Give Michael Dowdle a guitar, and he can and does play pretty much anything.
He's played as a studio musician on CDs of practically any genre you could name. He's done a series of his own interpretations of LDS hymns. He plays on stage with a variety of artists at concerts. He plays with dance bands and at weddings and company parties.
But there are times when he likes to just mellow out, to see where the music will take him. That's the sound you hear on his latest CD, "A Brighter Day."
It has something of a jazzy sound, "but it technically isn't jazz," he says. "It's more instrumental pop. Jazz has more of an improv feel. You play the melody and then everyone improvises their own takes on it." So, jazz can wander off anywhere and is never quite the same twice, he says.
"These songs are composed as songs. They have a structure," he says. "There is a jazzier sound. I use jazzier chords. But if true jazz guys listen to it, they know the difference."
Still, it has that soft, mellow, relaxing sound many people associate with smooth jazz.
It also marks a return to how Dowdle started his recording career. Back in 1989, he released his first album, "Touch." It was followed in the early '90s by "From the Hip" and "Soul Mate."
Some songs from those early albums have been rerecorded on "A Brighter Day," where they are joined by a variety of original songs.
He is joined on the CD by Todd Sorensen on percussion and Rob Honey on upright bass. The songs were recorded in trio format. There are no overdubs, as Dowdle has often done on his acoustic guitar albums. "This way makes it easier to record," he says jokingly. "We just get there and play it." In fact, he says, the album was recorded in two days. "Usually, we can make it go on for months and months."
But this style also gives the music more dimension, he says, and "a fresh, live feel."
That's one thing you will find with Dowdle he's always looking for new and different ways to make music. His earlier jazzy albums were done with a full band, with synthesizer and sax, with a mix of electric and acoustic guitar. This is more of an "unplugged" version, a simpler product.
"The idea is to let the songs speak for themselves. We didn't want to doll them up with a lot of frills," he says. And, he hopes those songs speak a positive message. "I hope they will lift people's spirits, that they will help people reflect on what makes them happy. The songs all have a positive feel."
He hopes they will, as the title song says, give people a "'Brighter Day' full of sunny pictures and happy thoughts."
It is six-days-a-week music, he says. "It's a good background for daily routines."
It is also music that translates well to concerts on the road, and lately he's been doing some of that; it's always fun to get out and meet people both locally and in other parts of the country. "We did a concert in Mesa, for example, that was a lot of fun. It worked really well." (For information on performances, visit www.michaeldowdle .com.)
And it's great to have a chance to "showcase some of my original stuff," he says. Writing songs like these is an interesting process. "Sometimes I just sit and play my guitar. Ideas form and begin to congeal. Then I construct. Then comes the process of refinement. It's like painting; it's a process over time that eventually comes together."
It's a process he has been following ever since he started to play the guitar at age 16.
Dowdle actually started on the violin. "Then my brother got a guitar and I would sneak into his room to play it while he was at school. I really enjoyed it. Finally, he just let me play it, and I played it voraciously."
He doesn't know why he became so passionate about the guitar. He does know that "I haven't played the violin in more than 15 years." Awhile back, "I had a project that I wanted to have a fiddle on, so I dug it out and played it. It was so bad I had to delete it."
He does think that if he had stayed with the violin, "I probably wouldn't be a full-time musician now. I'd probably be an architect or something. That was my original career idea."
But passion has a way of changing lives. "I look at how things have happened after I took up the guitar and how they have shaped my career. I think the Lord guides things. I think natural inclination and inspiration come together."
Now, he says, "I can't comprehend not being a musician. Just like I can't comprehend not having the wife I have and family I have."
Music touches him deep in his soul. "It's such a great artistic medium. You can create emotion with cadence and notes that everyone relates to. It can be melancholy and even dark. But the same dynamics that are used to create dark can create light."
Even more important, he says, "music taps into your memory. The music you love speaks to you almost subconsciously. Somewhere in your past there are certain feelings; music calls those memories back. I listen to Steely Dan, and it immediately reminds me of the summers I spent in Idaho moving pipe and learning to play the guitar."Good music, he says, reminds you of "the best things in life, of the sweetness and joy of it all."