'A Real Little Taste Of Heaven': Visionary Guitarist Jack Rose In 11 Songs
To the people that knew and played with him, the late guitarist Jack Rose was a towering example of virtuosity and dedication, interweaving ragtime, pre-war blues, raga and American primitivism. When he died of a heart attack in 2009, he left a huge gap in communities worldwide that almost seven years later no other player has been able to fill — as evidenced by a new wave of reissues that cement Rose's visionary status: On Sept. 16, Three Lobed Recordings reissued 2006's self-titled album, along with Dr Ragtime and His Pals and I Do Play Rock and Roll, both from 2008. This Friday, VHF Records will follow suit with some of Rose's earlier material: 2002's solo debut Red Horse, White Mule, 2003's Opium Musick and 2004's Raag Manifestos.
If nobody has come along to match Rose, his legacy also lies in a generation of artists fired up by his spirit. Many are younger, such as guitarist Steve Gunn, now signed to Matador, who met Rose as an 18-year-old fresh to Philadelphia, and says, "He set a standard for being a DIY musician, and trying to go against a lot of odds and demand respect and make a living." But Rose's influence also extended to older artists. "I really feel like I owe to Jack the fact that I'm playing music today," says 62-year-old Glenn Jones, who met and befriended Rose at Brattleboro's legendary Free Folk Festival in 2003. "He really kicked me in the butt."
Whether coming from peers, collaborators or putative proteges, the tributes to Rose, compiled below to illuminate this new round of reissues, share common praise for the questing ambition that would often see him record multiple versions of the same song to try and get closer to its essence. For his dexterity as a player, often reaching moments of pure transcendence while remaining steadfastly grounded; his reputation for prickliness, confounding audiences with pieces like the 30-minute drone opus "Sundogs" and forcefully defending his tastes, but also his warmth and encouragement.
Rose's famed work ethic came up again and again. When he lost his job at a coffee shop for refusing to give a police officer a free cup, he took unemployment and woodshedded until he became a virtuoso of his own style. Says banjo player (and Dr. Ragtime collaborator) Nathan Bowles, "I see the seriousness and the feeling of not being afraid or ashamed to throw yourself into the practice of the kind of music that you really enjoy as one of his bigger legacies."
Below, Rose's collaborators, peers and admirers discuss their favorite tracks from the upcoming raft of reissues, along with reminiscences of this true individual.
"Dark Was the Night"
Cory Rayborn, Three Lobed Recordings:
"Jack always excelled with the power of performance. This trait was repeatedly exhibited in two chief ways — when playing live, obviously, but also within his albums. Jack didn't believe in overdubs: His recordings were always straight to tape, complete snapshots of a particular single performance. What you hear is just what was played, a vital moment trapped in amber.
"Part of the magic of the rendition of 'Dark Was the Night' on Jack's self-titled album is the very vitality of the take. The track starts with him audibly breathing as he prepares to play. The listener is very definitely in the company of the performer throughout the duration, be it through additional breathing or the clack and clatter of Jack's hands and slide. The song is brief, especially in contrast to the length of the one that immediately precedes it, but positively electric. Every time I hear it these days, it acts for me as a conduit to conjure Jack back to life, if only for the duration of its running time. I can imagine him performing live, perhaps with a little pre-song anecdote, or just chatting late in the night over drinks post-show about the intersection of music and opinions.
"While Jack's ethos was pretty pervasive throughout his entire discography, I always find myself drawn to the tracks like this one that bear a mark of his humanity. That extra breath, pause or silencing of the strings post-take just means so much. They have always pulled me in, but that draw became downright magnetic following Jack's passing. Listening now just reiterates the greatness of his playing — style, technique — but also acts as a way to check in on an old friend."
