(Busy Hands Records, CD)
On Roots & Branches, Paul Asbell's second collection of gourmet guitar pieces, the well-known Burlington axeman further verifies his place as Chittenden County's John Fahey. The disc is a wonderful follow-up to 2000's Steel-String Americana; the originals and classics here are played on his collection of snazzy, exquisite-sounding acoustic and electric guitars.
The new CD is dedicated to Asbell's late father, Bernie, who was not only a well-respected musician and writer, but also a prodigious collector of early blues and jazz recordings. Through these Paul was introduced to some of the material he recorded for Roots & Branches, so we listeners owe the elder Asbell our thanks, too.
While he certainly has the technical ability to go it alone, Asbell brought in some friends to spice up a few of the disc's 14 cuts. Both "Parker's Mood" and "Hideaway" feature some fine down-and-dirty blues harp from Howard Levy. Joel Smirnoff, violinist with the Julliard String Quartet, fiddles about and adds extra class to Asbell's take on Fats Waller's "Ain't Misbehavin'."
It sounds like Asbell had a ball with the vocals on "Jesus on the Mainline" and "Fishin' Blues," numbers most often associated with Ry Cooder and Taj Mahal, respectively. Melvin Jackson's "Gambling Blues" and Jelly Roll Morton's "Windin' Boy" feature more singing. Asbell might be having a bit too much fun to be a convincing blues vocalist, though - much of the underlying darkness that makes the blues the blues simply isn't there. But you can practically catch the light glinting off of his guitar work, and that's Asbell's real claim to fame.
In the tradition of Stefan Grossman, John Renbourn and other guitar pedagogues, Asbell has graciously provided track-by-track information on his website about which guitar he's using and whether alternate tunings were employed.
Switching from tasty slide to flat and finger-picking styles with ease, Asbell always sounds clean and meticulous. This new CD showcases an accomplished musician who loves to play, loves his music, and knows and respects his roots.