Don't Call Acoustic Guitarist Alex De Grassi A 'New Age' Wonder.
By Dave Irwin
NOVEMBER 9, 1998: I LIKE MUSIC that embodies both qualities of intensity and the unknown with a sense of meditation," says guitarist Alex de Grassi. "I think sound in general is a vital force in everybody's life, whether they realize it or not. There are all those ancient historical references to sound and vibration in the world being so vital to life. Playing music is a natural extension of expressing something really fundamental, the need to make a sound or relate to a sound. By extension, you can say that sound can be used to heal, or put a person to sleep or put someone in a state of extreme stimulation. It can be put to lots of different uses."
De Grassi's influences range from British guitarists Bert Jansch and John Redbourn to Latin American folk music to classical music. A largely self-taught guitarist, his music also looks to the fingerpicking style called American Primitive.
"That was a big inspiration," he admits. "People like John Fahey, Leo Kottke and Peter Lang, and before that, the old blues guys like Mississippi John Hurt, Reverend Gary Davis, Bukka White, those were the roots of American Primitive. In the last 25 years, people have built on that tradition, become much more eclectic and refined the techniques. What I'm doing has been kind of refined, so it's not so primitive anymore. It's gotten more sophisticated."
Because his music is unique and original, crossing and mixing styles, as well as the fact that he was one of the first artists signed to the then-fledgling Windam Hill label back in 1978, de Grassi often finds himself saddled with the term New Age.
"Unfortunately, all these handles turn out to be obsolete at some point," he explains. "I never heard the term New Age until after I had made three or four recordings. Before then, I was just an acoustic guitar player," he laughs.
"As time went by, I found myself stuck in bins in record stores under New Age. There's not a lot you can do about it, except turn around and say, I'm not going to do my music anymore, I'm going to do all jazz standards or I'm going to be a classical guitarist, or I'm going to become a Celtic musician. It's difficult in this day and age to be truly original and not get co-opted into some label or genre that may not really serve you that well."
De Grassi's playing is marked by crisp fingerpicking technique coupled with a willingness to use the entire guitar in different ways, a sense of inventiveness much like former Windam Hill labelmate Michael Hedges, though their styles are vastly different.
"I'm always looking for different sounds," he notes. "If you can stretch out and include things in the composition that make sense, then I'm all for that."
He recently released his tenth album, The Water Garden.
"It's been seven years since I've made a true solo guitar album," he says. "In a sense, this record harkens back to some of my early recordings. That's because the spirit of it is like those earlier records."
Describing how his playing has evolved, de Grassi admits, "I used to have a much more open style of playing. I'd just let it rip. I've spent a lot of time playing classical guitar in the last 10 years. It's my study, my practice for improving my technique. My technique has evolved a lot in the last five or six years, because I used to play with a thumb pick and I used to think of myself more as a fingerpicker. I got rid of the thumb pick and got my nails in good shape. Now I've got a lot more control over the starting and stopping of strings, more control of the dynamics and the texture."
De Grassi has added some arranged folk songs and jazz pieces to his repertoire as a way of stretching out.
"I try to be very open with the musical experience," he states. "There are a lot of different valid musics out there. We like what we like because it speaks to something inside of us, regardless of what side of the globe it came from or what genre. We have to find in our music a way of relating to our life."
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