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Fretless Frailing Brings The Balkans Home on Jeni Jol

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Tev Stevig & Brian O'Neill (Jeni Jol) For Boston-based musician Tev Stevig, an epiphany occurred when he first heard the fretless guitar. For years, Stevig had explored American music from old time folk music to jazz, as well as the sounds of the Balkans and the Middle East. He wanted to bring together all of his musical passions and with this instrument he saw a path to realize his intentions. Today, Stevig introduces his album entitled Jeni Jol (“the New Path”) to the world, the first in a new series of recordings featuring clawhammer guitar, and it demonstrates his unique approach in brilliant fashion. Jeni Jol is not only a showcase of Stevig’s formidable talent, it is also a disc that breaks new ground in making connections between such disparate musical cultures.

On eight of the album’s tracks, Stevig draws repertoire directly from the diverse musical cultures of the Balkans, Greece, and Turkey. His four original pieces pay homage to his experience with these musical traditions, while integrating his unique compositional approach, as demonstrated on the album’s opener, “Cherambe.” Two pieces on steel string guitar and one on gourd banjo provide contrast and give depth to the album. Each track beckons us further down the winding path Stevig has mapped out.

Raised in California, Stevig came late to the guitar, not even starting to play the instrument until after he’d finished high school. After a stint playing in a local rock band and earning a degree in Environmental Studies from the University of California at Santa Barbara, he locked himself in a room and practiced. A year and a half later, he entered the Berklee College of Music in Boston, where he studied jazz guitar and was surrounded by musicians from all over the world. The experience was a revelation for him and through his newfound musical connections, he had the chance to delve into the rhythms and melodies of many cultures. But it was the music of the Balkans that resonated most deeply with him.

“After finishing at Berklee, I wanted to internalize the rhythms from Balkan folk music so I could integrate them into a modern jazz setting. I saw learning the folk music from that region as a means to that end. I had the good fortune to work with many great local musicians on the Balkan folk dance scene in Boston and I learned a lot about the various cultures from that region and folk music in general. It changed the whole way I thought about music.”

He also began to play the oud, as well as a host of other plucked string instruments from around the region and into Greece and Turkey – bağlama saz, tambura, laouto, and cümbüş. On a trip to Turkey he acquired a tanbur, a long necked lute used for playing Ottoman art music, and began to study the expansive world of Turkish modal music theory, called makam. “Learning about these instruments and being able to perform with them has drastically changed my guitar playing. It has also changed how I view myself as a musician. I started getting calls to play these instruments in a lot of different settings. I was no longer just a jazz guitarist, I was that guy that plays all of those weird instruments from somewhere else.”

The experience of those instruments eventually led Tev to the music of Erkan Oğur, the Turkish father of the fretless guitar. Stevig’s own fretless guitar is no more than a converted classical guitar with the frets removed. He got the idea for playing this instrument in the clawhammer style upon hearing Adam Hurt perform old time American folk music on a fretless gourd banjo. Clawhammer, or frailing, is a technique from Africa often used in American folk music, but rarely used on the guitar and completely new in performing music from Eastern Europe and the near East.

“I use just the thumb and middle finger in my right hand in a downwards motion – literally ‘hammering’ the finger nail against the strings,” Stevig explains. “My father played banjo for me when I was little, so when my son was born I began to explore that instrument, especially through frailing. I learned that there are some great clawhammer practitioners who use it on guitar, where one has the advantage of a greater bass range on the instrument, but mostly for Celtic or old time music. As far as I know, I am really the only one using it in this way and after all, it totally makes sense given my musical background. I have no cultural connection to the Balkans myself - I don’t have family over there and my ancestors are Western European. I just have a genuine fascination with music from the region. I believe that having a passion for cultures and traditions outside of our own inevitably leads us to question what we have taken for granted in our own culture and traditions. For me, this line of questioning brought me back to old time American folk music in the form of the banjo and frailing.”

Playing clawhammer fretless guitar is what led to Jeni Jol and, for Stevig and listeners alike, it definitely is a new path. Stevig has played in many larger groups (Klezwoods, Mr. Ho’s Orchestrotica, Orkestra Marhaba, Hickory Strings, Aljashu, Zdravets), but Jeni Jol is the first to give him the freedom to explore the possibilities of the fretless guitar in small settings. Stevig sees frailing on the fretless guitar as a synthesis of oud and saz. It has all the melodic complexity of modern saz playing, but a much mellower tone that is reminiscent of the oud. The fretless fingerboard allows him to play microtones that might be played on either one of these other instruments as well. Frailing gives a lush, cascading quality to the notes as they tumble off the instrument, a mix of the meditative and the rhythmic. It is music that is as impressionistic as a Monet painting, that hints at the melody, harmony, and the dance rhythm of the tune, like a puzzle or a mystery that is just on the verge of being solved.

Jeni Jol is a hybrid, a mash-up in many ways, and so Stevig struggles with his internal debate between respecting the traditions and pushing those traditions forward into a modern world. “One of the things I learned from playing with all of these great folk musicians over the years is that folk music is very much a living thing. It grows, changes, and shifts as each new generation makes its contribution. The unique way I can contribute is by using all of the things in front of me. I would not be true to myself if I ignored the fact that I am an American musician, just like it wouldn’t make sense to ignore my interest in music from the Balkans.”

For live dates, Stevig will be joined by percussionist Brian O’Neill (Mr. Ho’s Orchestrotica, Klezwoods, Cordis, David Wax Museum). “Brian and I have the same philosophy about music and we work very well together. Other instruments can sometimes overwhelm the guitar, but percussion just provides context to the resulting music, making it easier to understand in a folk dance kind of way. Future albums in my Clawhammer Guitar Series will likely have additional textures though.”

So for now, Jeni Jol’s recordings are just Tev Stevig and his various guitars, completely unadorned. That makes for the perfect introduction to Stevig’s novel approach. It is introspective at times, roaring with life at others, but it is always mesmerizing. With Jeni Jol, Tev Stevig is taking us all down a new musical path.
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