The 'Guitar Passions' Of Sharon Isbin And Steve Vai

Dec 27, 2011
Originally published on December 27, 2011 5:31 pm

Classical guitarist Sharon Isbin started the Juilliard guitar program. Her new album, Guitar Passions, features collaborations between Isbin — who studied with Andres Segovia, among others — and artists with very unclassical careers: jazz guitarist Stanley Jordan, rock singer Nancy Wilson of the band Heart, soprano saxophonist Paul Winter and several others.

One of her collaborators on the album is veteran rock guitarist Steve Vai, who may not have studied with Segovia but was discovered by Frank Zappa and went on to play with David Lee Roth after he left Van Halen. When two first sat down to play, they gave each other a lesson on their respective instruments, which turned Isbin on to the wah-wah pedal.

"It's hilarious, because my guitar has what's known as a tremolo bar or a whammy bar," Vai says in an interview with All Things Considered host Robert Siegel. "And the whammy bar is probably the most alien thing on my guitar that could possibly relate to a classical guitar. And to just see her grab the whammy bar and the wah-wah, and just start going for it, it was funny. And then me, my form on the classical guitar is just like, you know, awful."

'An Opera Singer On Electric Guitar'

Isbin says she's always been attracted to Vai's "lyricism — he's like an opera singer on an electric guitar." For Vai's part, he says he loves constructing melodies over classical music, which he calls "a little vacation."

Vai has worked with a symphony orchestra in the past and says that he approaches his instrument differently after these collaborations.

"Well, there's something that you get whenever you're sharing music with somebody, especially on the intimate level of a duet like this," Vai says. "And I take a lot away from it, because the classical guitar has a dynamic to it unlike a regular acoustic guitar or an electric guitar. You know, there's times when you should play and there's times when you gotta hold back. It's an extremely dynamic instrument."

Isbin says she feels the same way. Since the 1980s, she's collaborated with rock musicians. The improvisational aspect makes her "freer," but also taught her "to be more aware in listening, because you never knew what was coming around the corner."

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

This is classical guitarist Sharon Isbin playing Bach.

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SIEGEL: Isbin once studied with Andres Segovia, and she started the guitar program at Juilliard.

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SIEGEL: Steve Vai is a rock guitarist. He was discovered by Frank Zappa, went on to play with the likes of Whitesnake and Alice Cooper, and he's made a career as an electric guitar virtuoso.

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SIEGEL: On Sharon Isbin's new album, "Guitar Passions," she plays with several artists with very unclassical careers, among others: jazz guitarist Stanley Jordan, rock singer Nancy Wilson of the band Heart, soprano saxophonist Paul Winter and Steve Vai.

A few days ago, Isbin and Vai came to our New York bureau to talk about their collaboration. As he remembers it, the two were first paired up to play together at a New York club about eight years ago.

STEVE VAI: Usually, you know, it could be a challenge pairing such vastly different sounding instruments together because although she plays the guitar, the electric guitar and the tone that I use is pretty different, but I'm always very attracted to, you know, virtuosos and people that are obviously very dedicated to their instruments. So that was, in my mind, an invitation to try to work with her. And, you know, we kept in touch and...

SHARON ISBIN: Yeah. I was actually asked in Paris by the Theatre du Chatelet...

VAI: Yeah.

ISBIN: ...to commission anybody I wanted to. So I thought I'd pull out a wild card, and I said, what about Steve Vai? And they're a very traditional...

VAI: Yeah.

ISBIN: ...classical kind of place. And they didn't quite understand what I was talking about, and I said, just trust me. This would be amazing. So he wrote a suite for the two of us to premiere, just electric guitar and acoustic. And I remember you had...

VAI: Yeah.

ISBIN: ...fans coming in from all over the world.

VAI: Yeah.

ISBIN: It was sold out for months in advance.

VAI: Yeah. It was nice because it was just her and I on stage and the sound - we made the sound of the two guitars work. You know, I was very careful the way I orchestrated it.

ISBIN: And I remember something you said to me in Paris after we played. You said, you know, this was really a special moment for me because you haven't had that sense of intimacy on the stage before...

VAI: Yeah. Mm-hmm.

ISBIN: ...for so long because playing with a big loud rock band is quite a different experience, and you felt like you were really having a conversation.

VAI: Yeah.

ISBIN: And I think that's what we bring to our collaboration...

VAI: Yeah.

ISBIN: ...in this allegro by Barrios, in which you create your own part on top of what this Paraguayan composer wrote that I play.

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VAI: Didn't we have to give each other a lesson on our perspective instruments?

ISBIN: Oh, that's right. We switched instruments.

VAI: We switched instruments.

ISBIN: And I got really into the wah-wah pedal.

VAI: Yeah.

ISBIN: And you were horrified.

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ISBIN: You said, Sharon...

VAI: No. It was hilarious.

ISBIN: ...this is not your future.

VAI: It was hilarious because my guitar has what's known as a tremolo bar or a whammy bar. And the whammy bar is like probably the most alien thing on my guitar that could possibly relate to a classical guitar. And to just see her grab the whammy bar and the wah-wah and just start, you know...

ISBIN: I went nuts.

VAI: ...going for it, it was so funny. And then me, you know, my form on the classical guitar is like, you know, it's just awful.

ISBIN: Well, you lost your fingernails a long time ago.

VAI: That's right. That's right.

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ISBIN: You know what I find so beautiful about Steve's playing and something that has always attracted me to it is the beautiful lyricism. He's like an opera singer on electric guitar. How rare is that?

VAI: (Singing) Rare.

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VAI: This part here, for instance, I actually went into the written part that she's playing for portions of it. So it would sound...

ISBIN: Like a duet.

VAI: Yeah. Like a duet. And we were complementing each other.

ISBIN: And that it becomes surreally good.

VAI: Yeah.

ISBIN: One of your alien secrets.

VAI: Improvisation city.

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SIEGEL: Sharon, your album is a series of collaborations with other artists, rock musicians, Latin musicians. Steve Vai, you've worked with a symphony orchestra in the past. Does the way you approach your instrument, does it change after these collaborations with very different kinds of musicians?

VAI: I take a lot away from it because the classical guitar has a dynamic to it that's unlike a regular acoustic guitar or an electric guitar. You know, there's times when you should play, and there's times where you got to hold back, and it's an extremely dynamic instrument.

SIEGEL: And do you find, Sharon, that your playing is, well, is influenced by collaboration with an electric - rock electric guitarist? What is your...

ISBIN: Absolutely. I first started doing this sort of odd thing back in the 1980s, and I found not only was - musically, it was exciting to work with people who improvise. They're creating on the spot. That made me a lot freer and also taught me to be more aware and listening because you never knew what was coming around the corner. And I love that sense of uncertainty and surprise. And also, the audiences were so different. I mean, they would stand up and scream and cheer, and it was like being at a rock concert. So I think it also taught me to really talk to an audience in a very casual, fun kind of way, and I do that now wherever I play.

SIEGEL: Have you been tempted at all to stand up and jump around a little bit while you're playing?

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VAI: Until she gets a whammy bar.

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SIEGEL: Thanks a lot for talking with us.

ISBIN: Thank you.

VAI: Thank you. Thank you very much.

SIEGEL: Guitarist Sharon Isbin and Steve Vai talking about their collaboration "Allegro" on Isbin's latest album, "Guitar Passions."

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SIEGEL: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.