If there’s one thing that listening to Pierre Bensusan’s career-spanning live album, Encore [DADGAD], makes clear, it is that he had already fully established himself as a singular voice in the world of acoustic guitar playing at the time of his earliest performances. And, like a fine Bordeaux wine from an outstanding vintage, his artistry has only increased in depth and complexity as he has matured.
The music comprising Encore includes material from a 1975 show with banjo innovator Bill Keith (Bensusan’s first professional gig), two duets from 1998 with Dream Theater keyboardist Jordan Rudess, pieces showcasing the guitarist’s pioneering use of live-looping and other effects processing, and a wealth of solo steel-string work played in DADGAD—Bensusan’s tuning of choice since 1978, and now practically synonymous with his name.
In addition to releasing Encore
, Bensusan will celebrate his 40th anniversary by performing worldwide throughout 2014, as well as collaborating on a 40th Anniversary Pierre Bensusan Signature Model guitar with esteemed luthier George Lowden, whose guitars he has played throughout his career, and who, coincidentally, is celebrating his 40th anniversary as an instrument builder. Bensusan will also host students in his home in the north of France for a week-long Residential Guitar Seminar beginning August 5, 2014 (visit pierrebesusan.com
Briefly describe the genesis of Encore.
I had wanted to release a live recording for a long time. I did a live-performance DVD for Stefan Grossman in 1996 [Pierre Bensusan in Concert], along with two workshop DVDs [The Guitar of Pierre Bensusan Vol. 1 and Vol. 2], and a couple of years later there was the live duo recording with Didier Malherbe [Live in Paris]—but there was no testimony to my presence onstage for the past four decades. So, when my French manager, Jacques, said that I should do something special to celebrate my 40th anniversary, I suggested a live album, and he loved the idea. Then, the challenge became to find enough material to fill a CD, and at the end of the selection process I was very grateful to have discovered that there was actually more than three hours of music that I was happy with, including some from 1975, recorded just a few months before I began work on my first studio album.
Where did the material come from?
Occasionally, live sound engineers would record a show without my knowledge and then give me the master afterward. So, when I would return home from a tour I would have several recordings, which I would just put away. It was very rare that I would listen to them, maybe because I felt like they represented the past, and there was nothing I could do about it, so I should just forget about them and not spend time listening.
There were also more than a dozen recordings from shows I played at a club in Charlottesville, Virginia called The Prism. I knew that the shows were often recorded for the radio, so I contacted them and found out that they had saved everything.
When I started listening to the recordings, I could not believe how I played. I kept thinking, “My God, this is musical. Things are coming through.” I put aside everything that I liked, and eventually there was enough material for two CDs, and then three. The Celtic Medley alone runs 18 minutes.
Describe the process of selecting the material.
I took notes. My wife also helped a lot, and I had input from others occasionally. Early on, I trashed a lot of things. I’d think, “No, that’s not good. And the sound is not good,” or, “The sound is okay, but the guitar is a little too much out of tune, it’s unbearable.” I remembered why I hadn’t wanted to listen to all these recordings previously [laughs]. The main consideration, of course, was the strength of the music—the playing, the feel, the fortuitous accidents—and the sound was secondary. Overall, though, the sound was fine, and in some cases excellent. The audio engineer, Rich Breen, did a fantastic job of unifying everything, as well as helping to make the music flow naturally and coherently from piece to piece.
While you were reviewing all these recordings, did you sense a linear development in your artistry or was the story more complex than that?
Probably more complex, although I feel that in some ways there has also been a linear, upward evolution. I departed from my folk period into something much more original and probably deeper—further away from the instrument and much more into the kingdom of music. My aim is to have people forget the guitar, forget me as a musician, and just relate to the music.
And yet, the tracks also show that you had established an original voice early on.
Right from the start, especially when you listen to those tracks from 1975, before my first recording. The genesis of my sound and my playing was already there and then it grew as it went through a lot of different phases. It received a lot of earth and water, a lot of sun, a lot of rain, a lot of angular looks—looks above and underneath—so that I could evolve as an artist and as a human being, and I could enrich my expression as I was enriching my life. Forty years is a long time, and I think some people will be very touched by this progression. There is nothing more real, more true, than to say this was recorded live and this was who I was and who I am. That’s what I like about listening to a concert without seeing the artist. It’s all between the ears, the feeling, the heart, the sensations, and the music.
Your earliest musical training was as a pianist. How did that foundation affect your approach to playing the guitar?
It really helped physically, because playing the piano made my hands suppler. I can see this when I work with students who have some challenges with their hands. It also gave me a notion of chord voices and colors and took me to a beautiful musical world of great composers, such as Beethoven, Bach, Schumann, and Mozart. Being exposed to them at an early age helped my sense of music and my understanding of musical expression. This is something that you cannot describe with words, but you can recognize it when you hear it.
You also played mandolin in the early days.
I was in a bluegrass band that needed a mandolin player, and when we couldn’t find one, I agreed to learn it and began playing the instrument. I had been listening to bluegrass artists like the Country Gentlemen, the Seldom Scene, the New Grass Revival, and Bill Keith. I was a huge Bill Keith fan, and when he was putting together a band to tour Europe, his manager asked me to play mandolin. I was about 17. Bill created a style of banjo playing known as the “Keith style” or “melodic style,” which involves playing the consecutive notes of a melody using as many strings as possible, and that really resonated with me. While we were on the road, Bill discovered that I also played guitar, and he asked me to play three solo numbers each night, which were well-received by the crowds. The next year, all of the promoters invited me out on my own and that was the end of my bluegrass years. I never touched a mandolin again.