Italy-born, California-based guitarist and composer Peppino D’Agostino has long been admired as a master of a multiplicity of techniques and approaches to solo playing, an unabashed eclectic willing to tackle almost any style, and also a generous collaborator eager to let other musicians shine in his spotlight. He is impossible to pigeonhole, with influences and inclinations literally all over the map, but as a body of work, his many albums since his late 1980s breakthrough all display a virtuosity that mostly does not call attention to itself as showy or indulgent, a deep knowledge of and sensitivity to the many genres he explores in his work—including folk, jazz, Latin, rock, classical, funk, flamenco, and various undefinable amalgamations and extrapolations thereof—and an unerring belief in the power of melody to transport the listener. He is a brilliant rhythmic player as well and uses harmonics as interestingly as anyone, but a soaring or subtle melodic figure is never too far away.
D’Agostino’s latest album, Connexion, embodies all the traits I’ve described above over the course of ten tracks that vary considerably from tune to tune in terms of style, but are unified by his wondrous playing on the Robert Godin–designed signature model Seagull guitar that he has favored for more than decade. It’s a clear-sounding and powerful instrument, captured beautifully by engineer Masaki Liu, who manages to bring out every nuance in the guitarist’s varied arsenal.
The album opens with a moody piece called “High Plains Guitarra,” which D’Agostino describes as a “humble homage to two music legends: Paco de Lucía and Ennio Morricone,” and indeed it is easy to hear the Spanish/flamenco flavors, as well as the wide open, almost desolate sound of Morricone’s Spaghetti Western soundtracks. “Dancing with Shadows” instantly changes the mood of the album—here, the homage is mainly to the doo-wop groups of the 1950s, and he overlays a haunting street-corner melody on top of steady rhythmic chops so characteristic of that style. With its haunting bent notes, it also brings to mind Santo & Johnny’s “Sleep Walk.” (Watch him perform and offer tips on playing it above.)
“Head Case” is the lone clunker on the album in my view, an abrasive, occasionally dissonant number that sounds like a warm-up gone wrong. At just 1:30 in length, however, it is quickly behind us! Fortunately, it is followed by one of my favorite pieces on the album, “Buster,” a tribute to the extraordinary fingerpicking wizard and fellow Godin artist Buster B. Jones (U.S. National Fingerstyle champion in 1990), who died in 2009 at just 49 years old. D’Agostino’s piece starts out as a slightly Kottke-esque ramble but then accelerates and gets crazier toward the end, very Jones-like in its barely controlled recklessness. Again there’s some wonderfully creative note-bending, sometimes two at once in harmony.
“Mara’s Sleeping Song” is one of two numbers on the album that effectively pair D’Agostino with an electric guitarist—the achingly pretty melody has what I would call a Windham Hill-ish vibe, and Stef Burns tastefully doubles and improvises over the simple tune (written by mandolinist Caterina Lichtenberg) to marvelous effect. What a little jewel it is! The other is the emotional “Stammi Vicino” (“Stand by Me” or “Stand Next to Me”) co-written with Burns (who is once again featured on crying lead guitar) and well-known Italian singer-songwriter Vasco Rossi; another very strong melodic number. (Rossi’s sung version appeared on his 2011 album Vivere O Niente.)
My favorites of the remaining pieces are the evocative “Mexican Sunrises,” which shows D’Agostino’s ability to deliver sturdy bass figures under a lilting melody, and the elegiac “Jenny’s Goodbyes,” about “a wonderful woman that left us too early,” a gorgeous tribute.
Connexion packs so much into 33 minutes. Yes, it’s a virtuoso at work, but beyond that it is a showcase for a songwriter of great depth and imagination. Highly recommended!
This article originally appeared in the May/June 2020 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.
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Here are three other Peppino D’Agostino albums you might like: