Guitarist David Leisner has been a featured solo recording artist on the Azica label for about a decade. His repertoire reaches back to his own arrangements of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach and forward to recent works, some written on commission. His latest album was released this past February; and it covers both of these categories, an arrangement of Bach’s BWV 997 lute suite (called a partita on the album) in C minor and the recently commissioned suite Facts of Life by David Del Tredici, along with the world premiere recording of Osvaldo Golijov’s “Fish Tale” for flute and guitar (meaning that this is not, strictly speaking, a “solo” album).
Del Tredici has composed for guitar in a variety of settings, but Facts of Life is his first solo composition for the instrument. In the accompanying notes, he is quoted as describing the composition of the piece as a “‘co-creative’ experience;” and the listener can appreciate the exploratory qualities of what Del Tredici has created. The composer has his own original way of taking simple motivic materials and elaborating them through a variety of techniques, many of which involve the contrapuntal capacities of the instrument. The epitome of that exploration comes with his ability to take many of the most familiar elements of flamenco guitar music and reconceive them with the wild flights of fancy we tend to encounter in bebop improvisation (although decidedly not in the bebop rhetoric), resulting in the longest movement of the suite. In contrast, the slow movement was written as a memorial to the composer’s fifth husband.
While the emotional spectrum of Facts of Life is diverse, Leisner brings an affability to the rhetorical stance of his performance, giving the music the sense of an intimate conversation. That same stance can be found in his Bach arrangement. His approach to the dance movements tends to be a bit on the languid side; but, in the context set by Facts of Life, this music seems to capture memories of past dances, rather than serving “dancing in the present.” This may not have been how Bach himself would have thought of this music, but it is clear that Leisner’s approach to arrangement involves rethinking the spirit of the text, as well as the letter. The result has more to do with an effective coupling of Bach to Del Tredici than with Bach’s suite standing on its own merits.
In that respect, “Fish Tale” serves as an epilogue for the entire album. Flutist Tara Helen O’Connor brings a new dimension of wistfulness to the intimacy that has already been established. That dimension is due in no small part to bringing human breath into the process of music making. While there is definitely a sense of breath in Leisner’s approach to phrasing both Del Tredici and Bach, breath becomes a more explicit constraint in “Fish Tale;” and, if the music itself is a bit on the syrupy side, it still provides a perspective from which the listener may then reflect back on the two compositions that preceded it.