There’s a root language that threads though these acoustic instrumental sets by three European guitarists—Frenchman Thierry Massoubre, French émigré to Canada Jean-Luc Thievent, and Belgian Jacques Stotzem—but it isn’t French, which is spoken by approximately 40 percent of Belgians. It’s Merle Travis–style picking. Inspired by Americans like Travis and Chet Atkins, Europeans have adapted, refined, and experimented with this primarily fingerstyle technique that incorporates facets of flatpicking through the use of a thumbpick. Rolling rhythm, melody, and chord progressions into one, the style was appropriated by Tunisian-born Frenchman Marcel Dadi, who inspired countryman Michel Haumont, who in turn influenced the three players here. In fact, Haumont contributes to two of these collections. Thievent’s Resonance is a series of duets with Haumont, while the French master plays with Massoubre on a pair of tunes in his set.
Of these three collections, Massoubre’s Behind the Strings is the most reliant on the quicksilver tempos and improvisational runs associated with bluegrass, and Massoubre is the most inclined to add straight flatpicking to his arsenal of techniques. Bill Monroe’s “Stoney Lonesome” and “Louisville Breakdown” each get a vigorous workout here, and country music standard “The Waltz You Saved for Me” gallops double-time with clucking banjo and corkscrew fiddle while Massoubre unleashes a shimmering break peppered with arpeggios. A medley of fiddle tunes, “McCahill’s Reel/Wild Rose Reel/Snowshoes” is transposed for Massoubre’s cartwheeling, hurdy-gurdy guitars and Irish folk master Philip Masure’s rattling bodhrán. The vigorous pace only simmers down when Haumont’s delicate fingerstyle weaves silken strands through “Open Heart” and “Early.”
In contrast with Massoubre’s full-band effort, The Way to Go is pared down to Stotzem’s guitars. Stotzem—who also recorded Rory, an acoustic tribute to Irish blues rock guitarist Rory Gallagher—draws less on bluegrass and more on the blues’ repeating chord progressions and call-and-response structures. On the title track, Stotzem’s percussive thumbpicking ripples like sunlight dancing on water, and the piece recalls the Americana-tinged jazz stylings of Pat Metheny. The contemplative mood carries over to the pirouetting ballad “Plage d’automne,” and the pulsing “A Break in the Clouds,” where the melody threads through bent blue notes, counterstrokes, and cross-stitching textures.
Resonance is sunnier in outlook than Stotzem’s set, but no less serene. On “Ma Valse,” an airy music box melody sashays through a veil of pointillist picking before segueing into coquettish cafe jazz. Thievent and Haumont’s pin-wheeling interplay coalesces in a playful progression on the ethereal “Song for Domi.” “Clin d’oreille” entwines labyrinthine fingerstyle with open tuning and coruscating flatpicking. Here, the two slipknot guitars tangle, then snake away before curling up for a nap. Throughout the set, the playing is as sprightly and light as a soufflé, even on the whirligig Celtic two-step “Tréguidel,” which is dedicated to Thievent’s friends in Brittany.
Taken together, the three collections here execute a similarly tricky two-step, balancing a variety of colors and styles with the common thread of country- and bluegrass-inspired picking. Even with Massoubre’s occasional firebrand pace and Stotzem’s explorations of cloudy melancholia, the playing is bright and nimble, the perfect expression of a guitar language that has crisscrossed the Atlantic, from Merle Travis to “Tréguidel.”
This article originally appeared in the April 2018 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.