Blending dazzling technical skill and heartfelt emotions, guitarist Ben Tyree’s solo debut will resonate with six-string aficionados and lovers of pure musicality alike. On Thoughtform Variations, Tyree offers eight original pieces combining classical, jazz, pop and folk influences into a rich, harmonious individual sound. Above all, Tyree asserts his own unique voice on the instrument through his gorgeous compositions and dexterous playing.
“I started working on these pieces about eight years ago as musical experiments,” Tyree says, “never really intending to record them. I was exploring the instrument and exploring specific experiences.”
Once he began performing the pieces live, however, he was stunned by the response he received from audience members encouraging him to record. “So I put them together and realized they all had this common thread of self-realization and experimentation through this instrument.”
“What May Come To Be,” for instance, was inspired by Tyree’s father, who shared a love for classical music with his budding guitarist son. “While studying classical guitar in high school and college,” Tyree writes in his liner notes, “some of the material I think he enjoyed listening to me practice the most was the Bach solo guitar arrangements,” so the piece he wrote for his father took on a Bach-like form, with simultaneously independent and interdependent lines weaving together.
The bittersweet “David” was penned for the composer’s late stepfather, and captures both the joy of their friendship and the melancholy of his passing too soon. The breezily grooving “Bish,” on the other hand, fully captures the casual ease of its pre-contraction title, “Bullshittin’ With Bean” – a dedication to Tyree’s good friend, drummer/bandleader Jeremy “Bean” Clemons.
The genre-hopping found on Thoughtform Variations, which leaps from Baroque elegance to front-porch funk with deceptive agility, comes naturally to Tyree, whose own experiences are equally varied. Born and raised in the Washington, D.C. area, he knew by the age of four that he wanted to play the guitar, and discovered during a Frank Zappa concert at the age of eight that he wanted it to be a career.
Starting out as a singer-songwriter, Tyree branched out in jazz and classical studies in high school while going to jam sessions at blues clubs at night. “I got into everything at some point,” he says. “Anything that moves me, challenges me and gets me excited about music.”
Tyree continued his studies at DC’s prestigious Duke Ellington School of the Arts and at Howard University. In 1998 he co-founded Miscellaneous Flux, a groundbreaking band that fused jazz, hip-hop and punk rock into a crowd-invigorating mix, releasing two EPs and a full-length album before disbanding in 2005 following its members’ move to New York.
Now based in Brooklyn, Tyree leads his trio, BT3, who recorded their debut CD in 2010 with special guests John Medeski and DJ Logic. He also performs regularly with Burnt Sugar: The Arkestra Chamber, Soul Understated, Stephanie Rooker & The Search Engine, and Michael Veal’s Aqua Ife to name a few.
Given those experiences in often raucous, highly interactive situations, the switch to solo acoustic guitar playing may seem a drastic one – which is what Tyree finds so attractive about it. “The appeal is the intimacy, really,” he says. “It’s just me and the guitar, for better or for worse. It’s a big challenge and it gets very personal, intimate, and emotional. I really think the audience can really feel that. That’s something you just can’t get in the same way when you’re playing electric or with a band.”
For his solo compositions, Tyree pulls influences from a wide variety of sources, from jazz pioneers like Wes Montgomery, John McLaughlin and George Benson to the alternative tunings of virtuosos like Michael Hedges, Preston Reed and Kaki King. He employs his own tunings for several pieces on the album and coaxes a wide variety of sounds from his guitar, ranging from lush harmonics to urgent percussion.
While technically challenging, none of the pieces on Thoughtform Variations were written as études or to show off Tyree’s formidable chops. Personal expression, even a degree of spirituality, was first and foremost – the complexity came as a (sometimes unwelcome) side effect. “A lot of the time, I didn’t want to go where these pieces were technically taking me,” Tyree recalls. “But after a while I just decided I had to go there, that they had to include these elements that were very technically challenging to get the emotional effect that I was going for.”