De Grassi arrived on the music scene in 1978 with Turning: Turning Back, a collection of vigorous-yet-lyrical steel-string guitar instrumentals on the fledgling Windham Hill label. His work owed a clear musical debt to guitarists like Leo Kottke, John Fahey and John Renbourn, among others, but his work rang with a compelling, unique clarity, recognizable for its virtuosity, intensity and rich orchestration.
At the root of his success is de Grassi's mindset, which is not that of a guitarist but that of a composer and arranger -- a one-man orchestra armed only with a guitar. "I try to think of musical parts, and different voices and different instruments," de Grassi says by phone from his Redwood Valley, Calif., home. For example, in writing a song, de Grassi may hear the melody as a human voice or a wind instrument, and perhaps create a percussive rhythm figure that suggests a snare drum or a tabla.
"If you start thinking like that, you can imbue the arrangement with some of those qualities. ... It can be subtle, but if you keep working with that approach you can find new territory, new frontiers to go to in the music," he says.
While de Grassi was busy developing his identity at Windham Hill through the mid-'80s, the recording company acquired an identity of its own, that of a New Age label. "When the term New Age started, I think [label founder Will Ackerman and myself] were just as confused as anybody else by this term. It wasn't something that we tried to propagate, and we weren't sure whether we liked it or not," de Grassi recalls.
De Grassi resented the moniker, which threatened to become an ill-fitting musical pigeonhole, and fled Windham Hill, signing with RCA Novus for the 1987 release Altiplano, which he recorded with an ensemble.
As the hype surrounding New Age has cooled, de Grassi has since recorded in both solo and ensemble settings, returning to Windham Hill in 1991 for the solo effort Deep at Night. He launched his own label, Tropo Records, releasing a solo CD, Water Garden, in 1998. It earned both Grammy and Indie Award nominations. In 1999 he released Bolivian Blues Bar -- an effective collection of jazz standards arranged for solo guitar -- on the Narada label.
De Grassi will play solo guitar for his Atlanta performance, and those in attendance can expect a mix of his own compositions, jazz tunes and "a couple of oddball folk and pop arrangements," he says. But don't necessarily expect just the kind of solo work featured on Bolivian Blues Bar.
De Grassi's most recent recording is TataMonk, featuring Quique (pronounced KEE-kay) Cruz, a multi-instrumental Andean folk musician. The release combines traditional melodies and instrumentation (panpipes and drums, for example) with the harmonic and rhythm approach of blues and jazz. De Grassi and Cruz will tour as part of a sextet later this year.
De Grassi became particularly interested in Andean folk music after visiting Bolivia and the Altiplano of the Andes in 1986. In 1992 he met Cruz, who left his native Chile in the '70s and now lives in the San Francisco area.
The recording is truly a collaboration, with de Grassi performing in and producing the ensemble. This creates two challenges de Grassi recognizes. First, performing in an ensemble requires him to redefine and limit his guitar role. "I can't try to be the whole band with my guitar," he says. "So then the question is, 'Where is my place in it?'"
This triggers a second dilemma, de Grassi explains, in that fans of his guitar work might not get what they expect from TataMonk or from the upcoming tour. De Grassi understands the risks, but also hopes that TataMonk will open doors to new audiences, as exhibited by a few gigs this past fall.
"There were some guitar aficionados in the crowd, but also a lot of people form the Latin community who were into the Andean music. You hear a lot of Latin jazz from Cuba and the Caribbean, but what we're doing hopefully that's unique is bringing the Andean tradition into this. It's a very cross-cultural project and it's reflected in the audiences we've had."
Alex de Grassi performs at the Red Light Café, 553 Amsterdam Avenue, Sun., Feb. 18, Show time is 7:30 p.m. For more information call 404-874-7828.
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