Cutting Edge Balkan Acoustic Guitar Music from Tev Stevig
Tev Stevig is one of the world’s most brilliantly individualistic guitarists. His edgy, Middle Eastern-informed electric solos have been a high point of recordings and performances by Boston Romany dance band Klezwoods, psychedelically vaudevillian jazz band Mr. Ho’s Orchestrotica and other projects. His latest recording, Jeni Jol (meaning “new wave,” more or less, in the Romany language), is the most individualistic thing he’s ever done. It’s a solo instrumental album of traditional Balkan and Turkish tunes played mostly on fretless acoustic nylon-string guitar using clawhammer fingerpicking. Until Earl Scruggs popularized his three-finger style, clawhammer technique was the foundation for banjo playing, and there are still thousands of banjo players who use it; guitarists who do are very rare. Stevig’s guitar is also unusual: it’s a classical model that he ripped the frets out of. He also plays regular steel-string acoustic guitar as well as gourd banjo on this quiet, often haunting collection. He’s the opening act on an absolutely killer triplebill at the Jalopy on Oct 24 at 9 PM, followed at 10 by Balkan band Tipsy Oxcart – who have a much different but equally sensational new album out – and then Klezwoods at 11. Cover is an absurdly cheap, Jalopy-esque $10.
How does the use of fretless guitar affect the tonalities? For one, it gives Stevig’s blue notes more sustain then they’d have if he simply bent strings to reach them. His clawhammer picking adds precision, often achieving an absolutely hypnotic fluidity. The album’s first three tracks are originals. Stevig opens with matter-of-factly brooding variations on a circular riff, followed by rapidfire raindroplets around a moody, nebulously Egyptian hook and then a melody that could easily be imagined on – or transposed to – a West African kora harp. Otherworldly microtones bubble to the surface on a traditional tune inspired by a version by Erkan Ogur and Ismail Hakki Demircioglu, two great current-day masters of Turkish music. Another Turkish tune, from the Ibrahim Tatlises book, maintains the overcast atmosphere while raising the hypnotic factor.
The next piece has a more ringing, resonant character; the one after that is more spiky and insistent. The similarly precise, somewhat more ornamented Bir Ah Cektim draws on versions by Canadian folksinger Brenna MacCrimmon and Turkish sax great Selim Sesler. Kalaidzjsko Oro (The Artisan Dance) brings in a tricky stop-time rhythm. The album winds up with a pensive Ogur-inspired number, then Stevig’s rippling, Leo Kottke-ish original Dinner at the Meade’s, and finally a gorgeously warped version of the well-known traditional song Cuperlika. Count this as one of the best albums in a year where some of the other great ones include releases by a Peruvian-French surf rock band, a Brooklyn Balkan brass ensemble, a nonlinear cinematic narrative by a literate powerpop maven, and the last of the recent onslaught of Guided by Voices records.