Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Guitar Heros Exhibit of Legendary Italian Luthiers at the Metroploitan Museum of Art

at the Met February 9th through July 4, 2011

This past Saturday, I ventured into New York City to see an exhibit dedicated to master craftsmen who elevated their craft to true art. The Metroplotian Museum of Art on Fifth and 82nd is an iconic building.  With its grandiose entrance, its stately stairs and  its monumental granite facade, the Met  lends instant respectability to anyone who is so fortunate as to have there work exhibited there.

The museum, under the astute direction of associate curator Jayson Kerr Dobney, has created a fabulous exhibit assembling some exquisite examples of the work of several Italian-American luthiers (makers of stringed instruments).  Titled Guitar Heroes, the exhibit traces the history of some artisan craftsmen who, beginning with the wave immigration from Southern Italy in the late 1800's, brought the art of violin and mandolin making  into this country, . Eventually, as tastes changed, they adapted their skills to the construction of arch-top guitars mostly in Manhattan's Little Italy. As a one time guitar player and  a descendant of Italian immigrants; one a cabinet maker and another a skilled stone mason, I have a special affinity for this exhibit and for the justly deserved recognition it bestows on these master craftsmen

Originally hailing from towns whose names are virtually synonymous with instrument making like, Cremora, Venice, Naples and Padua, these artisans had their trade sustained by the early craze for mandolins in the New World. By the 1920's the luthiers found themselves facing a shrinking demand for mandolins. Many turned to violin and eventually arch-top guitar construction to support their shops. One of those who was able to make the transition successfully was the New York City based luthier John D'Angelico. From his shop on Kenmare Street  in lower Manhattan, D'Angelico started to produce his own arch-top guitars based on the the popular Gibson L-5 (made by the Gibson Guitar Co in Kalamazoo Michigan).  The arch-top guitar featured violin-like construction with F holes in the top, a slightly convex top and back and a floating bridge. The design was popular as a rhythm guitar because it projected chords so well and was used in the popular big bands of the time. D'Angelico's attention to detail  was his signature. Hand crafting each guitar, often times customizing details to his customers specifications, he innovated on his guitar making process. He incorporated an Art Deco design into his guitars, producing not only a fine playing but a beautiful looking instrument.

D'Angelico's apprentice was the young James D'Aquisto, who after studying with his mentor,  himself became a master luthier, carrying on the tradition and expanding it in his own artistic way. His signature pieces are hallmarked by his insistence on using only natural and sometimes exotic materials on his guitars, along with his own innovative designs. One of the highlights of the exhibit  is a continuously running  film from 1985 by Fredrick Cohen titled  "The New Yorker Special: Handcrafting a Guitar."   It documents luthier Jimmy D'Aquisto hard at work in his shop, demonstrating the many steps it takes to build one of his fine guitars.

Present day master luthier John Monteleone is the last of the three guitar heroes featured at this exhibit. His detailed work incorporating  innovative designs and concepts are on ample display. His beautifully conceived and finely executed masterpieces have all become highly coveted collector pieces and take the art of the luthier to new heights. One of his innovations was the introduction of adjustable side openings in the body of the guitar, allowing the guitarist to hear the sound his is projecting to his audience.

For any part-time guitarist or accomplished professional  musician this show is a joy. For those who simply love beautiful things, made beautifully this show has its own special appeal.

Steve Miller and Friends Present: Concert at the Grace Rainey Auditorium
featuring the guitars of Jimmy D'Aquisto

Later that evening the museum held a  special concert presentation of some master guitarists playing some of the legendary D'Aquisto guitars, as seen at the exhibit. Held in the beautiful Grace Rainey Auditorium, the full house of patrons was entertained by the buoyant octogenarian Bucky Pizzarelli. Accompanied by the fine guitarist Ed Laub, the  duo played a series of  standards with Bucky using his own D'Aquisto guitar seven string guitar. Bucky is known as the consummate jazz rhythm guitar player,. He is a master of the seven string arch-top guitar and he showed why as he emblazoned his mark on tunes like "Tangerine", Claude Thornhill's "Snowfall" and Django Reinhardt's "Nuages". Over his sixty year career, he has shared the stage with everyone from Goodman to Grappelli

The next performer, one of my favorite guitarists and the performer I was most anxious to see, was the unassuming but superb Jim Hall. Hall is now eighty years old and his appearance was a stark contrast to that of the elder but sprightlier Pizzarelli. The stooped Hall came on stage with the aid of a cane,and was accompanied by the fine bassist Steve LaSpina. Hall's masterful work has graced the albums of giants like Hampton Hawes, Sonny Rollins, Bill Evans and Paul Desmond to name just a few. His subtlety and harmonic language has set the standard for many guitarist who have been influenced by his amazing body of work. Modern day masters like Bill Frisell and Pat Metheny cite him as a major influence. Despite his frail appearance his playing is undiminished, the essence of unassuming excellence.

Mr. Hall spoke in a quiet voice without the aid of the microphone and his guitar was poorly miked, so unfortunately there was some distinct fall off in the quality of sound during his performance. Jim was playing a D'Aquisto guitar that was made for him by the famous luthier. Mr. Hall  admitted that he has not played it much since  it became such a rare collector's item after the master craftsman's death. What we could hear was classic Jim Hall on his unusual take of the standard "All the Things You Are", his tasteful subtlety on the beautiful bossa"Beija Flor" and a 16 bar blues tune he called "Careful". Mr. LaSpina, who complimented the guitarist perfectly, was featured on  "Beija Flor". Check out the Jim Hall trio with Mr. LaSpina on bass and Joey Baron on drums on this video I found and I'll let the playing speak for itself.

The third performer of the night was the masterful Howard Alden.  Alden plays a seven string guitar and is extremely accomplished. His ability to play alternating bass lines and lead lines almost concurrently reminded me of the technique developed by the great Joe Pass. Alden wowed the crowd with his versions of "My Shining Hour", Duke Ellington's "The Single Petal of a Rose", Billy Strayhorn's  
"Lotus Blossom" , "Lap Piano" from the guitar virtuoso George Van Eps and  Django Reinhardt's  "Tears". For those who have not seen Mr. Alden before he is an impressive artist.

The finale of the event was guitarist Steve Miller and his band, playing his own custom made solid bodied James D'Aqiuisto guitar with Howard Alden sitting in. Mr. Miller related his own special story about his one time friend Mr. D'Aquisto and spoke of his own personal guitar collection of over 400 guitars.
He played a repertoire that was slightly jazz based. He covered a T. Bone Walker tune "Tell Me What's The Reason You Keep On". He offered a clever amalgam of Ma Rainey's "See See Rider Blues" sung to the music of Miles Davis's "All Blues" and  sang an evocative version of "Nature Boy", where Mr. Miller  demonstrated that  he could still can hold a tune with the best of them.  On the cool bossa "Lazy Afternoon" his voice took on a Michael Franks kind of removed cool sound to it. He ended the evening with his signature song the uplifting "Fly Like an Eagle".

The Met should be applauded for presenting such a well conceived and beautifully executed evening of music and a fabulous exhibit of  craftsmanship that aspires to and achieves high art.. The exhibit runs from February 9 - July 4, 2011. My advise, don't miss it.


  1. same!!
    couldn't agree more on all fronts.
    it was a memorable evening and a feast for mind, spirit and the guitar lover in all of us.

  2. This was a fantastic exhibit. Just saw it this week! It was special to me because my grandfather owned a D'Angelico.

    I also did a post about it on my blog! You can see it here:

    Salena of The Daily Rant