Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Adam Rafferty – Play Pretty For the People CD REVIEW

Full Disclosure: I know Adam personally, we met at the Swannanoa Gathering several years ago, and we are friends; Adam even plays on two songs on my own most recent CD release “Still Life”. But I’m a fair and honest critic; and I know Adam appreciates truth, so I’m going to review this as impartially as I can. As I would do for anyone, if there is criticism, it will be constructive. 

Adam Rafferty is a “funky” fingerstyle guitarist, hailing originally from NYC, with roots that begin in the Jazz world. Rafferty apprenticed with Dizzy Gillespie’s pianist Mike Longo for many years, and has played with many of the greats of the era. His work in this field is exemplary, as his first couple of albums will attest. In 2006 Adam experience the wizardry of Tommy Emmanuel, and that launched him into a new world of fingerstyle guitar. Rafferty brings an explicit funky groove to his fingerstyle arrangements, adding percussive elements, and even beatboxing to his repertoire. His approach to groove is almost metaphysical, his rhythmic spirit guide is powerful.

This new release sees Rafferty breaking out tunes from several genres, ranging from Brazilian standards to Beatles; each with his signature influences in the arrangement. Rafferty is thoughtful enough to provide tunings for each song for the guitarists in his audience; and indeed Rafferty’s lineup of instructional DVDs that teach his takes on Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, and Jazz guitar emphasize his player’s mentality.

Imagine –Adam’s arrangement style tends toward the sparse, and that space serves this song very well. It is a tender and warm touch that weaves the melody through an autumnal tapestry of chords and moving bass. The feeling is close, intimate, and welcoming. The down-tempo treatment of this song allows a deep exploration of the classic melody.

The Hippie Dance – This Rafferty original starts to tease the funkiness that permeates his style. His jazz background peaks through in some of the chord movement, and the percussive and syncopated riffs off of a tapped backbeat showcase the Rafferty groove. A little “chair boogie” and a pleasant smile.

Affirmation – A Jose Feliciano standard; this piece darts and weaves deftly about. If any piece on this CD showcases Rafferty’s rhythmic approach, it is this one; with the highly percussive breakdown near the end. The sounds like one of the more difficult pieces to execute, and Rafferty’s grounded yet playful approach makes it accessible and easy. The harmonizations in the melody are an especially strong treat.

Killing Me Softly – This Fox/Gimbel tune is one you know if you listened to any music in or from the 70s. It is a classic melody with an absolutely haunting and beautiful chord progression. It was a surprise to hear a fingerstyle take on this piece. Sans lyrics, it loses nothing. There is as much power in Rafferty’s melancholy and evocative arrangement as there was in Roberta Flack’s searing vocal back in the day. A moving and emotive piece.

Superfreak – And now for something completely different, as they say in the biz… Yes, Rick James on fingerstyle guitar and vocal beatbox. I’ve seen Rafferty perform this live, and he beatboxes while playing, no mean feat on its own. The arrangement is understandably sparse; and while the piece has a certain danceable novelty, it works less for me than the others on the CD; falling prey to a small extent to some mild production-related deficiencies, which I will detail later.

Yesterday – Another visit to the Lennon/McCartney well, and this one is well-traveled. The most covered song in history, and yet here it is all new again. Rafferty’s slower, sparse, plaintive approach really serves the song well. It imparts a yearning, aching quality. I love that if you listen carefully, you can hear Rafferty breathing. This might distract from another player’s performance, but with Rafferty it is an organic part of the performance. If you watch him live, his entire body is involved in every note, and that’s just fine, thank you very much. An honorable and original take on a mighty piece of songwriting.

Storm Wind – Another Rafferty original, in an altered tuning (DADGBE for you guitarists), this one harkens the open roads and big skies of the American Plains. The title is perfect; the imagery generated by the song is intense and powerful, kinetic and slightly menacing. This song belongs in the Weather Channel’s interstitial music catalog. Some picks are flyin’ around on this one!

But On the Other Hand, Baby – Another significant changeup; a vocal tune on a fingerstyle album! The ghost of Ray Charles is smiling, as Rafferty’s significant abilities as a vocal accompanist (and singer?) are showcased. This one is full of soul, roots blues riffs, and the signature underlying funk that permeates Rafferty’s playing.