"Spirits In The House"
"More than any other aspect of Jack's artistry, I've always loved his slide playing on the Weissenborn lap guitar. One of my lasting musical memories is walking into Penn Treaty Park in Philadelphia, where he was playing a free outdoor concert, and hearing the perfect cry of his steel on the Weissenborn's strings calling out through the early evening sky. It was the summer of 2009, and I'd only just moved to Philly a month or two earlier. Jack was on a little stage with his back to the river, blankets were laid out on the grass, locals were having a drink or a smoke and children were running about. It wasn't a heavy event, just a nice summer hang. And I don't recall the exact tune he was playing, but it could very well have been the Weissenborn workout 'Spirits in the House,' from Jack's self-titled record.
"For my money, it's one of the most remarkable pieces he recorded. It's a song that hangs in the air like mist, much like of the music of Miles Davis. 'Spirits in the House' has form and melody and rhythm, but it's elusive. When you try to grasp it, identify the constituent parts, they slip through your fingers. There is improvisation, but no searching. It all sounds inevitable, preordained, perfectly constructed. Even in this 12-minute piece, there is a concision that freezes time. There are zero — I mean, zero — wasted notes or gestures; only the sound of the all-time present moment in this playing. Jack was a great composer and an incredible performer, a kind of low-key virtuoso. At gigs, he often cut off the decaying notes of the last chord of a song with an abrupt, unpretentious snap as if to say, 'Let's not get too precious here, people.' But the delicacy and precision, the perfect intonation, the emotional wallop of his slide playing on 'Spirits in the House,' is something else. There's no way to undercut its majesty."
Tom Carter (Charalambides):
"I saw Jack play many times and what I remember most is his sheer physicality. He played like he was operating a jigsaw, carving out delicate filigree with brute force, disguising art as craftsmanship. But art it was, and this jewel in his discography offers art in heaps, delivered with flourishes that stamp it as undeniably Jack's: the strike of hands on wood, the rattling slide on a metal fretboard, the close-up microphone recording harshly drawn breaths that seemed so vital, yet would cease nonetheless.
"I don't remember the first time I saw Jack's beloved Weissenborn Hawaiian lap steel, but I remember his excitement when he showed it to me, handing it over so I could feel how light it was, its weightless bulk recalling a toy glider yet still improbably supporting the tension of its six steel strings. On this track, Jack's rough attack melds beautifully with the Weissenborn's wood, its singing, lighter-than-air tone lending resonance and delicacy to this homegrown raga — like his others, always played with perfect intonation and deceptive ease, an aspect of his slide playing that is often overlooked.
"Of all of Jack's music, I love his slide playing the most. It sings with an authority that promised so much more, and was so abruptly cut off. The knowledge of its silence kept me away from much of Jack's music for months after his death — yet now it affirms to me that it's bad faith to mourn. 'Spirits in the House' celebrates the beauty of what is, not what could've been. As humans with ears, we must celebrate in kind."
"Hide The Whiskey (Blues For The Colonel)"
"I don't think Jack made it out West too often, and in those days I almost never made it to the East Coast, but we did play a show together once, in a club so small that if 30 people came, half of them had to stand outside. It was the kind of club that had no sign, no address and no advertising, but there were always people sitting at the bar and standing on the sidewalk. I was playing with an exuberant eight-piece experimental jazz band and what I remember about Jack from that night is how fully he occupied the space when he played. Once he started playing, he never addressed the audience or even looked up from his guitar. He shot notes all over the place, perhaps in response to the loose-limbed anarchic set we had just played, or perhaps that was just the energy in the air that night.
"'Hide the Whiskey (Blues for the Colonel)' is a visceral piece of music. It exposes the body, the physical process of music-making laid bare. It vibrates and hums with pure energy. The song is noisy, raw and free, simultaneously confident and searching, vulnerable and powerful. After the opening chair squeaks and slide clunks, form and formlessness battle until about two thirds of the way through when a melody emerges in the high notes, dives to the lower register, can't sustain and ends as it began, with the sound of the chair he was sitting in."
