One spring night in the late 1990's the guitarists Whit Smith and Matt Munisteri found themselves playing separate gigs in New Orleans. Musical acquaintances, they had been hoping to play together for a while, and through a mutual friend at last made a plan to rendezvous around midnight at the now shuttered Kit Kat Club in the French Quarter. With whiskeys poured, and Whit and Matt perched on two bar-stools, the guitars quickly came out, and a succession of swinging tunes and dueling solos followed, as surprised patrons danced and gathered round to listen. Soon other musicians joined in. The club owner announced last call, and with the doors subsequently locked from the inside, a Big Easy demimonde of musicians, burlesque performers, dancers, and drinkers were transformed into an enthralled and, quite literally, captive audience until the guitars finally went back in their cases. When, at 6am, the entire rowdy crew spilled out onto the freshly washed sidewalk to greet the soft delta dawn, each guitarist felt that at last he'd met someone who could both complement and challenge his own personal style.
Ever since that night Whit and Matt have tried to get together and play - in a hotel room, an apartment, or a stage - whenever their paths have crossed in the same town. This hasn't proved too easy, as Whit is the co-leader of Austin's premier western swing touring machine, The Hot Club of Cowtown, and Matt is a busy freelancer, playing in a variety of idioms, but always doing what he can to keep the “Hot Guitar” tradition alive - whether on the road with artists such as Mark O'Connor, and Catherine Russell, leading his own bands, or in the recording studios of his hometown New York City. Sharing many of the same influences, and understanding the tradition of twin guitar music, they've developed something of a routine over the years: Meet up early in the afternoon and start going through tunes; pick out key harmony lines; workup a few endings, intros, and rhythmic devices; practice in a fever all afternoon; and then just bring it when they hit the stage later that night. By keeping it loose and hot, they are carrying on a tradition that stretches from Eddie Lang and Lonnie Johnson, to Karl Kress and Dick McDonough, to Eldon Shamblin and Tiny Moore, to Hank Garland and Grady Martin, to Merle Travis and Joe Maphis, to George Barnes and Bucky Pizzarelli. Electric jazz guitar is rarely played “hot”, and country musicians rarely can negotiate complex chord changes; to do both, as these aforementioned players once did, is to play The Hot Guitar.
And so their regular routine continued on February 18th 2010 when they met in Brooklyn to work up material for a gig that night and their first recording session the next day. While a couple of the tunes on this CD were numbers they had performed before (Whit’s great arrangement of “Muskrat Ramble”), most were quickly assembled, either by one of the musicians teaching a complex arrangement to the other, or by mutual frenzied brainstorming. The guitarists deliberately avoided tunes associated with their chosen instrument, and in fact King Oliver’s version of “Deep Henderson”, Sidney Bechet’s “Okey Doke”, and Coleman Hawkins “Too Much of a Good Thing” are rarely performed or recorded anywhere, by anyone. Yet each one is a gem, and is here transformed into a model of how two guitars can sound like a full band. “You Just Take Her”, originally recorded as a Tiffany Transcription by Eldon Shamblin and Tiny Moore, is the only tune from the twin guitar tradition. But its Whit’s own composition “Hell Among The Hedgehogs” that brings the tradition of the Hot Guitar into the 21st Century and gives the entire project its rallying cry. Both Whit and Matt work as singers, and there are two lilting and seldom heard vocal numbers to balance out the set.
With bassist Tim Luntzel on board for the couple of days, the gig that night went great (as the spontaneous and rollicking “You’re Bound to Look Like a Monkey” attests), but at the last minute the recording location had to be suddenly moved when a big rock band locked out Andy Taub’s Brooklyn Recording for a week. By a happy coincidence Andy was able to secure the new One East Recording at the last minute. One East not only had a cozy open live room, and a bank of extraordinary vintage 1930’s-50’s radio station pre-amps for Andy, the studio is owned by legendary amp guru Matt Wells, and this incidental fact brought a spooky “full circle” vibe to the entire proceedings, revolving around the 1939 Gibson ES-150 guitar which has been Matt’s main working instrument for the last decade. Some history: Matt worked a trade for the guitar, which was hanging on a music store wall, around 2002, and quickly called Whit to crow about having found a great sounding ES-150. The next time Whit came over to Matt’s place in Brooklyn he was stunned when Matt opened the case; it was the exact same instrument Whit had grudgingly given up years before in order to finance his move to Texas. And he’d regretted it ever since (the guitar, not the move). Munisteri was floored by this coincidence, and when he ran into Matt Wells on the subway a year later he recounted the story, and how Whit had stared, dumbstruck, and quietly said “That’s my guitar”. Matt Wells’ eyes opened wide, “You mean MY guitar!” Unbeknownst to Munisteri, Whit had originally bought the guitar from Matt Wells, who had purchased it years before in Indiana.
So that’s a whole lot of good mojo to go into one afternoon of recording. That guitar is heard to good advantage throughout the disc, as is Whit’s DeArmond equipped, 1940’s L-5 and ever-present trusty 1930’s Gibson EH-150 amp. Despite their many shared influences Whit and Matt sound very different from one another, and just as importantly quite different from any past players who may have served as inspirations. This would make sense, because their heroes were working before our “cookie cutter” age - they were players who had forged individual voices and their own improvising languages. With respect to their different sounds, Matt tries to explain how to tell who is soloing when: “I play the first solo out of the gate on Muskrat Ramble, then we alternate, taking two choruses a piece. Whit’s sound is more compact and warm; mine has more treble and gloss; Whit is tighter and dry; I am slithery and wet. Whit is hedgehog. I am muskrat.” We’re not quite sure what he means, but we trust that you, dear attuned listener, will enjoy getting to know these two unique voices as they complement, challenge and ultimately complete one another.
Recorded by Andy Taub at One East Recording, NYC
Mixed by Andy Taub at Brooklyn Recording
"You're Bound to Look Like Monkey" recorded live by Stanley Kwiatkowski at Barbes, Brooklyn
Original artwork by Ariella Huff
Matt Munisteri and Whit Smith: two old Gibson electric guitars and vocals
Tim Luntzel: bass