Carlos Barbosa-Lima Bio: As a young man, Carlos Barbosa-Lima was singled out from a master class by the legendary Andres Segovia and chosen to return with the maestro to Madrid for private study, something bestowed on very few artists. The great man perceived an exceptional musical intelligence and proficiency in Barbosa-Lima. In addition, Segovia uncharacteristically declined to reshape the young guitarist in his own image, something he was famous for doing with his most promising students.
Preceded only by his friend, the great Laurindo Almeida, who worked with Stan Kenton’s progressive band in the Forties, Carlos Barbosa-Lima is the most noted classically trained guitarist to bring a Latin American perspective to the music of Gershwin, Ellington, Cole Porter, Scott Joplin, Dave Brubeck, Lennon and McCartney and Luis Bonfa. The guitarist was even honored by the celebrated Brazilian composer Antonio Carlos Jobim who requested that Carlos arrange the complete Jobim oeuvre for guitar. Such a legacy was recognized and endorsed by composer and conductor Leo Brouwer, who called Barbosa-Lima “a genius of Latin American guitar transcription.” And now Carlos Barbosa-Lima has focused his genius on the music catalog of Mason Williams.
This Collection’s Backstory:
The story of these two cultural coordinates begins with yours truly, Jim Carlton, a career writer and musician, who first met Mason Williams in Hollywood in 1988 when I was called in to help write for The New Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. I’d been a fan of Mason’s for years and had performed “Classical Gas” on virtually every gig I’d ever played and owned every book Mason had ever published. Obviously, I was eager for the opportunity to meet and work with him. In short, after several SmoBro sketches and comedy routines, our friendship clicked and we’ve remained friends and frequent correspondents.
You see, back in their salad days, the Kingston Trio and the Smothers Brothers were recording Mason’s songs and routinely incorporating his comedy material into their acts. So for anyone who grew up during that time and was interested in comedy or in playing guitar, Mason Williams was a stellar beacon. And his career still serves as an inspiration and influence today for many artists.
Anyone who knows him will verify that Mason’s mind is a relentless engine of creativity. In addition to music, he’s written seriocomic poetry, Emmy-winning television shows, created iconic art and photography and played over 1,300 gigs. It was from this body of work that I learned that great art and music should explore and employ the economy of poetry and embrace the impact of interesting and colorful words and images. As an important performance artist and musical talent his cultural contributions are incalculable. He’s simply an American treasure.
For more than a dozen years, Carlos Barbosa-Lima has been my frequent houseguest. I was serving on a music festival board in a small Florida town and was charged with retrieving the great guitarist from the Orlando airport.
I thought to bring along the music of Django Reinhardt, Wes Montgomery, Howard Roberts, Barney Kessel and other great guitarists. To this day, Carlos says it was the most musically rewarding ride he’s ever had to a festival gig. I knew that Barney Kessel, Howard Roberts, Herb Ellis and many other great players would routinely turn out to see Carlos perform whenever he would appear in L.A. because they loved his playing. For great artists, it’s all one big art form.
After many visits and our becoming fast friends, Mason’s name and work kept surfacing in our conversations and Carlos was becoming enamored of Mason’s music. He said, “It has a soulful and honest simplicity that I love.” And he considered “Classical Gas” a challenge because it had been arranged and recorded so often. “I wanted to bring something unique to it.” Soon he informed his management in Europe and South America that he was interested in creating a CD that showcased Mason’s musical compositions. So you now hold in your hand the result of months of planning, arranging, and several happy days of recording, mixing and mastering during May of 2012 in Mason’s hometown of Eugene, Oregon.
Notes about the pieces:
Chico Hot Springs - Segovia said, “The guitar is just a small orchestra.” And with this little waltz Carlos explores the guitar’s orchestral magnitude with a sophisticated reharmonization that nevertheless retains the spirit of Mason’s vivid portrait of Old Mexico. The tune was originally composed for guitar & band, plus an orchestra. But Carlos’ adaptation for solo guitar enhances the beautiful and evocative piece while always respecting its original melody as it demonstrates the magnificent effect of voice leading within a guitar arrangement.
