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Sharon Isbin: Exclusive Interview: August 30, 2011

Sharon Isbin
Sharon Isbin and Friends: Guitar Passions
Sharon Isbin


Sony Classical
Rel. 29 Aug 2011

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On Tuesday, August 16, 2011, Classical Archives Artistic Director Nolan Gasser spoke with the acclaimed American guitarist Sharon Isbin, coinciding with the release of her new Sony Classical CD, Sharon Isbin and Friends: Guitar Passions – an album which explores the diversity and aesthetic power of the guitar, and features an impressive roster of eclectic collaborators, including Steve Vai, Stanley Jordan, Steve Morse, and Nancy Wilson (from the rock group Heart). In this engaging interview, Ms. Isbin relays the details of the album’s rich musical contents and the processes involved in bringing it to fruition. The two also discuss Ms. Isbin’s impressive background and collaborations with many giants of guitar performance and composition – including such historic figures as Andrés Segovia, Laurindo Almeida, and Joaquín Rodrigo; an interesting story involving Segovia and the Paraguayan composer Agustín Barrios Mangoré; upcoming projects – including a new documentary; and much more. As a special treat, for a limited time, all visitors to Classical Archives receive a FREE STREAM of this COMPLETE new CD, compliments of Sony Classical. Our feature also includes a set of Sharon Isbin videos – including her engaging music video for “Asturias”. This is our second interview with Ms. Isbin, which further enlivens our appreciation for this most creative guitarist – don’t miss it!

“The people we drew on for this project are, for the most part, friends and colleagues I've worked with for many years, and with whom I have some sort of special association – and this includes the composers and arrangers as well as performers. It was so much fun to put together because these are my guitar heroes.”
– Sharon Isbin

Nolan Gasser: Sharon Isbin, welcome back to Classical Archives. During our June 2010 interview, after discussing your previous Sony release, Journey to the New World, I asked you about your forthcoming projects – and you gave us quite a tease, saying “We're plotting something new right now, it will be something very unique, special and exciting, something that no one's ever done before.” So am I right to assume that this “something” is indeed your new Sony release, Sharon Isbin & Friends: Guitar Passions, and if so, can you talk about that plotting process and how it evolved into the CD that’s now available?

Sharon Isbin: I had forgotten I’d said that [laughs] – and yes, that does sounds pretty intriguing… In fact, I had no firm idea of what the project was going to be at that point, other than the fact that we were discussing the concept of a guitar tribute album that would involve a number of high-profile guests from the rock/pop/jazz world. At that time, it still had to be assembled, so I couldn't have given more details – because I didn't know them myself! But I'm so thrilled with how it worked out: it was just one of those organic processes, where you begin with the integrity of intention, and a real belief in and passion for what you're doing, and things just magically fall in place.

NG: No doubt just the idea of collaborating with friends outside of the normal classical mainstream must have elicited all kinds of inspirations.

SI: Yes, and I also have to thank Sony for coming up with the idea of the CD being focused around the notion of paying tribute to the guitar. And then we explored that idea even further, featuring not only living musicians, but also those who have passed – including Andrés Segovia [with whom Isbin studied as a teenager] and Laurindo Almeida, whose arrangement of the slow movement of Rodrigo’s concerto I premiered years ago.

But principally the album features some of the most dynamic players of our time: like rock guitarists Steve Vai [track 5] and Steve Morse [track 3], as well as Nancy Wilson from the rock group Heart – I’ve always loved her singing and guitar playing; the piece we do together, “Dreamboat Annie” [track 6], is something that I used to listen to nonstop when I was in college. There’s also Romero Lubambo, a wonderful jazz-influenced Brazilian guitarist; and my friends [soprano saxophonist] Paul Winters and [percussionist] Thiago de Mello, with whom I’ve collaborated a lot. Plus, we have Rosa Passos, a Brazilian singer, and finally, Stanley Jordan, who is one of the great innovators in the jazz guitar world – who perfected the “tapping technique” [where the sound is made by pushing the string onto the fretboard] and is a marvelous improviser as well.

