Charlie Ulyatt: Do Not Forget Old Friends
Charlie Ulyatt

No doubt numerous albums inspired by Leonard Cohen will emerge in the wake of the beloved troubadour's passing, but probably none will be quite like the one by Nottingham, UK-based guitarist Charlie Ulyatt, who, saddened by the passing of the great Montreal poet, devised a rather unusual and refreshingly original way of honouring his memory. Rather than do covers of “Bird On a Wire,” “Suzanne,” or “Hallelujah,” Ulyatt read some of Cohen's poems one damp Saturday afternoon and extracted phrases from them to use as inspiration for solo electric guitar improvisations. The result makes for a natural complement to Ulyatt's 2016 release, Dead Birds, given that it too presents a collection of solo electric guitar pieces (even if the debut also features a spoken word turn by the guitarist on its title track).

Each of the eleven settings on Do Not Forget Old Friends was wholly improvised and documents the mood at the moment of recording. Conducting himself like a minimalist painter, Ulyatt exploits the instrument's natural sustain to its fullest advantage and similarly uses space to maximize the resonance of his playing. Patterns unfold languorously, the guitarist content to let extended pauses appear between the notes, and the general vibe is one of unhurried and thoughtful exploration. In tracks such as “The World's Huge Wound” and “Somebody's Innocent Night,” pitches are held so long, the material begins to take on the character of a drone, whereas the otherwise delicately rendered “Her Words Were Few And Small” catches the ear when slide accents plummet down the fretboard.

Though the pieces are purely instrumental in design, they do at times convincingly evoke the spirit of Cohen's writing and sensibility, never more so than during the quietly dusky dirges “Ghostly Shapes in the Depths” and “Cemetery of Love”; further to that, the meditative character of Ulyatt's pieces aligns naturally with Cohen's involvement with Zen Buddhism (according to a 1996 article in the Montreal Mirror, the poet, who had practiced Zen for years, was officially ordained as a Zen Buddhist monk on August 9, 1996 at the Mount Baldy Zen Center in California). Ulyatt's axe of choice (at least here) is electric, but never is it used to generate a firestorm; instead, the guitar's a gentle creature intent on telling a story in clear, crystalline lines as opposed to unleashing a torrent of high-decibel intensity. Improvisations can sometimes feel directionless, but that's not the case here.

February 2017