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Sonny Landreth

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Sonny Landreth’s 11th album, bearing the fittingly evocative title Elemental Journey, is something very different from the Louisiana slide wizard. Released on his own Landfall label on May...

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Sonny Landreth’s 11th album, bearing the fittingly evocative title Elemental Journey,

is something very different from the Louisiana slide wizard. Released on his own

Landfall label on May 22, 2012, the new CD is Landreth’s first all-instrumental effort

and his most adventurous work to date.

 

“From day one on the guitar, many genres of music have had an impact on me” says

Landreth. “For these recordings, I drew from some of those influences that I hadn’t

gone to on previous albums with my vocals. Trading off the lyrics this time, I focused

solely on the instrumental side and all this music poured out. Then I asked some

extraordinary musicians to help me layer the tracks in hopes of inspiring a lot of

imagery for the listeners.”

 

Like its predecessor, From the Reach (2008), Elemental Journey features guest stars,

in this case handpicked by Landreth for what each could bring to a particular aural

canvas. Joe Satriani delivers an astonishing, ferocious solo on the audacious opener

“Gaia Tribe,” the returning virtuoso Eric Johnson casts his seductive spell on the

dusky dreamscape “Passionola” and steel drum master Robert Greenidge brings his

magical overtones to the balmy, swaying “Forgotten Story.”

 

Drummers Brian Brignac, Doug Belote and Mike Burch, each of whom Landreth has

worked with in the past, lend their particular feels to various tracks, working with

Sonny’s longtime band members, bass player Dave Ranson and keyboardist Steve

Conn. Tony Daigle, another key member of Sonny’s team, engineered and mixed the

album, while Landreth produced.

 

“One of the things I’ve always loved about a good instrumental song is that it can be

more impressionistic and abstract,” Landreth notes. “Though melody is always

important, it’s even more significant with an instrumental. So what I wanted to

achieve was something more thematic with lots of melodies and with a chordal

chemistry that was harmonically rich. That’s when I got the idea to treat the

arrangements with more layering and to have the melodies interweave like

conversations. I also wanted it to be more diverse, to not adhere to any categories. I

wanted to leave it wide open to possibility.”

 

The album blossoms forth with unexpected yet seamless juxtapositions. For

example, Spanish moss atmospherics enwrap visceral bursts of rock and jazz on

“Gaia Tribe,” and Sonny’s slide swoops and soars over a Jamaican-inspired groove

with Greenidge’s Trinidadian pans on “Forgotten Story,” while “Wonderide” finds

zydeco romancing classical.

 

“On ‘Wonderide,’ you can hear some of Clifton Chenier’s Creole influences and then it

morphs into a classical motif with the strings playing more complex changes,” Sonny

points out. “When I started experimenting with it, I realized that the tempo for a

good zydeco groove could easily transition into the fingerpicking style of phrasing

found in classical guitar music. Then it was a matter of adding the strings to give it

more depth with tension and release, expanding the overall sound.”

 

Strings play a featured role on five of the pieces. The string arrangements by Sam

Broussard — moonlighting from his gig as guitarist in Steve Riley & the Mamou

Playboys — are played by members ofLafayette’s own Acadiana Symphony

Orchestra, conducted by its music director, Mariusz Smolij, a world-renowned

maestro. The strings are employed in a particularly inventive way wherever they

appear on Elemental Journey, frequently embellishing the tunings that Landreth uses

for slide guitar — “sometimes in unison like a horn section, sometimes as a

legitimate quartet or full blown orchestra,” Sonny explains.

 

The concept occurred to him after Smolij invited him to perform with the Acadiana

Symphony Orchestra for a 2005 Christmas show for which he played Bach’s Cantata

140. “It was something I’d always wanted to do,” says Sonny. “I’d played the

trumpet in school band and orchestra from grade school through college, so I was

exposed to classical music and jazz, but I’d never played anything like that on slide

guitar! So that really fired me up, and it became the backdrop for some of the

classical influences on this album.”

 

There’s a particularly thrilling moment in the first track, “Gaia Tribe”, that occurs

when two seemingly antithetical elements lock in an embrace. “When I first heard

Joe’s solo,” Sonny recalls, “I went, ‘This is incredible! I love it but it just comes up

out of nowhere — how am I gonna make it fit?’ After talking to Joe, I realized this

was a great opportunity to raise the bar creatively. That’s when I got the idea to

double the surprise factor and have the strings make their first appearance for the

album in the middle of his solo. The next thing I know, a song that had started out

as kind of a simple surf thing had become this wild ride of an epic piece and one of

my favorite productions.”

 

Landreth’s music has always been evocative, a vibrant mixture of indigenous sounds

and images informed by Delta blues and Faulkner alike. But here, by eschewing

lyrics and vocals, he’s located something especially pure and unfettered. “What I’d

hoped to end up creating was sonic stories without words,” he says. “And because

there are no lyrics, it’s really important to connect on an emotional level. All of the

titles for these songs have meaning for me — some of them are impressions from

post-Katrina, Rita, the Gulf Spill, friends of mine and their experiences — so that’s

part of it too. Still, I want listeners to feel something that resonates with them

personally. I’ve always tried to make music that engages you on a deeper level that

way.”

 

Prepare to be engaged . . . and transported.