Graded on a Curve:
Ryan Dugré,
Three Rivers

Along with working as a sideman for Cass McCombs and Eleanor Friedberger, New York City-based guitarist Ryan Dugré is a solo artist, with his latest release Three Rivers also serving as his vinyl debut. It features a dozen instrumental selections, with Dugré’s guitar and piano augmented with a string trio, drums, pedal steel, synth and even flugabone. The results are consistently pleasant without faltering into the insubstantial, favoring jazz and classical-infused cinematic terrain over folky post-Fahey maneuvers. The album is available February 19 through the 11A label in an edition of 100 copies, so act quick.

The compositions that shape Three Rivers stem from a song-a-day exercise undertaken by Dugré in January of 2019. In the PR for its release, it’s explained that the undertaking, where the only stipulation was to submit something musical every day, whether it be an improv, a loose structural outline or a completed composition fleshed out with orchestration, wasn’t his usual way of working, but that the rigor of the imposed timeframe ultimately proved productive.

Indeed, the endeavor resulted in a collection of songs that Dugré continued working on in his home studio in the months thereafter. They were finalized in October 2019 with engineer Adam Sachs at Trout Recording in Brooklyn. Along with Ian McLellan Davis’ string arrangements as rendered by Ali Jones on cello, Thomas Martin on violin, and Hannah Selin on viola, there are contributions from Brett Lanier on pedal steel, Sean Mullins on drums, and Adam Dotson on flugabone (an obscure instrument, also called a marching valve trombone, that’s shaped like a flugelhorn, but bigger and with a heartier sound).

Although Dugré doesn’t pursue an American Primitive course on Three Rivers, there are currents of Americana, though the aura is never rustic, in large part due to those strings, which are in ample evidence in opener “Living Language.” But there’s also a lack of twang in Lanier’s pedal steel plus the avoidance of the homespun in Dugré’s playing.

Instead, there is a sense of vastness, which gets us to that filmic quality without succumbing to the grandiose. But Dugré can effectively scale it back, as in the almost-bossa nova-like prettiness of his playing in “Old Hotel.” Without connecting as an outlier, “Old Hotel” is a bit atypical of Three Rivers’ whole, with “Powder Rains” more contemplative as it leads to an upward emotive instrumental gush at the finale.

“Foxglove” is the first of the record’s standouts, with Dugré’s playing pretty but tough and complemented first by the presence of a drum rhythm and then by strings nice and thick. In the latter portion of the piece, the patterns of guitar and strings intersect in a manner that borders on the Minimalist.

“Stalking Horse” is more focused on guitar, though the track is also atmospheric in a way that underscores the cinematic but without stepping into full-blown soundtrack territory. The piece fits well between “Foxglove” and “Shining,” another album highlight that reinforces a comparison to fellow guitarist Chuck Johnson, though Dugré’s playing and the strings brought to mind Johnson’s old band Shark Quest, which is a welcome twist.

The title “Big Pictures, Wide Open Spaces” might seem to be striving for film vistas once more, which is somewhat true in the latter moments as Dugré offers a melodic line that brought the Fripp of Evening Star to mind. However, the opening solo guitar segment is considerably jazz-inflected while remaining in sync with the rest the album.

From there, the record enters a culminating stretch that captures Dugré mostly alone save for accents of pedal steel, and in “Wing,” drums. These five pieces effectively communicate the bedrock solidity of the writing that serves as Three Rivers’ foundation, and they bring the record to a largely quiet and satisfying conclusion.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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