"Larry Brown taught Jack the 'Sundogs' technique in Philadelphia; sold him his first Weissenborn guitar too, with a cracked neck. Larry showed Jack how you could rapidly bow the Weissenborn with a slide and it would howl like a wooden singing bowl. All acoustic, no amp or mic needed. Jack and Ian Nagoski visited me in Virginia soon after and we tried it on a resonator guitar that I'd just got. It worked there too — a floating, humming, almost electric amp feedback sound. The first Spiral Joy Band show was right after that and the whole short set was me Sundogging the reso with Mikel Dimmick playing a metal singing bowl for a duet of moans. Then Patrick Best came up with a set of spectral harmonium clusters that merged into and extended the Weissenborn/reso/singing bowl wails — and worked as a solo piece too.
"By the time we got to Pelt's untitled album, we were all playing our own 'Sundogs' in various combinations. Around then Jack had the idea of a CD of just 'Sundog' variations that would formally lay out the different versions we had cooking — we talked to a Dutch label that wanted to do it but we dropped the ball. Through all this Jack kept honing his 'Sundogs' and it was a gorgeous, shimmering monster. At his solo shows he was cutting audiences off at the eyebrows with it — I think at least some people thought they were hearing electronics. No electricity needed."
"Jack transcended the shadow of Fahey, and I think that's really difficult to do. He gained respect as someone who had his own style, and it was undeniable when he played — people paid attention. With 'Sundogs,' he was transcending who he was even more. For him to take this risk and do this 30-minute drone piece — to me it was really brave. Not only that: The way he played it, and the amount of skill that he put into it, was mind-boggling — I couldn't understand how he was creating these drones from his acoustic. This piece threw people a real curveball when he'd pull it out during sets. He'd be playing this traditional ragtime, then play this song and it'd clear the air. It was this grand statement.
"This song always comes to mind when I think of the type of person Jack was: He was such a solid person, but whatever he did, he owned. I knew Jack even before he was playing solo guitar. I graduated high school, moved to Philly, and I saw Pelt play a few times. I noticed that Jack was playing acoustic in Pelt, but I didn't know he was on the brink of woodshedding and becoming this incredible solo musician. He was friendly to me when I first met him: We worked at the same farmers' market, the Reading Terminal Market. I worked at the ice cream store and Jack worked at the coffee shop and I would go and talk to him about random records. I thought very highly of him. He lost his job at the coffee shop apparently because he didn't give a police officer a free cup of coffee, and the police officer complained and Jack lost his job. And then I saw him at a record store — he was like, yeah, I've been playing guitar all day, and then a few months later, he played a solo set and I couldn't believe it. I was dumbfounded by his virtuosic presence out of the gate. It made me wanna work really hard at being a better guitar player.
"At that time I was secretly coming up with my first batch of vocals-and-guitar songs in my bedroom. I was nervous to send it around, but I gave it to Jack and I didn't really hear anything. People liked it, another label wanted to re-release it, and then one day I just got an email from Jack, and he was like, 'Hey man, I just wanted to let you know that I had that CD in my car and I've basically worn it out, I listened to it a ton and I really really like it. I think what you're doing is really great, and I can't wait to kinda see where you go with it, looking forward to playing some gigs with you.' To me that's how Jack was — he had this intimidating presence but every once in a while he'd pull you aside and say the sweetest thing to you. For him to say that was super inspiring. For me, Jack was more than the music. He set a standard for being a DIY musician, and trying to go against a lot of odds and demand respect and make a living — realizing that hard work really pays off. There's been enough time to let the realization that he passed away too young settle in, and to get a bit of distance from the event. I haven't really been able to listen to his music since he passed for sentimental reasons, but I think about him all the time."
"Song For the Owl"
James McNew (Yo La Tengo):
"In which Jack opens some other doors. He meditates on the changes, in graceful, swooping power-slides. They seem almost random, amorphous in sequence. And then they start to unfold, and climb; raga/blues lines emerge and ascend. It folds its wings and lands gently from whence it launched. Two minutes and change, here; I wish it went on for hours. His warm, sweet tone is so strong. It's psychedelic but something about it also feels ancient, like a prayer that's been repeated a zillion times. Such a young guy, he was so deeply in touch with forces so old."
