Last night, I had the pleasure of seeing Glenn Jones play in Saratoga Springs, NY at a little converted church called the Spring Street Gallery. The night before, a noreaster had dumped feet of snow all over New England, including Jones’ home base of Cambridge, MA, so it seemed a wonder that he made it west to Saratoga Springs, where just a few inches of snow fell. Turns out he was in town recording a new album, to be released in May, with the wonderful drummer Chris Corsano.
The room was intimate and filled to standing room with fifty or more folks out in the zero-degree night. The show opener was a young local musician, William Rees, whose guitar playing was steeped in Fahey and Raga. He mixed in Indian drones from an ipod on stage and even closed his set with a raga on the sarod. I generally balk when a guitarist picks up such a forbiddingly complex instrument with its own centuries of tradition and skill, but Rees had studied the instrument in India and his playing brought respect for its tradition. Jones rightly commented that having an opening act of such skill made his job even harder. Luckily, Jones was up to the task.
Glenn Jones proudly wears his associations with earlier guitarists like John Fahey and Robbie Basho. He counted both as friends and has done extensive work to preserve and promote their music. Most recently he edited a five-CD Fahey boxed set of the early Fonotone recordings, Your Past Comes Back To Haunt You, and authored the set’s accompanying 88-page book. Jones’ playing certainly places him in the Takoma-style tradition Fahey and Basho helped create, but he is also very much his own artist. He seems to tirelessly seek new ideas, using different combinations of instruments, tunings and full and partial capos for every song. He even noted how his participation in a 2003 music festival introduced him to a new generation of artists like Corsano, whose drumming appears on one track of Jones’ last album, and Jack Rose, who was Jones’ close friend and occasional collaborator until Rose’s death in 2009. Jones’ musical curiosity and desire for improvisation and experimental instrumentation is fed through his association with these younger players, and his work remains vital because of it.
Jones moved between his Guild 6 and 12 strings, which were both loud, full-voiced instruments, as well as a resonator guitar for one slide piece and an open-backed five-stringed banjo that has becoming a part of his repertoire in recent years. When he first picked up the banjo for this set, a man got up and left the room and Jones joked about that being a typical response to the banjo. Jones’ work with the instrument was in kind with his guitar playing, steeped in open strings and intricate melody. He has spoken elsewhere about his approach to the instrument, and he clearly wants to integrate it into his work in his own way. Like Rees and the sarod, Jones understands the instrument and its history, but unlike Rees, he laid no claim to formal study of the instrument, but rather sought to explore its offered sounds in the context of his extant style.
Some of the highlights of the night were Jones’ “The Great Pacific Northwest” and “Of Its Own Kind,” both wonderful cuts off his last album, The Wanting, released in 2011 on Thrill Jockey. The first of these had nods to Fahey but also carried Jones’ own darker, droning low tones over higher melody lines that evoked the lush greenery and soaking rains of the region. The second piece was prefaced by Jones’ remembrance of Jack Rose, and it was a truly moving performance that evoked the mix of joy and longing that much of Rose’s playing had.
Other highlights included two pieces on the twelve-string, which filled the small room with quick layers of appegiated patterns. It brought to mind the way the guitar has been traditionally referred to as a little orchestra, and Jones’ waves of sound on these pieces seemed to be rather large orchestrations that filled the room and were felt as much as heard.
All of this was a really wonderful treat, and one hopes that the Spring Street Gallery will continue to host such events. It could be a trend, given that last year James Blackshaw played there, apparently. It would be nice indeed to have an area space become a fertile space for the kind of rich musical composition and improvisation that Jones represents. Here’s hoping that the new record brings with it more wonderful tunes and, with any justice, more exposure of Jones work so that he doesn’t have to continue to be, as Magnet Magazine has it, “the best guitarist you’ve never heard of.”