Donate to the Grapevine

Express your thanks by leaving the pirate a tip!

October 8, 2009

Guy Van Duser

If you downloaded the Rounder Guitar compilation I posted a few months ago, you heard Guy Van Duser playing an incredible Fats Waller tune called Viper's Drag. Finally I've managed to get some more of him; some out-of-print vinyls both of him playing solo and with ace clarinetist Billy Novick.

Now, this is not difficult music to listen to (playing it is a whole other story). It's pleasant, balanced, and executed flawlessly. But there is something quite special nonetheless. Like a perfect little gem, these pieces really shine. Also, he picked a niche (stride and early jazz) that very few guitar players ever go near. All the pieces are performed fingerstyle on a nylon-strung guitar, and only on the last album is there vocals, which is generally a good thing because I don't particularly care for most early jazz and pop lyrics. Despite (or perhaps because of?) being stripped of their common musical setting - pianos, brass, etc. - you can really hear the music in a new light - both the melody and the jumping bass lines.

Fingerstyle guitar virtuoso Guy Van Duser has been heard on National Public Radio for many years as a player of background and theme music, and as a featured performer on Prairie Home Companion. Since the late '70s, his many collaborations with clarinetist, saxophonist, vocalist, and pennywhistler Billy Novick have endeared him to listeners with old-fashioned tastes, for Van Duser's primary working repertoire has always consisted of early jazz, swing standards, and Tin Pan Alley pop tunes. While his lifelong respect for Chet Atkins, some early experience as a bluegrass bassist, and longstanding involvement as a sideman with country musician Bill Staines is proof of his genre-defying versatility, Van Duser is primarily a jazz guitarist who prefers and specializes in warm, reassuring pop and jazz melodies from the '30s.

Guy Van Duser was born in 1948, the son of a concert pianist and a food service worker. As a perceptive, impressionable youngster in upstate New York, he received some instruction on piano and accordion and engaged in guitar duets with his father while coming up under the influence of dad's collection of phonograph records and music taped off of the radio. It was through a taped broadcast that young Van Duser first heard a portion of Atkins' Finger Style Guitar album; the first Atkins LP that he actually owned was Chet Atkins' Workshop, which notably consists of pop and jazz standards. When Van Duser eventually met his idol, he showed off a bit by perfectly replicating a complex passage from one of the Atkins' albums that had originally inspired him to become a professional musician. Legend has it that Atkins paled visibly, sat down and looked at Van Duser with mingled admiration and awe as he said "kid, that album was overdubbed!" Atkins was also wowed by Van Duser's solo guitar arrangement of John Philip Sousa's "Stars and Stripes Forever," and quickly developed his own version of that tried-and-true crowd pleaser, during which one guitar is made to sound like an entire marching band.

Van Duser and Novick originally met during the '70s while composing music for two different dance troupes, and found that their ideas, techniques, and temperaments were pleasantly contrasted and unusually compatible. Novick was heard playing pennywhistle on Van Duser's first album, Finger-Style Guitar Solos (Rounder Records 3021), which was recorded in Newton, MA in 1977 except for the definitive version of "Stars and Stripes" which was taped live at the Nameless Coffee House in Harvard Square in May 1976 and closes out side two of the LP. The album cover features a meticulous pen and ink self portrait by Van Duser. Novick may be heard on most of Van Duser's more than ten albums and the two have spent decades touring and entertaining small but appreciative crowds, mainly in churches, coffee houses, and small clubs. Van Duser's second album, Stride Guitar was recorded in 1980, and epitomizes this artist's musical influences and preferences. The title perfectly describes his Harlem stride piano-inspired jazz guitar technique, while the composers tapped for melodies include Fats Waller, Duke Ellington, Richard Whiting, Dorothy Fields, Jimmy McHugh, and Jerome Kern. Released in 1987, American Finger Style Guitar contains excerpts from three early Van Duser albums, which have yet to be reissued in their entirety by Rounder. Van Duser, who also plays piano, bass, mandolin, and electric guitar, collaborated with Novick during the '80s and '90s as arrangers and performers on several albums by vocalists Priscilla Herdman and Jeanie Stahl. Van Duser also wrote arrangements for an album released in 1992 under the name of guitarist Terrence Farrell. In addition to his ongoing partnership with Novick and occasional utility assignments like arranging music for the soundtrack of Sheldon Mirowitz's PBS documentary Columbus and the Age of Discovery, Van Duser serves as part-time professor of the guitar at the Berklee College of Music. ~ arwulf arwulf, All Music Guide

Interview with Guy Van Duser & Billy Novick

The combination of fingerstyle guitar and clarinet is so unique and yet so natural. Did it feel like magic the first time you played together? Did you know that you were onto something?