NG: Well, you've just given us a wonderful overview of the CD, and we're going to dive into a lot of this content and the artists with whom you’ve collaborated. You also just touched upon a question I was going to ask: you mentioned that you have Sony to thank for some of the inspiration; indeed, the title of your album, Sharon Isbin and Friends made me think of a Sony release with another of their star performers, Joshua Bell's 2009 At Home With Friends. I was actually wondering if Sony played role in spawning the idea of this collaborative approach, and it sounds like they in fact did.

SI: Yes, and the people we drew on for this project are, for the most part, friends and colleagues I've worked with for many years, and with whom I have some sort of special association – and this includes the composers and arrangers as well as performers. It was so much fun to put together because these are my guitar heroes.

NG: Well it's definitely an age of guitar hero worship, so you're adding nicely to that mix.

Let's dive a bit more into the contents of your new CD. The sub-title, after Sharon Isbin and Friends, is Guitar Passions. As you’ve just suggested, much of the CD is dedicated to exploring and adapting a diverse array of guitar repertoire, both classical and folk-based – which you’ve enabled by bringing in a mix of guitarists of differing styles, techniques and instruments. Many questions come to mind when we consider both the repertoire and your collaborators; for example, what were some of the first choices you made for the CD, both in terms of repertoire and collaborators?

SI: One of the ways I've always worked on projects is to choose music that I love; sometimes it's music that I've been saving up, in the back of my mind, as things that have touched me deeply, and that I want to record. In this case, it was not only the music, but also the people: I've always wanted to record with Steve Vai ­– he's like a brother to me; we met a number of years ago, at a Recording Academy event in which we performed together, and we really hit is off as friends and musical collaborators.

A few years ago, when I was asked to create a series of concerts – and to design a week of performances involving guitar with orchestra and various chamber groups – for the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris, they also offered to commission any composer I wanted for a piece. I suggested Steve Vai, which was unusual for them, because they think strictly classical. But it turned out to be an amazing experience, with his fans flying in from all over the world – as far flung as Japan and Mexico – and it sold out a couple of months in advance. It was a very exciting new work that he wrote for the two of us to do together, called Blossom Suite. The work was too long ­– over 20 minutes ­– to include on this particular project, so that'll be on a future CD. Here he joins me on a work by the Paraguayan composer, Agustín Barrios Mangoré [track 5] – which evolved when we were hanging out at his house about a year ago: and I started playing the “Allegro” [from Barrios’ La Catedral], and Steve started improvising; it was terrific, and we thought, “Hey, this works!”

NG: Indeed it does; Steve introduces a wonderful solo melody over the opening section before he launches into his improvisation – it sounds like it was written for the piece prior.

SI: Actually it was; we loved it, and decided to keep that idea.

Another name that early came to mind was Stanley Jordan ­­– because he and I had toured together back in the late 1990s. I've always loved his extraordinary sound and his virtuoso technique – as well as his amazing creativity. I picked a tune by an Argentinian composer, Quique Sinesi; it’s not yet published, and is hardly known at all. But somehow I thought that this piece would work for Stanley to improvise on top of, and that's exactly what he did. Not a note of what he played was written down, and it's really extraordinary what he came up with.

NG: You’re absolutely right – it's one of the more remarkable tracks on the CD. It made me think about some two-piano repertoire – like Brahms’ Sonata in F- for 2 Pianos [Op.34b, the two-piano prototype of his Piano Quintet in F-, Op.34]; when two pianos are both playing with a lot of activity, it can really sound like an orchestra, and I got that impression on several tracks of your CD: when you and another guitarist are actively playing, with lots of cross-rhythms, the sound becomes so much more than the sum of its parts.

