Strings Attached

Classical guitarist and Peabody instructor Manuel Barrueco's latest project pairs him with some of the most respected musicians in jazz and rock, giving him the best of all worlds.

March 11, 2000|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

I feel that variety is the spice of life."

At the moment, classical guitarist Manuel Barrueco is talking about his recital at Shriver Hall tomorrow evening, a program that will include works by Bach, Spanish composer Joaquin Rodrigo and the contemporary American composer Lou Harrison.

But he may as well be speaking of his artistic life in general, because Barrueco's musical career is nothing if not varied.

For half the year, the Cuban-born guitarist is in Baltimore, where he lives and teaches at the Peabody Conservatory; for the other half, he's on the road, giving performances or making recordings. As he speaks, he's in San Francisco, where he is in the third year of a residency sponsored by San Francisco Performances.

"I do what I call a `main stage' performance, which is a recital or a concert with somebody else," he says of the residency. "And also, some other things having to do with audience development, and sometimes also with children."

In between all of this, Barrueco manages to find time to hang out with rock stars, such as former Police guitarist Andy Summers.

"Walking around Venice Beach, Calif., with Andy -- it's something," Barrueco says with a laugh. "It's pretty amazing. Really different from the reality that a classical musician would live.

"It's like peeking into somebody else's world."

Barrueco isn't just peeking, though. He is working on an album of duets that will pair him with several of the most respected guitarists in rock and jazz. In addition to Summers, the project will involve jazz musician Al DiMeola, who has played with Return to Forever and John McLaughlin, among others; and Steve Morse, whose credits range from the Dixie Dregs to the progressive rock group Kansas.

It's an exciting project, but dealing with the rock and jazz worlds hasn't been quite as smooth as Barrueco expected. "It's moving slower than I thought could be possible," he says, chuckling.

"I did the sessions with Andy Summers, and now I'm working with Al DiMeola. We've had a couple of rehearsals, and now it's a matter of putting [the music] down on tape. It's kind of complicated, because it seems like the times where he has been free, I have been busy, and the other way around.

"But that's what it is, and it should be done pretty soon now."

`The Guitar Summit'

Although as a performer, Barrueco remains firmly grounded in the world of classical music, this upcoming album of duets is hardly his first flirtation with the worlds of jazz and rock. Five years ago, he was invited to participate in a series of concerts called "The Guitar Summit," which brought together fretboard virtuosos from a variety of styles.

Joining Barrueco on that particular tour were jazz musician Kenny Burrell, former Jefferson Airplane (and current Hot Tuna) picker Jorma Kaukonen and Morse. "The second half, actually, was Steve and I," says Barrueco. "First I played, and then Steve would play. But in-between, we'd play together. It was the only duo on the program."

Things went so well with Morse that the Guitar Summit promoters booked a mini-tour with just the two of them, which took place a year later. Barrueco plans to get together with Morse to record tracks for the duet album later this year.

"I have to say, one thing that has been really educational for me is that I didn't realize the training a lot of these guys have had," says Barrueco. "Andy Summers and Al DiMeola and Steve Morse -- these are guys who are really fluent in music and in writing.

"In fact, with Andy Summers, we were in his studio rehearsing, and then he got up and sat at the piano and started playing Chopin! I mean, this is a guy who is a pop musician, who can tell the difference between [contemporary composers such as] Philip Glass, Steve Reich and John Adams. It's really pretty amazing, his knowledge of music."

Barrueco adds that he's surprised the other guitarists, each of whom made his name playing an electric instrument, tend to want to play a nylon-string classical guitar when working with him. "I find that the general tendency with them is to assume that they have to play an instrument similar to mine," he says.

"But they can play whatever they want. I mean, I'm the only one who's inflexible that way. This [classical guitar] is what I play, and that's it. But these guys will play a variety of things -- maybe steel-string or electric. I think it should be whatever instrument fits the music best."

By the same token, Barrueco has no qualms about amplifying his own instrument. Unlike its steel-stringed cousin, the classical guitar is a fairly quiet instrument -- ideal for small halls, but a bit out of place in a symphony-sized auditorium.

"I'm all for the musical experience," he says. "If you play the guitar in a very big hall, and nobody hears it comfortably or well enough to appreciate what's being done, I'm not so sure that's doing a favor to anybody. And I think with today's equipment, [amplification] can be done in such a way that it's not even noticeable.

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