Billy: Actually, hokey as it may sound, it did feel somewhat magical the first time we had played together. Guy had composed some guitar music for some dance troupes, and I had written an avant-garde jazz piece for another group of dancers. The two pieces appeared on the same concert, and, when I heard Guy play, I was absolutely amazed. We decided we had a lot in common musically, and, when we finally got to play together, the sonority of the two wooden instruments was rapturous! There’s an almost mystical quality to the sound- earthy yet elegant at the same time. Whenever I feel I may be getting into a rut with our playing, I just tune out all the “intellectual” concerns with the music and just focus on the beauty of the sound.

Guy: Mostly we play coffeehouses and many of those happen inside churches, where the qualities of our two instruments are gloriously supported by the acoustics. And after thirty-two years, each of us is very aware of the musical mannerisms and ways of thinking that we each have, to the point where we sometimes spontaneously produce the same musical phrase on both instruments. It’s a little spooky sometimes.

Have you always been drawn to the early jazz era of song?

Billy: My musical tastes are very wide-ranging, but, yes, I have always loved the early jazz era. My older brother played in a Dixieland band in high school, and we went to a record store to get some “Dixieland” records (I hate the term “Dixieland”) and lucked out with our purchases. We got a LP of Jelly Roll Morton and his Red Hot Peppers. Neither of us had any idea who he was (I was 11 at the time), and it turns out that, fortunately, we ended up with 12 of the most highly-regarded New Orleans tunes that were ever recorded.

Guy: My mother was trained as a concert pianist and my dad played guitar a little, but what had probably the strongest influence on my musical development were the countless recordings my father would play in the house on evenings and weekends. Dixieland, big band dance music, cool 50’s jazz... and then when I learned to play some on a guitar of my own, he and I would sing duets together for a couple of hours at least two or three nights a week. He sang and taught me hundreds of tin pan alley songs, what are known to today’s players as “standards”. So I literally grew up on the stuff we’re playing now.

What’s the most “contemporary” song you play?

Billy: Both Guy and I have written a number of songs that we play. Our originals would be the most contemporary — other than that, not much after 1950.

What’s the most unusual venue that you’ve played?

Billy: In 1976, the Boston Pops was doing July 4th down in NYC, where the Statue of Liberty was unveiled after it was refurbished. (Do you actually “refurbish” the Statue of Liberty?)

We “subbed” for the Pops on the Esplanade, playing the Guy’s version of the Stars and Stripes, just the two of us on that huge stage. It was broadcast nationally...

We also opened for the Glenn Miller Orchestra at an outdoor concert in Western Mass, and they never showed up. They actually did eventually show up, but the two of us had to play a set of Glenn Miller tunes to keep the audience from leaving. It was a normal venue, but an abnormal playing situation.

Guy: Billy is forgetting to mention the wedding that he and I played for at the Dolphin Pool of the Aquarium, the reception on top of a ski mountain where we had to get the sound system up via the ski lift, and a few others. ../

Do you have a favorite memory from your days of playing together?

Billy: There were zillions of great moments, and there is no singular memory that jumps out at me. then again, I can barely remember what I did 10 minutes ago, let alone what we did 30 years ago!

Playing Passim was always a memorable event, very electric with the audience being so close. Prairie Home Companion was very exciting, too, but we did a bunch of those. Perhaps it was Guy, myself and Cathal McConnell (wondrous whistle player from the Boys of the Lough) playing a three-part harmony version of “In the Mood” on Prairie Home Companion. What in the world could we have been thinking? And why would they ever let us do that!! It wasn’t great music, but it was a lot of fun — quite quirky, as you might imagine.

“Jamming” with Chet Atkins in his kitchen was fun, particularly when the tour bus came around and everyone peered inside.

Guy: Yeah, Chet thought Billy’s renditions of be-bop jazz on the pennywhistle were very cool, I remember!