SI: It is also a beautiful sound mixing nylon strings with the steel string electric; it's something I began doing back in the 1980s, when “crossover” was considered a dirty word. I was invited by Laurindo Almeida – he was one of the first people to bring Bossa Nova to the West, a marvelous Brazilian guitarist, and a very close friend – to perform with him on an arrangement he made of the Adagio from [Joaquín] Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez for three guitars: an electric guitar solo that would improvise on top of a Bossa Nova beat, along with the original guitar part. In that performance, Larry Coryell played the solo electric guitar part, Laurindo played the Bossa Nova part, and I played the original part by Rodrigo. We toured together on this for five years, and now I’m delighted to be able to pay homage to Laurindo – and Rodrigo, who I also knew very well – with a new incarnation featuring Steve Morse, formerly of the [rock group] Dixie Dregs, who played a rocked-out solo that is amazing! And Romero Lubambo plays the part that Laurindo did – though I encouraged Romero to improvise his part, which adds a whole different, spicy flavor to it.

NG: In many ways this is the most involved track – lasting over 13 minutes; in the beginning, there's an extended section where it's just you and Romero, before Steve comes in on his solo. Now, I've known of all the other guitarists on the CD, but Romero is not one that I knew of previously – and he's just extraordinary!

SI: And one of most gratifying things in this regard is that the recording that Laurindo, Larry, and I made of this arrangement – which has been out of print for years – became one of Rodrigo's favorite renditions of the Adagio; he totally supported Laurindo's arrangement, and his crossover conception of it. I wish he could have heard this new version as well.

NG: There’s no doubt that the Adagio from the Concierto de Aranjuez has been such a source for so many jazz-based interpretations, jazz – including Chick Corea’s Spain and Miles Davis’ Sketches of Spain

SI: When I first visited Rodrigo – he invited me to his home after I won the Queen Sofia Competition [in Madrid, 1979] by playing his Concierto – I first played the work for him, and we worked on it together; he then showed me two shelves full of recordings of various arrangements of the Concierto; and proudly pointed out the Miles Davis version. He was delighted that so many musicians wanted to bring the work to different genres.

NG: I recall reading that Rodrigo was fine with jazz interpretations of the Concierto, but he wasn't too keen on people just performing the Adagio movement of the actual concerto.

SI: Yes, that’s true; but if it was a new incarnation, such as the one he arranged for guitar and voice, as Aranjuez, ma pensée – which his daughter gave me permission to first record, which I did with [mezzo-soprano] Susanne Menzer – then he was very supportive.

NG: Both Steve Vai and Steve Morse are obviously guitarists who cut their teeth in the rock or in the jazz-fusion world, but they are likewise quite eclectic in their tastes. Steve Vai in particular seems to be attracted to the classical realm: beyond the piece he wrote for you for the Théâtre du Châtelet concert, he’s also been doing more straight-forward “classical” works for orchestra.

SI: Yes, he's a gifted composer, and a great reader [of music notation]; he has a tremendous following. He’s a “miracle player” – in fact, all the people on this album are “miracle players”, and that, to me, is really the essence of making music.

NG: We’ve talked a little bit about the Stanley Jordan collaboration. He too is an extraordinary player, and is obviously an interesting character: he had a career that was catapulting in the 1980s, but he then stepped back bit due to industry frustrations. It looks from his website that he’s got a new album coming out, so perhaps he’s trying to re-enter the industry on his own terms. At any rate, he’s such an innovator – and on your CD, he came up with a great arrangement of the piece by Quique Sinesi.

SI: Yes, the piece is called Sonidos de aquel dia [track 2]; I sent it to Stanley, and said, “What would you think of improvising on top of this?” He replied, “I love it!” He created his own improvisation part, and again, not a note of what he plays is written down.

NG: That is impressive: I've only heard the track a few times, but your two parts are so intricately aligned, with such wonderful cross-rhythms; it almost seems that parts of it are more worked out than improvised; though other sections are clearly improvised.

SI: Yes, Stanley actually spent a fair bit of time conceiving and practicing it; if we were to record it again, it probably wouldn’t have exactly the same notes, but it would have the same kind of concept. I’ve recently learned that Sinesi himself loves to add jazz improvisation to his music – including to this piece; he hasn’t heard our recording yet, but he was thrilled with the idea.

