Atmospheric guitar duo music in the tradition of early Pat Metheny with string quartet adornment.

Stuart McCALLUM & Mike WALKER – The Space Between –  Edition 1082, 49:11 (11/25/16) ***:

(Stuart McCallum – acoustic guitar & electronics/ Mike Walker – electric guitar; (string quartet on tracks 1, 3, 6 & 7) Laura Senior & Gemma South – violins/ Lucy Nolan – viola/ Peggy Nolan – cello)

When the ancient seer foretold a year of evils, he may have had 2016 in mind. Averting from the geopolitical stage to the music scene, we must face that it has been a time of testing. It is not a good sign when a city with dozens of first-rate musicians sees its only jazz club close (a decade ago Portland, Oregon had three fine jazz clubs).  All the more do we welcome glad tidings from abroad and look to any positive developments there as a good omen. One such sign is the fruition of yet more great independent labels in Europe. One of the finest of these, Edition Records out of England, has made a positive impression on this site. This label specializes in conceptually-driven music which breathes fiery inspiration and artistic commitment. The most common reference points are chamber jazz with a Nordic vibe, but there is lots of experimentation on this label and a predilection for a funky good time.

On The Space Between, a guitar duo as well as a string quartet present mostly original music with some electronic effects. Stuart McCallum has written or arranged the tunes. His acoustic guitar stylings are unabashedly romantic and accessible. There is plenty of delicate finger-picking and buoyant strumming of open chords. On the memorable Yewfield we recognize the terrain immediately: it is Wichita, Kansas in 1980 – the world of Pat Metheny. Thirdless chords, ascending melodies, and diatonic optimism prevail. When his partner enters on electric guitar, there is further proof that this is a tribute to the great American guitarist. In fact, Mike Walker’s ideas have the same joyous virtuosity as Mr. Metheny. It is a demonstration of an ideal duo working in a non-original idiom to be sure, but doing it very well. There follows an arrangement of a Debussy string quartet, featuring finger-style acoustic guitar. Surprisingly the actual string quartet sits this one out.  Debussy’s acidulous harmonies are sweetened up a bit, but enough of the intricacy of the original is left for us to puzzle over.

And Finally, which opens the set, begins with burbling electronics and then introduces a simple melody, again sounding more like Pat Metheny then anything Pat Metheny ever wrote. We meet the string quartet, which does little more than thicken the texture. There is the inevitable Metheny swelling chorus, the first instance of this kind of bombast I’ve heard on this label. It reminds me of the wide gap between the legendary guitarist’s nearly supernatural playing and his larger artistic ambitions. A  gentle and meditative take on Bacarach’s Alfie shows off McCallum’s beautiful tone on his instrument and his ability to express the essence of the tune while treating the melody obliquely.

The string quartet earns its pay on two tracks starting with the title track Space Between, which meanders in a New-Age vein across some minor chords, the strings contributing to a soundtrack feel. Not much happens on this tune; everyone has arrived in heaven in shimmering white, but there is really nothing to talk about except for the nice clouds.

On As the Trees Waltz features Mike Walker on electric guitar. He has abandoned the Metheny licks and noodles simply with bended notes blending with lush ensemble work. The final tracks pare down to the duo. By now we have to accept the terms of the project; we give up waiting for harmonic tension or disruptions of any kind. This is the new-age wing of Editions and, as such, is probably as good as it gets. The adroit playing of both guitarists sets a high standard for this style even if it stays within a narrow expressive range and is derivative of a certain shaggy-haired guitarist from the land of Oz.

TrackList: And Finally; Alfie; Moment Us; Yewfield; String Quartet in g minor; The Space Between; All The Trees Waltz; My Ideal; Sky Dancer

—Fritz Balwit