I always felt comfortable on the road with Billy; maybe because we were such complete opposites, we never got in each other’s way. He’d be up at six am, I’d be up at ten; he a vegetarian, I a card-carrying carnivore, he a sports fanatic, me a late-season dabbler. But he would drive the van and I would read aloud to him the entire sports section of whatever city’s newspaper we happened to have that morning. That was during the Golden Age of the Boston Celtics— and Billy and I ended up flying back to Boston one Sunday morning with the entire Celtics team on the plane in front of us, returning from a game with Detroit, and Larry Bird’s feet sticking out into the aisles.

Billy, you’ve done a lot of session work with other musicians, any memorable moments from any of those sessions?

Billy: Many! I think Susan Werner is one of the most talented musicians I ever met, and playing on her record was a lot of fun. In my early years (did I really write that?), I toured with David Bromberg and we did a record that Brian Ahern produced. We recorded in this house in Santa Monica, and the whole thing could have been a a parody of the LA music scene. Brian wore this Indian robe the whole time, there were all sorts of substances consumed (need I say more?), and there were all these “guests” hanging around, waiting to record a song or two with us: Bonnie Raitt, Linda Ronstadt, Emmylou Harris, Mac Rebennack (Dr. John), Ricky Skaggs, and Bernie Leadon (of the Eagles).

I did quite a few sessions for Philo records in Vermont, and they were a lot of fun. You’d record and stay in a beautifully refurbished barn, and just hang out for a few days. Particularly memorable were the few days up there with Dave Van Ronk, when we recorded my arrangement of Peter and the Wolf for jug band. It was Dave’s lifelong dream, if you could believe that!

I also was dragged into a portable music studio/trailer in the middle of a music festival in Toronto to do overdubs on a few songs for a demo tape for this singer, who, in fact, was Emmylou Harris. Of course, nobody knew who she was!

A lot of the soundtrack work I do is rewarding, particularly when you get a roomful of great musicians (and people) to semi-improvise some tracks.

I often end up overdubbing on 3 or 4 songs on a record. It’s increasingly rare to have everyone play at the same time now, like a real group. When it does happen, it ‘s a whole different experience. Everyone says there’s a real palpable difference for the listener. At the risk of sounding like a heretic, I don’t think that’s necessarily true. But from the musicians’ standpoint, it’s just a lot more fun.

And, since there are so many musicians spending so much time together, there’s inevitably a lot of food being ordered. At home I tend to eat a very healthy diet, with virtually no junk food. so, in the studio, there are always pizzas being ordered, Chinese food, chips, etc. I know I’m supposed to be transported by the inspiring and spiritual music we’re creating, but most of the time- and I hate to admit this- it’s the food that’s got my attention. “Finish this next take and I can have some more pizza? You got it!”

Now that’s what I call art!

Guy, can you describe what stride guitar is?

Well, the sound of many of the great early jazz recordings owes a lot to the presence of some pretty impressive piano playing, actually. The guitar on those records was always acoustic and just strummed and almost never very audible, while the pianist was performing melodies with his right hand and supplying his own bass and chords with his left, the back and forth movement of the left hand giving the impression of “striding” up and down the keyboard.

That’s what I’m trying to recreate on the guitar, rather than playing it on piano, an improvised backdrop of bass, chords, and melodies as a setting for Billy’s clarinet and vocals. I like to imagine that I’m a little “trio”, chords, bass, and rhythm, and when we both play full out, like on a Benny Goodman “big band” number, we think we’re a “two-man big band”!

- from

Guy Van Duser interview

When did you first hear Chet play?

My Dad was the first person around our neighborhood to buy a tape recorder and he taped all kinds of music off the radio. One night, the A side of the Fingerstyle Guitar album was played. I had never heard anything like that and I began to try to find out who the guitarist was. When I found out it was a man named Chet Atkins, I went down to buy that record. But, Chet Atkins Workshop was the only one they had, so it became my first Chet Atkins album which I still have.

Do you still have your first guitar?

Yes I do -- a 1962 dotneck 335. I sanded the original finish off in college, when I decided to change the color. Boy, that was a mistake. I wish I had left it alone”.

How did you become such a good bass player?

While in college I had a friend who played in a bluegrass band. One day he said they needed a bass player that very night, and asked me to play bass for them. I said that I had never played bass, but he assured me that it was easy -- just the four bottom strings of the guitar. So, he borrowed one for me that night and I played bass for about three years in bluegrass bands.

Is music how you make your living today?

