“It’s not the notes you play, but how you play them.” Guitarist Sandy Bull has perhaps always been more keenly aware of the oft-adopted and adapted cliché than any guitarist before or after him. His early ’60s recordings for the Vanguard label heralded what became referred to as psychedelic folk, a genre virtually carried by Bull alone until Ry Cooder, David Lindley, Leo Kottke, Richard Thompson and others began moving audiences a decade or so later with their respective virtuosity and incorporation of odd-metered music from the far reaches of the earth into their repertoires.
Indeed, Bull’s innate ability to pull together instruments as disparate as banjo, oud and guitar and make them sound fitting in concert preceded in many ways the very notion of contemporary instrumental folk music. Although he made just four records in the decade between 1962 and 1972 before fading into heroin-fueled obscurity (he re-emerged in the late ’80s and has released a pair of solo albums since then), Bull’s spellbinding ability as a guitarist and arranger reverberates freely in the work of countless guitarists of virtually every genre.
For Re-Inventions, producer Tom Vickers culled material from three of Bull’s four original releases for Vanguard—Fantasias for Guitar and Banjo (1962), Inventions (1965) and Demolition Derby (1972). Bull’s 1970 release, E Pluribus Unum, was re-released by Vanguard in 1996. Included are Bull’s classic signature piece, the 22-minute improvised opus “Blend,” on which he is joined by frequent collaborator of the day, drummer Billy Higgins and the extraordinary “Carmina Burana Fantasy,” based on Carl Orff’s original work and arranged by Bull for performance on five-string banjo. While both aforementioned tracks are in some respects as odd as they sound, Bull’s subtle reliance on dynamics and melodic coloring rather than on sheer technical ability (of which he possesses no shortage) makes both work.
The most striking element of Bull’s work as represented on Re-Inventions is his use of Middle Eastern aesthetics, particularly Indian and Arabic dronish modes. And while he admittedly wasn’t the first artist to delve into world musics, he was certainly the pioneer when it comes to folk—even rock—adaptations of such exotica.
Re-Inventions chronicles the work of an extraordinarily influential guitarist whose contributions to Americana have gone largely unsung, and for that alone he deserves accolades. But Bull’s work, so inventive, full of flux and passion, is the magic that will most certainly make the retrospective a unique treasure.