Texas guitar-slinger Chris Duarte talks Hendrix, Santana, Doyle Bramhall, and the Vaughan brothers

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ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN EXPERIENCE HENDRIX MAGAZINE, WINTER 2000

By Steve Newton

When Texas blues-rock guitar-wizard Chris Duarte got married earlier this year, he commissioned his bassist, Jon Jordan, to compose a song for the occasion. Jordan came up with the hauntingly beautiful “Duarte Ezell”, a piece that was performed at the wedding ceremony by a string trio. On Duarte’s new CD, Love Is Greater Than Me, the guitarist recreates the song himself, employing three different guitars to take the place of cello, viola, and violin. One of the guitars he used on that song, a green-sparkled, mid-’90s Epiphone, is the same one he’s pictured wailing away on outdoors on the cover of the new disc.

“It’s funny,” says Duarte from his Austin home, “because that guitar is just the only one I took out to the photo session, but it’s the one that’s on ‘Badness’ and “Azul Ezell’, and I believe it’s the violin part on ‘Duarte Ezell’. That guitar was just given to me, but it’s turned out to be a really good guitar, and plus it’s got the Les Paul sound, which I like a lot. I mean that Strat’s my number one, but for tonal differences I pick up a Les Paul.”

When Duarte does pull out his “number one” on Love Is Greater Than Me he pays some serious tribute to Jimi Hendrix, especially on tracks like “Free 4 Me” and “Watch Out I’m a-Coming”. Ever since he was 12 years old, first hangin’ out with guitar players and hearing songs like “Purple Haze” and “Foxey Lady”, Duarte has been profoundly influenced by this magazine’s namesake. He is quick to name Axis: Bold As Love as one of his two ‘desert island discs’.

“I just love the experimentation he did,” says Duarte, “throwing sounds around, the psychedelia of it. And then there was his funk groove, and his rock, and his rhythm playing. And his lyrics. I mean I consider that an American masterpiece.”

An avid collector of Hendrix bootlegs, Duarte is particularly fond of recordings from the historic Winterland, Isle of Wight, and Royal Albert Hall shows. He even found someone who owned a videotape of the latter 1969 concert, and now he does too.

“I have so many resources to get just about any bootleg tape I want,” he says. “the only thing I probably can’t get is that Black Gold tape. I don’t know of any people that have that tape. In fact I’ve never even heard the Black Gold tape. It’s that one where he was sittin’ in his room, recordin’ on his own tape player, and somehow somebody took the cassette out, somethin’ like that. I mean there’s people out there that are just so rabid about Hendrix that they have everything–it’s almost like Coltrane-heads. And it’s because everything he did should have been historically documented, he was so light-years ahead of everybody.”

As well as Hendrix, Duarte found heavy inspiration for his new CD from Carlos Santana, whose influence is strongly felt on the Latin-fusion opus, “Azul Ezell”. Duarte wrote the eight-minute song for his wife, who tells him that Santana is “her other favorite guitar player.”

“That song comes from a time when we first got together,” reveals Duarte. “It’s got the tumultuous things that can sometimes go on in a relationship, but then it’s got the blue feeling over, and that’s the soft part.”

The main thing that draws Duarte towards guitarists like Hendrix and Santana is the magical way their inner voices are relayed through their instruments. And it’s that search for his own unique voice that Duarte strives for in his music.

“I believe it’s the most valuable asset for a popular musician,” he says, “because you want to be recognizable right when you come over the radio, so that people know it’s you. And even though I may sound like a few people, I just try to play with the spirit that these people left, or that they have, with their music, and put my own interpretation across. I have my own quirky phrasing and my own concept of tone, so I guess that’s how I’m trying to develop it.”

While Duarte works on creating his own sound on guitar, he’s getting lots of help in the song-crafting department from the likes of Doyle Bramhall, who produced Love Is Greater than Me.

“He really breathed life into some parts of the songs,” claims Duarte, “and it was really from a songwriter perspective instead of somebody saying, ‘Well, let’s just try something that can sound more trendy’. He brought great melodic skills to it.”

Bramhall is perhaps best known for his work with Stevie Ray Vaughan, another player who’s been a major influence on Duarte. But Duarte says that he’s been influenced just as much by Vaughan’s older brother Jimmie, particularly by the latter’s rhythm style and the “stinging, concise brevity” of his solos. The most upbeat tune on the album, “Brand New Day”, was recorded with the boogie style of Vaughan’s old band, the Fabulous Thunderbirds, in mind. But lyrically it stems from a much more serious experience.

“I’d written that song back in 1993, after I got in a terrific traffic accident with the band. I mean we got hit by this huge 16-wheeler, and that’s what it refers to in the second verse, ‘Thank god I’m still around for a brand new day’.”

Rock-guitar fans should also be thankful for Duarte’s continued existence, and bask in the exceptional performances on Love Is Greater Than Me. There’s a powerful emotional vibe flowing from the album, the title of which refers to the redeeming power of love.

“It’s just me comin’ out of my dark, hazy days of drug addiction,” says Duarte, “and then finding somebody who threw a life-preserver out to me, and who I’m able to walk through life with.”

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