Gregg Belisle-Chi: Tenebrae

It's tempting to draw parallels between Gregg Belisle-Chi and Bill Frisell. Similar to Frisell's In Line, Belisle-Chi's debut recording as a leader is largely an album of solo guitar playing, and Frisell it turns out is also a friend of and mentor to the young, Seattle-based guitarist. But as Tenebrae makes amply clear, Belisle-Chi is no Frisell clone but a developing artist in his own right, even if one naturally influenced by those he's listened to and played with. The album, which was recorded live over two days in August 2014, is all Belisle-Chi except for three tracks on which vocals by Chelsea Crabtree, the guitarist's wife, appear.

During the gestation period leading up to the recording, Belisle-Chi was listening to twentieth-century classical composers such as Ligeti and Bartok, and presumably some of that listening seeped into the project's development. But if it did so, it did so subtly, as the forty-two-minute Tenebrae draws upon folk and jazz as much as it does any other genre, classical or otherwise. Though it is a genuinely personal exploration of harmony, dissonance, and melody, what truly sets Belisle-Chi's recording apart is its focus on song form. The album's introspective music, all of it through-composed and improvisation-free, is not treated in such a way that a theme is introduced and its chord changes then exploited for the purposes of soloing. Instead, he approaches a piece with a songwriter-like sensibility, sensitive to issues of narrative structure, motifs, and character (that literary dimension is most overtly reflected in the title “Fear and Trembling,” which directly references one of Kierkegaard's philosophical works).

While his playing isn't lacking on technical grounds, Tenebrae isn't about demonstrations of virtuosity. Approaching the material as formal compositions as opposed to blowing vehicles, Belisle-Chi is more focused on using technique to serve the story each tale tells and convey the essence of that story using musical means. His playing is, on this recording at least, more concerned with texture, melody, and dynamics as opposed to runs. In shaping his sound with a volume pedal, distortion, reverb, and delay, Belisle-Chi has so much at his disposal that nothing so flashy as a solo is necessary for a stirring rumination such as “Tragedian” to take hold. With the exception of a scrabbly phrase here and there, “Victim” also unfolds at a slow tempo that reflects the guitarist's confident handling of the material.

The presence of Crabtree on three songs doesn't compromise the introspective quality of the material; instead, her voice reinforces its intimate feel, especially when she sings wordlessly as happens during parts of “Resurgam” and “Sabbaths X (1998),” with her soft voice mirroring the melodic trajectories of her husband's playing. But even when conventional lyrics are sung, as happens in all three settings, the music never loses its intimate character. Admittedly there are moments on Tenebrae that are Frisell-like, something that's almost unavoidable when Belisle-Chi's approach to the instrument is as textural as Frisell's, but the recording is nevertheless one of which Belisle-Chi has every reason to be proud.

October 2015