Ryan Blotnick, as noted here before, is an up-and-comer guitarist already whose made a lot of dents in the NYC jazz scene with stints in the bands of Pete Robbins & Centric, Michael Blake’s Free Association, The Leif Arntzen Band, The Michael Blake Band, Tyshawn Sorey’s Oblique, and the Akoya Afrobeat Ensemble, for starters. Recently, he’s led his own septet that’s included Sorey and a quintet featuring jazz luminary saxophonist Bill McHenry.
But the great things he’s already done in his twenty-nine years didn’t make him feel satiated. His last album was called Everything Forgets, and lately, “forgetting” is just what he’s been doing in order to advance his craft. “After spending a lot of time in New York I realized that I had sort of lost a little bit of what I thought was my own creative impulse to make music,” explains Blotnick. “And I had digressed into that mindset of trying to figure out what someone else might want me to sound like, or hoping for some sort of magical formula that would open up new opportunities for me. It dawned on me that I needed to take a step back and spend a winter with a concrete goal that gave me an excuse to spend a lot of time practicing the guitar and kind of introverting.”
That led to some woodshedding, playing gigs without a backing band back in his native Maine and advance his fingerpicking technique. Listening to a lot of Segovia, moving to the Amherst, MA area and bonding with a vintage 1959 Martin acoustic guitar with an electric pickup further spurred him into new directions. The first culmination of this artistic rebirth is Solo, Volume 1, a modest duration (34 minutes) solo guitar set of non-overdubbed recordings.
Blotnick lists his influences for this album: Lenny Breau, Leo Kottke, Joe, Pass, Neil Young and Marc Ribot. Segovia can also be considered pervasive on this record, not because Blotnick is explicitly playing like the great classical master, but he largely adopts Segovia’s grace and diction. I’m also reminded a lot of Ribot’s own solo acoustic guitar outing Saints, as Blotnick characterizes the maturity and patience of Ribot, who is a master of setting up pregnant moments with his spacing of notes and willingness to let the resonance and silence hang in the air.
No where is that more apparent than on, ironically, the least acoustic sounding track, “Dreams of Chloe,” using the single coil pickup of that Martin guitar to hang the notes out longer and the amplified sonority that adds a caustic element to his sound, remaining strongly acoustic in character all the same. Young isn’t often thought of as a model for instrumental fingerpickers, but as the folk tune “The Ballad of Josh Barton” reminds us, Neil has always had a certain style on the acoustic guitar that’s compelling even when there are no lyrics around.
Blotnick also probes the waltz form with two distinct approaches: “Salt Waltz” is more formal, almost chamber-like, while “Hymn for Steph” is open-ended, not even going into a 3/4 until well into the song, after a lengthy intro. Some celestial effects are applied on the last two cuts “Intermellem” and “Michelle Says” both in a discreet manner.
The central selection of the album is “Lenny’s Ghost,” presumably a tribute to Breau, in which Blotnick traverses through several phases of development over the course of the song, with both major and minor elements and moving from one mood to another. Speaking of which, a thoughtfully played “Monk’s Mood” is the only cover, and it’s interesting in that there’s virtually no jazz in this version.
That, I think, is the main appeal of Solo, Volume 1: Blotnick doesn’t attempt to play these songs in a set way to square up with his reputation as a jazz guitarist. Instead, we get a portrait of a jazz guitarist learning to be a genre-less guitarist that follows his muse to wherever it leads him. Not setting up those fences made the music far less predictable and thus, far more interesting.
Solo, Volume 1 was self-released in December. Visit Ryan Blotnick’s website for more info.