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Jesse Sparhawk and Eric Carbonara - Sixty Strings

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Artist: Jesse Sparhawk and Eric Carbonara

Album: Sixty Strings

Label: VHF

Review date: Jul. 20, 2011

A lot of acoustic guitar music these days seems to be extending a language, whether it’s Charley Patton’s, Derek Bailey’s, Andrés Segovia’s, or Brij Bhushan Kabra’s. Philadelphians Eric Carbonara and Jesse Sparhawk play like they know about that stuff, but the patterns they trace are refreshingly unfamiliar without ever trying to sound weird.

Sixty Strings could have been a six-string guitar duo, since both Sparhawk and Carbonara have recorded on the instrument. But why settle for so few? The record derives its name from the fact that Sparhawk (of the folk-rock band Fern Knight) plays the classical 38-string lever harp and Carbonara plays the 22-string chaturangui, which is a guitar adapted by Debashish Bhattacharya to meet the requirements of Hindustani music. It’s usually placed in the lap and played with a slide, and it has a span of sympathetic strings that can generate a luminous drone; in its maker’s hands, it is a vehicle for breakneck runs and voluptuous melodic elaborations.

Carbonara has spent some time studying with Bhattacharya, so he probably could have blazed his way raga-style through a predetermined linear course with authority. Instead, he and Sparhawk downplay exoticism; when a percussionist joins them on the album’s second piece, he plays a martial snare drum, not tablas.

The record’s two pieces play out like a series of formal dances, and while the first is not as forthright as the second, the music is less concerned with building to a climax than it is with establishing a level of intensity. The chaturangui’s drone strings make themselves known at first, but after an initial fanfare they recede to form a near-subliminal backdrop. The two players take turns defining the structure’s core with continually morphing pulses. Carbonara holds his chaturangui in the familiar upright position, which enables him to exploit the clarity with which it renders single notes. His figures seem to spiral in narrow formation, while Sparhawk’s spin like a bright and lyrical lattice around him, sometimes throwing up whorls of dissonance. The music feels three-dimensional, suspended in space like a Calder mobile.

This session could have gotten by on instrumental fireworks, or the novelty of its multicultural instrumental pairing, or furthered the recent fashion of merging Indian sounds with American folk forms. But it’s much richer for focusing on the private language that Carbonara and Sparhawk have evolved. In its own modest way, Sixty Strings feels new.

By Bill Meyer

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