Sonny Landreth’s eleventh album, bearing the fittingly evocative title Elemental Journey (2012), is something very different from the Louisiana slide wizard. Released on his own Landfall label in May 2012, the new CD is Landreth’s first all-instrumental effort and his most adventurous work to date.
“From day one on the guitar, many genres of music have had an impact on me” says Landreth. “For these recordings, I drew from some of those influences that I hadn’t gone to on previous albums with my vocals. Trading off the lyrics this time, I focused solely on the instrumental side and all this music poured out. Then I asked some extraordinary musicians to help me layer the tracks in hopes of inspiring a lot of imagery for the listeners.”
Like its predecessor, From the Reach (2008), Elemental Journey features guest stars, in this case handpicked by Landreth for what each could bring to a particular aural canvas. Joe Satriani delivers an astonishing, ferocious solo on the audacious opener “Gaia Tribe,” the returning virtuoso Eric Johnson casts his seductive spell on the dusky dreamscape “Passionola” and steel drum master Robert Greenidge brings his magical overtones to the balmy, swaying “Forgotten Story.”
Drummers Brian Brignac, Doug Belote and Mike Burch, each of whom Landreth has worked with in the past, lend their particular feels to various tracks, working with Sonny’s longtime band members, bass player Dave Ranson and keyboardist Steve Conn. Tony Daigle, another key member of Sonny’s team, engineered and mixed the album, while Landreth produced.
“One of the things I’ve always loved about a good instrumental song is that it can be more impressionistic and abstract,” Landreth notes. “Though melody is always important, it’s even more significant with an instrumental. So what I wanted to achieve was something more thematic with lots of melodies and with a chordal chemistry that was harmonically rich. That’s when I got the idea to treat the arrangements with more layering and to have the melodies interweave like conversations. I also wanted it to be more diverse, to not adhere to any categories. I wanted to leave it wide open to possibility.”
The album blossoms forth with unexpected yet seamless juxtapositions. For example, Spanish moss atmospherics enwrap visceral bursts of rock and jazz on “Gaia Tribe,” and Sonny’s slide swoops and soars over a Jamaican-inspired groove with Greenidge’s Trinidadian pans on “Forgotten Story,” while “Wonderide” finds Zydeco romancing classical.
“On ‘Wonderide,’ you can hear some of Clifton Chenier’s Creole influences and then it morphs into a classical motif with the strings playing more complex changes,” Sonny points out. “When I started experimenting with it, I realized that the tempo for a good Zydeco groove could easily transition into the finger-picking style of phrasing found in classical guitar music. Then it was a matter of adding the strings to give it more depth with tension and release, expanding the overall sound.”
Strings play a featured role on five of the pieces. The string arrangements by Sam Broussard - moonlighting from his gig as guitarist in Steve Riley & the Mamou Playboys - are played by members of Lafayette’s own Acadiana Symphony Orchestra, conducted by its music director, Mariusz Smolij, a world-renowned maestro. The strings are employed in a particularly inventive way wherever they appear on Elemental Journey, frequently embellishing the tunings that Landreth uses for slide guitar - “sometimes in unison like a horn section, sometimes as a legitimate quartet or full blown orchestra,” Sonny explains.
The concept occurred to him after Smolij invited him to perform with the Acadiana Symphony Orchestra for a 2005 Christmas show for which he played Bach’s Cantata 140. “It was something I’d always wanted to do,” says Sonny. “I’d played the trumpet in school band and orchestra from grade school through college, so I was exposed to classical music and jazz, but I’d never played anything like that on slide guitar! So that really fired me up, and it became the backdrop for some of the classical influences on this album.”
There’s a particularly thrilling moment in the first track, “Gaia Tribe,” that occurs when two seemingly antithetical elements lock in an embrace. “When I first heard Joe’s solo,” Sonny recalls, “I went, ‘This is incredible! I love it but it just comes up out of nowhere - how am I gonna make it fit?’ After talking to Joe, I realized this was a great opportunity to raise the bar creatively. That’s when I got the idea to double the surprise factor and have the strings make their first appearance for the album in the middle of his solo. The next thing I know, a song that had started out as kind of a simple surf thing had become this wild ride of an epic piece and one of my favorite productions.”
Landreth’s music has always been evocative, a vibrant mixture of indigenous sounds and images informed by Delta blues and Faulkner alike. But here, by eschewing lyrics and vocals, he’s located something especially pure and unfettered. “What I’d hoped to end up creating was sonic stories without words,” he says. “And because there are no lyrics, it’s really important to connect on an emotional level. All of the titles for these songs have meaning for me - some of them are impressions from post-Katrina, Rita, the Gulf Spill, friends of mine and their experiences - so that’s part of it too. Still, I want listeners to feel something that resonates with them personally. I’ve always tried to make music that engages you on a deeper level that way.”
Prepare to be engaged . . . and transported.