Tribute albums. It's hard to gin up enthusiasm for most of these affairs. They typically involve taking a great artist who made great recordings and handing the songs out to not-as-great artists who make not-as-great recordings. Terry Manning's second solo album in some 40 years is not the typical tribute album.
West Texas Skyline is Manning's tribute to his friend Bobby Fuller, who is known mostly for the single "I Fought the Law." Fuller was an acolyte of Buddy Holly and further developed Holly's synthesis of high-lonesome mountain singing, wild rhythms, and California guitars.
Manning hails from West Texas and knew Fuller in the early 1960s. These were the days when Fender guitars and amplification were in all of their rickety, not exactly standardized glory. The Stratocaster sounds of that time and place endure, and Manning does a fantastic job bringing them into focus.
If anyone other than Terry Manning had made this album, you could round-file the thing. But Manning has a few tricks up his sleeve. He may be the most accomplished Memphis-based producer ever: Ike and Tina, Otis Redding, Led Zeppelin, James Taylor, ZZ Top, Joe Walsh, Molly Hatchet, Jimmy Buffet, and Shania Twain. He recorded Wattstax. What Manning does with these guitars and arrangements is notable.
The album opens with a bold take on "Love's Made a Fool of You," a song recorded by Holly's Crickets and the Bobby Fuller Four. Manning takes liberties: The guitar has its Californianess turned up with a wavelike tremolo that suggests early-onset psychedelia. This cover highlights the West Texan take on frying-pan-hot clean guitars played in precise phrases. The album is a master class on classic sounds and approaches. It's also a labor of love for a place and the people who made great music there. That's something every Memphian can identify with. — Joe Boone
Memphis favors its winners: Blues and barbecue dominate our headspace. But there's a lot more to Memphis than the usual suspects. On musical terms, that drives Lily Afshar nuts. The world-renowned classical guitarist and University of Memphis professor is a passionate advocate of not only the wider musical community of Memphis but also that of the world at large. Her latest recording is another example of her drive to expand the repertoire of both her instrument and our love of music.
Musica da Camera finds Afshar breaking new ground. The album begins with the first-ever recording of Musical Sketches on Pushkin's Eugene Onegin, a work by an obscure Russian composer, Vladislav Uspensky, for an eight-piece ensemble. The piece is programmatic: It tells a story. In this case, it's Pushkin's novel in verse Eugene Onegin, a story of pride, love, jealousy, and regret set in 1830s St. Petersburg. Uspensky divines eight scenes from the story of a world-weary old goat whose cynicism gets the better of him when he dismisses the writings and affections of a young woman named Tatyana.
The opening piece, "The Ball," sets the mood, creating the atmosphere of a dance but with a tinge of melancholy rather than excitement. It renders the mind of the over-it-all Onegin being hauled through another social affair. The tight orchestration and muted dynamics paint the picture and establish the mood. The following piece renders Tatyana's romantic earnestness with rising and falling dynamics and expectant harmonies, all laced in a sweetness that does not become bothersome. It's remarkably redolent of the emotional roller coaster that is expressing love — or anything sincere, for that matter.
The "Onegin" piece exemplifies the guitar technique that earned Afshar spots in master classes by Andrés Segovia, the Spanish master. Afshar is on a personal quest to expand the vernacular of the instrument beyond the body of work established by Spanish composers. Her earlier album Hemispheres incorporated modified guitars that could play intervals found in Persian music. Afshar has transcribed work by Persian, Turkish, and Azerbaijani musicians.
Musica da Camera marks another example of Afshar's curiosity and technique coming together in a way that motivates both the artist and the listener to expand the scope of their musical understanding. — Joe Boone