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An Improbable Marriage
An Improbable Marriage
Classical guitarist crossed genres to put a baroque spin on jazz compositions. Vieaux plays his versions of pieces by Pat Metheny, often turning to the conventions of Bach and other classical composers for inspiration. In his latest CD, Images of Metheny (Azica Records), guitarist Jason Vieaux attempts a remarkable feat, suggesting that jazz might also have found a home in the Europe of the early 1700s.

Vieaux plays his versions of pieces by Pat Metheny, often turning to the conventions of Bach and other classical composers for inspiration. Some of Images' selections will be featured in a recital that Vieaux will present Thursday in Brendle Recital Hall. The performance will kick off this season's Secrest Artists Series at Wake Forest University.

"I really feel I can communicate a lot of different kinds of music well," said Vieaux, speaking on the telephone from Michigan, where he was on tour.

At first glance, though, the Metheny-Vieaux marriage seems an improbable one.

Metheny (b. 1954) became one of the jazz world's leading guitarists beginning in the 1970s. His many recordings successfully embrace a range of styles, from post-Bop to jazz-rock fusion.

Vieaux, on the other hand, operates in a radically different orbit. He has attained stardom in classical music, having won first prize at the prestigious Guitar Foundation of America International Competition, in 1992. He has made seven recordings of music by such composers as Bach, Ponce, Brouwer and Albeniz; their works will be heard Thursday as well. He also teaches at the Cleveland Institute of Music.

So why did Vieaux become so enamored of Metheny that he decided to recast his music in the classical-guitar mold and record it?

The question is worth posing. Because when Vieaux began playing largely improvised arrangements of Metheny's music -- he learned it from listening to recordings in his spare time -- he had decidedly less ambitious goals in mind.

"I did it for fun," he said, describing a process he has also applied to lots of other contemporary, non-classical music. "I never set out to make a recording of it."

Maybe, too, as radio announcer John Schaefer suggests in Images' liner notes, "there's something about the guitar that (makes) the people who play it want to check out what the other players are doing, even if it's a completely different style of music."

In any event, the foundation for Images began forming more than 30 years ago during Vieaux's childhood in his native Buffalo. You can tell he's from that city because of his Upstate-New York twang and because of his loyalty to the Buffalo Bills, of which he still speaks with enthusiasm.

His father, a service technician, loved modern jazz. Vieaux, now 34, has said that "from the time I was 3 years old, I was addicted to (his) record collection," in addition to his mother's beloved Beatles and soul records.

Vieaux said that the guitar his mother gave him when he was 5 was meant to make him less addicted to his parents' records and more interested in playing an instrument. She also associated the acoustic guitar with flamenco, a style that she felt required greater "refinement" than rock, he said.

Vieaux became hooked on classical after the Buffalo Guitar Quartet performed at his elementary school, and his mother, then a secretary at the school, arranged for him to take lessons from Jeremy Sparks, one of the group's members.

"She would have kept her eye out for something," had that fateful encounter with the quartet not occurred, said Vieaux, adding that providing him the best education possible was his mother's top priority.

Vieaux took playing seriously, even traveling regularly to Rochester, about an hour east of Buffalo, so he could participate in master classes organized by Rochester's guitar society. He performed a recital, successfully, when he was 12 and decided to pursue music as a profession. Later, while studying at the Cleveland Institute, he began exploring jazz improvisation seriously; Metheny's music became a major inspiration.

In time, though, for all the private pleasure Vieaux derived from reworking the jazz guitarist's music, he couldn't resist sharing what he'd come up with. Several years ago, he began offering a Metheny arrangement or two as encores at the end of performances.

"The word started getting around that I was doing this stuff," Vieaux said. "Guitarists said, 'You should really make a record of it.'"

Azica Records became interested and proposed a Metheny recording. Vieaux wasn't exactly against it. But he wondered how he could pull it off. Most of his Metheny creations had emerged as mellow, slow-tempo ballads; a recording would need more contrast.

"That's where the idea for the baroque suite came in," Vieaux said.

Translation: After staying up late practicing (and arranging), Vieaux found himself tossing and turning in bed, unable to sleep because he kept hearing the Latin-flavored "James" as a gavotte.

Vieaux got up and started transforming each of several Metheny tunes into what normally makes up a Baroque suite. These include a prelude (after Metheny's "Last Train Home"); an allemande ("Antonia"); and a chaconne ("Tell Her You Saw Me"). "James" ended up as a gigue. The result was Five Songs in Baroque Style, which will be played Thursday (along with Vieaux's version of "The Bat").

The effort has certainly impressed the most important judge, namely Metheny himself, who said, "I am honored that a musician of his stature has directed his considerable talents to manifest such beautiful and true renditions of these pieces in such a personal way."

The idea of a classical performer-composer putting his spin on a tune from another genre seems to be coming back into fashion. Think, for example, of what classical pianist Christopher O'Riley has done with the music of Radiohead. Often, these and other creations start out as improvisations, after which they're written down.

"It (improvisation) certainly helps give you this wider perspection on what it means to perform," Vieaux said. "We're not robots. You can get yourself out of a jam if you are ever in one. That is an incredibly liberating feeling."

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Copyright 2007, WINSTON-SALEM JOURNAL, N.C.