by Geno Thackara
At best, the California Guitar Trio works like a single organism with six hands. They could be playing Bach, Pink Floyd, Dave Brubeck, 60s beach tunes or original pieces that draw on any style imaginable, but that feeling of joining together is really what it’s all about – fitting enough for a group that originally gathered from Utah, Belgium and Japan. It was early 1991 when they first stepped onstage as a trio at a cafe in Hollywood. Almost 25 years and fourteen albums later, they’ve visited tiny bars and opera halls, played festivals and weddings, shared the stage with numerous musical legends, and logged more road miles than you could even count without an MIT mathematician’s help. They were among the music world’s earliest online bloggers and posting fun dessert photos long before Instagram was a thing.
This autumn’s jaunt through the northeast won’t hit Philadelphia itself, but they’ll be stopping by Kennett Square and Sellersville on November 10th and 12th respectively. “I know Sellersville has always liked having us back. We’ve had some good shows there in the past,” a jet-lagged Paul Richards tells me from Los Angeles shortly after arriving home from some shows in Poland. “It’s been a little while since we played in the city. The World Cafe is another of our favorite venues. I’m hoping we get invited back there soon.”
No doubt there’ll be more chances down the line because the band tends to tour several times a year, although we may have to wait for them to lap the globe another time or two first: “I think most of the upcoming shows for 2016 are in the States. Early next year we also have invitations to go to China, and hopefully Japan will happen again sometime soon. China is something I’ve been very interested in – we’ve never been there before.”
The wanderlust is probably why so much of their music revolves around a sense of place. Their instrumental pieces might evoke the English countryside, colorful cherry-blossom festivals, the desert in Texas or the mountains of Italy, and their shaping influences are just as wide. Richards has roots in classic rock and jazz, Bert Lams studied classical at Brussels’ Royal Conservatory, and Hideyo Moriya brings Japanese culture and a love of surf music to the table. Richards points out that element as one example of their stylistic restlessness. “One of our new tunes is mainly a Hideyo piece. This one is kind of surprising. It has a Japanese sense to it. The way the melody and the chords go – it’s very un-Western. In most Western culture and pop, things repeat a certain way and have certain structures, but his pieces are more changing and have subtle differences in the way they flow.”
The group has been featuring very different sides with each release in recent years already: there was an album of covers with 2008’s Echoes, their first all-original work with Andromeda in 2011 and the classical collection Masterworks in 2012. In between they managed to squeeze in a live recording with occasional touring mates The Montreal Guitar Trio. Those last two in particular have nudged them toward paring things down to basics.
“All three of us were electric guitarists before we dove into the acoustic stuff, so we’ve always retained some of that way of doing things,” he explains, describing how even a small stage rig can make their acoustic guitars sound like spacy synths or dirty enough for grunge. “With Andromeda and a couple other previous albums, we’ve played with quite a number of things to modify the sounds. But after so many years experimenting with electronics – and we do enjoy that – lately we’ve been writing tunes that focus on the natural tones we can get just from the guitar without so many effects. That’s been a challenging but also enjoyable process. You’ll hear some of that if you come to these shows.”
He goes on to say that ” part of it might be an influence from the Montreal guys, who don’t use any effects at all. Playing and working with them reminded us of all the things that can be done just using different techniques, and also what can be done compositionally.”
The two groups crossed paths back in 2009 for what started as a quick one-off, and the musical sparks flew thick and fast enough that the partnership’s continued ever since. As if there isn’t enough else going on, an album from the whole sextet is taking shape when their schedules permit. Richards says, “I think that one’s getting close. We have almost a full album of material with them and some brand-new pieces the audiences haven’t heard yet. We’re all excited about that. Those guys always bring a different palette of sound and color to what they do – it’s such a different energy. Since next year is our 25th anniversary, it would be nice to get two new albums out during the year.”
The next mostly-original CGT album should be the first of those once it finishes gestating and they can choose a title. “Usually the name emerges once we have a good idea of the overall picture,” he says. “Some bands go into the studio with a definite direction in mind of how they envision things. We kind of do it the opposite way. We let the music itself direct how things turn out.” Each journey may start out with the map largely a blank, but the last quarter century has shown that they can always trust the results.