Preston Reed - capturing the right spirit
A New Yorker in Girvan may not have quite the same romantic ring to it as An American in Paris. Since moving to the town on the Ayrshire coast six years ago, however, guitarist Preston Reed has found the kind of inspiration and support that his artistic compatriots, including Miles Davis and Dexter Gordon from the jazz world, discovered in the French capital.
Much of this has to do with meeting his wife and manager, Catherine Maguire, in a beer tent at the nearby Kirkmichael Guitar Festival. Maguire, a Dubliner with little or no previous experience of the music business, has since applied a tenacious instinct to every part of Reed’s career, resulting in an increasingly busy round of tours, concerts and recordings. Yet Reed simply leaving America has also played a part in this success story.
"America can be a tough place to find work," says Reed, "and the support system, for me at any rate, just wasn’t there. Over here, I feel that what I do has value, and that’s important. Oddly enough, my audience in the States has grown since I moved to Scotland but other territories have also opened up, like Italy and Ireland, which keeps growing and growing. So this has definitely been the best move I could have made."
The best illustration Reed can give of his improved circumstances is his latest album, Spirit. Previously, Reed’s reputation was built on an extraordinary solo acoustic guitar style that involves the fingers of both hands playing percussively on the fretboard, much improbably fluent fingerpicking and the guitar being turned into a drum. One enthusiastic reviewer described the effect of Reed applying this technique to James Brown’s funk classic I Feel Good as "a well above average white one-man band."
To the outsider, such virtuosity might seem daunting. With Spirit, though, Reed got much more personal, much more approachable, more like a classic jazz guitarist. The two hands hovering over the fretboard style gave way to a more conventional approach and the music itself changed from the fiendishly well worked out to a largely conversational song form.
For Reed, whose career hasn’t been entirely devoid of lucky breaks – he made his concert debut at the age of seventeen, supporting beat poet Allen Ginsberg at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, thanks to a friend of his sister – Spirit just wouldn’t have happened had he stayed in America.
"The story behind the album goes back to my meeting my friend Malcolm Cooper, who plays classical guitar and collects guitars of all kinds," says Reed. "When we first met, he was living in Manchester and after a concert at the Royal Northern College, he invited me back to his place to look at his guitars. The first guitar he showed me was a Yahama from the 1970s, a classic, hollow bodied jazz guitar modelled on the Gibsons that Joe Pass and Wes Montgomery used to play."
Reed liked the look of this instrument but because of the history involved with all the jazz greats playing something similar, he found it intimidating. So he strummed a few chords on it and put it down.
At the time, as Catherine will confirm with her eyes raised to the heavens, Reed was on something of a guitar acquisition drive. One by one, a 12 string acoustic, a nylon-strung Spanish model, a Fender Stratocaster and others arrived in Reed’s music room and found their way into his concerts with tunes specially written for each one. The odd one out was a hollow bodied jazz guitar he’d bought that didn’t quite have the ‘play me, play me’ drawing power of the others.
Then friend Malcolm, who by this time had moved to Edinburgh, invited Reed round to see his new house and there in the living room was the same Yamaha from before. This time, rather than being intimidated by it, Reed found that he couldn’t put it down.
"It just wouldn’t let me go," he says, "and after about half an hour, it began to feel wonderful and sound really good. Everything about it just seemed so right. So I said to Malcolm, You know, I’ve wanted to do something with a jazz guitar for a long time and the one I bought doesn’t have anything like the same magic as this one, would you consider letting me borrow it for a week?"
Malcolm made a better offer than that. He told Reed he would give him the guitar to keep if he promised to do something with it.
"He’s very much of the opinion that instruments need to be played rather than displayed," says Reed. "I know that something similar to this happened with Martin Taylor and an American collector but I just couldn’t imagine someone being so magnanimous with me over there. So, anyway, I took the guitar away and spent six months playing it and really becoming attached to it. Then at the end of last year, I had two months off the road and I decided that I should make a CD using just this guitar."
Everything about Spirit was a new adventure. Reed went over to Dublin to record in a studio he’d never worked in before with engineers he’d never met. And whereas, before, every composition would have been meticulously worked out before being recorded, this time Reed only had brief sketches of each piece.
"If the album sounds spontaneous," he says, "that’s because most of the music was spontaneous. I had chord changes to some of the pieces but the actual melodies all came together on the spot. It was quite scary, to be honest, and after about an hour on the first day, I was almost in tears because I couldn’t bring anything out. I told Bill, one of the engineers, I’m sorry, I can’t do this. But he was great, he wasn’t producing me but he got me to relax and try again and we became like a team after that. Maybe you have to scare yourself every so often to come up with something new and worthwhile."
Although it includes a jazz standard, All the Things You Are, Reed doesn’t consider Spirit to be, strictly speaking, a jazz album because he doesn’t improvise in the way that a jazz player does. He is, he says, a composer first and a guitar player second and when he plays them in concert, the songs from Spirit don’t actually stray very far, if at all, from the originals.
"Once I find my favourite way of playing something, I tend not to add new ideas to it," he says. "Because when I’m happy with something, that’s the way I want people to hear it. I tried All the Things You Are simply because I wanted to see what would happen. I’ve always loved jazz, particularly John Coltrane, Bill Evans and Pat Metheny, because they play in such a personal way and that’s what I feel I’ve done with Spirit. It’s much more personal and more intimate than my other stuff."
Since he recorded Spirit, the Yamaha guitar’s pull hasn’t lessened. Reed has never found practising a chore but he’s now playing more guitar than at any time since his teens. During the summer leading up to his debut performance at the Smithsonian, his mother found him a temporary job with the company where she worked in Sweden. Alone for much of the time in a foreign country and in a town where he knew nobody (a Swedish adventure came later, he confides with his hearty guffaw), Reed practised like crazy.
It was, he says, the summer when he rose above the bedroom guitar picker standard that he’d achieved through clandestine experiments with his father’s guitar and began to master the idiosyncratic styles of his early heroes, Jorma Kaukonen of Hot Tuna, John Fahey and Leo Kottke.
"The way I work now is probably more disciplined than back then," he says. "When I’m off the road, I like to get up with a cup of coffee and spend a couple of hours playing tunes from the jazz musician’s Bible, the Real Book. Then I’ll spend a couple of hours working on new compositions and after that, I rehearse my concert repertoire thoroughly because I need to keep on top of that. So, it’s pretty full-on guitar, guitar, guitar most days."
Whether Reed wants to call his new direction jazz or not, he’s already finding a more sympathetic response from jazz promoters and the jazz media. One area of jazz that he would like to explore is having a singer add lyrics to some of the tracks from Spirit as he feels that they could have a life of their own as jazz songs.
"I was aware when they were coming together that a lot of them had a jazz ballad feel, and if having them made into actual songs means my music reaches more people, I’d be delighted," he says.
"It’s up to other people to decide if what I’m doing by myself is jazz. For me primarily what the new stuff I’m doing offers is a good live show. I’m not going out on the road with eight guitars any more. But I’m not going to ditch the two handed acoustic stuff because that’s what will have attracted most of the people to the gig. What we’ll have is the new stuff, where I can sit down and talk about the tunes, do the intimate thing, and then I can stand up and do the high energy stuff, the wow factor if you want to call it that. It makes for quite a contrast."
From The Herald, March 31, 2007.