A Guitarist’s Vision: ‘Using the Musical Force to Change Lives’

 In Culture, Feature

“I went to Imrat initially to straighten out my right hand. ‘Cause I knew sitar players have a phenomenal right hand.”

Guitarist Todd Mosby describes his collaboration with sitar maestro Imrat Khan as though it’s a minor personal detail. A mere anecdote to explain one step on a journey dotted with accomplishments that many might see as finish-line material. And perhaps that’s how Mosby himself thinks of this—if he thinks of it at all. Just a way to improve the technique of his picking hand.

But that passing comment goes a long way in characterizing Mosby’s approach to his music and, by some extrapolation, every part of the musical experience.

Where most guitar players, especially jazz players, spend substantial sums of time practicing and exercising to perfect their technique, this was not sufficient for Mosby. He doesn’t do anything in half measures. His vision for his music and what he hopes to achieve there is nothing short of exacting.

No, this St. Louis musician invented an instrument to achieve the tonal lengths required for his vision.

Mosby gets a fair amount of attention for the instrument he developed with Khan and luthier Kim Schwartz. Now called the Imrat guitar, in honor of Kahn (who passed away in St. Louis in 2018), the 18-string hybrid combines elements of the western guitar and the Indian sitar and allows Mosby to access the more expressive elements of traditional Indian tonality while playing in a more or less western jazz, new age and folk paradigm.

“I couldn’t do certain things on the guitar,” Mosby explains. “I couldn’t pull, the neck was too thin. I could push, but there’s really no control on a push. So I had the necessity.”

A Guitarist's Vision: 'Using the Musical Force to Change Lives'

While most innovation around instruments happens primarily as variation, with maybe an extra few strings or another neck so you can play your bass notes and still keep the higher pitches accessible, Mosby’s is a true synthesis of two somewhat disparate traditions.

The merging of these musical styles isn’t itself new—perhaps most famously, George Harrison of The Beatles studied Indian music and incorporated it into his vocabulary—but many of these attempts rarely achieve the seamlessness of Mosby’s work. There’s nothing garish or overwrought. Mosby very literally lets the instrument speak for itself, often letting the natural resonance of the guitar extend notes, rather than taking every opportunity to shoehorn in exotic sounds simply for the sake of novelty.

And perhaps that’s the most striking thing about Mosby’s music: the subtlety. Of course, smooth jazz, new age and folk generally lack confrontation or controversy, but Mosby exemplifies how the genre can really transform in the hands of truly skilled and knowledgeable practitioners. There’s nothing gimmicky or pandering about the music, just honest composition, sure and confident playing and some of the slickest production around.

Unsurprisingly, Mosby thinks on a scale more consistent with classical music, choosing to express ideas on the order of album-length concepts. His fifth album, “Open Waters,” tells the story of the survivors of the flooding of Atlantis setting out to sea to find a new life. The songs on the album function more approximately to movements—some larger in scale, employing a full band and vocals, others more intimate and introspective, where Mosby may play solo guitar or collaborate with just one other player.

A Guitarist's Vision: 'Using the Musical Force to Change Lives'

The music is intentional, and instrumentation is utilized to reflect some aspect of the concept. This is the true mastery that Mosby brings to the table. The clarity of his vision is so well defined, so deliberate, that it extends to every part of the experience. There’s a sense that Mosby views his recordings as necessary but not perhaps the perfect form of the art because of the static nature of the medium.

“In my opinion, if you want to show me your musicianship, I don’t want to hear a recording. That just does the same thing over and over again; anybody can do that. But when you’re performing live … that’s where you really connect,” he says.

“Really, it’s about using the musical force to change lives.”

The accolades—the Global Music awards, the Grammy ballot nominations, the roster of impressive collaborators—these are not his indicators of success. These are the tools by which success is wrought. “I get countless emails all the time from people saying they listen to this album or the first one, ‘Eagle Mountain,’ saying they put it on [when] they’re stressed and they totally de-stress.”

In this endeavor to affect positive change in people, he has recruited some of the best players in his field. The current New Horizons ensemble lineup includes San Francisco-based Michael Manring, well known as one of if not the leading bass player on the globe; vocalist Lola Kristine, a Webster University graduate who has worked with top industry producers; and St. Louis singer-songwriter Bryan Toben.

Mosby and his associates seamlessly shift through forms and assimilate styles with such deftness that the listener hardly realizes they’ve made a journey across continents, time and cultures. All of these elements come together into a sonic package of deliberate precision, subtle orchestration and clever composition.

This music is inspired, and you can hear it come to life on Jan. 16 at the Sky Music Lounge in Ballwin at a show titled “Stars in the Night: Todd Mosby New Horizons Ensemble & Bach to the Future.” Mosby takes the stage with featured artists Manring on bass, Tracy Silverman on violin and Michael Silverman on piano.

Images courtesy of Todd Mosby.

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