An Interview with Sharon Isbin

by Bertolt

On October 14th, I had the pleasure of interviewing the classical guitarist Sharon Isbin about her new CD, Guitar Passions.

Bertolt Sobolik: When did you first get interested in “crossover” collaborations?

Sharon Isbin: Well, actually, I go back a long way with that. In the eighties I did a crossover album called 3 Guitars 3 with Laurindo Almeida and Larry Coryell. At that time, “crossover” was considered a dirty word. People wondered if I had lost my mind, or if I was leaving classical music. I assured them that I was just pursuing these projects in addition to what I normally do. Then it became the “in thing” to do. One of the tracks on the new CD is a tribute to Laurindo Almeida, with whom I toured for about five years. He’s the one who arranged the beautiful, slow-movement “Adagio” from Joaquín Rodrigo’s “Concierto de Aranjuez” for three guitars that is on both the new CD and 3 Guitars 3. In this configuration, Romero Lubambo is playing the Brazilian bossa nova guitar part, and Steve Morse, formerly of the Dixie Dregs and now of Deep Purple, does a rocked-out, amazing electric guitar solo to a bossa beat at the end.

BKS: That Rodrigo “Concierto” has been performed by a wide variety of musicians in a wide variety of crossover contexts. Do you think there is something about the piece that lends itself to crossover interpretations?

SI: Well, the music itself comes from that rich, storied, flamenco tradition—you can really hear the melismatic, improvisational feeling that Rodrigo wrote in the solo guitar part that is evocative of the Spanish gypsies, and of the Moors, and of the rich, Ladino tradition. It is something that lends itself so well to improvisation by other artists.

It was one of Rodrigo’s favorite albums—the recording I did with Laurindo and Larry back in the eighties. Rodrigo himself, who was a friend for twenty years, welcomed exploration of his music by people like Miles Davis, and by others who come from the non-classical tradition. He understood that this would be a natural path for musicians to take with his piece. And each time you explore the piece with musicians like Romero and Steve Morse who improvise, you’re hearing something that you will never hear again. It’s of-that-moment.

BKS: What’s it like for you playing with musicians who are primarily focused on other genres?

SI: I’ve always enjoyed the freshness of it. I try to find a way to get arrangements created for me that give me the chance to do what I am good at and also allow the talents of the musicians I am collaborating with to really flourish. The second track, ” Sonidos de Aquel Día,” is a tune from Argentina that I selected. I invited Stanley Jordan, whom I had known from tours we had done together in the past, to improvise a part on top of my part. What he came up with was extraordinary. He plays the jazz electric guitar like a keyboard on his lap where he’s tapping. It allows him to get all kinds of unusual contrapuntal configurations that are mind-blowing. And, again, that’s something you’ll never hear played like that again. It was of-that-moment.

BKS: What was the recording process? How much of it was tracked live versus overdubbed? Were you and the other musicians in the same room? Can you talk a little bit about how it all worked?

SI: Well, of course the five solo tracks I simply went into the studio and played. The first track “Porro” is by Gentil Montana, who, sadly, passed away just before the album came out so he never got a chance to hear it. I was so sorry to learn that. He’s from Columbia in South America—everything on this album has a Latin-American/Spanish tinge to it. In that case, I played the part that Montana wrote as a first track, and then I overdubbed, on top of that, a second guitar part that Gustavo Colina wrote that creates a lovely duet.

Some of the tracks we would do together. For the Jobim track, “Chovendo na roseira,” Romero and I were simply sitting in the studio together, playing. There was no way to edit between the two guitars. It was simply, “what you heard is what was happening.”

The Steve Vai track was created in a rehearsal in his home in California. Steve and I have been friends for many years and we’ve collaborated on a number of different projects. I just started playing the “Allegro” by Agustín Barrios, and he started improvising, and I said, “Hey! Let’s do this on the album.”  If you go to my website,, you can see a video of Steve and me working together, plus videos of Nancy Wilson from Heart and Stanley—you get sort of a sense of the making of Guitar Passions. There is also a very unusual new classical music video of “Asturias”—one of the solo tracks here, in which a wonderful approach to photography and camera work has been employed to give an entirely new visual component to the work.

BKS: One of the most striking pieces on the disc is the final piece that you play solo, “La Catedral.” Can you talk a little bit about this piece, where it came from, and why you chose it to end the CD?

SI: “La Catedral” is written by Agustín Barrios-Mangoré. The title is said to be because he was inspired by hearing Bach played in a cathedral. This year is the bicentennial of the birth of Paraguay. In honor of that, a big festival was created. I got to visit Paraguay and perform there in May. And it was thrilling to be able to go to Barrios’s home and see where he grew up—it’s now a museum—to play on one of his guitars, and to really live and breathe that world which I have enjoyed for so many years as an interpretive artist playing his music. He was of Indian descent—sometimes he would play his concerts wearing full Indian headdress. He wrote hundreds of pieces for the guitar and I think this is one of my favorites of his works, “La Catedral.”

BKS: I noticed in the liner notes that you play two different guitars on the recording—pretty much half and half. Why do you play the different instruments?

SI: That’s a very good question. I had started to play on a great guitar by the Irish maker, Michael O’Leary for three days in the studio in November of 2010. Then, two months later, I received a guitar I had ordered from a German maker, Tony Mueller, which I also fell in love with—there was no way I could not include that on the album. So, for the remaining tracks, I decided to use the Tony Mueller. In fact, for the “Porro” duet, one part is with the O’Leary and the other is with the Mueller.

BKS: I know a lot of rock and roll and jazz players, at some time, study a little bit of classical to get their chops up—sometimes a lot. Do you ever play with steel strings and a pick and is that something that you are interested in at all?

SI: I’m fascinated by it, but I think I’d have to have another lifetime to be able to learn to do what folks like Steve Vai do, and I don’t want to compete with that. I’ve got my hands full right now. But, certainly working with the sound of the instruments together is something that I think creates a new voice.

BKS: Why do you think the guitar is so popular?

SI: The instrument is self-sufficient and it’s one that is portable. By self-sufficient, I mean that you can play the rhythm track, you can play the harmony, the melody, the accompaniment; it can be the star; it can be the band; it can be everything. It’s an instrument that has been used in so many different cultures as a means of communicating the balladry—the stories of life, basically.

And then, of course, when it became electrified, it became a part of the fabric of our society in the rock/pop world. So, it’s one that has such visibility because it is portable. It is something that can be a very personal means of expression and cover basically every style that exists.

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