Thursday night at Lincoln Center, guitarist Derek Gripper played a show that was as impressive a display of daunting technique and irrepressible individuality as it was an immersion in celestially kaleidoscopic glimmers and ripples. Gripper got his start as a classical guitarist and plays with the requisite precision and steely focus. But he also has an outside-the-box sensibility, not to mention a sense of humor, that transcend the limitations – at least the usual ones -in that demimonde. His claim to fame is reinventing centuries-old Malian kora music for the acoustic guitar.
Sending a shout out to a major influence, pioneering Malian kora virtuoso Toumani Diabate, Gripper opened with a steady, spiky, liltingly circling theme and closed with a jaunty, allusively tongue-in-cheek cover of fellow South African kora player Madosini’s I Like a Motorcar. In between, there were moments that echoed John Fahey, and Adrian Legg, and maybe Michael Hedges, but Gripper’s sound is unique. His dry sense of humor became apparent early on, when he explained to the crowd how he’d developed a new appreciation for an old guy named J.S. Bach, particularly that composer’s work for a “European ethnic instrument, the violin.” And then launched into a well-known diptych from that guy’s catalog, the first part reinvented with an idiosyncratically kinetic approach, the concluding fugue with an edge and bite to match Gripper’s emphatic attack on the strings. More guitarists should take chances like that.
The most fascinating of all the pieces on the bill was a number for two koras that he’d arranged for solo guitar. Employing carefree but minutely nuanced five-finger technique, he alternated between calm, minimalistically anchoring phrases on the low strings and subtly crescendoing flickers and pings on the higher ones. For a couple of other numbers, he tuned the two lowest strings to the same note – was that just a double low E? – for extra ballast,amplified by his relentless hammering, which sent overtones wafting throughout the space.
The most challenging number of the evening was a mashup of enigmatic indie classical tonalities, Steve Reich, the baroque, and West Africa. Solo gigs are always harder than playing with a group, and it’s harder still to hold a crowd’s attention, especially on an acoustic instrument. But a diverse, multi-generational crowd, most of them most likely not particularly versed in Gripper’s source material, remained fixated throughout his hour onstage. It was a subtle reminder that music, no matter where it’s from, belongs to all of us: where we take it is the challenge, and Gripper gave a clinic in how to d o it.
The next free early-evening concert at Lincoln Center’s atrium space just north of 62nd St. on Broadway is this Thursday, June 29 at 7:30 PM with Marc Anthony Thompson, a.k..a Chocolate Genius, who’s sort of the Gil Scott-Heron of newschool retro soul music. Show up early if you want a seat.