The list of stunningly spectacular solo guitarists in the transcendent lineage of Pass, VanEps, Pizarelli, Atkins and Breau has been extended by one. With the release of “Hello Dali”, his indie follow-up to 1995’s “Innuendo Out the Other”, Phil de Gruy rightfully takes his place in the sitting room for the Rushmore-deserving practitioners of the genre. Of that group, he’s most decidedly out of Breau (with whom he studied in the late 70’s), freely employing and superhumanly executing the harp harmonics that were (and are still) Lenny’s amazing/angelic signature.
In the documentary of Lenny’s life and untimely death, Pat Metheny notes that, among the many elements of Lenny’s style he admired, he was most deeply intrigued by these harp-harmonics, but would not dare employ them in his own playing in deference to what amounted to Lenny’s invention and mastery of the technique. No doubt deGruy feels this same deep respect, but has so absorbed, incorporated and somehow re mastered it, to the point of being the next step in its evolution, that to not employ it in deference to Lenny’s spirit would be more disrespectful. Unlike Breau, deGruy eschews fingerpicks, preferring the distinctly human sound of flesh on steel, which is audible (on this beautifully genre-sensitive recording) and palpable throughout.
Like Charlie Hunter, he also uses a beautifully crafted and ergonomically engineered, extra-stringed, fanned-fret guitar by luthier Ralph Novak, but does not pump the bottom strings through a bass rig, opting instead for getting the traditional, fat, mellow, hollow body sound out of his massive, solidbody plank. deGruy’s most decided departure from the idiom, yet his most individual stamp on it, stems from his use of an additional ten strings in the instrument’s high register which do not have frets. They are used liberally and stunningly, yes even magically, to add upper extensions, both richly “in” and dissonantly “out”, in the form of what sounds like either open or harp-harmonic struck strings. Are they retuned for every song? Can deGruy change their pitch via “stopping” the strings at various lengths? Can he change their pitch using false harmonics? These and more questions will go unanswered here. Like I said- magic, or perhaps, some voodoo-driven deal with the devil struck in his native N’Awleans.
Previous writings regarding Phil’s work emphasize, or should I say over - emphasize the humor in his presentation and playing. I mean, no question his choice of intertwining Donald Fagan’s “Chain Lighting” with a medley of tunes from the Wizard of Oz is, on it’s surface, entertainingly amusing, but it’s also an astute musical device, not only to draw attention from the “average” listener (whatever that is), but to draw attention to the harmonic and re harmonized richness of the seemingly “simple” tune. Certainly, the sheer beauty of his take on “Over the Rainbow” will more likely induce tears than laughter, while the snippets of “The Witch is Dead”, “Follow the Yellow Brick Road”, and “If I Only Had a Brain” that follow will surely bring smiles, if not of nostalgic recollection than of awestruck bemusement of his offhanded mastery of harmony, technique and time (he speeds and slows tempo organically and at will, using this tool deftly to draw the listener into the performance and almost into his lap for the ride).
Highlights? Hard to go there, with on average, every third measure of the hour-plus disc being an utter jaw-dropper. But I’ll point you toward the absolutely impossible arpeggiations of “Limbo Jazz”, the plaintive percussiveness of “Drum Negrita”, the condensed homage to the composers and tradition of Samba/Bossa on “Brazilian Medley” and the way the instrument seems to change tune and play itself, coupled with some steroid-propelled chicken picking, on “Merry Medley”.
So, why doesn’t the average Joe or the vast worldwide fraternity of hobbyist guitarists know who deGruy is? Maybe it's because he rarely leaves the confines of New Orleans, seeming very satisfied with his regular gigs and his lifestyle there. Maybe it’s because he is the latest in a long line of indie virtuosos, lacking a publicity machine, to which we are privileged to draw your attention.
In closing, do yourself a huge and buy this one directly from Phil through his website, www.guitarp.com, or other internet retailer (www.louisianamusicfactory.com). If you won’t take our recommendation, take Charlie Hunter’s. In Downbeat’s famous blindfold test, a savvy tester played Charlie a cut from DeGruy’s previous record. Hunter immediately named the song and it’s practitioner, giving it “50,000 stars…no infinite”. I, for one, couldn’t agree more.
For more information, contact Otter Print Records.
~ Phil DiPietro