James Jackson Toth (Wooden Wand):
"I like every note Jack Rose ever put down. I never saw him have an 'off' night, never heard a decision on one of his records that made me question his good taste or his judgment. That said, my favorite tunes by Jack the Guitarist are increasingly the ones that seem to mirror the qualities of Jack the Person: the bold ones, the pugnacious ones, the ones that sound like a series of small explosions. This is why my favorite album of these recent reissues is Dr. Ragtime & His Pals. Frankly, it was an album I didn't connect with at the time as much as the others; it seemed less spaced-out, less concerned with sophistication, less 'serious.' I took for granted the fact that my friend Jack was rarely any of these things. He was, however, a person for whom the joy of discovery was paramount. When I hear these jams, I hear Jack's confidence, his bravado, his willingness to take risks, and his heart, and I am reminded of that joy of discovery. These are magnificent records, and their reissue is a public service."
"Miss May's Place"
Matt Valentine (MV & EE):
"Jack and I share the same birthday, we also shared a lot of bills together — festivals, tours, zones ... we hung out. My daughter sways and dances to his music now too. I've known him since the dawn, even had a single or two of his bands pre-Pelt. Back in the mid-'90s my friend Greg Vegas turned me on to [Pelt's debut] Brown Cyclopaedia. Greg told me I had to hear it and that I'd love it. It felt like brown acid at the time; still does.
"Time was when I created a basement performance space called the Ya Ho Wa Strip Bar in Port Chester, N.Y. It was the beginning of my relationship with Jack. We partied, Jack fingered my records and I'm pretty sure he wanted to fence over the Dead vs. Pentangle. Years later and many deep hangs in the rear view mirror we/he 'debated' over Shirley Collins vs. Anne Briggs. How can one qualitate these things? It's easy with Jack's music since there is nothing 'bad' about it. Hearing these incredible sounding recordings with some cellaring really makes me miss this dude.
"l love 'Miss May's Place,' it's incredible: modal, syncopated with groovy rose boogie, full of gliss, microtones & chromatic runs. Then there's the finger style — it covers vast terrain with deep distance. Everything I dig about Paramount, Herwin, Blue Goose, Yazoo and Takoma rolled strong. Origin library now; yesterday's sound today. Future guitar. I've heard him jam it with Glenn Jones, watched him sketch some sections on couches and in couch flambeau with post-gig fire waters. It's always good; this version on the Three Lobed self-titled reissue is a monster of pure good. Sweet sound and the riffage is a mirage of guitar soli without dub. Pure Jack! Sublime and brilliant harmonic light, free folk irie ..."
"St. Louis Blues"
Ethan Miller (Howlin' Rain):
"This performance is a testament to just how far Jack could swing those sliding notes. He was a master at making each slide blur the universe in some kind of heavenly warp. Some notes it seems like time might stop in those slides before they get home and yet the complexity of the picking rhythms and counter notes going on around and sometimes under them creates an extraordinary layering of different time feels and motions. It ain't a slow song, it's woozy! It's fine, fine coffee and a big jelly jar of wildflower honey. Like he's peeling back your head with a gentle little halo buzzsaw and scooping your brains out and letting them slide down his hands and goop all over the sunny grass out back. Just to give you a real little taste of heaven. And after the last chord of the song lands and it's about to go dark he throws a soft little shooting star up to the heavens just for one last thrill."
Erika Elder (MV & EE):
"'St. Louis Blues' was always one of my favorite songs in Jack's set. Jack was often nervous before a show, worried he may have missed his 'beer window.' He would pace, smoke, 'talk to you later,' waiting like some hyped linebacker to make a definitive tackle. Once onstage he would sweat and sniffle, sometimes curse and take his sweet time tuning! Even if that hyperkinesis made its way into the set, he could chase it away by playing the good ol' 'St. Louis Blues.' His trusty Weissenborn in his lap, he'd matter-of-factly slip on his fingerpicks and deftly channel days gone by. The bull becoming the china shop, as Byron Coley once said. Jack's version of Blind Joe Death's version of 'St. Louis Blues' is more upful — more hypnotic than anybody's. I never fail to drift off to some sawdust-floored juke joint version of whatever reality I'm in at the moment I hear it. I always wondered how he could play it without getting lost."