NG: I'm sure he was.

So, we've talked a bit about your collaboration with Steve Vai – which again is an improvised take on the Allegro from La Catedral by Agustín Barrios Mangoré, which is a wonderful piece. And what makes this new CD interesting is that it’s not just collaborations, but it also includes some solo work by you; and in fact you close the CD with the two main movements of La Catedral, so people get a chance to hear it in its original version.

SI: I felt that this was appropriate – since Paraguay just celebrated the bicentennial of its birth as a nation. I visited Paraguay in April, to play there for the anniversary ceremonies; and just before, I visited the home where Barrios grew up, in Misiones, and the museum that's now dedicated to him – where I got to play one of his guitars. The synchronicity of all this happening at the same time is really rather remarkable: Barrios was a major composer and guitarist from South America in the early part of the 20th century; I’ve played his music for so many years, and finally to be in his land, and to be performing there at the same time this CD was released, it's really a fun coincidence.

NG: Yes, Barrios is a god of sorts in Paraguay, and indeed his music should be better known outside of South America. You had earlier mentioned that your album is also a tribute to Segovia, your former teacher; and as I’m sure you know, there’s an interesting connection between Barrios’ La Catedral and Segovia: he heard the composer himself play it back in 1921, and Barrios was supposed to send Segovia the music, so that he could perform it, but he never received it – and so never did perform or record it.

SI: Not only did Segovia not ever perform La Catedral, but he never played any of Barrios' music – not because he didn't like it, but because he felt slighted. He had actually asked Barrios to dedicate the work to him, and Barrios was reportedly to have said, “I can't, I've already dedicated it to someone else.”

I myself had personal experience with Segovia, where I can attest to this antipathy first hand: in one of the lessons I was having with him, I was playing music that had either been written for Segovia or that he had arranged, and I had only prepared a few things. I didn't really expect this to go on for a very long time, but after an hour of playing one piece after another, and him saying, “That’s lovely, play something else,” I ran out of things to play that were in his style. I couldn't say “no”, so I decided to play a work of Barrios – not this one, but something else that was very lyrical, the kind of thing that Segovia would like if he didn't know who wrote it. When I was done, he said, “Oh, that’s a beautiful piece, what is it?”

NG: You should have lied [laughs] …

SI: Yes, I should have told a white lie, but I didn't; I was honest, and said, “Well, actually it's called Julia Florida and it's by Agustín Barrios Mangoré.” He immediately snapped, “Ah, Barrios! He could never compose: it was always a little bit of this and a little bit of that.” And that was the end of the lesson.

NG: Wow.

SI: Isn't that funny? But it shows that Segovia, who had fallen in love with Barrios’ music, chose never to play it because he had felt slighted – most likely because of the dedication issue. But aside from all that, I do pay tribute to Segovia as well by doing his brilliant arrangement – the one he's most famous for – of Asturias by Isaac Albéniz.

NG: Yes, and this is a real highlight of the album – the track for which you have created a real cutting-edge music video, very contemporary in style; and which we're very grateful to feature at Classical Archives. I know that you've done other promotional videos in the past, but had you done any other such dedicated music videos – in the MTV mold?

SI: This is the first time I've done something designed to be so visually artistic, along with the music itself; and I would love to share with you something very special: the reason this all came to be is that the video producer, Susan Dangle, has been filming a documentary about me and my work, and the collaborations I've had with so many composers and artists; it was my idea to include this music video in the documentary. It will be released in its entirety sometime next year – they're finishing the editing now, although the filming took place over the last three years. It includes some wonderful interviews and collaborative sessions with composers like John Corigliano, Christopher Rouse, Tan Dun, and Joan Tower; we have a scene from when I performed at the Grammy’s in 2010, as well as segments from when I played at the White House in November of 2009. There are interviews with various friends of mine – like Martina Navratilova, talking about the differences and similarities between the disciplines of tennis and music; also with Joan Baez, [violinist] Mark O'Connor, [conductor] Leonard Slatkin, and others. It features me playing with different orchestras as well… It’s something I'm very excited about ­– and hopefully you'll be part of that too!

