Pittsburgh Jazz Guitarist Ken Karsh is one of those great players that you can’t help but wonder why he’s not a household name. His technique is most impressive, his lines are earnest and his solo guitar playing is way above par. It is indeed a mystery. Thankfully though, this relative anonymity, unless of course you live in Pittsburgh, doesn’t interfere with Karsh doing what he does best, which is playing the heck out of his guitar.
Conversations, his second CD as a leader, features Karsh in both a group setting and a more intimate solo guitar setting, providing a nice variety of moods.
The ensemble performances highlight great playing from all concerned, providing Karsh with a vast foundation to lay down some serious soloing. His fleet-fingered bop blowing on the first cut “Polkaboppin’” is, according to Karsh’s liner notes, his first foray into writing for the Bop idiom where, like the masters before him, he’s taken the well known standard, “Polka Dots And Moonbeams”, and crafted his own distinctive head on top of the well known changes. His solo is deep in the Bop pocket as well as he constructs long and flowing lines at a fast clip, while firmly planting his harmonic feet melodically on the ground. Jeff Mangone and Max Leake, bass and keyboards respectively, also get to flaunt their chops quite nicely as well.
With the exception of the Metheny tribute “Down Pat”, the rest of the group tunes offer a less frantic feel than the first tune, but are a none-the-less effective and delightful display of Karsh’s honed compositional talents. “Spring Forward, Fall Back”, “In The Corner” and “Conversations” are true ensemble pieces that favor songwriting more than just roughly sketched-out vehicles purely for blowing. Not that there’s anything wrong with that mind you!
It’s not enough though to have great tunes and talent, you need a group of players who can bring your compositions to life. It’s obvious from the first listen that Ken Karsh has done just that. The aforementioned Mangone and Leake, along with Bill Kuhn on drums and George Jones on percussion provide superb performances all around, as does special guests Eric DeFade on tenor saxophone and Joey Waslousky on drums. Karsh provides choice opportunities for each player to bring their first-rate accompaniment abilities and acute improvisational skills to the table, which they do admirably!
The remaining four tunes, “My Girl”, “Scarborough Fair”, “Song For GC” and Wes’s “Bumpin’ On Sunset” are performed as solo pieces, with the exception of “Song For GC” which has Karsh conversing with himself in a duo setting thanks to the magic of overdubbing.
Karsh’s solo treatment of these tunes brings to mind the likes of Mimi Fox, Martin Taylor and Tuck Andress as he demonstrates a skilled understanding and appreciation towards the more modern solo guitar approach.
Starting off each piece by firmly stating the oh-so-familiar melodic content of the original tune, Karsh then takes the tunes on a rousing joy ride that features chordal soloing, ripping single note passages and harmonic departures that come as a delightful surprise. His tasteful use of technique and time are sublime, keeping the listener actively absorbed in all that’s going on a musical, emotional and intellectual level.
It is clear that Ken Karsh enjoys “conversing” with not only the band members, but also the audience. Be sure to listen for some fun, but quick, familiar quotes from well-known standards that “happen” to pop up every now and then in Karsh’s solos. (“There Will Never Be Another You” for example) It may be Karsh’s way of making sure that we are all listening.
If you enjoy finding and supporting Jazz Guitarists deserving of greater recognition then look no further than Ken Karsh. I truly believe you’ll be glad you did.
Grab a copy of Conversations to see what I’m talking about!