I’m not telling anyone anything new when I say that a decathlon is the ultimate test of athletic ability and endurance. Athletes compete in ten track and field events. Young men run, jump, throw a discus and a javelin. They even pole vault over a very high bar. And they do it all in two days.
With Guitar Decathlon, his latest release, Wayne Riker gave himself a correspondingly Herculean task. Ten tunes, each a distinctive style ranging from classical and jazz to make-your-ears-bleed rock. On each composition Riker pairs himself with one of San Diego’s best guitarists who excels in each of these styles. This ultimate musical litmus test is something that the most accomplished of musicians might shy away from. But it’s obvious that Riker dove headlong into this challenge. The result is a success of great musicianship and inspired playing on ten well-crafted tunes.
Riker wrote all the compositions with titles that correspond to the events of the decathlon event. He is a smart composer, writing tunes that gave his guest guitarists – as well as himself – good material on which to solo. The tunes are also interesting and inventive without being self-indulgent or too cute.
Okay, I’m not one who likes making lists, but here’s the rundown on Guitar Decathlon. Laura Chavez plays with Riker on “Hurdles,” a Chicago-style blues. “Discus” is acoustic fusion jazz reminiscent of some of Larry Coyell’s 1970s explorations, which features Jimmy Patton. Jim Soldi does his best to channel 1950s Appalachia on the rockabilly “110 Yard Dash.” Things get funky when Riker plays “Pole Vault” with Andy Tirpak. Remember jazz guitarists Grant Green and Wes Montgomery? They serve as the inspiration for “The Roman Mile,” which features Dan Papaila. Things get real down-home when Robin Henkel joins Riker for the acoustic tune “The 400 Meter Blues.” “High Jump Etude” is a Steve Vai-type rocker. (Be prepared, this one is LOUD.) Peter Sprague pumps nylon on the “Long Jump Bossa.” “Shotput Blues” has Tony Tomlinson mixing some straight-ahead urban blues with a minor/Latin blues. And the “Javelin Concerto” closes the disk with Fred Benedetti and Riker playing classical guitars.
It may have been easy to simply tip his hat to these differing styles, but each tune is firmly established in its genre. The slap bass joins in for the rockabilly tune; the steel slide guitar comes out for the acoustic blues; and the amps go up past 11 for the rock tune. The most common recording technique today is to record one instrument at a time. I’d be willing to bet that all of the tunes on Guitar Decathlon were recorded with full bands (or at least the two guitarists) present in the recording studio at the same time. There is no other way to explain the liveliness and spontaneity of the soloing. Each of the guest guitarists shines, and Riker more than holds his own against the competition. After decades as a musician, Guitar Decathlon exhibits Riker as a guitarist at the height of his talents.