Mark Lettieri: Knows
Anyone who hasn’t heard of Texas-based guitarist Mark Lettieri will wonder why upon listening to his debut CD, Knows. A seasoned and versatile session player, Lettieri grew up in California listening to the wide range of iconic bands that emerged from the state during the 1970s, from Steely Dan to Van Halen. Now based in the same Dallas/Fort Worth area that produced Jimmie and Stevie Ray Vaughan, the guitarist fuses all of those influences and beyond into his own unique synthesis.
The all-instrumental disc opens with Big Duck, a Steely Dan-like number on which Lettieri plays spiked lines and solos a la one of that band’s legion of great lead guitarists, Larry Carlton. Bassist Michael League and drummer Robert Sput Searight’s rhythmic shell-game, and keyboardist Caleb McCampbell’s embellishments, provide the perfect backdrop.
The subsequent Lotus then does a one-eighty through its jazzy, quieter intro and the rhythm section’s 5/8-timed cadence, before an unabashed chorus featuring Lettieri and McCampbell hints at some of British guitarist Andy Summers’ post-Police work. The same backing cast (minus the keyboardist) aids Lettieri’s slide guitar workout, the bluesy Veil, plus his ominous, whisper-to-a-scream Grillman.
For funkier trio numbers like the title track and frenetic, Jeff Beck-influenced fusion pieces like Ballerina Josephina, Lettieri employs bassist Wes Stephenson and drummer Jason JT Thomas. Both are also on another Lettieri slide guitar workout, the self-explanatory Slide Rule, along with McCampbell. The CD’s most experimental track, Stephenson’s effects-laden bass line and the guitarist’s speech-patterned solos hint at disparate influences from Parliament/Funkadelic to Frank Zappa.
To complete the expect-the-unexpected theme, Lettieri closes the disc on acoustic guitar for its only cover tune, Somewhere Out There from producer Steven Spielberg’s 1986 animated film An American Tail. A brief and faithful rendition, the finale seems placed to remind listeners that they can’t possibly know what to expect if there’s a sequel.
Yet such versatility comes naturally. The best-known artist that Lettieri has worked with is Grammy-winning, Dallas-born R&B singer Erykah Badu — but the guitarist also plays acoustic pop with the Ray Johnston Band, hip hop with RC and the Gritz, and fusion with the Funky Knuckles. If he continues to release solo outings like this one, and doesn’t blend in by being too hard to categorize, Lettieri could become the next big thing to fly out of the Texas region nicknamed DFW.
Personnel: Mark Lettieri (guitars) Caleb McCampbell (keyboards) Michael League (bass) Wes Stephenson (bass) Robert Sput Searight (drums) Jason JT Thomas (drums)
1. Big Duck
5. Ballerina Josephina
7. Slide Rule
8. Somewhere Out There
Reviewed by: Bill Meredith