Asked about the ease, or difficulty, of blending genres in his music, master guitarist Leo Kottke headed off in another direction.
“My whole life has been dictated by my right hand. You take Pat Metheny, John Scofield, or Jim Raney and it’s dictated by the left hand,” Kottke begins, getting into a discourse about the differences between his finger-picking style versus the way other players chord and strum the instrument. Then he realizes he’s not really addressing the question, and says as much. So he recalibrates, and says, “Styles don’t count for much. They result from trends, and trends don’t last. The categories blur. A segment, a line, can go anywhere.”
That snippet of a freewheeling conversation with Kottke is fairly representative of his artistic sensibilities; letting tangents connect disparate ideas in thoughtful manner is as much a part of Kottke’s music as it is in the way he talks about it.
For more than 40 years and across more than 30 albums, Kottke has kept himself intrigued by the possibilities of 6- and 12-string acoustic guitars. Folk and blues may have been his starting points, but Kottke’s music quickly absorbed several other influences.
“Leo is the prime example of dedication and focus,” says Phish bassist Mike Gordon, who has made two albums with Kottke. “We were staying together in a condo when we made the ‘Sixty Six Steps’ album. I’d go to sleep, and he’d stay up playing. I’d wake up at 7, and he’d already be up playing. And it was never piddling stuff. It was world-class playing, full of dexterity and creativity. I feel that I’m passionate about my craft, but I know that the last thing I do before I close my eyes at night is not playing bass.”
Kottke, 67, returns to the Boston area Saturday with a show at Sanders Theatre. His longtime road manager claims that it’s been several years since Kottke has been around Boston (or Cambridge, as is the case here), though Kottke himself can’t be so sure. Turns out he stopped thinking about where he’s been and focuses strictly on tomorrows.
“I was playing 23 cities in Germany, about five times too many cities than you need to play in Germany, and I was sick, and I was just counting the days,” Kottke recounts. “I decided then that I only want to know where I’m going tomorrow. Of course there are unintended consequences. I don’t know where I’ve been. I was at a [luggage] carousel and a guy asked me where the flight was in from. I had to stop and think. He just said, ‘Must be some life.’ ”
‘The guitar creates bottlenecks, and players find solutions to the problems. It’s a popular instrument because people can hear the differences from one player to the next. With piano, it’s harder to tell the differences.’
Kottke’s offbeat humor and personality seem perfectly suited for guitar, an instrument Kottke himself views as unpredictable and far from logical. Pianos, he says, are logical; guitars, well, they shape the players as much as the players shape them.
He quotes a Metheny passage about the instrument’s irregularities and limitations, with Kottke spinning them into glowing positives before adding his own assessment.
“The guitar creates bottlenecks, and players find solutions to the problems,” Kottke says. “It’s a popular instrument because people can hear the differences from one player to the next. With piano, it’s harder to tell the differences.”
Kottke travels with just two guitars, one six-string and one 12-string, which seems amazing considering that players of far less regard are typically seen hauling racks of axes to their gigs. Kottke lets those guys off the hook by saying they probably just don’t like to tune between songs (while Kottke tuning sessions usually become the platform for anecdotal musings). But beyond a willingness to tune between songs, Kottke also shares another story that sheds light on why he travels with bare essentials.
The episode took place in 1970, when Kottke met Dick Rosmini, a celebrated folk guitarist who made a record of steel-string flat-top guitar tunes that Kottke played over and over during his junior-high days. Rosmini had been in the audience at Kottke’s concert that evening and heard Kottke complaining about the guitar he was using, a replacement for one that was stolen.
“He said let me see that guitar you’re complaining about. I told him it was impossible to play, and that the guitar that was stolen was perfect,” Kottke recalls. “I handed him the guitar and he played this difficult shift. He played for like three seconds. He just handed it back to me and said, ‘See, if you know how to play, it doesn’t matter,’ and walked out.”
Beyond technique, Kottke has set ideas about crafting a performance.
“I map nothing. When it’s just one guy, you see the map, and that’s pretty deadening. Risk is necessary to performance,” he says. His concerts are full of improvised passages. Kottke ignores shouted-out requests, saying he finds better results in letting a concert unfold on its own.
“A concert is really playing with people, not for people,” he says. “We’re all doing the same thing.”
Kottke released his last solo album, “Try and Stop Me,” in 2004, and his “Sixty Six Steps” collaboration with Gordon came out the following year. The recording dormancy may end as Kottke and Gordon both confirmed plans for a get-together that will include Phish drummer Jon Fishman. And while it seems natural to mix all of these veteran improvisers, both Kottke and Gordon spoke of the difficulties that occurred when the guitarist and bassist first met to jam.
“Leo is so complete by himself that the challenge for me was figuring out how to fit in,” Gordon says, which led him to seeing the music as freely as Kottke sees it. “Playing a standard bass line anchors a song, but in this case was not what was called for and was tethering the song. I had to be somewhat more free myself.”
Kottke assures that he plays guitar every day (“It’s a disease”), and songs often spring from these times of reflection. Occasionally he’d find words to add to a tune, though his catalog remains largely instrumental. But he has seen a shift lately.
“These days, words come before the tunes,” he says. “I like how things can change. I’m glad when something like that happens. I know I’m still alive.”Scott McLennan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @ScottMcLennan1.