"My father was a musician, record producer and my best friend, and his record collection taught me so much. He always tried to steer me towards John Fahey, but for whatever reason, I wasn't ready, it didn't hit me. But then fast-forward: My dad passes away, and a friend of mine sits me down and plays me Jack Rose's 'Kensington Blues' and I think maybe because he's of my generation, Jack Rose totally spoke to me. All of a sudden, I had this overwhelming epiphany about solo guitar music. It really changed my life. Then of course I went back to Fahey and I was like, 'Oh my god, he is the zen master.' Not only did Jack turn me on to Jack, he finally brought me all the way around to John Fahey. And that was really fruitful for me.
"I love 'St Louis Blues' because I grew up with the song: My grandmother played it, my father played it, Louis Armstrong played it on that great W.C. Handy record, John Fahey played it. I also loved all of Jack's raga-inspired playing. I was familiar with what he was doing but he had such a strong sense of self: his personality, his aesthetic, it was so strong and it was so appealing to me. I never encountered Jack — he passed away very soon after I was introduced to his music. So that was weird — and my first daughter was born right after my dad passed away, so that's when I wrote my instrumental acoustic record because I was mourning my father and playing lullabies to my daughter. And what was so funny for me, was I realized this artform was so simple, it's just like breathing or swimming, just instrumental acoustic guitar, I could do this forever."
"Cathedral Et Chartres"
"The original 'Cathedral Et Chartres,' perched auspiciously on the A-side of Kensington Blues, is a bright and billowing hang glide over Bashovian peaks. It's regal and mystical, like much of that record, and airier than a lot of his later work. As great as that version is, it's the I Do Play Rock and Roll version that really flattens me. On this one, the first arpeggiated theme rolls out innocently enough, but as the first minute turns over Jack starts digging in hard, pulling notes from the fretboard with a raw, percussive power. This recording, mic'd close and punctuated appropriately with sharp, concentrated breathing, is as visceral as Jack's later live performances were. Hearing that on a recording is a treat. We don't usually associate solo acoustic pickers with the word powerful, but that's the best description of those later live shows I can think of. Immense would also be appropriate.
"The trip between 'Cathedrals,' from blissed-out, sidelong reverence to the undeniably physical forces Jack would summon later, is, for me, what sets him apart as a player. Rather than pointing the mastery of his instrument toward measured, academic abstraction, he went further into sweaty-assed, physical nowness, ultimately inhabiting the same kinetic vibration that forged performers like Iggy Pop and John Bonham into rock gods. Sure, the title of this record may be a sly riff on Fred McDowell's first electric excursion, but it's no joke: 'Rock and roll' is exactly what Jack Rose did."
"To the best of my memory, this was the first time I'd really played with Jack in any way. Jack had come to where Mike Gangloff lives with the plan to play his songs, not rehearse them too much, but then go ahead and just record them on this little mini recorder that Mike had. I can't remember if at the time we knew that this was part of an album that Jack was thinking about. I have very vivid memories of how exciting it was to play that music pretty off the cuff on 'Revolt', which was a song that neither Mike nor I really knew. At the time I thought that the structure and the timing was so strange. I think you can hear Mike and I not totally understanding the song on the Dr. Ragtime version, but by the time you get to the one we recorded with Isak Howell from Black Twigs in 2009, you can hear that it's a little more confidently swaggered out. Jack liked the feel of certain takes. He wasn't precious about if there were weird sonic imperfections, or if someone just flubbed a note — that wasn't high on his list of criteria for whether a track was going to be a keeper or not.
"Something about the melody and the rhythmic qualities of 'Revolt' are playful but also very insistent, fiery. His playing always had a real authoritativeness to it, no matter how playful the melody or rhythm might be. There's always a sure-footedness to him. I listen back to that track and I can hear us having a lot of fun with it. I remember he was really pretty laid back about that particular time of recording with Mike and I, he seemed pretty happy.
