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Jack Be Nimble: West returns to his musical roots in Santa Cruz.

Sonic Chameleon

Jack West pushes his guitar techniques to the limit

By Marianne Messina

GUITARIST JACK WEST'S soft-spoken manner comes out in slide techniques that can bend a melody into a slow drawl. The Savannah, Ga., native eventually ended up in Santa Cruz: "Same Planet, Different Universe" (to steal a title off his latest CD, Big Ideas). Home to Jeff Traugott, who custom-built West's unique eight-string guitar, Santa Cruz is where West got his musical beginnings and where he will return to celebrate the release of his first non-self-produced CD.

Still, there's nothing easy about how this self-taught fingerpicker approaches his instrument. The guitar goes everywhere he does, and his lust for experimentation has turned it into a sonic chameleon. In Big Ideas' 33-second "Introduction," the sitar sound is none other than West's renowned eight-string.

"I have a tendency to write things that are almost over my head," West confesses, laughing. "Always pushing it to the absolute limit of my capabilities."

In one of his signature techniques, he plays percussive bass lines with his thumb while playing melodies on the upper strings. "I do some pretty wacky techniques," he says as he attempts to explain the sitar sound. "I hold one of the strings down and sort of beat on the back side of the string."

West's style is obsessed with rhythm, and in fact his earliest gigging came in the form of a duo of drums and guitar. "I guess I'm a drummer trapped in a guitar player's body," he says. "I definitely view music as a rhythmic thing more than anything else, and rhythm is curved. It has to repeat itself and loop on itself or it's not rhythm."

Curvature, the name for the mutating ensemble of musicians West plays with, embodies this rhythmic emphasis. Curvature's cellist, Mark Summer, has developed a percussive style by roaming the wide-open musical spaces of the Turtle Island ensemble, where, as West puts it, "He's the drummer and the bass player."

In addition to Summer, Joel Davel on marimba and Scott Amendola on drums have joined the latest version of Curvature. Amendola will be holding down the groove, while Summer, West and Davel exploit a kind of rhythmical sympatico, doubling each other through treacherous passages or bouncing off each other in a weave of patterns. But it's a loose weave, allowing for sporadic events to emerge, like the plaintive cello lines that surprise West's bass/melody overlay in "This Life May Be Monitored."

As a writer, West uses his work to explore his ideas as well as his emotions. The final cut of the album "grew out of the process of dealing with Calder Spanier's death." Spanier was a long-time friend of West's, a gifted sax player and musical compadre in earlier Curvature lineups.

More than a year after Spanier's death, West (and his guitar) visited the Canadian graveyard where Spanier was buried‚ "sat right down and played." When it was over, West had a song called "Same Planet, Different Universe."

The song is not at all melancholy, instead reflecting "getting over" loss and the celebration of a life. It has a Latin dance feel to it, and the bright, whimsical marimba lines attest to the fact that Spanier, as West reports, was a very funny guy.

After self-producing four CDs and running his own record label, Ahead Behind Music (www.aheadbehind.com), West was glad to turn over the production of Big Ideas to the capable Lee Townsend. West is also glad to see his label generating interest from larger labels. All this means more time to write, challenge his skills, and reach for newer, bigger ideas.

Jack West and Curvature perform Friday (Jan. 19) at 8pm at Kuumbwa Jazz Center, 320-2 Cedar St., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $8 adv/$10 dr. (427.2227)

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From the January 17-24, 2001 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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