This Canadian fingerstyle guitarist is a card-carrying member of the very spare catalogue of full-spectrum players utilizing a number of techniques to wring as much as possible from the soloist role as an instrumentalist. Because he has the uncanny ability to play solo runs within the chords he's strumming while also percussing the guitar's soundbox, it's rightly said that Don Alder sounds like a small ensemble. This CD is an anthology of his own choosing, ranging from the balladic Marshal's Lanai, where he heads into Steve Tibbetts-ish territory, with slightly bent chords atmospherically evoked, to Kottke-esque multi-syncopations. Many years ago, Windham Hill produced a number of fine LPs in this vein, Will Ackerman's series chief among them, but nothing quite like this. The soft-spoken whiz Alex DeGrassi was somewhat in the vein but hadn't the chops this guy does.
Laying a genre to the release is a trifle difficult, as Alder waxes Oregon-ish one moment then delves into Ozark walk-time another (Tommy Time), but most often settles into that richly satisfying zone Leo Kottke best typifies, with complicated arabesques of far-side Americana in a modern bluegrassy mode. Of course, there are cuts like DR DR which tread again toward Tibbetts via a Coryellish Steve Khan, dark and light simultaneously. For just one instrument per tune, Alder never fails to lack for fulsome atmospheres, a trait too many other such ventures fail to capture at all.
The precision and tone required by the composer's labyrinthine work demands special instruments and, so, Alder devotes himself to hand-luthiered axes exclusively, guaranteeing warmth and pitch-perfection every note. The intelligence of his songs, though, invites a nod to Ralph Towner by way of Egberto Gismonti and Jan Akkerman. Highly atypical of what the advent of New Age music invested in the "new instrumental" genre, these songs are a great deal more than just pleasant ditties, as "Belgian Jacgues-late" shows, with its lead line slipping in and out of the chord work, the chords themselves often splitting to fuse the front melody. Wok the Dog, on the other hand, jumps and jives as a Michael Hedges' styled flash-and-swing number.
So far, Cool is the player-composer's sixth CD, with an anthology DVD available, wherein Alder's one player among five. Alas, had he only made Cool an enhanced release with a visual number tossed in. To watch his fretwork would be entrancing, but it must be suspected that the guy suffers the same malaise as many of the masters of his ilk: too few audients exist in the market with the intelligence to appreciate the finer points of handling the guitar this beautifully and, thus, the expense of enhancement probably couldn't be afforded. I once sat agape at a Ralph Towner solo gig at McCabe's and just the play of his hands over the fretboard was purest poetry - Alder's in that camp, especially in cuts like "Take the Train Eh!"
He was kind enough to also issue me a copy of a CD carrying a version of Sugarloaf's hit Green-Eyed Lady and the improv'ed cover is somewhat reminiscent of Les Deux Ami's work on Focus' (a progrock group) tunes. However, where the Amis were faithful, Alder takes many liberties and ends up with a hybrid that's tasty as hell. Truth to tell, though, I'm even more entranced by that disc, entitled Take the Train Eh!, which carries a rawer edge, much closer to live work, and opens up the fullest range of his capabilities. Every track is breath-taking but "The Sheriff" stands out as astonishingly well-crafted. The release boasts his only try in the vocal realm...and he's pretty damn good in that dept. as well.
Criticisms? Just one, and only because I'm a greedy little consumer with a pronounced weakness for the instrument. It's the same lack I felt with Tommy Emmanuel's work : I wish to hell perfectionists like Alder would write longer songs, perhaps as much as a 14-minute suite, as Akkerman did with Lammy from the Tabernakel LP, providing a broader playground for thematic and compositional variations within a story-like atmosphere; such a prospect would be tantalizing indeed.
If the endless barrage of sappy and weak New Age solo guitar LPs that flooded the market years ago left you despairing of what the instrument and human hands were capable of, Cool Tunes Compilation will restore that crestfallen attitude to its properly beaming estate, but you might want to inquire about that other disc as well: it's pure dynamite!
Oh, and Alder's been deeply involved with work for debilitated people who are striving to keep a vital full presence in society, engaged especially with lifelong friend Rick Hansen, now a world-famed figure, a rather dauntingly dynamic individual and mega-athlete. Yep, you read correctly: Hansen, who operates from a wheelchair, suffers from a spinal chord injury sustained in an accident but is a world-class athlete nonetheless. Link in with Alder's website and go to the story. Pretty amazing.
Edited by: David N. Pyles
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