According to the story, when Jimi Hendrix appeared on "The Tonight Show" and was asked "How does it feel to be the best guitar player in the world?" Hendrix responded matter-of-factly "I don't know, you'd have to ask Phil Keaggy." While there has been endless debate over the validity of the attribution of the quote to the man commonly considered to BE the one of the greatest guitarists of all time, one thing cannot be put into doubt upon hearing Phil Keaggy's music: he truly IS one of the best all-around guitar players of all time.
This may seem a shock to some people: why, surely somebody like Steve Vai would be, or maybe John McLaughlin? While those guitarists are indeed paragons of technical skill and musical sophistication, what Keaggy is a master at is placing his chops, which are every bit as diverse and possibly even more expansive than either of those two players, to the service of making some of the most beautiful music the ear has ever heard. Now, there are lots of artists who get this credit, and oftentimes it must seem meaningless: "placing chops at the service of the song" is often a nifty byword for playing beneath one's ability in some way, to good or bad effect. Not so with Keaggy: not so in the slightest. Having built up his electric chops in the Cream-style power trio Glass Harp, often regarded as one the most innovative power trios of the era, Keaggy lost a family member at around the same time as a non-fatal overdose on drugs, both of which led to him becoming a born-again Christian and devoting his skills to making all-acoustic instrumental music that highlighted his spiritual connections to God and Christianity: therefore, he pigeonholed himself within the Christian Contemporary Music scene and never gained much exposure, which is a shame, because the albums he released in the '70s with this theme, such as "The Master and the Musician," have been credited as containing some of the most beautiful guitarwork and beautiful music all-around written by a contemporary artist.
This particular album, "Acoustic Sketches," is not a full LP of material...not exactly. It is exactly what the title claims: a collection of acoustic instrumental pieces that are sometimes only a minute in length--hence the "sketches" part of the title--while others span out to more expansive ranges. A number of the songs were recorded with the use of a "Jam-man," a studio device that allows Keaggy to loop a passage of music and play along with it in subsequent repeats. As to the skill question, Keaggy has influences from nearly every other major acoustic player in his vein of music littered all over the album--harmonic tapping in the style of Michael Hedges, fingerstyle lilting like Will Ackerman, fast linear picking like Paco de Lucia or John Williams, and heavy chordal work and moving lines like Leo Kottke--and yet has achieved a number of unique traits for himself, showing that he, who has predated all the aforementioned artists, is still learning and has the technical facility to easily master and incorporate the innovations of others. He tunes notes on the fly in parts, an incredible level of control and mastery of pitch evident in the action. The album is filled with endlessly rich and lovely music, and while it may frustrate some not used to the variety of styles or song lengths incorporated here, it served as my introduction to Keaggy's music, and a wonderful introduction it was at that.
A percussive chord figure opens this, continuing into a number of shifting tonalities and feels. The song breaks down more than once as Keaggy begins recording a single-note Jam-man loop and adding expert layers of harmony and richness, which then breaks down to a low-register section with harp-like arpeggios and excellent dynamic control. Another series of Jam-man loops is recorded, this time with an organic lullaby feel. A very relaxing piece, aptly titled in the way it shifts feels and keys.
By his own claim, Keaggy was trying for something a little more "classical-sounding" on this song, and while it does sound like that sometimes, it combines a lot of other influences, like the Celtic music Keaggy draws on for many of his pieces. The main figure here forms the basis for a series of Jam-man loop explorations. Keaggy's expertise in navigating over these pieces is nothing short of incredible. Everything is instantly relaxing and technically impressive and indicative of his great compositional and playing skill. A very nimble scalar ascent makes way to a more percussive, jazzy feel that leads the song out.
3.) Nellie's Tune
A lilting, introspective, and organic Celtic feel abounds here, and the results are beautiful. Keaggy uses an open tuning and a partial capo to fantastic effect here as his double-tracked acoustic rolls through long, rhythmically consistent passages of notes with the distinct feel of the Celtic reel throughout. It grows louder and more intense towards the middle, and breaks down again for a more half-time piece reminiscient of medieval court music. An album highlight.
4.) Passing Thought
Exactly as the title says, this is one of the "sketches," just Keaggy soloing over what sounds like your typical adult contemporary chord progression, played with percussive expertise. Nice and short, but far from a fully-developed piece. Not that that's a bad thing.
5.) The Marionette
There's a much more free, music-box feel here as Keaggy shifts through time signature changes deftly but always preserving the original feel, playing fast and loose with the established tonalities of the song. This song only contains one guitar, and the emotive power of the calm, highly subtle way Keaggy plays creates a wash of beauty, with a highlight being the flamenco-style chord rakes in the middle. Spare and beautiful, this showcases Keaggy's technical and musical skill even as it lulls you to a calm rest, which is surely one of the effects he is going for as he is constantly relating his compositions to his spirituality. Fantastic.