NG: I'm sure we will be ­– it actually sounds like a more elaborate version of Sharon Isbin and Friends! Do you know when it’s supposed to be released?

SI: I'm going to guess sometime in early 2012; it’s being designed principally for Public Television ­– or at least that's the plan at the moment. I don't know how the whole sequence of release will work, but the music video is a teaser.

NG: I think that’s a great idea – and more classical artists should learn from this: people really respond to music videos, as they’ve done with your video on our site. There's something about watching an artistic video accompanying a great performance that captures people’s imagination.

SI: That's great – because we wanted to do something in a way that no one had done before, yet be tasteful about it. We wanted to create something where the visuals actually complement the music rather than work against it, and which shows the building intensity of the work in its visual context, as well. It was an experiment for all of us, and I'm pleased that you liked it.

NG: There are several moments in your video performance of Asturias, where you're leaning back on that sofa in a very comfortable position; is it easy to play something so technically challenging in such a relaxed, almost dance-like pose?

SI: The cameraman was Rob Fortunata – he’s an extraordinary artist himself, and does a lot of work for 60 minutes; he’s considered one of the great directors of photography of our time. I decided to just let he and Susan create their own thing, and I wasn't going to interfere in any way. So, when Rob said, “Go on the sofa,” I went on the sofa. I asked, “How am I going to play like this?” and he said, “You'll figure it out.”

NG: That’s the magic of video: it can make things that are impossible look easy.

So, getting back to your new album: just when we think we’ve figured out what the program is – you and your guitarist friends – you throw in a couple of curves, by featuring a few non-guitarists. These include your old pals Paul Winter on soprano sax and Thiago de Mello on percussion, as well as two vocalists: the wonderful Brazilian singer, Rosa Passos, and Nancy Wilson. I'm not surprised about you including Paul and Thiago – on Thiago's delightful tune, O Presidente [track 10]; but what specifically inspired you to include these vocalists?

SI: The reason we chose both Rosa Passos and Nancy Wilson is that they're both singer-guitarists, and each is a fine guitarist in her own right ­– Nancy being an amazing rock guitarist and Rosa being a lovely Bossa Nova improviser; in fact, Rosa did the arrangement of the part that I play to accompany her performance of Carinhoso [track 9], which is by Pixinguinha and Carlos Barbosa-Lima, both from Brazil.

I've actually known Carlos since I was 14 – I think he's one of the greatest arrangers for classical guitar of our time; whenever I need something, I just say, “Hey Carlos, can you help me out here?” I asked him to arrange the solo part that I perform on Carinhoso; he also made the arrangement of the work I do with Romero, Chovendo na Roseira [track 8], by [Antonio Carlos] Jobim; Carlos and I used to work with Jobim: we collaborated with him in performance, at Avery Fischer Hall, and on arrangements we recorded of his music.

As for Nancy Wilson, being a singer-guitarist, she was a natural fit. I didn't really know how I could approach doing a song that I had idolized for so long, “Dreamboat Annie” [track 6], but I suggested it because I loved it so much. She did the arrangement, and suggested that I improvise here and there – and, my God, it all came together in one afternoon in the studio!

NG: I can recall in our last conversation when we talked about improvisation: you mentioned that you might do some harmonic inversions or some slight embellishments now and then, but that you didn’t really improvise. But, in fact, I did hear on “Dreamboat Annie” that it was definitely you on the nylon string guitar doing some improv; and I said to myself, “That's great – Sharon's improvising!”

SI: Yes, I’m improvising some of the harmonics, and playing the opening tune to her accompaniment, with an overdub of mine – on the melody that her sister Ann would normally have sung. So, I had to stretch myself to do that – but you never know… I recently spent an entire day with Carlos Santana, at his home, and he was bound and determined that I was going to leave that afternoon knowing how to improvise [laughs]. We’re now exploring a project together that may come to fruition.

