These three new album releases highlight different approaches to fingerstyle guitar. John Pizzarelli’s Better Days Ahead, Matthew Stevens’ Pittsburgh, and Steve Gibb’s The Boatman each highlight mastery of the style in their own right.
John Pizzarelli, Better Days Ahead
As decades pass, the great jazz guitarist Pat Metheny is increasingly being recognized not only as one of the instrument’s supreme players, but also one of its most interesting composers. Even so, encountering a full album of solo guitar interpretations of Metheny feels like a gift from the gods, especially coming from the magnificent interpreter John Pizzarelli, who recorded his latest album, Better Days Ahead, on a single seven-string Moll classical guitar during pandemic isolation after the death of both of his parents from COVID.
Pizzarelli is not the first solo guitarist to explore Metheny on nylon-string guitar—back in 2005, classical master Jason Vieaux recorded his exquisite Images of Metheny, which included several of the same tunes—but Pizzarelli brings his own approach and a lifetime of sensitive interpretation to this wide-ranging body of work, and he was able to locate the emotional essence of each of these pieces. This is no easy feat, as so many of Metheny’s albums have featured his Group (spearheaded by keyboardist Lyle Mays) and his compositions often have complex instrumental voicings that make translation to solo guitar challenging. But the core of Metheny’s writing and playing has always been melody, so whether Pizzarelli tackles ballads like “Letter from Home” and “Antonia,” or more propulsive pieces like “Last Train Home” and “Phase Dance,” his reductive interpretations somehow feel natural and right.
These are honest performances that haven’t had the life tweezed out of them through editing. The downside of that approach is that there are quite a few buzzing bass strings and imperfectly struck notes, a price worth paying to hear music with so much heart. (Also check out this interview with J.P. from the same issue of AG.)
Matthew Stevens, Pittsburgh
Toronto-born guitarist Matthew Stevens is, like Pizzarelli, part of New York’s expansive jazz scene, perhaps best known for his support work for artists such as Esperanza Spalding and Terri Lyne Carrington. But that’s where the similarities end. His first solo acoustic album, Pittsburgh, shows Stevens to be a highly adventurous and distinctly modern player and composer, as he ranges from rhythmically off-kilter, slightly outside (in the jazz sense) pieces to more conventional ballad statements, with lots of tonal range in between. He can embrace dissonance in one moment and follow it with folky strums, jazz shadings, or delicate fingerpicked melodies. A few of the tracks feel more like sketches than actual compositions; clearly many (most?) were born out of improvisations, and he keeps them concise.
It makes for a highly unpredictable but ultimately satisfying experience if you’re willing to follow him down the many different pathways of this musical odyssey. Throughout, Stevens plays a lovely, crisp-sounding 1956 mahogany Martin 00-17.
Steve Gibb, The Boatman
Steve Gibb’s The Boatman is the most traditional of these three solo fingerstyle albums and also my favorite. A native of Scotland who has lived in the U.S. for the past 21 years, he draws heavily on his roots, presenting Irish jigs and Scottish reels and many a tune that sound influenced by the folk music of those two cultures. But he also has embraced the gentle, pastoral melodicism of the Will Ackerman/Alex de Grassi school of solo guitar—with its uplifting consonance and rippling contours—as well as elements from his days studying classical guitar: his tune “Elegy for a Rainbow” features tremolo work that could have come from the pen of Francisco Tárrega, surrounded by glistening Windham Hill-esque folk. (Gibb’s career has taken a number of interesting turns—check out his bio at stevegibb.com.)
Gibb plays two guitars on the album, a 2010 Matthew Mustapick Arena Custom and a Journey Instruments FF412C. He did the engineering and production himself and it couldn’t sound better. Beautiful, deep, and soulful, The Boatman is a winner on every level.
This article originally appeared in the November/December 2021 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.