Yes, everything I do to make money is associated with music by either writing or playing. I have written some soundtracks for public television in Boston. I’ve done soundtracks for a couple of films and also have written some children’s songs. My first film was when I was called to play old timey slide Dobro like they did down in the strip mines of Kentucky. Then, I was called to do other work, so I got a synthesizer. As more work came in, I purchased more things -- like a drum machine etc. -- and it paid the bills, so that is what I continue to do.

You play stride guitar. What is stride guitar?

In stride piano, the left hand plays the bass notes, moves toward the center of the piano and plays the chords, and then goes back to the bass notes. This is just like we do with our thumb when we alternate the bass strings, and is more free flowing; whereas, ragtime is a more precise way of playing. I put out that album and called it Stride Guitar which was mostly old stride piano tunes and also includes one of the numbers that my parents wrote.

Tell us how Chet came to do your arrangement of “Stars and Stripes Forever?”

Well, in about ‘77 or ‘78, I had a student in Boston who was taking lessons from me, but who actually lived in Nashville. He said that I had to come to Nashville and play this for an instructor friend of his. So, I went to Nashville and he introduced me to John Knowles, who had just gotten a Grammy for arranging “The Entertainer” for Chet, and was doing a lot of arranging and working with Chet at the time. After I was about halfway through the piece, he said, “You have to play this for Chet.” He called him up, we went over to Chet’s office at RCA, and here was Chet with an office full of people -- a photographer, Lenny Breau, and several other people. We walked in and I took my guitar out of the case. About that time, the photographer wanted to take a picture. So, Chet took my guitar, and he and Lenny stood together with Chet holding my guitar for the picture. When I started to play, I just froze up and couldn’t remember what I was going to play, but somehow, I impressed Chet enough that he asked me to come back the next day. I went back the next day and we spent a couple of hours talking about guitars, music, and things in general. I played “Stars and Stripes Forever” along with some other things and made a tape for him. He later called me to come back to Nashville. We sat down in his kitchen and he said, “Now, tell me what I do wrong.” He played it using the same notes with some different positions than those I used, but that was it.

How did you get interested in playing marches on the guitar?

I was tired of playing rags, and discovered that I could replicate the music of other instruments on the guitar. I do several marches, but “Stars and Stripes Forever” is the one that everyone remembers. In the number, “Semper Fidelis,” I bend the bass strings to get a drum sound while I play the melody on the high strings. That is an old flamenco guitar trick.

You play many kinds of music. Which is your favorite kind to play?

I guess jazz standards from the 30’s, because they are balanced 2 or 3 minute gems of harmonic sequence blended with a beautiful melody. Most of them had words, so it is very easy to get a mood or meaning that you can associate with each song.

Name a couple of memorable highlights that have happened to you in your career?

Meeting and becoming friends with my lifelong idol, Chet, and having him do one of my arrangements has to be at the top of the list. I also tell this story of how I was called to replace the Boston Pops Orchestra in 1986. For years, they had played every 4th of July at the amphitheater in Boston, but were called to play for the unveiling of the refurbished Statue of Liberty. Since they couldn’t be in two places at once, it was requested that I play “Stars and Stripes Forever” in their place in Boston to kick off the celebration. It was broadcast on public radio and was a very big event. I also scored all the music for a documentary titled Hiroshima, which was nominated for an academy award in 1988.

What do you think the future holds for fingerstyle guitarists?

There seems to be more guitars than any other instrument and guitars seem to be gaining in popularity all the time. I would like to see more really good song writers so we don’t run out of good, new material to play.

When do you plan to make another CD?

I think that Billy Novick and I will have one coming out after the first of the year. Sometime after that, I plan to make one by myself.

You can purchase Guy Van Duser records and CDs through Rounder Records, 1 Camp St., Cambridge Mass. 02240, or through Daring Records, Marblehead, Mass.

