The tale of Tashi Dorji isn’t what you’d expect from an instrumental guitarist. He didn’t absorb a lifelong diet of blues, bluegrass and gospel records, and he didn’t emerge from some psychedelic rock band to become one of the great pickers of his time. John Fahey wasn’t his childhood idol.
No, Dorji grew up in the rather small South Asian country of Bhutan, moving between some of the country’s most isolated regions before arriving with his family as a teenager in the capital city. He discovered the guitar and the radio, rock ‘n’ roll and, ultimately, the prospect of attending college in America. At the age of 20, Dorji left Bhutan for Asheville, North Carolina, enrolling in the tiny liberal arts school Warren Wilson College. But in the thrall of the music scene he discovered, he soon dropped out. Still, the global move proved copacetic and educational, as Dorji became a musical piranha of sorts, devouring discographies he’d download to learn about free jazz and hardcore, American primitivism and the folk music indigenous to his new home. After two decades of seclusion, his tastes and consumption became acutely post-modern.
You’ll see some version of that backstory in most every review of Tashi Dorji, the 35-year-old guitarist’s long overdue step into the spotlight. Compelling as the tale is, it runs the risk of overrunning Dorji’s music.
Still, it matters because Dorji’s playing suggests an incredible openness — to technique, to style, to reception — that few possess, whether in music or in art or in life at large. An improviser on both the electric and acoustic guitar, Dorji has an envious amount of tools and touchstones at his disposal. During these 43 minutes, he moves between delicacy that reflects near-mechanical control and chaos that hints there must be a madman lurking behind the guitar’s wooden body. With his heavy strums and quick string pops, Dorji certainly trends toward the Derek Bailey and Eugene Chadbourne lineage of spontaneity. But there’s blues grit and classical grace here, with mirages of pop music and the mood of punk rock drifting in and out. Within the momentum of these wonderfully restless explorations of what can be wrangled from a few familiar strings, you can hear Dorji working through what he’s heard and learned.
This six-song set isn’t Dorji’s debut; he’s released nearly 10 rather short titles in the last five years, though those were largely short-run CDs and cassettes on small labels. But this album marks the first release from Hermit Hut, the new label from Six Organs of Admittance anchor Ben Chasny. It’s an auspicious introduction, then, carrying the imprimatur of one of the best guitar stylists of the last decade.
Dorji revisits that past by lifting two pieces from his great 2012 tape, Guitar Improvisations. “Improvisation I” races through a section of tiny notes that might sound like rain on a tin roof. But the restraint Dorji possesses and the deliberate placement of every note feels less than aleatoric; it is like rain on a tin roof, but sampled and fastidiously arranged by Autechre. “Improvisation II” starts slow, escalates into a tumbling twist of melodic fragments and ends in reflective melancholy, notes hanging low as they drift toward a slow comedown.
The new material finds him digging into alternate instruments and ideas. During “Few Thousand Words Without Any,” for instance, his hiccups and harmonics along the neck of an electric guitar tangle into gnarled blues, stutters shifting suddenly into the kind of red-hot licks you would expect from a roadhouse’s open door. A section of “Still III” seems to borrow the slap bass thump of a virile funk track and clusters of notes so dense he seems to be sweeping them from a mandolin. Elsewhere, during the same six-minute span, he weaves beautiful strands of airy harmonics and turns bits he seems to yank from the strings into stubborn knots. He ends with a canter that’s essentially exuberant, the dance of the bright notes decaying through the rests.
At various points during the record, when the strings slink just enough into silence, you can hear Dorji’s breath or his hands move across the instrument. Sometimes, he adjusts his body position in front of the microphone. These are incidental moments, of course, nonmusical relics within an expertly rendered album. But they’re also instant reminders of the strange journey that Dorji took to arrive at one of the year’s most winning records — and how that journey and this destination are irrevocably linked.