Thursday, June 07, 2007

Richard Thompson

What makes a particular sound recognizable? Neuroscience has made much progress in helping us to understand things like how we can recognize the voice of a loved one. We can even create algorithms that allow machines to recognize voices with a fair degree of accuracy (though they do not approach the efficiency of the human brain). Someday, perhaps sooner than we think, we will have a fairly detailed idea of what happens to our brain on a molecular level when we answer the phone and instantly recognize a voice.

But what strange alchemy is it that allows us to recognize the "voice" of an instrumentalist? This is a much more rare occurrence. It's one thing to instantly recognize the sound of your mother's voice, but it seems much more amazing that we can distinguish say, Miles Davis trumpet playing from that of Freddie Hubbard. Developing a recognizable "voice" on an instrument like the trumpet takes a level of skill that it is difficult for me to imagine.

Which makes Richard Thompson's accomplishment all the more remarkable. A few months ago, I was standing in line at a Babies 'R' Us and a voice in the back of my head said "Richard Thompson is playing that guitar." I tuned into the background music more closely, and sure enough it was Thompson playing "I Ride Through Your Slipstream" a track from his 1994 album Mirror Blue that I hadn't heard in years. The thing is, I can almost always recognize Thompson's playing--whether on an acoustic or electric instrument--within only a few notes. How does something like this happen? It's one thing to establish a "voice" on an acoustic instrument that produces sound by the force of one's breath (e.g. a trumpet or saxophone), but to do it on a stringed instrument that is at times electrically amplified and distorted--that strikes me as nearly miraculous.

How is it that using hardly anything more than his fingers Thompson has managed to create a "voice" that is so instantly recognizable? It's not just that I recognize Thompson's songwriting or his singing either. I can recall a number of times listening to someone else's music and thinking "that must be Richard Thompson playing." I check the liner notes, and yep, it's Thompson doing a guest spot (something he is asked to do often). Maybe I don't instantly recognize Thompson's playing 100% of the time, but far more often than not I do, regardless of context. I am at a loss to explain this phenomena. Perhaps one day neuroscience will be able to explain it. Until then, I chose to believe that Richard Thompson has magic fingers.

Here's a couple instrumental tracks from Thompson albums that have fallen out-of-print. The first is a Duke Ellington composition, "Rockin' In Rhythm" taken from Thompson's 1981 album of instrumentals, Strict Tempo. The other, "Persuasion" comes from a soundtrack to a nearly forgotten film, Sweet Talker. Tim Finn of Crowded House later added lyrics to the song, and Thompson re-recorded it with vocals for his Capitol era best of compilation, Action Packed. In both cases, despite the disparity in the material, production and instruments played, Thompson's playing is instantly identifiable.

Too often when people discuss the "great" rock guitarists, the basis of evaluation seems to be the level of technical difficultly required to play a particular solo or riff. Such considerations have their place of course--and there is no doubt that Thompson is capable of great feats of technical dexterity--but in creating a unique and instantly recognizable "voice" on his instrument, Thompson has in my estimation done something very special indeed.

Also, Thompson just released his umpteenth solo album, Sweet Warrior.

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