NG: Certainly, Santana has had a bit of a golden touch in terms of collaboration; so I'm sure that would be a wonderful project. You’ve mentioned that you grew up idolizing Heart and their debut album, Dreamboat Annie [from 1976] – what is the background to that?

SI: Yes, it was probably the first rock album I ever owned – I love the ballad style of it, and Nancy and her sister are just superb composers and performers. As with the project with Joan Baez, Journey to the New World, I never dreamed that I would eventually be collaborating with one of my idols.

NG: What was Nancy’s reaction when you approached her about collaborating with a classical guitarist?

SI: She said she'd be honored to do it; and with that positive energy, we just went forward. She was terrific to work with, and one of the nicest people.

NG: Terrific. So, coming toward the end of our discussion, you’ve stated that the idea of this CD was to explore and celebrate not only you and your friends' passion for the guitar, but also the rich and varied aesthetic dimension of the instrument – its charm, its intimacy, and also its power and its grandeur. So now that it's done, and you've completed this album, two questions for you: first, what is your hope for the listener in terms of the kinds of new insights that he or she will gain about the nature and potential of the guitar?

SI: The first hope is that they'll enjoy it as much as I do; I think that there's something in it for everyone. It's really about very beautiful and exciting music being played by my friends, who are people that I admire and respect, and who are so very creative.

NG: Yes, there’s such diversity on the album – although it's interesting that all of the composers except one, Nancy Wilson, are of a Latin background, either from Spain or South America.

SI: It's funny that you mention that, because it really was not be design – it just sort of happened. And I thought, “Oh my goodness, this is all Spanish or South American music, with the exception of “Dreamboat Annie”; so I suggested to Nancy that we could do a short epilogue at the end of the song in a Bossa Nova style – and that's what we did.

NG: That’s a nice way to tie it all together.

And secondly, now that the project is done –for you personally, in focusing specifically on this theme and executing such a diverse array of music with such varied musicians, what new insights have you gained about your instrument, which has taken you to such heights as a professional musician?

SI: Anything that is new is something you can learn from. There are connections here to projects I had done before – like the three guitar arrangement of Rodrigo’s Adagio, and combining electric and steel string guitars – but here I took it up a few notches, in terms of adapting to others’ improvisation, and that took it to another dimension. It’s hard to predict what's around the corner, but I can say that whenever an artist puts together something that is a few steps out of their normal realm, it's important that they don’t pretend to be somebody that they’re not. In no way do I attempt to do what Steve Morse or Steve Vai can do; I do my own thing and they also have to find a way of adapting to my style. The trick is to choose music that will work for everybody.

NG: Certainly, between this and your previous album, you’ve gained so much by exploring repertoire in a fairly untraditional way. And both have allowed you to tap into new sides of yourself, including getting a little more in touch with your improvising self – which perhaps is now progressing even further.

SI: It might be; we'll see.

NG: It’s one of the charms of being able to call music one's career – it's a never ending journey.

SI: Yes, and that's what makes it very exciting for me. I've worked with so many different composers [with ten concertos written for her, by composers including John Corigliano, Christopher Rouse, Tan Dun, Lukas Foss, Aaron Kernis, Joseph Schwantner, Howard Shore, and others] – all of whom have helped me stretch the instrument, as well as my approach to it. I really like the collaborative process, working with people who are either composing or inventing on the spot – because it really adds to the richness of the literature as well as to the experience.

NG: Indeed, to work with others is often the best recipe for bringing out the best in ourselves. So, at the risk of getting another tease, any sense of what your next Sony release may be?

SI: I certainly hope at some point to record the work that Steve Vai wrote for the two of us for the Paris performance, the Blossom Suite; but I think you know me well enough to know that I probably don't know the answer to that question – or else I’ll keep it a secret until it develops further [laughs].

NG: Yeah, I wasn't expecting a real concrete answer. But I'm sure that whatever it is, it will be something very organic and fresh – and we will look forward to it. Congratulations on this new album, and we look forward to the documentary, and to talking again when the next project comes around.

SI: Sounds wonderful; thank you so much.

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