Someone once asked me what my favorite instrument was. I guess they thought since I am a drummer, I would automatically spit out my love for all things percussive! However, I found it difficult to answer as I have developed a strong affinity for the character of all instruments and when placed into the hands of a true master and with respect to the spirit of the musician, you could bring me to tears with the thump of a Marcus Miller bass slap, just as easily as you could a Billy Barber sonata or a Michael Brecker scale. I’m All Jazz! But, I guess if you pinned me to a wall and threatened bodily harm, I would have to cough up the soft spot I have for the majesty of an acoustic solo guitar.
My soft spot grew even more vulnerable the moment I popped Russell Donnellon’s expansive "Since You Asked.... " into my CD player and emerged four days later awestruck and in need of a shave. Here is the fifth album of a mastermind I never knew existed until I stumbled into a downtown Youngstown eatery late one night after my band’s gig nearby. Jason, the owner of the venue was nice enough to introduce me to this longhaired short guy with thick, uncut fingernails and bright smile. We exchanged pleasantries (and CDs) and my life was never the same. I am truly fascinated that such a profound artist could have so much product available and tour as often as he does without becoming an international phenomenon, but such is the life of the indie musician!
To hear "Since You Asked.... " is to hear absolutely pure music. No Overdubs. No Editing. No Tricks. Just a man and his guitar and a wealth of talent! "I Want You Back" opens this World Series of Exceptional Musicianship. Yes, as in cute little Michael Jackson and his brothers taking the world by storm, but Berry Gordy could’ve never envisioned this cover. Lead vocals, background doo-wops, adlibs and orchestration all channeled through the nimble fingers of this virtuoso. You can’t help but hum along, tap your foot and remain curious as how so MUCH music emerges from one instrument. No Tricks, perhaps, but this IS Magic! While you’re still captivated, Russell begins to explore the sensitivity of Sting’s "Fragile" and you’re hooked. A solid effort. Enough Said. Hit Replay.
I don’t know about you, but as I approach the third song on ANY project, the question, "Yeah, But.... ?" usually begins to form, because EVERY album always puts its best feet forward. Can you hold my interest through track three? It’s here where we find our boy wonder going for the jugular because he draws blood with Bill Withers’ "Ain’t No Sunshine." Talk about unfair! And now he’s moved to an electric guitar (albeit sounds like a hollow body)! Three incontrovertible stellar pieces of music fabulously executed by a man who has the testicles to make these songs his own! His approach is so classic Lutherian in that if you are going to cover anyone, make the public have to choose which one will now become his or her favorite!
Speaking of bollocks, how about a spot of Beethoven’s "Symphony No. 7 Allegretto" for cut four? Truly Donnellon is hell bent upon making us rethink every piece of music we thought we knew. His technical skill here is flawless, yet amiable, bringing a contemporary panache to this approach. I must mention that in spite of the liner notes’ omission there is a hint of string pad tucked subtly underneath the mix for atmosphere, but it never hinders us. The guitar is King.
Duke Ellington’s "Caravan" follows to solidify Donnellon’s dominion over every musical genre. He is careful to begin the tune within a classical context, which has a sprinkle of chamber delay before venturing out to capture the mystical gypsy tempo of this golden original. Stark, deep and revelatory, it pays homage to the Duke with sincerity and admiration. "Julia" the supple Lennon/McCartney ballad is played slower, with an aggregative tenderness imagined if the original had been instrumental. Russell can do no wrong.
If you were going to be dogmatic about circling the globe with your guitar, you wouldn’t forget to visit Italy to cover "Love Theme From The Godfather." But if you were Russell Donnellon, you’d have to spin it with a salsa influenced undertone to make sure they knew it wasn’t going to be another boring version! The finesse of the groove is pocket tight and hip, providing Russell the opportunity to allow the melody to organically marinate atop his confident stride.
Kern’s effervescent "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes" aptly follows and by now I am sure the razor stubble is growing. And I fear I need a bath as well. Russell’s arrant playing is completely eye opening, once again making the familiar unknown territory. His use of the electric guitar is devastating. It adds a depth to the sincerity of love that an acoustic couldn’t express, which is metaphoric of any Jerome Kern composition in that it’s always that mitigating ‘edge’ at the heart of his affection.
But it’s back to acoustic on Jobim’s "How Insensitive." Clearly this is Donnellon’s world and it revolves around excellent compositions and stellar approaches to stretching our imagery. Provoking. It’s back to Kern (and Hammerstein) with "All The Things You Are" and again back to the electric - and again - back to a fresh, faster plan Judy Garland couldn’t imagine possible.
The inevitable "Danny Boy" is subtly kept in (and taken out of) context in what is now traditional Donnellon style. He’s always careful to honor the framework of the original, but utilizing his brush to paint a more articulate rendition with colors and brilliance in a way which earns our respect and admiration. I could not help put press ‘replay’ - again. This is probably the softest song I’ve ever heard.
As if we would ever get to the end of this burst of admiration without visiting the muse of Bob Marley is only to place another crown on the head of our new guitar hero. He finishes up his set with "Stir It Up" and does so with the affection and skill of a true Rasta disciple. He perfectly plays the reggae with a passive aggressiveness to underscore the pain of a haunted people who rejoice even in the midst of their circumstances just to spite their oppressor.
Russell Donnellon performs wonderfully, perfectly and vibrantly. He is a magnificent artist worthy of the highest accolades anyone can bestow upon him. He has remained true to the music while adding an insight and personality that will cause generations of music lovers to cherish the original composers. His fresh perspective is intrepid and highly contagious.