Guitarist and composer Gregg Belisle-Chi has emerged as one of contemporary music's most creatively dexterous musicians, intuitively spanning varied scenes from experimental jazz and improvisational chamber music to the exploratory edge of pop/rock songwriting. A grounded, disciplined musician with a broad passion for new ideas and concepts, Belisle-Chi is well-versed in multiple traditions, but not constrained by them, technically adept but always cognizant that technique is only a means to an end.
Belisle-Chi aligns himself with a small but vibrant side stream of modern jazz practice where playing the compositions takes on a more central role than the typical "play the head, solo, play the head out” format. This is underscored by his affinities with the contemporary classical and chamber music scenes, where the pace of innovation in recent years both instrumentally and compositionally has arguably been much greater than that of jazz.
Belisle-Chi's output shares some sonic and conceptual territory with his own recent work in Andy Clausen's Shutter Project, as well as fellow guitar explorer Ben Monder and mentor Bill Frisell. In other parallels, Belisle-Chi shares with Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead a transparently rich guitar tone, an interest in atypical songwriting concepts, and an affinity for György Ligeti.
Belisle-Chi 's new album is entitled I sang to you and the moon, and it builds on elements he began to explore in his 2015 debut on Songlines Records, Tenebrae: a literary and harmonically sophisticated, almost spiritual approach to songwriting. “Some really interesting jazz-influenced music could be made with more attention given to songwriting,” he says. “That’s not necessarily a new idea, I just don’t think it’s been that well explored.”
Both albums share a patient, ethereal quality, but Tenebrae occupied a more somber and austere space, while the new album dwells in more warmly earthy realms. I sang to you and the moon deploys distilled and focused ideas to effortlessly bridge the worlds of art song, chamber music and the heartland, informed by jazz but evading direct connections and genre conventions.
Belisle-Chi's new compositions are set to the words of iconic American poet (and occasional folk singer) Carl Sandburg. The music explores approachable tonalities and melodies while following the contours of the words and their own peculiarly winding logic. The songs are uniformly beautiful, powerful, and memorable, whether exploring the more eerie suite-like cinematic moods of "Dream Girl" or the dusty, elemental trance state of "Bringers."
For Belisle-Chi, discovering the work of Sandburg was revelatory: "The first piece I composed was 'White Shoulders.' It was the first poem of Sandburg's that I discovered and immediately fell in love with. That poem reminded me of my wife, I had such a visceral reaction to it that I decided to investigate further."
This initial flash of inspiration provided by "White Shoulders" resonated on a structural level as well as an emotional one: "It feels like a palindrome to me," says Belisle-Chi, "so I tried to convey that by using static pitches, using those to pivot the harmony off of, and by returning to some of the same themes equidistantly from the middle of the piece."
Sandburg's influence on Belisle-Chi has only deepened: "Sandburg turned out to be this really incredible writer and person, traveling all over the place and writing about his experiences, writing about the working men and women of his time. He seemed like a very observant, empathetic person and conveyed that well in his poetry."
The guitar-centered forms are embroidered with superbly sensitive collaborator contributions: Chelsea Crabtree's powerfully intimate yet otherworldly vocals, Carmen Rothwell's woody bass (channeling a bit of the spirit of Charlie Haden) and Raymond Larsen's smeary, poignant trumpet. A large part of the intimate rapport and gravity of the album's mood is a result of Belisle-Chi's fellow musicians.
"The band seemed so obvious to me. Ray and Carmen, probably my two closest friends--they're so musically relatable and collaborative. They're always there to serve the music, to get out of the way and just make it as beautiful as possible. It's hard to quantify how much I've learned from them as musicians and people." The three also work together in a collaborative project called Tyrant Lizard.
Belisle-Chi's musical and emotional connection with Crabtree is, not surprisingly, a deep one. The two have collaborated since 2009, and her vocals were a central element on the previous album. "I knew I wanted to do a follow up to Tenebrae with Chelsea, my best friend and partner. I was excited to bring her into the fold with Ray and Carmen."
I sang to you and the moon also features Belisle-Chi expanding his electric approach to include the acoustic guitar, a strategy which suits the music particularly well: "I've been falling in love with the acoustic guitar. I think most guitarists start out on acoustic. My first instrument was a Fender Stratocaster rip-off that my dad gave me when I was 12, so electric guitar is really what I'm comfortable with. …But I was inspired by players like Julian Lage, Marc Ducret, Nels Cline--all these really incredible electric players with such an amazing touch on the acoustic."
The beauty and immediacy of the album is embodied in the relative simplicity of its creation, where intuition is valued and the first impulse is often correct. "The recording was done over two days, all live except for some guitar overdubs," says Belisle-Chi. "I think we recorded all the tracks the first day, did them again the next, and ended up choosing most of them from the first session."
The production talents of Luke Bergman enabled the music to breathe, resulting a beautiful, open sound. "I was really excited to record with Luke. Just a wonderful musician and talented engineer. He really helped shape the record during the mixing."
There is something inherently powerful about a technically skilled and ambitious composer/musician applying his efforts to focusing and simplifying, as I sang to you and the moon poetically demonstrates.
Ultimately, the process of creating an album is, like Belisle-Chi's music, somewhat mysterious and serendipitous: "Recording is so tricky. I struggle with picking the accurate take versus the take with the most vibe, as probably most recording artists do. There are some mistakes and flubs, but all of that seems inconsequential when I look at the big picture. What's a painting without a few spilled paint drops?"
released December 21, 2016
Gregg Belisle-Chi: guitar/compositions
Chelsea Crabtree: vocals
Raymond Larsen: trumpet
Carmen Rothwell: bass
All words by Carl Sandburg (used with permission)
Recorded and Mixed by Luke Bergman in Seattle, WA
Mastered by Dana White at Specialized Mastering in Portland, OR
Design by Andrew Nicholl