Guitarist scales six-stringed summit 

Guitar Summit III, with Sharon Isbin, Herb Ellis, Stanley Jordon, Rory Block, House of Blues, March 12, 1998

Sharon Isbin is busy. Not only is she on tour as part of Guitar Summit III, but she has recording sessions coming up and demands on her time as head of the guitar department at the Juilliard School of Music.

"I kind of dump my suitcases in New York," says Isbin. "It's not normally this crazed but this has been a particularly intense year, and I'm not expecting it to repeat itself in the same frenzied manner."

The Guitar Summit is a road show of six-string adepts. Performing on March 12 at the House of Blues and March 13 at the King Center for the Performing Arts in Melbourne are Isbin, Herb Ellis, Stanley Jordan and Rory Block.

Each player is a persuasive advocate of their respective styles of playing. Block showcases the bedrock blues riffs learned from folks like the Rev. Gary Davis. Ellis and Jordan provide a microcosm of jazz stylings, and Isbin employs her impressive technical skills to communicate the beauty of classical composition. "The entire concept of Guitar Summit as it was created was solo guitar," says Isbin. "So there is no backing or accompaniment for any of the players. Only at the very end do we do something together."

Isbin's role combines that of performer with that of fountainhead. "Guitar Jam was the name of a trio that I had with Laurindo Almeida and Larry Coryell," she explains. "Sort of a bossa nova-jazz-classical fusion trio, and that is what inspired the later concept of Guitar Summit."

A former student of Andres Segovia and Oscar Ghiglia, Isbin has an impressive resume. She has written books, toured all over the globe, won competitions, been deemed Guitar Player magazine's "Best Classical Guitarist" for 1996 and hosted "Guitarstream," a series for public radio. American composers who have written for Isbin include John Corigliano, Joseph Schwantner, Lukas Foss, Joan Tower and Ned Rorem.

Her recordings include trio gigs with Coryell and Almeida, duo performances with mentor Carlos Barbosa-Lima and a series of award- winning albums. Her 1994 release, "Nightshade Rounds," was voted "Best Classical Album of the Year" in a Guitar Player readers' poll.

Isbin's latest album, "Journey to the Amazon," features music authored by composers from South America, Central America and Cuba. Latin-tinged compositions have intrigued Isbin for years, in particular the music of Gaudencio Thiago de Mello, the Brazilian percussionist whose tunes also are covered on her new album. "I met him in New York about 12 years ago through Carlos," she says. "And our first collaborations were all three of us together."

Isbin says that working with Thiago de Mello "created new dimensions of rhythm, color and nuance. His wizardry at the helm of such exotic instruments as the rain stick, berimbau, jungle's mouth and tortoise shell evoked the spirit and image of the rain forest itself." Isbin believes that she and Barbosa-Lima are probably the only people who have recorded any of Thiago de Mello's atmospheric compositions. "Chants For the Chief," an opus of 10 songs, was recorded by Barbosa-Lima with just his guitar and Thiago de Mello's percussion playing and vocalizing. Isbin's album includes only the first two chants arranged for guitar, percussion and soprano sax. She does include four world-premiere recordings of his music on this new album, including "Lago de Janauaca," a solo guitar piece.

Isbin's future projects include the recording of a concerto written for her by Chinese composer Tan Dun. European performances of the concerto, described by one critic as "flamenco meets Stravinsky in the Hard Rock Cafe," have received glowing reviews. Meanwhile the road holds Isbin's attention, and her home remains wherever she sets down her guitar.

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