Mas Que Nada – Jorge Ben’s midtempo samba composition that became the signature song of Sergio Mendes is covered here with a combination of Brazilian flair and the funky urban energy of Rafferty’s execution. It is a delight that he is able to product a full band’s worth of sounds from a six string guitar. Another track where you hear Rafferty’s whole body involved in the performance. Complex chordal movement, a solid backbeat, and inexorable rhythm drive this track, and you will be ready to dance.

Shelter Island – A light, airy, but fast-moving Rafferty original that breathes from the middle and top of the fretboard with easy grace. A chime-like countenance throughout, and lovely and delicate finger technique. There is a refreshing energy in the arrangement that is sure to bring a smile.

Misty – Errol Garner’s timeless classic is brought to life once again in this innovative and swing-charged arrangement. The endearing and romantic rubato introduction gives way to an impressive double time walking bass over what is actually a down tempo stance. This give the doubled blessing of a fantastic swing groove coupled to a slower statement of the melody; which gives Rafferty time to ornament with a deft hand and allow the full range of his expressive playing to burst forth. Playful and inviting, this piece is a definite highlight of the album. Some vocalization sneaks in, again showing Rafferty’s full involvement in the art.

In My Life – One last time to the deep well that is Lennon/McCartney. This arrangement is more straightforward and earnest, eschewing risk and excessive ornamentation for allowing the substantive writing and progression to stand at the fore and be expressed openly and warmly. I appreciated the honorific nod to tradition, as this song is almost beyond embellishment on its own.

Brazil - Back to the southern continent for this 1939 classic and a sensual, yet bouncy arrangement of what is samba gospel. Rafferty manages to stay true to the song’s roots; exalting the country’s many great qualities, with nary a lyric. The arrangement has plenty of Latin fire and a healthy dose of Rafferty smoke.

Summertime – Closing with this downtempo Gershwin standard is a fine coda; Rafferty’s slow dance half-time feeling 12/8 gives the darkened piece sultry life. The deeper hues and darker tones provide a nicely contemplative resting place for the album. This is a complex piece harmonically, and Rafferty has more density and layers in his arrangement here; it serves the piece very well.

On the whole, the album is eminently enjoyable, and quite generous – 14 tracks and a nearly 47-minute runtime. It feels like a love letter to Rafferty’s audience, inviting them into his living room for a private show of favorite pieces from every facet of his fingerstyle career. On the technical side, it is recorded with utter clarity, and with superb imaging and depth of field. Rafferty allows the mics to capture everything, including taps, vocalizations, and the movement of the instrument. This is not a sterile room, it is a richly decorated and sonically very interesting one. I’m hearing an ever-so slight boominess in the low bass on the guitar mics in some places, and on Superfreak there is an unevenness in the EQ curve that is exacerbated by the sonic complexity of the beatboxing. There’s a lot at the very bottom, but not enough in the middle part of the bass register; the net effect is the aforementioned boominess, coupled paradoxically to a lack of overall punch. It gets in the way of the guitar a little on Superfreak, and is present to lesser degrees in other pieces; but overall the mic and mix techniques add to the listening experience, and I’m sometimes known for being overly picky in this area.

One other interesting note: Rafferty made a technique choice on this album that most other fingerstyle players would not - he did not use a thumb pick. Using one gives the bass clearer tone and more definition, and sometimes can allow for faster techniques; but Rafferty's "au naturel" choice gives the playing a rounder, warmer tone. I can best describe it as "meatier". I like the choice a lot. 

I like the frank honesty in the performances; they are technically astute always, but not perfect; and you wouldn’t want them to be. The humanity in Rafferty’s playing is infinitely more desirable than, as my favorite author Diane Duane once called it, “the icy perfection of the mere stylist”. Rafferty has achieved his lofty goal of remembering the people who are sitting in front of him who paid to listen. It is to them that this joyful and memorable CD is gifted, and mentor Mike Longo’s advice to “go play pretty for the people” is heeded with care and respect. Bravo!

You can purchase "Play Pretty For the People" at Adam's website - and also on iTunes.

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