Gilbert Isbin

Solo Works
Tonesetters / TS003

Gilbert Isbin / guitar

Isbin is a classical guitarist who performs his own compositions. If early influences from Paul Bley and Bill Evans imply an impressionistic, tonal player, however, nothing could be more inaccurate. Here are pieces full of extended techniques and preparations; Isbin’s love of piano music has expanded to include Cecil Taylor and Marilyn Crispell in later years, and it certainly shows.

Isbin has a fiendishly powerful technique; he’s able to play fast and loud without falling back on cliche. Working with preparations is easy enough when the style is soft and reflective, but in this energetic, quick-changing music it’s almost impossibly difficult, especially in a solo setting. Derek Bailey is one virtuoso who famously expressed a lack of interest in preparations, finding them too unwieldy for his mercurial style; Isbin proves here that it can be done, that exciting and dynamic music can come from the most awkward of modifications.


These pieces can reach apoplectic levels of activity, as on the frenzied and ear-boggling “Ogle”. Not everything on this disc has the same headlong rush to it, however, and it comes across as anything but hectoring. Tracks like “Toeka” and “Nuances” are more spacious, and the sequence of thirteen pieces, all fairly short, works as a satisfying whole. Indeed, the sheer variety on this disc can, at first, obscure the consistency of vision which these pieces share; the wild, hammering tachism, the Stepan Rak-like trilling arpeggios, the scrapes and rattles, the Cagean preparations, the percussive sounds, single-note lines and big, dramatic chording.

It’s remarkable, then, that Isbin’s style manages to remain coherent throughout. Where many classical guitar compositions have been plagued by gimmicky compendia of “new sounds”, Isbin has gone far beyond that first flush of novelty, and his compositions work as more than just technical work-outs. In short, Isbin is one of the most enthralling avant-classicists around. He may be one step back from the edge of the envelope, but that just gives him the perspective to make his music as intelligent as it is. Highly recommended to all, and indispensible for guitarists and afficionados of the instrument. Richard Cochrane