Around the world in 183 seats

Legendary metal guitarist presents Planetary Coalition at UD

By Gary Spencer

Photo: Testament guitarist Alex Skolnick deviated from thrash metal to explore world music; photo: Tom Couture Photography

Many musicians become famous for playing in a musical era or genre and pretty much stick to what brought them to the dance. Then, there are other musicians, while appreciative of their roots and respectful of what made them a household name, who desire to explore other sonic terrains. Enter renowned heavy metal guitar virtuoso turned jazz player turned world music explorer Alex Skolnick.

Skolnick was first introduced to the music world at large as lead guitarist for Testament, one of the founding groups of thrash metal that issued their first album in 1987. Even at this early stage, it was evident Skolnick was no run-of-the-mill metal guitarist—his fierce riffing and ear-shredding solos caught listeners’ ears instantly and he quickly became one of the most must-see players in heavy metal.

After several years with Testament, Skolnick had a yearning to up his game as a guitarist who could play not just tunes you could headbang to but anything his heart and skill level desired.

“In the ‘90s, I left to develop more as a player, moving to New York and pursuing a music degree,” Skolnick says. “But I think it was the later ‘self-teaching’ that really enabled me to reach a professional level.

Around this time, Skolnick formed Alex Skolnick Trio. Its 2002 album, Goodbye to Romance: Standards for a New Generation, included stirring and imaginative jazz-based reinterpretations of tunes by Black Sabbath, Kiss, Scorpions and Aerosmith. Skolnick’s jazz playing technique revealed a very lyrical style true to old school jazz guitar tradition.

“I spent years living a secret life when I wasn’t onstage playing with Testament—attending jazz performances, studying with local jazz artists, dissecting my favorite recordings of many styles,” Skolnick says. “However, I’m not interested in being a purist and realized that the jazz artists I most gravitated towards had some international elements, whether it was Miles Davis, Django Reinhardt, Chick Corea’s piano improvisations or others.”

These international music elements and styles that Skolnick eventually gravitated towards led him to putting together a new project known as Planetary Coalition.

“It started with the idea of an album inspired by my favorite nylon and steel string acoustic influences—Django, Paco, McLaughlin, DiMeola…” Skolnick explains. “This area of music has long been a significant part of my playing but you’d never know because it hadn’t been captured. I’d also envisioned a worldly collaboration, some sort of global musical statement covering more than one region. So it made sense to combine both these concepts: a fully realized acoustic guitar statement combined with a global cultural collaboration.”

With these ideas in mind, Skolnick rounded up a whopping total of 27 of the best world music players to make the first Planetary Coalition album, which would eventually be released in 2014.

“It began with a core group of A-list musicians in New York—top players who run in the Brooklyn global music scene,” Skolnick continues. “Between them and other friends, I was able to find amazing artists from India, China, Africa, Argentina and Eastern Europe. With each artist, I would research their region of music, come up with some ideas I thought would work and together we’d fine-tune the pieces so they felt authentic.”

Listening to the debut Planetary Coalition album, it’s clear Skolnick did his research. The album is full of international musical flavors, running the gamut from Middle Eastern and African rhythms, to Indian vocals and sitar, with the acoustic guitar fret board finger-dancing licks of Skolnick as its focal point. In his own words, Skolnick describes Planetary Coalition’s global sonic palette.

“I’d say it’s an acoustic guitar-fronted world music project with jazz virtuosity and rock intensity, combining the passion of Gypsy, African, Indian, Asian, Mediterranean and other cultures—an audio voyage around the world!”

The release of Planetary Coalition was met with nearly universal acclaim, particularly from guitar-centric publications such as Acoustic Nation and Guitar World. This Thursday, Skolnick and Planetary Coalition make a rare live appearance in the rather intimate setting of Sears Recital Hall the University of Dayton campus. And while Skolnick admits that he will have a much smaller ensemble of musicians performing with him, attendees will still be able to get a great glimpse at the Planetary Coalition experience live in person, and then some.

“Most of the compositions lend themselves to variation, so we’re able to play them as a small ensemble,” Skolnick explains. “These tunes take on a live energy that is very special and unique from the recording. Since it’s music for listening and there’s an arts and educational component, it seems much better suited for venues such as universities and less for noisy nightclubs.”

And for Skolnick, it’s all a worthwhile endeavor.

“Planetary Coalition is a pure passion project,” he says. “It was a bit of an uphill battle to pull it together, but I couldn’t imagine not doing it. I really admire artists like Pat Metheny, John McLaughlin and other improvisers who never stop exploring new territory and continue to put out fresh new recordings. I hope to emulate them.”

Planetary Coalition will perform Thursday, Oct. 29 at Sears Recital Hall on the University of Dayton Campus. Admission is free and the event begins at 6:30 p.m., with the performance staring at 8 p.m. For more information please visit udayton.edu/artssciences.

Reach DCP freelance writer Gary Spencer at GarySpencer@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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Gary Spencer is a graduate of Miami University and works in the performing arts, and believes that music is the best. Contact him at GarySpencer@DaytonCityPaper.com

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