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What's old is new again.

Byline: LEWIS TAYLOR The Register-Guard

In recent years, Richard Crandell has played fewer "concerts," but his public performance schedule is as busy as ever.

On any given day, Crandell can be found playing his beat-up mbira in parks, on street corners, in cafes and at the River Road pool where he swims several times a week. During a recent trip to New York City, the Eugene musician found an unlikely audience when he played the Zimbabwean instrument - which makes a pleasant plink when its keys are plucked - for a group of aspiring acrobats at a downtown trapeze school.

`The guy from the school said, `Ah, an mbira. You can play here all day as far as I'm concerned. This is beautiful,' ' the 59-year- old Crandell said.

Crandell has been captivated by the mbira, or thumb piano, lately. He hopes to release a CD of solo mbira music, but he's still a guitarist at heart. He'll mark the release of his new solo guitar album, "One on One," this Sunday with a party at Tsunami Books that should feel a little more official than the impromptu performance he gave for a reporter recently in the L&L Market Place parking lot.

"To me, it's just all about sound and space, leaving lots of space," Crandell said, summing up his musical philosophy. `Somebody said to Miles Davis once, `What are you into these days, Miles?' and he said, `Subtraction.' '

Whether he's playing the mbira in a parking lot or the guitar on stage, Crandell specializes in making music that can breathe, and in crafting tunes that are accessible to just about anyone. In the early 1990s, he undertook a 50-state tour, stopping off at jails, detox centers, nursing homes and other institutions and offering free concerts to the people who lived there.

Although he's been known to play on the street for pocket change, Crandell isn't so much a busker as he is just a guy who carries an instrument with him wherever he goes.

One of the tunes on his new album, "Folksong," was written on a backpacking trip in the Sawtooth Mountains of Idaho; another, "Liam's Lullaby," was born at the old High Street Coffee Gallery in Eugene.

While fishing the Willamette River for steelhead recently, Crandell found more musical inspiration than fish, and ended up writing a song on the banks of the river.

"It was early morning, misty, there were people all around, and I just went out and I started playing," Crandell said. `And then I said, `Oh that's a piece,' and then I added something to that and I said `OK, I like this riff, that's a keeper.'

`It happens the same way with guitar. I've probably lost as many as I've kept.'

All of the guitar tunes on Crandell's new album were recorded between the early 1980s and late 1990s. The project began several years ago, when he took a box of old reel-to-reel tapes and dusty digital audio tapes to Bill Barnett's Gung-Ho studio to be preserved. After transferring the songs onto CD, Crandell heard the tunes with fresh ears.

`I started listening and I said, `This is not half bad, I kind of like this.' I had a couple of friends come over who had been close to the music and they said, `Well, you've gotta get this stuff out.' '

Crandell's new CD of old music is in the same vein as the music of Leo Kottke and the late Oregon guitarist John Fahey. The album is all instrumental. The tunes range from spry (`The Juggler') to shadowy (`The Influence'), and much of the music has a slightly Baroque feel.

Crandell's connection to Kottke is more than just comparative. Kottke recorded Crandell's song "Rebecca" for his 1975 album "Chewing Pine." The two met backstage after one of Kottke's Eugene concert appearances.

`I played the one riff that I could play and Leo comes over and says, `Hey, I'd like to learn that riff.' Crandell recalled. `So I handed the guitar back and forth to him and started showing it to him and I said, `No it's this double thumb thing,' and I said, `No no no, wait,' and then I said, `Oh jeez, here I am yelling at Leo Kottke.' '

Crandell had another brush with fame when two songs he recorded with his former musical partner Bill Bartels (`Box Cars," "Oregon Hill") were used by ABC in its television coverage of the 1984 Olympics.

If you're wondering how Crandell went from classical guitar to Zimbabwean thumb piano, the answer lies with the Eugene-based Afro-pop band Thomas Mapfumo & the Blacks Unlimited. Crandell drove the group's tour bus for a year, during which he was introduced to many variants of the instrument, which has tiny metal keys, and a wooden sounding board. His current mbira is made of metal and walnut. It was about to be thrown away until he rescued it from the scrap heap.

"If I do record an mbira CD, I couldn't do it on another mbira; it's gotta be this one," Crandell said, holding up his well-worn instrument, which has actor Danny Glover's autograph on the back and a children's sticker on the front. "It's got kind of a real dull-like quality. Someone described it as a combination of harp and vibes. It's not a great mbira, but it's irreplaceable."

The mbira isn't the only other instrument Crandell plays. He taught himself how to play the upright bass after meeting Charles Mingus in Portland in the 1970s; he studied jazz piano during the 1980s and later joined the Eugene salsa combo Caliente.

In 1998, Crandell served as the organist for the Eugene Emeralds, playing Ray Charles' "Hit the Road Jack," ragtime tunes and other standards from behind home plate.

A mild tremor that appeared recently in Crandell's nervous system makes it more difficult for him to play keyboards and guitar, and he confesses that there are some songs on his new album that he'll never be able to replicate in concert. His ability to play the mbira, though, has not been compromised, which means there are probably some more dents and dings in his instrument's future.

"I'm not really doing traditional African music (on the mbira)," said Crandell, who has already started adapting his guitar music for the mbira. "I write jazz tunes on here, Celtic jigs, Appalachian tunes, reggae. ...

`It's just another instrument to me."

Entertainment reporter Lewis Taylor can be reached by phone at 338-2512 and by e-mail at ltaylor


WHAT: CD release party

WHEN: 3 p.m. Sunday

WHERE: Tsunami Books, 2585 Willamette St.


FOR SALE: Crandell's new CD is available at Tsunami Books, CD World, House of Records, Borders and Barnes & Noble


Richard Crandell has put out a CD of guitar songs. Crandell's instrument of choice these days, however, is the mbira.
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Title Annotation:Entertainment
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Dec 20, 2002
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