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Art Fowler and the Shamisen

There were some good moments the other night at Django. Before I played my solo set, a guest performer played a short set on his shamisen, which could be described as a Japanese banjo. Earlier I mentioned that I feel an affinity with the “stringy” sounds of a lot of traditional music from around the world. What I mean by “stringy” is music that highlights, on instruments ranging from the shamisen, to the citar, to the oud, exactly what strings have to offer: bends, slurs, hammers, and percussive rhythmic effects in the midst of melodic improvisation. (Be mindful that these are effects very rarely recurred to in jazz guitar, but are part and parcel of blues guitar and flamenco guitar …) Jimi Hendrix may be my favorite American practitioner of these effects.

The shamisen has only three strings (right?), and it is played with a very large flat pick. I think the instrument has some sympathetic drone strings–I don’t know–because the player sometimes hit the instrument from a different angle to get some very high metallic notes. I was so pleased to hear him play, in part because he was inspiring me to include in my set some of the riffs I often use that carry the inflection of these Asian or North African string improvisational musics.

I opened my solo set, commenting to the audience that students often ask me what Japanese music I like, but are disappointed when I tell them I like the traditional Japanese musics (though I don’t know anything about them) and have some CDs that I listen to. (The students expect me to know and value the J-pop artists they listen to.) Then I played my version of Norwegian Wood which always includes an interlude of improvisation where, droning on the A and D strings, I slide and wander around the neck playing in what is mostly the “Lydian Mode”, I suppose. But I hit it strongly enough that at more than one point in the solo, people laughed out loud, recognizing how I was quoting or referencing the shamisen improvisation they had just heard. Then I rolled back into Norwegian Wood.

My solo set was satisfying, and playing with the Django jazz musicians is always a treat. We closed the night with me singing “Heavan’s Door” with some of the rock musicians in the house.

Art or Arthur?

I go by a few different names, depending on where I am and who is talking to me. I introduce myself as Arthur Fowler (in English, that is), but many of my old friends call me Arty.

The guitarists that I love start in the rock vein: Jimi Hendrix, Carlos Santana, Jerry Garcia. Then there’s Wes, of course, and Kenny Burrell. I think then my teachers would be my biggest influences: Jack Grassel and Joan Soler. I have some John Scofield overtones, and here in Kagoshima I saw a wonderful show by Kohichi Hiroki, and I have two of his records on my play list now. Most of my listening is jazz, the peak years of the 50s and early 60, though a couple of recent albums by Jeff Tain Watts, Matt Wilson, and Ravi Coltrane have made their mark. As for singers, well, Billie Holiday, Nat King Cole, and Diana Krall, …

I love the blues, especially, these days, Lurrie Bell, and I have a sense of affinity for the stringy acoustic music of North Africa and Asia, though I don’t know the names of what I listen to.