11 Dec In memoriam – Three Guitarists
I will remember the year 2020, but not for the reasons you might think. It is the year of Covid, of course – although I share the sentiments of the person who recently complained: “I’m getting tired of being part of a major historical event.” But the other thing which will cause 2020 to be remembered, for me at least, is that this was the year when three of my favorite musicians died: João Gilberto, Julian Bream and Peter Green.
Well, as I was checking the dates, I discovered that João Gilberto actually died in 2019. But I want to include him in this reflection anyway, because the three musicians, each in their own musical genre, represent a high water mark in the expression of their art. They are all guitarists, which is a bias of mine – it’s an instrument I have always loved.
Gilberto is the Brazilian guitarist who, along with the composer Antonio Carlos Jobim, actually invented a new musical genre: bossa nova. His most famous record was “The Girl from Ipanema,” recorded with his then wife Astrud. Bossa nova enjoyed a brief heyday in the 1960s and João was even invited by Jackie Kennedy to play at the White House.
As well as play guitar, Gilberto could sing (in Portuguese). His deep, sonorous voice, often sung in a whisper, complemented the harmonically complex and meditative guitar chords. He demanded a reverential quiet from his audience, and would stop playing to argue with a member of the audience who was making a noise, or even walk out of a concert halfway through if the microphones weren’t right.
I had the good fortune to attend his sole UK concert, in London in 2000. I remember his concentration, which the audience returned – just a voice and a guitar on a large stage, and a respectful and attentive audience in awe at what it was hearing. At one point, during the song Retrato Em Branco E Preto, it seemed like we were being held in a different time and space. Concerts don’t usually remind me of churchgoing, especially when you experience a moment of of transcendence, but this one did.
Of the three musicians, the classical guitarist Julian Bream is perhaps the most well known. I once saw him play a concert in a high school hall, a large wood paneled room like an Oxford college. The concert was a musical journey across the centuries. Does music capture a particular feeling from a time past? Would a 16th century person, I wondered, have felt the same emotion hearing this music as I did?
The third guitarist is Peter Green, who founded Fleetwood Mac in London in 1967. In the beginning, the band played mostly electric blues, but by the end of the ‘60s were playing folk, rock and free-form jazz/blues/rock. Green’s playing was influenced by B. B. King, who was later to praise the Brit as “the only one to give me the cold sweats.” Green could play fast or slow and his timing, taste and musicianship were impeccable. Sometimes it’s the notes you don’t play which make a difference. Green taught me to listen for the spaces between the notes as well as to the notes themselves. In his final Fleetwood Mac album, Then Play On, Green was singing about his personal relationship with God. His last recording with the band, the song The Green Manalishi, describes a nightmare encounter with the devil.
So this year I say thank you and farewell to three musicians whom I never met personally, but who have long been a part of my life. Their music has given me joy, inspiration and peace. In their music I discerned kindred souls speaking a language which I recognized and which opened a pathway to the hidden sensitivity of my own nature. That’s what music can do: it can connect at a deeper level and draw us to understand anew the mysteries of the human soul..