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McNalley plays past the musical standard

November 29, 2013|By Kirk Silsbee
  • Improvisational guitarist Tom McNalley in Los Angeles on Wednesday, November 27, 2013. On December 1, McNalley will perform in Eagle Rock at the Center for the Arts.
Improvisational guitarist Tom McNalley in Los Angeles… (Tim Berger / Staff…)

If at first you don't relate what 31-year-old Tom McNalley plays to what you know of the guitar, don't be put off. He's not approaching either the instrument or his music in a conventional way.

Distorted effects, clean picking, ferocious fusillades, crystalline confessional reveries, angular melodies, unexpected lyricism and well-placed accompanying chords are all part of the improvisational mix.

“Tom's all the things you'd want in a musician,” says trumpeter and San Diego State teacher Jeff Kaiser. “His musical sensibility transcends the instrument. He's known for his free-form electric guitar playing but I've had him demonstrate classic slide and traditional blues techniques to my blues classes.”

Trombonist Mike Vlatkovich first ran across the teenage McNalley in Portland. “He was studying with trumpeter Rob Blakeslee and saxophonist Dave Gross,” Vlatkovich notes. “It was unusual for me to find someone so incredibly passionate about this music; he was like a sponge. And he was certainly not playing like a standard guitarist — you wouldn't hear Tom playing tunes in a lounge.”


McNalley would later be invited to improvise with the trombonist and the late poet Dorothea Grossman in their Call and Response duo. “He figured out what I was doing immediately,” says Vlatkovich. “Soloing is one of his strong points, so he worked to compliment the words and create pictures with sound.”

Portland saxophonist Rich Halley has also tracked McNalley since the latter's teen years. “Playing with Michael has helped Tom develop his own stuff further,” says Halley. “Call and Response got him into subtle sound shadings. But his involvement with Caribbean music has added more depth and aliveness to Tom's playing.”

Shortly after McNalley moved to Los Angeles in 2005, he met the displaced Haitian musicians who congregated around TiGeorge's Chicken in Echo Park and began playing with them. “They taught me the Kompa style,” McNalley relates from his L.A. home. “It's a little more rhythmically and harmonically intricate than Soka. The chord progressions are longer and the rhythms are very funky — more African. That led me to Rasim, which is Creole for ‘roots.' That's harmonically simpler but rhythmically very rich and extremely intense. It's basically voodoo music.”

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