way, I’m more in­volved right now with do­ing some home­work on the gui­tar, which I’ve avoided for 30 or 40 years.”

What kind of home­work? “Scales,” he replied. “I never both­ered. I love the gui­tar. I’m cra­zier about it now than ever, but I did this to see what would hap­pen. Also, I got kind of mor­ti­fied at my ig­no­rance. There’s a line that I’ve heard from a lot of dif­fer­ent guys who take the other ap­proach, which is to go into the shed and not come out un­til they can cut any­body, so maybe you owe it to ev­ery­body else you’re lis­ten­ing to to do your home­work.”

That was part of his mo­tive to go­ing back to some mu­si­cal ba­sics. An­other an­gle came with some in­put from Span­ish clas­si­cal gui­tarist Pepe Romero. “One is­sue was about rush­ing,” Kot­tke said. “I tend to rush. It’s a com­mon af­flic­tion for mu­si­cians: you get ex­cited and you speed up. I’ve got­ten much bet­ter at that, and part of the rea­son is be­cause of what Pepe did for me. We were tour­ing to­gether and one night, maybe 15 min­utes be­fore show­time, Pepe said he wanted to show me some­thing. He said, ‘ Turn out all the lights,’ and I said, ‘I think I’ll leave the dress­ing room.’

“He said I should just sit down and play a note and lis­ten to it all the way out. So I hit the note and sat there for 20 sec­onds or so as it faded. Then he said, ‘ Now lis­ten with your feet.’ I did that, and he went through all the body parts, and I started feel­ing a lit­tle em­bar­rassed af­ter a while. I thought this didn’t seem like the Pepe I know.

“Af­ter about 10 min­utes of that, he said ‘ OK, that’s it,’ and he turned the light on and left. I didn’t un­der­stand what that was all about, but then I went on­stage and I couldn’t rush. I fell im­me­di­ately into the pocket. I could feel my body want­ing to, you know, get up and go, but I couldn’t do it be­cause of what he showed me. It was like you push over here to get a re­sult over there. It was the big­gest sur­prise.

“So I kind of was hop­ing some­thing like that would hap­pen if I started play­ing scales. My play­ing over­all has re­ally im­proved, and the im­pro­vi­sa­tion has im­proved. Not that I’m play­ing more lin­ear stuff, but it gives you a much wider sense of where you are on the fin­ger­board.”

What will his New Mex­ico pro­grams con­sist of? “I’ll play some of the new stuff, al­though it’s al­ways a lit­tle un­nerv­ing that it gets out ahead of you on YouTube,” Kot­tke said. “And I’ll do some of the old shit. It’s just me on a six-string and a 12-string. I am en­joy­ing it more. Boy, some nights I’m re­ally happy with what I’m play­ing, and there seems to be an uptick in the job of­fers and ticket sales are stay­ing up.”

Kot­tke might sing. He once de­scribed his voice as akin to “goose farts on a muggy day,” but his vo­cals, when he of­fers them, are an ap­pro­pri­ate com­ple­ment to his spacey and beau­ti­ful singing strings.

Scal­ing back: Leo Kot­tke; AP Photo/Jack Dempsey

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