The Lyricism And Flexibility Of Guitarist Steve Cardenas

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The time Steve Cardenas has spent performing alongside Charlie Haden, Paul Motian, Norah Jones and Madeleine Peyroux has come to bear on his approach to guitar.

(Photo: Anna Yatskevich)

This summer, Steve Cardenas should be gigging, touring in others’ ensembles and putting energy into promoting his own new leader date, Blue Has A Range (Sunnyside). Instead, the guitarist is mostly homebound in Brooklyn, his routine radically interrupted by the pandemic-induced moratorium on live music.

Cardenas—a sturdy, if under-sung player who’s heralded for his musicality, lyricism and flexibility—has been a coveted collaborator for a diverse cast of players, ranging from Charlie Haden to Paul Motian, Norah Jones and Madeleine Peyroux. But he explained that he is making fruitful use of the downtime: “I haven’t had this much time to practice in ages. Lately, I’ve been more in woodshed mode than writing new music, learning and relearning some Bird and Ornette tunes along with various other music. It’s been rewarding and a lot of fun to dive back in.”

His latest album boasts a varied, impressive program of originals and a luminous ensemble that includes drummer Brian Blade, keyboardist Jon Cowherd and bassist Ben Allison. The bandleader recently spoke to DownBeat about that upcoming release, guitarist Jim Hall and growing up in the Midwest.

The following has been edited for length and clarity.

Did you have particular goals or concepts going into Blue Has A Range?

I knew that I wanted these particular musicians for the record; much of that came from the familiarity of playing with them in their own and other bands. For the last couple of years, I had it in mind to include piano on my next record, as I hadn’t done a record of my own music with piano before. With a plan to record in mid-2019, I began to write music at the start of the year. Knowing who I was writing for was much of the inspiration for the music.

The group achieves a strong but subtle ensemble weave, and even stretches into collective improv territory on “Signpost Up Ahead.” Do you view this particular interaction as an important aspect of the record?

I’ve always valued the conversational element in improvisation. Many of my favorite groups and records have this quality—Jim Hall’s trios immediately come to mind. So, yes, I do see this as an important aspect of the record. Jon, Brian and Ben have deeply intuitive instincts that can be heard throughout the record. They’re great musicians because they’re such great listeners.

I’ve definitely listened to a lot of guitar-piano led quartet records through the years, such as John Abercrombie’s quartets, and again Jim Hall—particularly his album Where Would I Be. But I’ve also been influenced by many quartets without guitar; Keith Jarrett’s quartets in the ’70s come to mind.

Your guitar tone tends to lean toward the clean, rich, Jim Hall-ish end, using distortion sparingly and usually avoiding other effects. Is that a decision you made early on?

Jim has undoubtedly been a major influence for me, though there are many guitarists I’ve listened to through the years—and quite a variety. I’ve always enjoyed the diversity of sounds and approaches to the guitar, and I’ve certainly been through phases where I’ve used different effects and sounds.

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