In the realm of the guitar
Jamie’s SongNotes Series
Peter Swenson Steadfast CD
Original compositions performed,
recorded, and produced by Peter
Like the phone call you make when you need to give a loved one your all, first listens to recordings by friends require a special kind of attention.
When the musician is also the composer, this listener is even more engaged. I want to be present not only to what I’m hearing but to the ideas, effort and intention behind the music.
On a particularly blue Monday, I put Peter Swenson’s Steadfast CD album in my car stereo, turned it on, and took a drive. I was immediately transported to an achingly familiar place by the opening track “First Light”, the sting of heartbreak and complications of youthful longing awash in my head. (A fragment of the piece appeared on the 1993 recording The Way the Heart is Sculpted, on which I’d performed.)
But movement of the melody, supported by chord choices idiomatic of a masterful musician, all tenderly realized with adroit fingerings on the guitar, pulled at more than heartstrings.
For me, this was history.
This was Peter.
The eleven original tracks that follow on Steadfast give glimpses of a gifted, introspective artist. Musical passages reflect deep expressions of his closest personal relationships. The recording, begun before the pandemic lockdown, and completed during, is a solitary expression of a multi-faceted artist, who is both composer and instrumentalist, and recording engineer and producer here. His is a keen ear that layers and weaves distinctive guitar sounds with the utmost agility and taste. It is gorgeous.
Peter would most likely pass off superlatives, urging instead that you allow yourself to be absorbed in this musical journey. And I was.
Given that he has the capacity to produce broad, inclusive projects involving other players (often with his gifted daughter, cellist Cora Swenson Lee), it is particularly striking to hear him move as a soloist, from instrument to instrument, sans lyrics and vocals, and create these stories. His familiarity with the range and resonance of each guitar: a Brune classical, Ramirez classical baritone, and a Loar archtop electric, seamlessly engaged to do his bidding.
In Peter’s words:
“After doing a number of collaborative recording projects over the years, I wanted to try something different here – a solo project centered on my first musical love, the classical guitar. The pieces are scored for between one and six guitars, making up a ‘virtual’ guitar ensemble. In order to provide tonal variety I used, in addition to the standard classical guitar, a baritone guitar and archtop electric guitar… The compositions pay tribute to those things I hold most dear during these difficult times – the unshakeable love and trust of family and friends.”
The upshot is, listen to Steadfast, (see link) and seek out his other compositions and recordings. You can also hear Peter live with a Trio at spots like Ambrosia Patisserie in Barrington, Il.
And, when I’m fortunate to have him, when he joins me in concert.
Peter and me, a long history of music and friendship
I first performed with Peter accompanying me in 1973, at age 13, in a family concert at church. For the next five or six years, I did musical theater, sang in a folk group, and hung out with friends, often with Peter leading the group on guitar. His exceptional ear offered harmony parts to the vocalists, interesting, fresh ideas to the musicians, and the surprising chord choices that I came to rely on in all our future collaborations.
The musical path Peter followed sometimes intersected with mine. He accompanied my first solo album, a collection of Irish art songs, and played with our Irish band. The folk music genre of Judy Collins, Peter, Paul & Mary, and others appealed to us, too. We recorded as a Trio in the aforementioned The Way the Heart is Sculpted project with David Van Delinder, and later as a Trio with the late singer/songwriter Michael Smith. Peter acted as musical director and/or arranger on numerous projects for Michael and me, including Songs of the Kerry Madwoman, an original song cycle on which he also played archlute and guitar. The Songpainting project, Gift of the Magi, and more.
Our concerts together have a graceful elegance to them. His skill as an accompanist allows me to select sophisticated, often rarely known material, and to perform old-world style songs reflecting numerous musical eras. I refer to our musical genre as folk-chamber music.
Where he’s going
In the time I’ve known him, Peter tastes have run the gamut, from lute playing (and singing) in early music ensembles and choruses, to his appreciation of J.S. Bach, and performing a Monteverdi opera, to his arranging passages for woodwinds and strings on self-produced recordings.
A few years back, he sold his theorbo (a long neck string instrument used during the Baroque music era to play basso continuo accompaniment parts), and told me jazz was his current passion. With his fascination with chord progressions, and improvisation and expanding one’s harmonic horizons being the purview of seasoned jazz musicians, this choice makes sense.
At one time Peter expressed regret that guitar was his chosen instrument, telling me he felt limited by it. He wished he’d been a cellist. Whether fate stepped in and revived its earlier appeal, or he simply expanded his instrument’s playing field, Peter kept with the guitar.
And aren’t we the fortunate ones?
Again, you can hear Peter perform with his jazz trio at Ambrosia Patisserie in Barrington, Il, Duke’s Alehouse in Crystal Lake, Il and various venues in the Chicago area.
The Steadfast CD is available on iTunes, youtube, at Amazon.com, and through Peter directly. Email: email@example.com
Photo credit: Peter Swenson Steadfast images, Chehalis Deane Hegner
The Way the Heart is Sculpted: O’Reilly, Van Delinder & Swenson CD recording is once again available for purchase via the link below.