Correction (9/11/15): at 10:57, I said that Leo Kottke spent time in the Army, which is incorrect. Leo was in the Navy.
Part One: Down the Rabbit Hole I’ve been to a lot of musician’s apartments or houses over the years, and I’ve come to regard the music stand as a sort of sacred object, a kind of alter that houses the contents of an artistic life, both pragmatic and aspirational. The world-class pianist, whose score of Chopin Polonaises got covered by a first year piano primer left behind by a five year old student. The elder law attorney, whose passion for the violin cannot be thwarted by the unlikeliness of ever mastering the first three measures from Bach’s Partita in B Minor. My own music stand is a 30-year old Manhasset. A warhorse that’s moved from city to city, state to state. It’s been left out in the rain and the snow. It’s sustained injuries by vacuum cleaners, excited dogs, and drunken humans. In the years since I finished my degrees and thus began my education, most of the music on my old Manhasset were short-term tenants. I’ll work up a part for an ensemble or a recording session, maybe prepare one of my own pieces for publication, but once the event is over, most scores go back on the shelf and are generally forgotten until the next time they’re needed. There are a few exceptions. A select pile of scores that for some reason remain in that purgatory between fantasy and resolution. These are my problem children: pieces that represent holes in my technique or musical knowledge, and hopefully, will someday yield great rewards when I finally devote the time and effort to learning them. On the top of that pile is an innovative work for the guitar that straddles vernacular music and art music, that requires both precision and power from the player, is totally idiomatic yet wholly unique. It’s a piece called “Oddball” by Leo Kottke. Leo first recorded “Oddball” in 1990, on a record called That’s What. We’re listening to a live track that was made at the Fox Theater in Boulder, CO, and released in 1995 on the record Leo Live. I’ve never performed “Oddball” or any other Leo Kottke piece. I want to. But I haven’t quite figured out how to get the bass notes to stop the way Leo does, using the side of my right hand thumb, or how to employ his very specific combination of left hand muting and right hand preparations. With music as subtle and idiomatic as Leo’s, it just doesn’t sound right unless those elements are present. So even though I’ve listened to Leo Kottke’s music for years and consider him to be one of the great living American instrumentalists and composers, I haven’t taken that trip down the Leo Kottke rabbit hole. Today, we’re taking our first trip down the Leo Kottke rabbit hole. It’s part one of a non-consecutive series we’re doing about one of the most influential American artists of the last century.
Part 2: A Little Context Leo Kottke was born in Athens, GA, September 11, 1945. His parents moved around a lot, and he’d lived in 12 states by the time he graduated from high school. Leo’s first musical instruments were violin and trombone, but his mother bought him a guitar when he was stuck at home with bout of mono, and that’s the instrument that stuck. Leo grew up around the end of radio’s golden age, and was witness to the early pioneers of Rock and Roll, but he’s often cited Pete Seeger as a major influence, and in a recent interview for the Charleston City Paper, Leo said that Seeger’s recording of “Coal Creek March” continues to “mess with him”. It’s not hard to connect the banjo rolls from Pete Seeger’s recording to some of Leo’s early tracks. Take a tune like “Busted Bicycle”, in which Leo adopts an approach that I consider to be quite akin to 5-string banjo playing. It may not be readily apparent to the casual listener, but the John Hammond connection also makes a lot of sense. Take a track like Robert Johnson’s “Traveling Riverside Blues” which appears on Hammond’s 1964 record on the Vanguard label called Country Blues. Leo Kottke never really strays that far from the Blues.
Take the B section from his tune “Mr. Fonebone”, from his 1983 record, Time Step. You hear that lowered 7th scale degree thing on the bass strings? That’s all about the blues. Even though Leo’s playing a much more precise motive, I think the energy and bravura of Hammond’s style really comes through in Leo’s re-interpretation. After a stint in the Navy, Leo settled in Minneapolis and got a regular gig at the Scholar Coffeehouse, where he made his first record, 12-string Blues. That record made its way into the hands of John Fahey, the guitarist and producer who founded Takoma Records. Fahey’s a super-interesting guy, and Leo’s often credited Fahey for jumpstarting his career. In an Acoustic Guitar article, Fahey talked about first hearing Leo Kottke’s 12-string Blues, quote: “I played it and everybody else in the room said, ‘He just plays like you.’ And I said, ‘No, he doesn’t.’ It was quite different, more muscular…maybe a little less sensitive. I don’t know. I saw dollar signs all over the place and good music. I didn’t let him sing. We put out the Armadillo record and made a fortune.” The Armadillo he’s referring to is Leo’s landmark 1969 6- and 12-String Guitar, which really put Leo on the map. In 1971, Leo was signed to Capitol, and made five records for the label. But he said “When that contract expired, I was really flat. My noodle was empty, They were willing to accept a record from me every nine months, but I couldn’t make them that fast anyway.
I left the company because I was afraid it was going to destroy my capacity to even enjoy the guitar.” Another threat to Leo’s enjoyment of the guitar arrived in the form of Tendinitis, which laid the guitarist up for three years, and caused him to reevaluate his technique. He chucked the fingerpicks he was using, and reworked his hand position. These changes obviously effected his sound in a big way, and I find it fascinating to compare those early Takoma recordings with his later stuff.