"I see the seriousness and assuredness that Jack brought to his practice in music lived out in a lot of the people that knew him then — I feel like they're working even harder these days, and Jack's discipline often comes up as a continued inspiration for that, as he'd struck out for the territories with solo string music by playing shows and making a living doing it. He was steadfast in making that work. I see the seriousness and the feeling of not being afraid or ashamed to throw yourself into the practice of the kind of music that you really enjoy as one of his bigger legacies."
"Calais To Dover"
"This song takes its name from the first tour that we did together in 2003, 2004. After a show in Belgium, we took an all-night boat trip to Dover and from there we were going to play John Peel's show. John Peel had just died but the BBC were continuing to finish out the shows that he had scheduled. It was an all-night boat trip and neither of us slept the whole way — it was exhausting. But we got to the studio, and then Jack was just an amazing player, even as tired as he was. It was only when Jack Rose came out that I recognized that he named a piece after the trip we made.
"Jack I met in 2003 at the first annual Brattleboro Free Folk Festival. That festival was a revelation. It was a two-day affair, and my first inkling that there was another generation of players coming up who loved the same records that I had when I was growing up. Immediately when I heard Jack, the Fahey influence was very profound and very evident, but I could also hear the influence of players like Robbie Basho, who was a very different style from Fahey — and the influence of country blues and hillbilly music, pre-war recordings. When Jack got done playing his set, I practically wanted to run up and give him a big kiss right on the mouth! He was so notable.
"Jack very quickly became my best friend. We formed a really deep bond, and I owe so much to him. I was devoted to the same kind of music that he was, but Jack was so keen and there was such an edge to what he was doing that it totally inspired me. Jack suggested that we do that tour together and I said yes before I even thought about what it was going to mean. After I said yes I started thinking, this guy eats other guitar players for breakfast and I'm going to be sharing a stage with him for a whole month?! We did that month-long tour and we didn't have a single cross word — if anything we were far closer friends when we got done than when we began. I really feel like I owe to Jack the fact that I'm playing music today. He really kicked me in the butt. I think about Jack every day. I miss him as a friend, I miss him as a player, I think Jack was maybe the best guitar player of his generation — at least my favorite anyway."
"I Do Play Rock and Roll is probably the record I've spent the most time listening to alone, at home. Especially after Jack was gone. The opener, 'Calais to Dover,' always stands out as one of those 'cosmopolitan' type of compositions of Jack's that I loved so much. This one is all mood, abstractions, curves, furling and unfurling. But even with all the incredible technique and filigree that goes into making this piece, there's not an ounce of virtuosic burden to it. It's a beautiful, worried meditation that never makes one single corny move."
"The first time I saw this song title, I had a bit of a laugh. It seemed Jack had encoded a bit of pride into this song. Solo acoustic guitar from America not exactly being an art form that was on fire with the underground music scene in 2006, I can't help but read a bit of, 'Check it out, I'm touring the world playing this music' into the title. Considering the title of the record was also a sly comment, this is not too far-fetched of a theory. Musically, however, the beautiful move in this song is how it begins with a non-western mode and then slowly levels out into a maximal-minimalist piece with various interval clusters flowing through the 12 strings. The immediate influence one might pick up is the late Robbie Basho, who perfected the art of hyper-picking notes on a 12-string while funneling the music through his own unique brand of "mystical" vision. This song's non-western mode coupled with a particular minimalism, however, has much more in common with a piece like 'You Are My Everlovin" by Henry Flynt, a piece of music Jack turned me on to. It's a non-transcendent mode of spirituality, one embedded in the metal of the strings of his guitar, not in some nonexistent otherness.
"Jack was always present when he played. It's hard to think of a musician who was so there, in each note, as it was sounded. This has always been a favorite tune of mine. It's a masterclass in guitar finger-picking, improvisation and composition."
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