Jason Kessler studied classical guitar with William Viola in Philadelphia, music and English at Colgate University and composition with Brian Israel at Syracuse University. His knowledge of the art and the anatomy of instruments is staggering and obvious early in a conversation with the musical magician. That brilliance is also audible on Kessler’s latest project, 12 String Horizons (independent), an album that mixes the daunting 12-string guitar, unusual tunings and compositions written by both Kessler and the legendary Michael Hedges.
The album, recorded at Rosewood Studios with Mark Fitzgerald, is all live with no overdubbing—especially impressive considering the precision and layers of the pieces. Kessler’s command of an instrument that takes both extreme skill and physical discipline is astounding.
Kessler emphasizes how fatiguing the instrument can be considering the strain it puts on the left hand. It is so tiring that some of what he accomplishes on the record has never been attempted before.
“With ‘Aerial Boundaries,’ I think that’s the first time anyone has ever done it on a 12-string,” he explains. “No one’s ever been crazy enough, or they didn’t think they physically could.”
Part of Kessler’s secret is in the guitars themselves, six of which were built specifically for him by the Irish luthier George Lowden.
“I told George I wanted a 12-string that sounded like a classical guitar, that I could play Vivaldi or Bach on,” Kessler says. “I could play that and sound like a legitimate classical guitar player, not a clangy 12-string player. We got special wood, a special neck, adjusted the neck to make it physically pos- sible. I write some pretty tough stuff to play, so I had to develop an instrument where I could do anything that anyone else could do on a classical guitar.”
Once that was accomplished, the magic began. Kessler, a huge fan of Hedges, started experimenting with alternate tunings as Hedges had. He uses a variety, including DADGAD, DADADE, CGDGAD, CGDGBC and CGDGBD (for the guitar nerds out there). He says the variations have opened up worlds of inspiration to him. This album marks only the beginning. “I actively use about four or five tunings and that alone—I could probably write about 100 pieces on each,” he says. The resulting sound is one inspired by, of all things, some amount of frustration. When Kessler was studying with Israel, he played mostly piano. The instrument allowed Kessler to do more harmonically, but, “I’m a guitar player, not a piano player,” he says.
“The 12-string is the next best thing to composing on piano. It’s like I have a piano in my hands with the huge sound of all the vibrating strings. I can compose on it more orchestrally. Every time we play, people say, ‘I’ve never heard anything like that before.’”
Kessler plays at the Westcott Street Cultural Fair Dell Multicultural Stage on Sunday, Sept. 15, 4:15 p.m., with Josh Dekaney on percussion and Pallavi Gupta performing traditional Indian dance to match. The trio came together by chance.
Kessler participates in swing and ballroom dance groups, where he met Gupta, an incredibly artistic dancer. He met Dekaney when he was simply looking for a percussion player who could keep up with his unusual style. Although he had envisioned a tabla (hand drums), when Dekaney came armed with an udu (a tunable percussion instrument that holds water), Kessler instantly knew they had something. “He came again to work on another piece and brought all kinds of odd percussion he bought and built, garbage put together basically,” Kessler says of Dekaney’s innovative percussive creations.
“Whatever sound you want, he’ll build it and bring it. He makes it happen.”
The performance is bound to be a standout, and the album is a keeper. For music-heads looking to be impressed, Kessler and 12 String Horizons will give you something to cheer about. For information, visit 12streetmusic.com and/or westcottstreetfair.org.