Shady Dell - Just as Peggy Lee was a great quarter-note singer, Mason Williams is an exceptional quarter-note composer. He created this as a duet that’s most often performed by guitar and flute. But here, for Carlos, less was more. He arpeggiates the chords beneath the simple melody and decorates the piece as only a master could. Notice how he employs the artificial harmonics in the intro and later on to state the melody. In addition, for added resonance, Carlos tuned the guitar’s fifth and sixth strings down to G and C respectively. Mason said, “I never imagined it as a solo piece. That he was able to put it all together so beautifully is amazing.”
Country Idyll - Carlos creates a pastoral, languid and rubato feel throughout this beautiful country melody. Mason says, “Carlos’ South American take on it brings out the composition in ways that my recorded versions didn’t. I kept mine in the basic country backbeat format. Carlos explores the song in the way it sits melodically on the guitar and expresses the melody line more dramatically.” Mason said he was surprised that the guitarist chose to arrange this one but Carlos said his Brazilian friends love it.
Again, the artificial harmonics in the intro set the mood for the piece & the frequent use of hammers and pull-offs add to the ambient mood. Once again Carlos employs the guitar’s bass sonority by tuning the two bottom strings to G & C.
La Chanson de Claudine - Carlos moved the original key of C up a whole step to D major. Mason said, “This is another example of how important it is to have an inspiring, gifted artist arrange and play one’s compositions. Carlos brings a level of artistic expression to them in ways that I never did and probably never could. He brings them to life.” Again Carlos arpeggiates the chords beneath the lovely melody which moves the piece forward while always respecting the beauty and grace of Mason’s melody. The moody and dissonant chords and harmonics at the intro that are juxtaposed against the lush chords at the coda are reminiscent of Carlos’ late friend, the progressive Latin guitarist Laurindo Almeida who had great influence on both Carlos and Mason.
McCall - On this modern American country song for classical guitar, Carlos’ arrangement complements its simplicity with grace note hammer-ons and pull-offs that preserve and respect the song’s American country music character. Mason composed it in McCall, Idaho during a sojourn in the northwest and, typical of most artists, was inspired by the terrain, territory and western ambience. But in keeping with the collection’s North-meets-South reciprocal theme, after establishing its original country motif, at the bridge, Carlos takes the song for his own sojourn way down south of the border before its reprise and return to the American West.
Classical Gas - Of course Mason is best known for this guitar masterpiece. It topped all three music industry charts with its initial release in the summer in 1968. It won Grammys for Best Instrumental Composition, Best Instrumental Performance and Best Instrumental Arrangement. It’s Mason’s flagship musical creation and has received BMI awards for being the most frequently broadcast instrumental in history (over six million to date), and for the most recorded instrumental composition of all time. Even its television show appearances are legion, from The Simpsons to The Sopranos. In addition to “Classical Gas” being a renowned guitar solo, it’s also been covered on such disparate instruments as violin, ukelele, harp, handbells and bagpipes.
So, what can an artist such as Carlos Barbosa-Lima bring that’s new to such a ubiquitous part of our culture? For starters, he changed its original key from A minor to G minor, reharmonized it in two parts and added his own brilliantly complementary improvisations. A great composition is often an apt vehicle for an artist’s interpretation and there have been any number of pop, rock and classical artists (including Carlos) who’ve recorded Gershwin and Cole Porter songs simply proving time and again that a great song can inspire an artist to make it his own. And with “Classical Gas” being the most recorded instrumental in history, I think Mason Williams’ artistic success is unchallenged.
Again, Carlos employs the C major 9 tuning because it exploits the guitar’s low register resonance while still providing those who sight read the normality of the top four strings.
Jim Carlton is a frequent contributor to several popular music industry magazines and author of the book, Conversations With Great Jazz and Studio Guitarists.