EUGENE, Ore. - Using his signature guitar-pick-adorned fingernails, Don Latarski carefully tunes his fanned-fret Novax guitar as he prepares for an evening of live performance with friends Shelley James and Cal Coleman at Café 440.
Though he has only played with Shelley and Cal a few times, years of experience have given him the confidence to fall in with almost any musical ensemble and not only blend, but enliven the melody.
His style is his own. Bassist Cal Coleman says, “There’s nobody who plays like Don Latarski.”
Don Latarski has become a familiar name in the music community since he entered the Eugene art scene 30 years ago. A virtuoso of fingerstyle guitar, he has an extensive resumé. He is the author of a successful set of instructional books, a recording artist with over 15 studio albums to his name, head of Guitar Performance at the University of Oregon and founder of Crescent Records. In 2011, Latarski was ranked by TrueFire as one of the 100+ Gifted Guitarists You Should Know, yet in person he remains unpretentious.
Impressed by an older cousin’s musical chops, Don Latarski picked up his first guitar in Detroit, Mich., at age 10.
“It was exciting and interesting and I could feel there was this energy in it,” he recalls. “It just felt comfortable and it was fun.”
The engineering culture of Motor City instilled him with a confidence around technology. “Growing up in a fairly industrial side of the country,” he recalls, “where most men that I knew worked in some sort of a physical mechanical way, it was just sort of assumed that you weren’t a whole person if you weren’t able to take things apart and put them back together.”
At 17 years old, Latarski moved to Eugene and almost immediately fell in love with the music scene, but the musicians he met here were also intimidating.
“There were a lot of guitar players here who were playing quite a bit better than me,” he said.
This only inspired him to work harder. “I wanted to be able to have the ability to sit in and jam with whoever was playing.”
The young musician was accepted to music school, where he began studying theory and learning the professional language of music. In his free time, Latarski tried his hand at audio engineering. Music school gave him the skills to teach and improvise, while engineering allowed him to produce his own records. “If you don’t know how to record, you’re at the mercy of someone else,” he says, but understanding the mechanics of music recording provided him with more control over his art.
Today, at his in-home facility, Crescent Records, Latarski applies these skills to the creation of polished albums for local artists including Brooks Robertson and Shelley James and Cal Coleman. He put his technical skills to work, designing the studio from scratch, and took painstaking care to soundproof the space. Having his own professional facility gives him “the freedom to try things anytime of the day or night that you want and to just experiment.”
As a professor, Don Latarski also applies his expertise to helping students experience the feeling of playing with skilled musicians regardless of their own level of play. Sitting in his office in the UO School of Music and Dance, he expertly lays down a samba riff on an electric guitar. A program called Logic simultaneously records his chord progression. “I can convert it to a form of computer-type language called MIDI and then I can assign that information to different sounds,” he explains. Composing these songs, he says, provides students with a track they can play along with and feel as if they are members of an accomplished ensemble.
Working at the university feeds Latarski’s natural curiosity and passion for both music and technology. “I feel incredibly lucky to have a job like I have,” he says, “where I’m essentially paid to continuously learn.”
The JAM Workshop — Journalism Arts Multimedia — is a brand new class taught at the University of Oregon’s School Of Journalism and Communication. Conceived by Prof. Tom Wheeler, the JAM Workshop brings together student writers, photographers and videographers to profile local artists — musicians, painters, dancers, sculptors, art photographers, and more.