As an Australian, guitar virtuoso Tommy Emmanuel doesn't seem to be much bothered about musical categories. Is his music jazz, folk, bluegrass, new age? Depending on the track, it can be any one. Like his mentor, Chet Atkins, Emmanuel is simply a guitar player, and on Little by Little, a two-CD set, he sticks mostly to acoustic guitar, playing mostly originals, tunes that he has used in concert but not recorded before. He is also mostly solo, although the double-disc length allows him room to share space with guests including singers Pam Rose (on her co-composition "Haba Na Hava") and Anthony Snape (on the folk-rock "Willie's Shades"). Among the covers are two versions of "Moon River," one with a bass countermelody, the other with an Emmanuel vocal, Carole King's "Tapestry," Atkins' "Mountains of Illinois," and "The Tennessee Waltz." Emmanuel plays fast runs, slows down for delicate passages, and adds harmonics on tunes that evoke players including Will Ackerman and John Fahey. He also likes folk-pop; "Papa George" needs only a James Taylor vocal to fit into that category. But Little by Little is a tour de force by a musician who usually leaves categories behind.
Though he has shown a mastery and affinity for both electric and acoustic axes, Tommy Emmanuel's Higher Octave debut, Midnight Drive, finds him focusing almost exclusively on warm yet frequently aggressive acoustic melodies, complemented here and there by the raw, plugged-in energy of Robben Ford and Larry Carlton. The overall mix is the kind that smooth jazz lovers find easy to swallow, but offers more bite and adventure than most like-minded releases in the genre. Smooth jazz radio may find an easy mark with a laid-back take of Sting's "Fields of Gold," but Emmanuel's other tracks dig deeper, showing off a stylistic chameleon drawing from the many phases of his career. His soft pop side comes out on power ballads "No More Goodbyes" and "Stay Close to Me," the latter reminding us why guest saxman Warren Hill's biggest hit to date was called "The Passion Theme." Emmanuel's more aggressive blues-rock side (honed no doubt by a few years in the progressive mid-'80s ensemble Dragon) emerges with Carlton's help on "Can't Get Enough." The striking contrast between the pastoral, folksy roads of "Drivetime" and the disc's best track, "Villa de Martin" best reflects the gamut of Emmanuel's approaches.