'Mozart of the Guitar' Pierre Bensusan to Celebrate 40 Years of Live Performances
Back in 1974, Pierre Bensusan (www.pierrebensusan.com) was cutting his teeth as a performer on the folk scene in Paris and other cities in France when one of his idols, banjo great Bill Keith, offered him his first official paying gig ever touring Western Europe with his bluegrass band. The French-Algerian upstart, humbly launching a four decade career which would earn him worldwide renown as the "Mozart of Guitar," was hired to play mandolin. But when Keith heard his groundbreaking approach to the acoustic guitar, he decided to allow Bensusan a few key spotlights on that instrument.
Decades later, when Bensusan was looking for potential finishing touches for Encore, his ambitious and expansive retrospective collection celebrating 40 years as a globetrotting live performer, he discovered a reel to reel tape with a Swiss National Radio recording of a concert in Lausanne from that tour. While the tireless troubadour's original plan for the 3-CD set was to include tracks recorded between 1998 and 2013 in France, Canada, Ireland, Austria and especially the U.S. (where he regularly records), Bensusan decided to round out the 35-track set by starting "Disc 2" with a set of five titles from this show, including two bluegrass songs.
Engineered in Los Angeles by two-time Grammy nominee Rich Breen, Encore also includes a handful of songs featuring Bensusan's beautiful French language vocals ("Cordilliere" and "Pas Sage," among others) and wordless vocalese ("Bamboul'hiver"); two cuts with future Dream Theater keyboardist Jordan Rudess from a commissioned 1998 concert in Northern France that included a 200-piece children's choir (including the previously unreleased "Anthem For The Ocean"); and the 18-minute setpiece "Celtic Medley." In all, Encore features 11 tracks never previously released commercially in any form.
These five mid-'70s songs not only give fans a chance to hear Bensusan perform in a style that is unique from all his other solo work, but also an opportunity to hear the multiple open tunings approach he took earlier in his career. In 1978, he began using his trademark DADGAD (also known as D-modal or Celtic) tuning, which is accomplished by tuning the first, second and sixth strings down a whole tone (two and a half steps). Over the past 35 years, Bensusan has been widely recognized as the world master of this type of tuning.
The 2014 release by Bensusan's own label Dadgad Music fills a unique gap in the multi-talented performer's discography, which dates back to his 1975 debut album Pres de Paris and in recent years includes Intuite (the American Association of Independent Music's "Best Acoustic Album of 2002") and his most recent studio recording Vividly (2010).
Thousands of his fans own these recordings but anyone who has experienced him in concert knows that the guitarist's greatest range of expression and vast emotional depth comes in the joyful and spontaneous, risk taking moments during his live performances. And that some of his greatest studio work originated during onstage bursts of spontaneous improvisation. Despite headlining over 3000 shows throughout North America, Europe, Asia, Australia and Africa since the mid-'70s, his only live performance releases have been a DVD of a live concert in San Francisco in 1996 and a dual CD of a concert in Paris with French woodwind player Didier Malherbe, Live in Paris (1997).
"I think the energy of that album with Didier is amazing, because we toured extensively together, but over the years, as people coming to my shows asked about a live recording, I had to tell them I didn't have any on my own," says Bensusan, chosen Guitar Player Magazine's 2008 "Best World Music Guitar Player." "It was always something I knew I would do one day. My manager in France thought we should do something special for fans to commemorate my 40 years on the road. After all, while I am also a recording artist, I am known as a touring musician and most of my professional activities involve performing live. As the concept took shape, my desire was to present myself in the context of my 'real' life, on the road, because the proximity of the public, the pleasure, the urgency, the risk-taking, the 'danger' but also the joy of sharing the moment yield unique emotional states."
Following up on his manager's exciting idea, Bensusan at first had no idea if there were enough good quality live recordings to fill a single CD, let alone more. As he dug through the random tapes that he had accumulated, he discovered that out of those more than 3000 shows, only 50-60 had been recorded. One of the greatest treasure troves proved to be concerts recorded by local radio from his many visits over the years to The Prism Club in Charlottesville, Va. from 1999-2005, and a full one fourth of the tracks on Encore come from those performances.
Guided by his notion that any tracks he chose to include had to have stood the test of time, he was pleased that while not every performance was to his liking, there were more than enough strong shows to fill a single CD - and another and finally, another.
"Over the years I had collected dozens of recordings I had mostly never listened to," he says. "What you have on Encore is a selection of these particular moments from various shows and different time periods," Bensusan continues. "Our choices were far from haphazard. We had to try to make the flow make sense in terms of music and times and sounds. I was lucky to work with the extraordinary Rich Breen in L.A., whose work I admire includes engineering projects for Herbie Hancock, Yellowjackets and Oregon. "He brought a necessary beautiful musical attitude to the project. We were dealing with different times and acoustics, and we didn't want to touch the basic musical elements that made those performances a unique snapshot of their time. At the end of the day, as you listen to the three CDs straight through, everything comes together wonderfully and makes perfect sense."
The final tracking, Bensusan says, was not designed in a specific chronological sequence, but in such a way as to make listeners feel they are on an emotional journey with him. "I want people to feel not as though they are at any one of the concerts these tracks are from but basically in an intimate living room setting, allowing me to take them to different musical places," he explains. "It starts in a quieter place and then evolves pretty quickly into a high energy affair. I would say that Encore is probably my most truthful recording ever, because the studio is not always a very dangerous place. You can stop and start again and the intimacy there is just between the artist and the music. Onstage, however, there is an urgency and a context I adapt to and I get to take people along as I take chances and have the opportunity to bring the music to place it's never been before. These are moments in time reflecting ways of approaching these songs that I never did before and never did again."
Bensusan's lifelong friend and collaborator, master luthier George Lowden, has also begun work on a special 40th Anniversary Bensusan signature model guitar which is due for release in January 2014. The signature guitar celebrates both Pierre and George's 40th career anniversaries, a span of time over which Pierre has taken his trusty Lowden guitar (loving referred to as his 'old lady') to all the corners of the globe. His 'old lady' was put into retirement in early 2000 when Pierre's new signature model was built, a model which went on to become Lowden's best-selling signature guitar.
Lowden guitars will be teaming up to support Pierre's 40th Anniversary World tour, covering Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, Paris, London, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, North America and Europe (Germany, England and Ireland) before a fall 2014 jaunt that takes him to numerous Asian markets, including China, South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan and Japan.
"This is really a wonderful way to go through life, traveling different places and connecting with and bringing joy to fans in various cultures," he says. "I have always been so grateful for the support of my fans, and Encore is really for them, to share special moments from my past even as I am out there creating new ones and hopefully gaining new fans along the way. To me, Encore shows that I have spent many years maturing and evolving as a composer and guitarist, but it's clear to me, now more than ever before, that my best work is still ahead of me."