Mikkel Ploug: Alleviation

Apparently Danish guitarist Mikkel Ploug has never regarded himself as an acoustic player, though you'd never know it from the splendid Alleviation. For the past decade, his axe of choice has been a Gibson ES-330 hollow body electric. So what prompted Alleviation? Serendipity, naturally: while touring the US last year, he happened upon a well-worn (see the album cover), mahogany-top Gibson Banner LG-2 in New York and immediately fell in love with its warm sound. Back in Copenhagen, he spent four months playing the guitar (a long-distance purchase, it turns out, as Ploug acquired it from home following the tour) and after writing material entered the studio to lay it down.

The album is naturally a departure from the music Ploug makes with his jazz trio Equilibrium, even if compositional connections could be made between them; after all, Ploug wrote the thirteen pieces on the new set, and he's also the trio's main composer. But being a solo outing, Alleviation is nevertheless a more intimate portrait that takes him into non-jazz realms such as classical and folk. Regardless of stylistic disposition, each piece impresses as a story with an engaging tale to tell.

Though the Banner isn't a classical guitar, such shadings do emerge on the album (see “Arabesque,” Ploug's own favourite, and “Couleurs d'Olivier,” whose transpositions are Messiaen-influenced), and fingerpicking's present on about half of the pieces. Much of the album's appeal lies in its strong melodic character and the embroidery Ploug uses in service to it; technical virtuosity is present, too, but similarly invoked when called for by the setting in question. No better piece exemplifies this melodic dimension than “Night Space,” which eases the listener into the release with a relaxed, back-porch setting whose uncluttered design allows the guitar's warm resonance to shine through with maximum clarity. “With Open Arms” also inhabits a folk mode, with this time a stately theme bolstered by strums, as does the endearing “Einer.”

In contrast to the laconic opener, “Florescence” opts for rapid, deftly executed fingerpicking, the tune's dazzling effect in part deriving from a technique Ploug borrowed from Ben Monder, the idea of superimposing an odd-metre pattern onto a straight pulse to produce rhythmic complexity (formal tribute to Monder is paid on “Luminous”); the lustrous title track also uses that technique, with this time subdivisions of five added to its 3/4 tempo. Indicative of the explorative process Ploug adopted in his approach to the material is “Circle Wind,” whose Reich-styled opening pattern he liked so much he decided to write a whole piece around it.

The guitarist's love affair with the Banner isn't over, by the way, as a duet record with longtime collaborator Mark Turner has already been completed and solo concerts are in the offing for 2018, too. Listeners charmed by Alleviation's refreshing acoustic presentation would do well to keep an eye out for those dates.

November 2017