6.) Del's Bells
This is an open Michael Hedges tribute and makes use of many of that great guitarist's techniques, such as the harmonic and linear tapping, combining to give us a good, percussive drive. This serves through to provide us with a fantastic tribute to Michael's trademark styles while preserving Keaggy's fantastic compositional sense and technical facility.
7.) Looking Back
Lots of backwards guitar here, but a very short track. It doesn't even leave much of an impression at just 40 seconds.
A strange, bluesy/ragtime-ish piece here with some of the only non-guitar percussion of the album. I like it, simply because it's very different from many of the rest of the songs. There's an overdubbed dobro, I think, too, which harkens back to Keaggy's roots when he first started listening to music: country music was a huge staple of his which led him to Elvis Presley and rock music, and this is a tribute of sorts to that.
9.) Spend My Life With You
A beautiful, lullaby-like love song, this is an acoustic version of a vocal song on one of his earlier albums. Keaggy uses multi-tracking and his lovely acoustic tone to great effect here. Recording perfectly-arranged harmonies and guitar layers he creates a typically organic, dynamic beauty. Ending with harmonized soloing that creates another wonderful Celtic/adult contemporary feel in the type of feel of James Taylor, Keaggy shines here.
10.) Jam In The Pocket
There's an intense blues-style feel here, with a Hedges-style rhythm and a fantastically tasty lead that runs throughout. Keaggy solos over this rhythm with great aplomb, and shows us one of the only sections here where he truly is jamming and soloing with all his skill. A nice change in tone and feel, and very impressive from a playing standpoint.
11.) Swing Low, Sweet Chariot
There's a pronounced country feel here as Keaggy makes use of a slide and a bouncy rhythm to give us a much more twangy thing than on many other of his songs. There's even a tuba that shows up underneath everything that adds a lot of effective oom-pah-pah. Good stuff.
12.) The 50th
Another song in the style of "The Marionette," there's a much sparser lullaby feel that is very relaxing, like much of Keaggy's work. Increasing in tempo near the middle, there's another Celtic jig feel that is very effective and, as always, very technically impressive but always melodically coherent and lovely. The level of freedom Keaggy has as he manipulates his acoustic guitar to create his pieces is astounding. He closes this song with an arrangement that sounds like a not-so-distant cousin of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," and finishes off another very engaging and beautiful piece.
13.) Morning Snow
Sounding vaguely like an earlier piece on the album, the rhythm forms the basis for another series of Jam-man explorations with additional very tasteful and lovely soloing from Keaggy. One of the things I'm very moved by is the consistently appropriate titles for the songs: every single song really SOUNDS like the thing the song is named for. Keaggy is highly adept at controlling the moods his music produces. Great. This ends with another backwards guitar thing like "Looking Back."
14.) Spanish Fantasy
The flamenco stylings return here with a very fast scale passage opening and raked chord progressions, as Keaggy utlizes the Jam-man once more to solo over his previous passage. Very pretty and more uptempo, but no less relaxing as any of his other pieces. This is one relaxing album. Great stuff.
15.) On Some Distant Shore
Feeling distantly Eastern, this is another soothing, and very beautiful piece that incorporates the gamut of influences Keaggy draws on. There's a lot of great dynamic control here again, and really, with its refrain of the dissonant two notes floating above everything, is quite moody and great. I actually feel like this song reminds me of "Out of the Silent Planet" by C.S. Lewis: it conjures up the same feeling that the Mars of that story did for its protagonist, and for I know it could be intentional as Mr. Lewis is well-known for his Christian-inspired stories.
Another "sketch," there's more Jam-man workouts going on here. Typically high-quality and pretty, this is quite good.
17.) On Second Thought
A reprise of "Passing Thought," there's soe more energetic, jazz-inflected soloing by Keaggy here that gives the song a slightly different feel from the one it had before.
A fifteen-second "sketch," this is just Keaggy playing his butt off. Lots of impressively fast notes are crammed into this. Nice stuff.
An appropriate end to a relaxing album, this one contains a melody reminiscient of "Nellie's Tune" and a number of impressive components. There is a very calm, sad melody in the outset, which continues for a few minutes until an ON-THE-FLY retuning from Keaggy of the high string from an Eb to an E. Now that may seem like no big deal and even an annoying detail for me to focus on, but Jeez, listen to it! He does it within the space of three seconds and doesn't lose an ounce of flow, and then continues with a major-key Hedges-inspired chord tapping percussive extravaganza, with a bridge of expertly-fingerpicked harp-like arpeggios. Great song, and a great closer.
Keaggy is an incredible talent, and deserves much more recognition than he gets. This album gets a five because it's Phil Keaggy not even trying to come up with a coherent album of material and still being mindblowingly beautiful: he calls these "sketches" and they're still better than pretty much anyone in his genre, and a lot of people outside it.