Part 3: Nothing and Everything You’ve Heard Before Even if you don’t recognize his name, you almost certainly recognize Leo Kottke’s sound. It’s like nothing and everything you’ve heard before. And that’s because Leo’s music is a combination of so many disparate elements—Americana, jazz, gamelan—that his compositions somehow sound familiar even when they’re completely new. I suppose you could say that about a lot of music, and mean it in a pejorative sense, but in the case of Leo Kottke, that sense of familiarity is more impressionistic. Take “Ojo”, for example, which Leo first recorded it on his landmark 1969 recording, 6-and 12-String Guitar. It’s a rondo, which means that the main idea, which we’ll call “A”, alternates with contrasting sections. “Ojo” follows a familiar Western Classical music form. Mozart wrote a ton of rondos, so did Vivaldi, so did Bach. But Leo’s not quite as beholden to the dominant chord as our dead European friends, so his transitions back to the A section proceed in a more folksy manner. For all its formal conventionalism, “Ojo” is an important tune in the development of Leo Kottke’s approach to the guitar. I recently spoke to the guitarist, writer, academic and publisher John Stropes, who’s been working tirelessly since the 1970’s to help guys like me understand Leo Kottke’s music.
Part 4: Proof Reading Airproofing for the Rest of Us Since the 1970’s, John Stropes has been guiding guitarists down the artistic rabbit hole of the likes of Leo Kottke, Michael Hedges, and John Fahey with transcriptions, articles, and scholarship. Stropes is Director of Guitar Studies at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. His publishing company, Stropes Editions, sets the standard for detailed and meticulously notated fingerstyle guitar transcriptions. Stropes Editions is continually adding titles by younger generation masters like Billy McLaughlin and Andy McKee, but the initial inspiration was Leo Kottke. John Stropes believes that notating these subtleties is the best way to communicate Leo Kottke’s music to guitarists who want to understand it. Problem is: standard notation doesn’t always cut it when it comes to nuances like left hand damping or certain types of barre chords that Leo uses, so John’s had to get inventive with notation over the years.
Part 5: Geeking Out on Oddball Let’s employ some musical terminology. We can call each of those 4-measure bits a sub-phrase, which means that the opening statement is a 12-measure phrase consisting of three sub-phrases. Or, if we go back to the question and answer analogy, we get question, slightly more insistent question, then answer. Let’s listen to the opening statement in its entirety, paying close attention to the way Leo shapes the sub-phrases. Another factor contributing to Oddball’s oddness is that the first chord you hear isn’t the tonic or the home key of the tune which is E. The first chord is actually a type of A. We don’t actually hear the tonic until the end of the second sub-phrase, and then only briefly. In fact, Leo only rests on the tonic E at the very end of the opening phrase, which as you’ll recall is already 12 measures into the piece. Now, about that opening chord…Jazz guys would refer to it as A6#9, which I know, sounds complicated, but it’s an important sonority here, so bear with me. It’s played on the first four strings, with the left hand fingers crowded into the 6th through 8th frets. If you’re a Jimi Hendrix fan, you’ll recognize the shape as the primary chord voicing used in “Purple Haze”, just shifted up a string set. Anyway, what makes the shape so interesting is that Leo alternates that shape with open strings, which ends up highlighting a very cool interval called the diminished fifth. He keeps the pattern going, by repeating the chord shape down a string set, so 5th through 2nd strings, then open strings, then same chord shape on the 6th through 3rd strings. Now, if Leo did that for a whole song, it’d be pretty hard to follow, harmonically. So he inserts these tonal sections every now and then to provide respite for the listener. I think my favorite part of the tune is the second contrasting tonal section, which, like the previous section, outlines motion from the IV chord to the I chord, but this time in the key of A. So, you get this big D major chord, then Leo lets the line peter out in a descending passage that ends on the open fifth string.
Research Assistance by Cole Hankins
“Pink Flamingos” from Traffic from Paradise (featuring Leo Kottke), Written and Performed by Rickie Lee Jones
“Oddball” from Leo Live, performed and written by Leo Kottke.
“Cicadas at the Equinox” from Vapor Trail from a Paper Plane, written and performed by Matthew Cochran
“Fast” from Electric Counterpoint, written by Steve Reich, performed by Pat Metheny, from the record Different Trains
“Coal Creek March” from The Essential Pete Seeger, traditional, performed by Pete Seeger
“Busted Bicycle” from 6- and 12-String Guitar, written and performed by Leo Kottke
“Traveling Riverside Blues” from Country Blues, written by Robert Johnson, performed by John Hammond
“Mr. Fonebone” from Essential Leo Kottke, written and performed by Leo Kottke (0:50-1:24, and let go)
“Jack Fig” from 6- and 12-String Guitar, written and performed by Leo Kottke
“Peckerwood” from One Guitar, No Vocals, Written and Performed by Leo Kottke
“Ojo”, performed and written by Leo Kottke, from 6-and 12-String Guitar
“Airproofing” from Leo Live, written and performed by Leo Kottke
“Ami-O” from Mwaliko, written and performed by Lionel Loueke
“Dá O Pá, Loro” from Cheio De Dedos, written and performed by Guinga
“The Fisherman” from The Essential Leo Kottke, written and performed by Leo Kottke
“Monopoly” from One Guitar, No Vocals, written and performed by Leo Kottke
“Oddball” from That’s What, written and performed by Leo Kottke
“From Pizza Towers to Defeat” from Clone, written by Leo Kottke, performed by Leo Kottke and Mike Gordon