Ken Karsh: “Ventana” – Jazz Guitar Life CD Review

If Jazz Guitar was an Olympic sport Ken Karsh would be bringin’ home the gold. This was my immediate impression as I gave Ventana, the debut CD by the Pittsburgh based jazz guitarist a first listen. Having heard it many times since, I can honestly say that it is an outstanding piece of work that showcases dazzling and oft-times jaw-dropping musicianship alongside great writing and wonderful tunes.

The standard “Just Squeeze Me” kicks off the CD with a bang. Karsh’s playing is relaxed and smooth as he states the melody with a bright and confident tone. Nothing too overstated, just a nice reading of the tune’s head. Then the excitement begins as he explodes into the solo section with a flurry of quick lines that immediately bring to mind early Benson and later day Jimmy Bruno. The notes fly by as Karsh, who’s always in control, races through the changes with confidence and enviable skill. This cat has plenty of chops and he’s obviously not afraid to use them. Plus, he has a wicked vibrato that would make Russell Malone give a wink and a nod.

This awesome display of technique sets the stage for the remainder of the album where tunes like the standard “My Shining Hour”, and the Miles Davis’ tune “Seven Steps To Heaven” with its catchy half-time B section and double time solo section, get special treatment from Karsh as he almost literally, rips through the solo sections in a most impressive display of speed and taste. In fact, it is his taste and feel that place him at the front of the class. Just check out the Carlton-esque reading of the Kern-Hammerstein chestnut “Old Man River” for a swingin’ sample.

There are obviously a lot of great guitarists who can play fast and whip through a set of changes like there’s no tomorrow, but to do so with taste and melodic control, well that takes a special kind of player. And in my book Ken Karsh is just such a player. You only have to listen to the Lennon and McCartney staple “Blackbird” to witness what a truly marvelous guitar player Ken Karsh is. Done chord-melody style and on a delightfully sounding acoustic, Karsh introduces the tune finger-style through an almost classical approach as he begins by utilizing sparse, open voicings which slowly evolve into the familiar verse with some very nice single line runs, contrapuntal movement, and reharmonization involving some sweet sounding melodic and chordal substitutions. This is definitely the tune you call all your musician friends about to have them listen to it over the phone.

Then when you think you have him pegged, up pops the title track “Ventana”, co-written by Karsh and jazz singer extraordinaire Bobby McFerrin, with its airy Calypso rhythms, strong bass hook, playful melody and steel pan drumming. Definitely a song to make your feet move and groove to with wonderful solos by tenor sax player Eric DeFade, steel pan player Victor Provost, and of course, Karsh. And just when you think the tune is done, it starts up again for some more playful improvisation as each principal soloist takes turns exchanging licks while bassist Brian Stahurski keeps the groove moving forward. It definitely sounds like these guys were having a blast.

The pace decelerates a little with the Billy Strayhorn classic “Chelsea Bridge”. Karsh plays as it as a slow drawl of a tune incorporating some interesting string bends throughout the melody with acoustic bassist Dwayne Dolphin getting to shine on a great solo that made me wanting more.

And in case you’re thinking that Karsh is all about the speed, take a listen to the Karsh compositions “In Retrospect”, “Andie’s Song” and “Dancing Mist”. “In Retrospect” and “Andie’s Song” are heart-felt ballads that bring out Karsh’s sensitive side, especially “Andie’s Song” with its warm classical guitar shading. The final tune on the CD, “Dancing Mist”, a solo guitar piece, also uses the classical and is a beautiful tune somewhat reminiscent of early Ralph Towner. Definitely worth checking out.

While this is Ken Karsh’s CD there are other musicians who need to be mentioned, most notably, pianist Max Leake, drummer Roger Humphries, and the aforementioned Dwayne Dolphin on bass. These musicians handle most of the playing on this CD apart from Karsh and each player is a wonderful complement to Karsh’s musical personality both as a player and as a composer.

All in all, fourteen musicians took part in realizing this project and it is a credit to each and every one of them that this CD sounds as good as it does. Unfortunately there are too many to get into specifics so you will just have to get the CD to find out who played on what. That being said, this CD should be a definite purchase for anyone into great jazz guitar playing and musicianship in general and I highly recommend it.

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