Review: Adam Cicchillitti and Steve Cowan, “Focus”

Adam Cicchillitti/Steve Cowan, Focus

In his debut album for Analekta, Adam Cicchillitti chose to highlight 19th- and 20th-century Spanish repertoire in a gorgeous project that remains on my playlist to this day.  For his latest project, he’s joined forces with fellow Canadian guitarist Steve Cowan to shine a spotlight on works by contemporary Canadian composers.

Harry Stafylakis’ two-movement work “Focus” provides the opener (and the title piece) for the album.  The first movement, “Radial Glare,” provides an uptempo, energetic start to the disc; as noted in the liner notes, the piece as a whole melds Stafylakis’ interests in prog rock, classical music, and traditional Greek music.  I confess that I hear much more of the latter, particularly in “Radial Glare.”  The second movement, “Inward Gaze,” is a quieter, more reflective track, and one to which I’ve returned often since I first started listening to this project.  (Read more about Harry Stafylakis here.)

“Choro: The Joyful Lament for Villa-Lobos,” by Andrew Staniland, pays tribute to the Brazilian composer (described by his biographer as ‘the single most significant creative figure in 20th-century Brazilian art music’) via Staniland’s development of a choro (Brazilian lamentation).  Staniland’s composition allows both guitarists to shine, and creates a dancing, but thoroughly orchestral aural fabric  – Cowan and Cicchillitti generate a huge depth of sound between them. (Read more about Andrew Staniland here.)

The five-movement work “Retazos” by José Evangelista, arranged by Cicchillitti and Cowan for guitar duo, occupies the middle space of the project.  Oddly (or maybe it’s just a factor of the music I listen to most frequently), the work reminds me a bit of an organ prelude – thoughtful, meditative, filling in the spaces between silence.  The piece builds in intensity to the last two movements.  If you don’t often listen to classical music, this work perhaps provides the most comfortable entry point on the album.  (Read more about José Evangelista here.)

Cicchillitti and Cowan also tackle “Ombres et lumières” (Shadows and Lights) from guitarist/composer Patrick Roux.  The first (slow) movement provides a deceptively simple build-up to the second movement’s allegro conclusion; in some ways the piece reminds me of a mashup between Paul Hindemith and Claude Debussy (somewhat stark modernism coupled with lovely impressionism).  (Read more about Patrick Roux here.)

The disc concludes with the one-movement “River and Cave” from composer Jason Noble.  The piece was originally composed for two harps, and the beginning of the work definitely creates a harp-like sound, a challenge that Cowan and Cicchillitti easily meet.  If you’ve ever been caught in a strong current (as I have), the composition absolutely evokes that feeling before the listener’s arrival in what feels like a dark, spacious cave.  Together, the two guitarists create a terrific sonic painting with this work, one of the best I’ve heard in ages. (Read more about Jason Noble here.)

The musicianship of Adam Cicchillitti and Steve Cowan is on full display here, and they’ve put together a project that not only entertains the listener but stretches them.  For an artist, I would imagine that the path of least resistance would be to choose well-known works for an album, pieces that they know will be comfortable listening for the people who (hopefully) buy their album and come to their concerts.  But Cowan and Cicchillitti have taken the road less traveled, and chosen to highlight the work of current composers who likely are not well known by their audience – and I admire that choice.  New repertoire can be a hard sell, but playing it is so very important.  And make no mistake – these two guitarists provide a virtuoso performance on this disc, fully worthy of these pieces.  Highly recommended.

Learn more about “Focus” and find links to buy it here.

Exposed to the wonders of CBC and Montréal Canadiens hockey as a teenager thanks to a satellite dish in rural Kansas, I have been an unabashed lover of all things Canadian ever since. I am a lifelong collector of esoteric and varied music, a teacher of piano, and an aspiring multi-instrumentalist (guitar, mandolin, mandola, ukulele). In real life, I work in the field of technology.

Tags from the story
,