Guitar virtuoso Duane Andrews’ new album, ‘Conception Bay’, is an ambitious undertaking, pairing Andrews’ jazz-influenced guitar with a string quartet and pulling from a spectrum of jazz, classical arrangements, and traditional Newfoundland folk music. Going into the album with just this description, you might expect it to be full of overwrought, difficult songs that are impossible to enjoy without a passion for all three genres. Legitimate fear though it may be, anyone familiar with Andrews’ previous masterful takes at blended-genre records already knows that he is more than capable of meeting the challenges, and as such, ‘Conception Bay’ is accessible and enjoyable for any music lover willing to listen.
While Andrews claims songwriting credit for only three of the album’s ten songs, he reshapes each piece of source material into something clearly of his own through a combination of soaring fiddles, elegant harmonies, and his distinctive guitar work. His take on ‘Swing 39′, originally by legendary jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt, finds itself becoming as much folk as swing, combining the energy of both genres. Andrews takes this process of reinterpretation one step further in his Improvisations on ‘Chopin’s Opus 64 No. 2’, wherein he transforms the composer’s wistful piano waltz into a sophisticated, guitar-centered improvisational journey, showcasing his talent in what is undoubtedly one of the album’s strongest testaments to his musicianship.
Though few in number, Andrews’ original compositions leave a striking impression, providing some of the strongest examples of his genre-based alchemy. ‘Nantes’, the opening track to the album, is a bit more complex fare than the rest, with a heavily jazz-influenced folksy feel and high levels of energy and variety that help set the stage for the rest of the album. Andrews’ second original piece, ‘Gigues’, is a brilliant blend of classical baroque dance music and spirited folk fiddling that serves to provide the middle ground between Versailles and George Street that we didn’t know we needed until now, and is a definite high point of the album. The third original piece, ‘Conception Bay’, is very unassuming, left until second-last, and never strives to draw the attention one might expect of a title track; rather, it is a slow and complex experience, simultaneously every bit entrancing and unsettling as the sea.
‘Conception Bay’ isn’t an album to miss, regardless of general preference or familiarity with Duane Andrews. If you enjoy acoustic guitar and fiddles, I guarantee that this album is worth picking up, and even if that doesn’t strike you as your typical fare, I’d still strongly encourage you to give it a try. There’s a lot of different things in there, and all of them exceptionally crafted; odds are good you’ll find something to like. Listeners new to Andrews’ unique instrumental musings have a broad array of styles and sounds to lose themselves in. Long-term listeners may find the album reminiscent of his 2008 record, ‘Raindrops’ due to ambitious genre experimentation, but should come to the happy consensus that Andrews has outdone himself in this latest masterpiece.