Peppino D’Agostino doesn’t just play the guitar. He composes, arranges, collaborates, improvises and has even been known to sing a song here and there in both English and Italian. But what he does create on the guitar makes the difference between simply playing and truly making music apparent in the most wonderful ways.
D’Agostino has been hailed as “a guitarist’s guitarist” by Acoustic Guitar magazine as well as “a giant of the acoustic guitar” (San Diego Reader), and holds many top guitar awards, but the San Francisco Chronicle encapsulated the essential difference that distinguishes D’Agostino’s music when it dubbed him “a poet.”
That poetic eloquence, grace and magic suffuses Nine White Kites, his first album of new compositions for the guitar in a decade (during which time he’s done much else wonderful with his musical talents). The set of 11 songs and two bonus tracks launches with the soaring fingerpicking of the title track, leading the listener through a tour de force showcase of D’Agostino’s mastery and artistry.
Numbers like “Barefoot in Rio” (on which D’Agostino makes a rare appearance on nylon string guitar), “Cowboy Minestrone” (an homage to master country picker Jerry Reed) and “Reggae Ragu” travel through spots on the musical globe where he finds stylistic inspiration to blend with his own international roots, while “San Francisco 1982” revisits the allure of the city he first visited on vacation that year and soon after returned to and made his home. “Street Pulse” bristles with a kinetic urban energy, “Imminent Dawn” evokes the mystical junction of night becoming day, “Jump Rope” is a stunning showcase of guitar athleticism and dexterousness, and the sparse and subdued “Silence In Between” captures the music in the space among the notes. “Clare’s Gifts” and “Sweet Sylvia” are D’Agostino’s musical Mona Lisas that paint women on guitar. D’Agostino wraps it up with two Italiano melodic deserts on the bonus tracks: “Nella Fantasia,” an Ennio Morricone melody (originally “Gabriel’s Oboe” in the film The Mission) with lyrics by Chiara Ferrau, beautifully sung by Peppino’s daughter Aleza, and the spry folk classicism of “La Gazza Ladra.”
After a listen to Nine White Kites, It’s no wonder that Acoustic Guitar says that D’Agostino is “one of the most capable composers among fingerstyle guitarists” while the San Jose Mercury News notes his “gift for writing emotionally evocative tunes.” The title reflects the fact that “music is weightless,” D’Agostino observes. “But if you think about it, it can create very deep and heavy feelings. The kite is very light, like music, but it also can evoke feelings. Plus it symbolizes a sense of freedom, and kites are universal, found all around the world.”
A native of Italy, D’Agostino has made his considerable international mark as a musical artist on the guitar since he arrived in America a little over 25 years ago. The readers of Guitar Player voted him Best Acoustic Guitarist in 2007, and the following year in Acoustic Guitar’s People’s Choice Awards he won a Bronze medal for Best Acoustic Album of All Time for his 2002 release Every Step of The Way (tying with Leo Kottke, one of his prime inspirations) and another Bronze award as Fingerstyle Guitarist of the Year. But as said above, it’s not just his talent that makes D’Agostino so notable, but also what he does with it.
The Chicago Tribune praises his “virtuosity and complexity” as well as his gift for composing “memorable melodies.” He is also an “astonishing entertainer” (Anchorage Daily News). Yet it’s what Guitar One has noted as his “lyrical artistry” and fellow master player Adrian Legg describes as the “warm humanity” of his playing that has earned him the stature of being a “phenom,” as Jazziz raves.
How has D’Agostino earned such high praise and honors? “Music is not only what you know musically, but also what you experience in life, because it is a reflection of our personalities and spirit,” he explains. In his playing and writing one feels his heart, spirit, soul and essence as well as your own.
He began playing guitar at the age of 10 when he heard his cousin play in church. After D’Agostino got a few lessons from the cousin, he embarked on a journey of self-study and further exploration on the guitar and in music that continues today. So in addition to his “technical prowess” (Guitar One), he displays a stunning stylistic range in his work that spans classical to pop music and incorporates a spectrum of folk, ethnic and world styles. From his teens into his twenties, D’Agostino learned about and absorbed many musical colors and flavors, being so enthralled with all to know about music and his chosen instrument that he went AWOL one night from the Italian Army to catch a concert by some acoustic guitarists he admired.
After making his recorded mark in his homeland with his first album Bluerba in 1981 and Silk and Steel two years later — both discs collaborations with fellow players that set the stage for many to follow — he moved to America in 1985. Starting out by performing in the streets and on Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, he graduated to playing in restaurants and then clubs and concerts after a fellow musician introduced D’Agostino to a booking agent. He made his American recording debut in 1987 with Acoustic Spirit on Shanachie Records, and has since issued six more albums prior to Nine White Kites, the most recent being Made in Italy, a musical travelogue through the songs and composers of the country where he was born and came of age.
He has released the collaborations Classic/Steel (2001) with contemporary classical guitar master David Tanenbaum and Bayshore Road (2005) with his close friend and virtuoso electric player Stef Burns. D’Agostino also performs and has recorded with the United Guitar Ensemble, which features his steel string guitar alongside eight nylon string classical masters.
He has also released three instructional/performance DVDs as well as the book New Acoustic Guitar (Warner Bros. Publications), and also designed his signature Seagull guitar with innovative guitar maker Robert Godin that won a Silver People’s Choice Award for Acoustic Guitar of the Year from Acoustic Guitar magazine in 2008. A hot ticket live performer in North and South America and Europe, he charms audiences with performances that are captivating and full-blooded musical experiences.
“I play Brazilian music, Irish music, country music, blues, ragtime, classical,” he says of just some of the many styles heard within what he creates. Inspired by such diverse players as Paco de Lucia, Leo Kottke and Carlos Santana, among many others, his influences also include the progressive rockers like Genesis, Emerson Lake & Palmer, Gentle Giant and Mike Oldfield he listened to in his teens and early adulthood.
“I’m grateful to my curiosity,” D’Agostino explains. “A lot of people stay within a frame and say they play blues and they play blues all their life. And that’s fine. I’m not judging anyone. But the way my brain works I need to explore different styles and what’s available there and what’s possible and what others do.”
“Peppino writes wonderful guitar pieces,” says Kottke of his onetime acolyte. “He’s one of my favorite composers for this cranky instrument. Plus, he’s a tone player. I love his sound… [he] gets the resin and the wood.”
D’Agostino likens his musical approach to the culinary artistry of his native Italy. “If you only know about tomatoes, garlic and basil, you will only make a certain kind of sauce. But if you know about maybe thyme, parsley, onions and olives, you make a different kind of recipe. But you have to know how to mix those elements with discretion and elegance.” The results provide a delectable and nutritious listening experience for music lovers of all tastes that brings D’Agostino satisfaction that radiates throughout his self-dubbed “Minestrone music”. For as he says, “Our job as musicians is to try to do what we love.