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Official Spectacles

June 25, 2013

In Paris you buy L’Officiel des spectacles to find events to go to. Normally, you will find seven or eight that interest you for any given day, which befits a cultural capital. It was September 1977, and I had just arrived, going to some concerts before serious studying began. I was thrilled to find a bossa nova guitar recital not far from my hotel. Being new to the city, I made sure to arrive early – so early – that after buying my ticket  – the musicians were still finishing a sound check.

There were two percussionists and a bass player, who were set up alongside a youngish guitar player whose name was Roland Dyens. I had been listening to the bossa nova stylings of Baden Powell and Bola Sete for a while, but this as the first chance to see it live. My hometown – Toronto – was home to some of the finest jazz guitar players on the planet, most notably Ed Bickert and Lenny Breau. Their jazz approach to Brazilian music tended to include electric guitar, while the players who came to town playing that music on classical guitar were not in the same league as Baden and Bola.

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Mr. Dyens did a terrific job on tunes like Samba Triste, Berimbau and Consolacão. He also did a fine job on the tunes featured in Black Orfeus,  which I had seen the day before. Less successful was the Bach Prelude from the 3rd lute suite that was used as an intro to Samba Triste. That was reassuring because Bach is unnaturally difficult on the guitar. I was also puzzled by his arrangement of the aria from Bachianas Brasilieras no. 5 for solo guitar. The melody for that work is too sustained for a guitar to do it justice. It was nonetheless a peak experience for me to see some of my favourite music performed so well.

A week later, in the long audition lineup at École Normale De Musique, Dyens came in along with a group of teachers, chatting amicably. An hour later he was on the other side of the table with those same teachers evaluating us – he was a new teacher there.

35 years later a student came for a lesson carrying a book called Night and Day – 10 jazz arrangements for solo guitar by Roland Dyens. This was an acclaimed book, and I had heard good things about it – but then they said good things about everything he did. I was skeptical. A year previously another student tried to learn some of the pieces from the Dyens collection of French Popular music. These arrangements were at times so tricky they excluded anyone with normal hands [4 fingers – regular size] who couldn’t devote seve

n hours day to practicing. For over 40 years I have looked at jazz arrangements and rarely seen any that are truly idiomatic. Often they have too many chords and melodies that suffer because they can’t be sustained due to position changes. They often sound fine – one bar at a time – but get impossible when you try to do eight bars together. But this student had a big smile on his face and I put on my reading glasses and tried to get my bimagesrain ready.

The work for the day was Bluesette, a lovely piece by great Belgian harmonica virtuoso Toots Thielemans. It is a jazz waltz and once the intro was over I could see that the arrangement was remarkably done. The melody soared on top while the chords punched out some shots and the bass line anchored things. The chords – so important in jazz – were the kind that a top piano player might use, but perfectly voiced for the guitar. Most impressive was the solo – normally improvised in a jazz combo setting – but in this case composed. He slashed through the changes and crashed shots here and there, working around to the final iteration of the tune. It was a delight to see this all written down, showing such deep knowledge of the jazz idiom and such a smooth translation of it for guitar. Better than any method I have seen, these arrangements share the world of jazz and how to depict it on a classical guitar. It is like owning an encyclopedia and attending a clinic at the same time.

Nasrudin was on his way to the palace carrying a sack of potatoes. On the way a local man asked where he was going. “I’m taking this gift of potatoes to the new ruler,” Nasrudin replied.

What?” the man said. “That’s not a suitable gift for a ruler. You should give him something better, like strawberries.” So Nasrudin went home to get strawberries, and took them to the palace instead.

The ruler, however, was used to receiving much nicer gifts, and ordered his men to throw the strawberries at Nasrudin as punishment for giving such a meager gift. As the strawberries hit him, Nasrudin began shouting, “Praise be to God!“

Hearing Nasrudin make such a comment so out of its ordinary context, the ruler ordered his men to stop, and curiously asked, “We’re hitting you with the gifts you brought, and now you’re praising God? Explain your behavior.”

Nasrudin replied, “I’m thanking God that I didn’t bring you potatoes.”

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2 Comments
  1. Magnificent goods from you, man. I have understand your stuff prior to and you are simply extremely wonderful.

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