[3 January 2007]
The world of athletes who record music is, at best, a mixed bag. For every winner, such as jazz bassist Wayman Tisdale, there seem to be a handful of losers, as Deion Sanders or the Super Bowl Shuffling ‘85 Chicago Bears can testify. Of course, in most sports, music is not an integral part of the game or the culture of the players. One sport that bucks this trend is skateboarding. Before it became the domain of trend-obsessed Midwestern teenagers, skateboarding was an organic outgrowth of the rebellious spirit of West Coast surf culture, and it encompassed an entire worldview, not just a pastime. Tommy Guerrero, a man who gained prominence first as a skater and later as a musician, is a product of this culture, and the freedom and creativity on his album From the Soil to the Soul testify to this fact.
Tommy Guerrero began his career as a member of the famed Bones Brigade skate team. Since then, his skating accomplishments have ranged from co-founding Real Skateboards to being the art director for Krooked Skateboarding. His musical resume is even more varied. He’s made compilations, he’s collaborated with Jack Johnson and Prefuse 73, he’s remixed Poets of Rhythm and Sean Lee, and he even scored the music for Hand Made Modern on HGTV. A multi-instrumentalist who plays bass, guitar, keyboard, and percussion, Guerrero has also released several solo albums, including this latest, From the Soil to the Soul. Guerrero’s sound is as diverse as his career, encompassing soul, blues, funk, jazz, dance, rock, and hip-hop, but despite this eclecticism, his music remains rooted in the sounds and the carefree spirit of the skate culture in his native San Francisco.
On first listen, From the Soil to the Soul is notable for apparent simplicity and laid-back grooviness. The album opens with “Hello Again”, a tender instrumental that brings to mind the sounds of Hawaii with a delicate piano melody and a simple guitar accompaniment. The second track, “The Under Dog”, is more representative of the rest of the album. It begins with a low-key guitar riff that is soon augmented by bass and percussion, and eventually develops into a full-scale instrumental song where the initial groove modulates and is accompanied by funky outbursts from an electric guitar. Although Guerrero exudes an air of innocence on this track, his musical approach is actually quite sophisticated. His music is rich in timbre and texture, and its uncluttered vibe is a testament to Guerrero’s skill as an arranger.
The rest of the songs on From the Soil to the Soul continue in the Guerrero pattern of being friction-free but sonically rewarding. In particular, Guerrero displays a keen sense of songcraft and a real knack for textural development. Some musicians who produce instrumental music seem to have a tendency to repeat a beat until it becomes almost obnoxious and then simply move on to the next groove. Guerrero is much more subtle. He’ll introduce a riff for a few measures, switch gears, and then return to the first idea. Along the way, he is constantly tweaking the music, adding instrumental parts such as syncopated wah-wah guitars or percussion beats that manage to inject a polyrhythmic energy into his songs. The fact that this process is consistently smooth testifies to Guerrero’s talent, his seemingly innate ability to navigate sonic nuances skillfully. These gifts serve him well on some of the album’s highlight tracks, which include “War No More” and “Let Me In Let Me Out”, a song that features rapper Lyrics Born.
Guerrero’s most important musical gift is not his eclecticism or his sophistication. Rather, it is the unabashed passion he demonstrates for his craft. Professional musicians are notorious for enormous egos. Sometimes this arrogance manifests itself in boastful lyrics; other times it appears in insufferable experimentalism. Guerrero indulges in no such pretensions. Listening to the album, one feels that Guerrero’s only goal was following his heart and putting together a collection of tracks that reflect the sunny sounds of his favorite music, his sport, and his city. His enthusiasm is infectious. From the Soil to the Soul is an album that will challenge hard-hearted critics, delight faithful fans, and offer great pleasure to anyone who loves music.