Tony Savarino – Guitaresque (2012)

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This is music made for summer, for never-ending afternoon dreamscapes followed by brilliant bursts of color as the sun dives behind the dunes.

Guitaresque, produced by Barry Marshall (Peter Wolf, Aimee Mann) for Isabelle Records, marks do-anything guitarist Tony Savarino’s long-awaited follow up to similarly named Guitaring — a record that earned the guitarist a spot on the Something Else! Reviews’ Top Unsigned Acts list for 2010. But that’s where the similarities end. Whereas the earlier recording swung wildly from rock to funk then from soul to country, Guitaresque – save for a couple of notable exceptions – settles in under a beach umbrella and gets comfy. Featured guests include Duke Levine and Jimmy Ryan, though bassist Sean McLaughlin and organist Rusty Scott are the only regular players throughout. Savarino works in formats ranging from duo settings to a stomping five-piece, yet still manages to make the project feel largely of a piece.

A highlight, and this is not unexpected, arrives in the form of his take on the Ventures’ “Walk Don’t Run,” with Mike Levesque (a former sideman with David Bowie and Natalie Imbruglia, who also appeared on Savarino’s 2010 album) and Marshall joining the proceedings to add some percussion spice. Savarino catches fire in this jazz-inflected setting, unleashing a set of crisp phrases. Scott is a particularly useful foil here, too, adding shades of gurgling atmosphere, then encouraging stabs. Meanwhile, their slow-motion take on the Kinks’ “Sunny Afternoon,” with a perfectly conceived, Les Paul-inspired solo from Savarino, transforms what was originally a rattling tax protest into something tanned, rested and ready. “The Black Knight,” one of four Savarino originals on Guitaresque, fast forwards a handful of years further into the story of rock ’n’ roll, adding a few more R&B textures, even while retaining a smattering of surf-inflected echo effects.

Along the way, Savarino tips his hat to a few of his ancestral guitar heroes: He tangles brilliantly with Levine through four alternating solos on the locomotive rocker “Moonlight,” composed by former Elvis Presley guitarist James Burton. “Close Your Eyes,” written by early Nashville picker Hank Garland, gives Savarino another chance to downshift – this time into a cascade of eye-popping picking. There’s an interesting take on the Beatles’ “And I Love Her,” too. Originally dominated by a Paul McCartney vocal, here it’s stripped down to its flamenco-inspired guitar underpinning – but Savarino again chooses a thrillingly retro reverb-soaked approach. Anton Karas’ “‘Third Man’ Theme” then shoves us back toward the sock hop, with Savarino hitting a sequence of terrific Wes Montgomery-inspired riffs and an appropriately bawdy turn on the sax by Michael Moss.

Not all of the tunes fit so easily into the beach-ball bouncing theme: Opening cut “When In Doubt (Dress In Black),” for instance, dashes out with a country-greaser Johnny Cash-style attitude – and a chanky-chank cadence to match. Fiddler Connor Smith and pedal steel player Tim Obetz set the stage for a hootenanny series of solo excursions for Savarino, who tears his way through with an old-school sense of bandstand-rattling verve. “Baia,” meanwhile, settles into a more straight-forward mid-century rockabilly vibe, with McLaughlin and Scott being joined by drummer Mike Piehl.

What connects both of these songs to the broader project is Savarino’s clean, unironic playing style – something that gives them an interesting post-modern feel, a sound that’s both ageless and from a long ago time.

Later, he returns with only bassist Josh Hager for “By Way of Amarillo,” an intriguing, though somewhat out-of-place moment of twilight reverie where Savarino is featured on tabla and mellotron as well as guitar. But that brief interlude away from the crashing surf only makes Guitaresque’s note-perfect closing track all the more resonant, however: Savarino’s version of Max Steiner’s “Theme to ‘A Summer Place’ sends us on our way with an end-of-summer sense of nostalgia – satisfied, but waiting with bated breath for sunrise again.

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Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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