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Arts Festival Review: Antonio Forcione Quartet

Antonio Forcione Quartet

Reviewed by Tyler Hersey

Antonio Forcione Quartet
Feb 25, 26 & 28, Mar 1 & 2
8pm
The National Bank Festival Club, Waitangi Park
(Also Pataka Museum, 3 March, 7pm)

Antonio Focione and his Quartet bring an astonishing array of sounds to the National Bank Festival Club this week, and they opened their five-night run with an electrifying performance on Saturday which had the audience alternating between gasps of astonishment and giggles of delight. The guitar virtuoso used every technique in the book to coax sounds from his instrument - and many that aren’t even in the book yet.

From flameco fingerpicking to chunky slap funk, Forcione invigorates his sound with driving rhythm and absolute mastery of the guitar. He frequently uses the guitar as percussion, keeping the music’s pulse by slapping the sides and top of his instrument. Through this combination of technical wizardry and unique showmanship, Forcione has become one of Europe’s most highly respected purveyors of world music, opening for the likes of Phil Collins and Bobby McFerrin.

Forcione’s origins as a solo performer and busker are evident in his ability to simultaneously play the drum beat, bass line, chords, and melody of a song. Perhaps his biggest crowd pleaser of the night was a solo rendition of “Touch Wood,” taken from his 2003 album of the same name. Starting with a beat pounded on the body of his amplified acoustic with the heel of his hand, Forcione soon added cyclical, piano-like chords by “tapping” on the neck with his right hand. A melody emerged, played only by the sliding fingers of his left (fretting) hand. All along, the wily guitarist added more and more beats to his percussion pattern, slapping furiously on three sides of his instrument to replicate a multitude of drum sounds. The resulting song, though short on melody, was a fascinating study in rhythm and dexterity.

While Forcione’s solo pieces had a wonderful air of playfulness and dazzling finger acrobatics, the addition of his backing trio lended a gorgeous depth of emotion and mystery to the sound. Accompanied by Nigerian cellist Jenny Adejayan, Brazil's Adriano Adewale on an array of drums and percussion, and rock-steady Australian bassist Nathan Thompson, songs from Forcione’s most recent albums painted an evocative landscape of desert nights, smoky Indian cafes, and sprawling Moorish palaces.

The melodic highlight of this concert was a spellbinding rendition of “Indian Café,” taken from Forcione’s 1998 fusion album Ghetto Paradise. Played on a fretless guitar to which six short harp strings had been added, the song wound a gorgeous Indian melody around the circular walls of the Festival Club, wrapping the audience in a thick shroud of hypnotic bass and smoky guitar. At times, Adewale played his percussion set like a drum kit, pounding the pulse on a djembe with his left hand; alternately, he sent washes of cymbals and shaker over the music, evoking earthly sounds of crunching leaves and flowing water. Adejayan often harmonized with the guitar melody on her cello; her dry, resonant tone and flawless intonation showed years of classical training combined with an ear for non-western technique.

The second set of the concert began with a duet between Forcione and Adewale, who accompanied the guitarist with only a tambourine. The slap-happy, modern funk tune got everyone’s head bobbing. Indeed, the guitarist himself seemed to count the beat by nodding and doing the “chicken-neck.” When the funk got deep, the pair flawlessly segued into a tease of Stevie Wonder’s “Master Blaster (Jammin)”, which many in the crowd acknolwedged with laughs of “Oh, I’ve heard that one before.” The tease then turned into a full on cover version, with Forcione ripping a solo over the chord changes jazz-style, converting Wonder’s pop-reggae into a hot swing number. Forcione and Adewale then began trading phrases between the guitar and tambourine, mimicking, dueling, and eventually playing each other’s instruments without losing a single beat.

Forcione’s wonderful showmanship and charisma were on full display throughout the night, no doubt founded on his studies in Italian mime. When displaying some extraordinary guitar chops, Forcione would occasionally put on the classic “something smells funny” face, his curled nostrils and knit brow mimicking countless rock guitarists who make things look harder than they really are. Of course, this look would quickly turn into “something smells funny, and I can’t stop doing the chicken-neck.”

The culmination of this vast array of influences and techniques came with a stunning version of “Sahara Rain,” from the 2005 release Tears of Joy. Combining eastern tonality with classical technique and a compelling beat, the song seemed to embody all of the sounds which make up Antonio Forcione’s musical being. The song began with a fascinating ostinato pattern played by Adewale on a row of plastic pipes, slapped at the mouth by a pair of jandals. Explaining the technique before the song began, Forcione said “I don’t know what you call these here. Flip Flops? Thongs?” To which the crowd responded enthousiatically, “JANDALS!” The song wound through a lyrical combination of African “high-life” music and soaring middle eastern melody, bouncing along to the beat of Adewale’s deep djembe.

The sound and magic of the Antonio Forcione Quartet whisks the listener on a journey around Europe and Asia, with moments of dazzling technical wizardry and heart-warming comedy. This unique fusion group is not to be missed — the opportunity to see musicians of this caliber in the cozy confines of the Festival Club is rare indeed.

********

NZ Festival: Antonio Forcione Quartet
Antonio Forcione website
Scoop Full Coverage: Festival 06

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