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September 27 - October 3, 2007

The perfectionist
Eric Johnson finds artistry in the details
by Dave Kirby

The Cuban connection
Julio Fernandez’s journey from Havana to Spyro Gyra
by Gene Ira Katz

The perfectionist
Eric Johnson finds artistry in the details
by Dave Kirby

Have you read any reviews of the show, yet?” guitarist Eric Johnson asked us when we caught up to him last week from a tour stop in Studio City, Calif.

He was referring to Love In: A Musical Celebration¸ a theatrical/musical production written and produced by Anthony Leigh Adams and Christina Adams, a kind of musical tribute to the Summer of Love that Johnson had guest-played in for a few days in San Diego. A reunited Strawberry Alarm Clock, Buddy Miles and Jesse Colin Young were there, along with some other names from those years.

We hadn’t seen any reviews, although, truth be told, we weren’t looking for any.

“Okay,” Johnson said, a little tentatively.

What was this all about, anyway? How did you get involved?

“The couple that put this on did something last year — a kind of history of the guitar thing [Primal Twang: The Legacy of the Guitar] — and asked me to play in it, and that was fun. So when they asked me to do this show this year, I said OK. I did a couple of Cream songs, ‘Politician’ and ‘Sunshine of Your Love’ and a couple of Hendrix things, ‘All Along the Watchtower’ and ‘Castles Made of Sand.’ It was OK. It was a different kind of thing for me.”

We imagined a Fender Twin Reverb amp swimming through plenty of tremolo…

Johnson laughed. “Actually, yeah, there was a Twin Reverb there. Not so much tremolo, though. Fortunately.”

It was a brief interruption, though, from Johnson’s primary mission these days: extended touring behind last year’s Bloom, his first studio record of new material in almost a decade. Joining him on the tour is bassist Roscoe Beck and drummer Tommy Taylor, the trio that recorded Johnson’s seminal 1986 solo album Tones, and the first tour the three have done together in just about 20 years.

“It’s been great — the magic is still there. I think it always has been.”

Bloom made it to a Grammy nomination last year — hardly a surprise, as Johnson is no stranger to the award thing. His signature instrumental, “Cliffs of Dover,” a song he’s had to retire periodically for risk of burning out on it, won a Grammy for his 1990 album Ah Via Musicom.

Johnson said he’s doing quite a bit of Bloom on the current tour but seemed more jazzed by the “new stuff” the band has been doing of late.

“We’re actually working on a new record, playing a lot of the tunes live. It’s really coming together fast.”

Now, anyone who knows Johnson’s history knows that there can be a very, very long time between studio records. Five, six, seven years. Or longer. He’s known as a bit of a studio perfectionist, crafting tone and arrangement with clinical meticulousness. We were surprised to hear a new record is already so far along.

“I’m really trying to get away from all that, that obsessiveness in the studio. I mean, it has its place, but there are aspects to it that, I think, can be counter productive to just being a good musician.

“So much of it is context. I mean, when I was a kid I really loved Stevie Wonder — not just his playing, but the incredible songs and arrangements he did. The same with Hendrix. It wasn’t just his guitar that floored me, but the whole thing — the song, the context. To me, that’s what it means to be a complete musician.”

But aren’t the new tunes changing and morphing onstage before their reference version is even finished?

“Yeah, we’ve got six or seven already recorded, but you’re right, they do change after we’ve played them a while. We’ve even gone back and re-recorded a few after having played them out a while. We’ll go in and figure out which version to keep later.”

What’s the new record going to sound like?

Johnson was cagey.

“You know, I just really want this next record to be more organic, to grow on its own and just be of the moment. I’m not planning it out at all. We’re just concentrating on how to make better records, and sometimes that’s just letting things be what they are.”

On the Bill
Eric Johnson will perform with Tucker Roundtree at 9 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 29, at the Fox Theatre, 1135 13th St., Boulder, 303-443-3399.

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The Cuban connection
Julio Fernandez’s journey from Havana to Spyro Gyra
by Gene Ira Katz

For almost a quarter century, musical wizard Julio Fernandez has been dazzling audiences the world over as guitarist with the popular, award-winning jazz group Spyro Gyra. Listed as one of the world’s best players in  the Down Beat poll and numerous other such lists, Fernandez’s journey to greatness began amidst the turmoil of pre-revolutionary Cuba where his father, a multi-instrumentalist, performed with many groups around Havana.

“He played bongos with The Brothers Castro [no relation to Fidel],” Fernandez recalls. It was one of those Latin big bands with ruffled shirts who used to play at the Tropicana in Cuba. “He always had friends over on the weekend for jam sessions. Mom would put me to bed, but I would sneak down and hide behind the curtains to watch them play.”

Life in the suburbs of Havana would undergo a tumultuous transformation as Fidel Castro’s soldiers came down out of the mountains.

“We were five or six miles away from an air base. One night my mom woke me up, and we thought it was thundering, but they were basically bombing this place. That’s one little memory I have of the revolution.” He was just 5 years old.

“Next thing I know I’m on a plane to the United States, to my aunt’s house in Hoboken. I didn’t really comprehend the weight of what was going on.

“I came to the States at a time when the music was just exploding. And then all of a sudden The Beatles came out, and I’m this 8-year-old saying, ‘OK, that’s it! I want a guitar! I want a guitar!’”

Practicing after school every day, Fernandez soon developed into a skillful and inventive player, citing such influences as the Ventures, Jeff Beck, Santana, Jimmy Page “and Hendrix, of course. Music was so fresh, styles were so new — it was like undiscovered turf, uncharted territory. I feel very lucky and fortunate to have grown up in those times.”

After playing in many garage bands, even cutting a 45 single, it was his foray into songwriting during the late 1970s that lead Fernandez to Brill Building tunesmith Lou Stallman. Eventually joining a staff of writers, Fernandez began meeting pros like Steely Dan producer Gary Katz, who hired the young guitarist. And even more importantly, he met Spyro Gyra’s former percussionist Gerardo Velez, with whom he collaborated on several projects. “One thing lead to another, and when it came time for them to look for a new guitarist, Gerardo called me and said, ‘Would you like to audition?’ I said, ‘Of course.’ As they say, the rest is history.”

On the Bill
Spyro Gyra will perform at 8 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 30, at the Soiled Dove, 7401 E. 1st St., Denver, 303-366-0007.

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