(Modern Art, Oxford, 23rd April, part of Oxford Jazz Festival, review by Hamish Birchall; photo credit: Barker Evans)
‘It’s not really jazz, is it?’ Before I got anywhere near Preston Reed‘s gig at Modern Art Oxford, it was clear that some festival-goers considered his inclusion on the programme inappropriate. Well, he’s not modern art either, but he is a very good guitarist. Indeed, he is an amazing guitarist.
If we’re going to pigeon-hole music, Reed is not jazz. Born in New York, and based in Scotland since 2000,his influences are predominantly bluegrass, blues, rock and country. His often programmatic compositions do include a relatively small proportion of certain chords, rhythms and improvisation that jazz fans prefer. These sections are not, in my opinion, his best.
But this is to miss the point. He is rightly lauded in America and Europe not only as a fine exponent of finger-picking guitar, with many albums and broadcasts under his belt, but also as a genuine innovator. In 1987 he invented a way of two-handed playing that integrates the full percussive potential of the guitar body. On the acoustic six-string he really can sound like a one-man band.
Opening with a piece called ‘Hangman’, Reed’s optimistic, energy-packed performance blew the cobwebs out of the rather stuffy, claustrophobic basement, already standing room only. At first sight, his technique looks awkward, left hand hanging over the guitar neck from above, playing almost keyboard-style, with both right and left hands at the same time tapping and slapping for bass drum and snare backbeat effect. Two numbers in similar vein followed, one inspired by the Japanese ‘bullet train’ and going almost as fast.
For ‘Street Beat’ he switched to semi-acoustic, gentler in tone and mood – jazzier too, although of the easy-listening variety. ‘Half life’ followed, a jaunty shuffle and catchy tune from his most recent album, ‘Spirit’.
‘Overture’, he explained, switching to a 12-string guitar, ‘was about the moments immediately before and immediately after the birth of my daughter’. A series of chiming chords built the tension. A repeated two-note bass figure suggested things were moving. The jangly, bluegrass finale was, presumably, the happy outcome (she will be 18 on Monday).
Reed played on without a break for 90 minutes, a total of 18 original compositions. Those that stood out included the funky ‘Fat Boy’, named after his favourite model of Harley Davidson, ‘Far Horizon’, an evocative, almost mournful ballad, both played conventionally on six-string acoustic. ‘Delayed train’ (yes, engines seem to be a theme) chugged along nicely with bottleneck slide, and his encore piece ‘Rainmaker’, featured a convincing drum solo.
This genial guitar wizard enthralled his audience from the start, and they stayed with him to the finish.