© 2000 - Association of Fingerstyle Guitarists

Guy Van Duser - Finger-Style Guitar Solos

Year: 1977
Label: Rounder

1. Chattanooga Choo-Choo
2. Coloured Aristocracy
3. Cheek To Cheek
4. Ain't She Sweet
5. Guitar Boogie Shuffle
6. Medley: Mine; American in Paris; Swanee; Sweet and Low-Down; Embraceable You; I Got Rhythm
7. Sweet Georgia Brown
8. Frog Legs Rag
9. As Time Goes By
10. Great Western TV Medley
11. Haste To The Wedding
12. Stars And Stripes Forever (live)

fresh vinyl rip, cleaned | mp3 >256kbps

Guy Van Duser - Stride Guitar

Year: 1981
Label: Rounder

Guy Van Duser's fingers dance across the fretboard on this collection of classic jazz tunes and American songbook standards. With his "stride guitar" technique (a reference to the piano style of the 1930s and 1940s) Guy reveals a new repertoire for the finger-picked guitar. Guy and clarinetist/soprano saxophonist Billy Novick make a complete ensemble, using their virtuosity in service of the pure joy they find in this music. "His articulation and dynamics are gorgeous, with bouncing bass lines, coy string bends and slick chordal slides....Van Duser swings this one right into the Finger-style Hall of Fame."-Frets

1 That Certain Feeling - Gershwin, Gershwin - 3:16
2 Snowy Morning Blues - 4:43
3 Black Beauty - Ellington - 3:21
4 Alligator Crawl - Davis, Razaf, Waller - 2:36
5 Viper's Drag - Waller - 3:24
6 Stars Fell on Alabama - Parish, Perkins - 4:05
7 Miss Brown to You - Rainger, Robin, Whiting - 3:23
8 I Can't Give You Anything But Love/Goody-Goody - Fields, Malneck, McHugh, Mercer - 2:46
9 Never Gonna Dance - Fields, Kern - 3:08
10 Seneca Slide - 3:05
11 It's Not True - 3:49
12 When I See an Elephant Fly - 3:32

what a drag.
fresh vinyl rip, cleaned | mp3 >256kbps
*out-of-print; only available online.

Guy Van Duser & Billy Novick - Get Yourself a New Broom (And Sweep Those Blues Away)

Year: 1979
Label: Rounder

Review by arwulf arwulf

Get Yourself a New Broom (And Sweep Those Blues Away) was guitarist Guy Van Duser's third album, and the first to be released in full collaboration with his longtime partner Billy Novick. It is significantly different from other Van Duser albums in that he and Novick, who almost invariably perform as a duo, are joined at times by several other players who swell the ensemble to the size of a traditional small-jazz band. The best example perhaps is the "Current Events Medley," which combines Sidney Bechet's "Egyptian Fantasy" with "The Sheik of Araby" and "Panama" to form a three-part collage of headline topics from 1979, the year this album was released on Rounder. The song list is typical for these two, and includes one title written and two popularized by Fats Waller, as well as early jazz standards by Jelly Roll Morton ("Black Bottom Stomp"), Will Marion Cook ("I'm Coming, Virginia"), Philip Braham ("Limehouse Blues"), Gus Kahn ("Ready for the River"), and Paul Dresser ("My Gal Sal"). Long unavailable, New Broom eventually became obtainable as a pricey Japanese import while still overdue for domestic reissue.

1. Black Bottom Stomp
2. Spring Cleanin'
3. Limehouse Blues
4. Ain't Misbehavin'
5. My Gal Sal / Runnin' Wild
6. Get Yourself a New Broom (...and Sweep Those Blues Away
7. I Wish I Were Twins
8. I'm Coming, Virginia
9. I'll Never Say "Never Again" Again
10. Current Events Medley: Egyptian Fantasy/The Sheik of Araby/Panama
11. Ready for the River

Note, tracks 5 & 6 are mis-labeled, and should be each other.

getta litta jelly in yo house.
fresh vinyl rip, cleaned | mp3 >256kbps

*out-of-print (only available as a pricey japanese import)


J. Scott Moore said...

Yeah dog! I'll be pickin these up tomorrow on the super fast work line...makes Mr IT mad! hehehe

kamholj said...

It's great to be hearing the music--and the thoughts--of Guy Van Duser again. Thanks for the songs and the interview.

astarte said...

Lovely music. Thank you

Anonymous said...

Rare gems indeed!
Guy also recorded a piece which he composed for a Chinese cartoon titled Crocus Waltz. It was simply mesmerizing to see how this brilliant guitarist came up with an asian sounding melody (in standard tuning!!). I found it in the cd accompanying an issue of Fingerstyle Guitar magazine.
Cheers, health and thanks!

Anonymous said...

Thankyew, thankyew, thankyew. I bought this on cassette many years ago and can no longer play it! Great LP - and great to read the thoughts of Guy Van Duser