THE DOZENS: ESSENTIAL JAZZ GUITAR by Scott Albin



          The Guitarist, artwork by Suzanne Cerny

They say that the guitar is one of the easiest instruments to learn. Maybe that explains the plethora of guitarists in the music world, but to achieve excellence is another matter. That’s part genetics for the musical aptitude, and the rest a combination of inspiration and perspiration.

In jazz, Eddie Lang inspired Django Reinhardt, who in turn influenced Charlie Christian, who went on to inspire scores of others. Over time cross-fertilization makes the links more and more indirect and murky. Tal Farlow and Jimmy Raney turned heads in the 1950s, Wes Montgomery, Grant Green and Jim Hall starting in the 1960s, Lenny Breau and Pat Martino in the 1970s. Fusion guitarists such as John McLaughlin, Allan Holdsworth and Al DiMeola have made an impact, as do trendsetters Pat Metheny, Bill Frisell and John Scofield to this day. Up in Canada, Ed Bickert, Sonny Greenwich and Nelson Symonds were influential, and overseas Martin Taylor and Bireli Lagrene were being noticed.

All the up-and-coming young guitarists of the 21st century owe a debt to one or more of their predecessors, some of whose performances are presented below, alphabetically by artist.


Howard Alden: Displacement

Track

Displacement

Artist

Howard Alden (guitar)

CD

Your Story – The Music of Bill Evans (Concord Jazz: CCD-4621)

Buy Track

Musicians:

Howard Alden (guitar),

Michael Moore (bass), Al Harewood (drums)

.

Composed by Bill Evans

.

Recorded: New York, May 19-20, 1994

Albumcoverhowardalden-yourstory-themusicofbillevans

Rating: 92/100 (learn more)

In Woody Allen's 1999 film Sweet and Lowdown, Sean Penn plays the fictitious Emmet Ray, the second greatest jazz guitarist of the 1930s (after Django, of course). While Penn convincingly pretended to play his stunningly executed guitar parts, they were really being performed by Howard Alden, who has been considered one of the best swing guitarists for the past 30 years. Alden is more than that, however, being equally proficient in more modern styles. For his tribute CD to Bill Evans, Alden went from his usual 6-string guitar to a 7-string with a low A so he could better deal with the rich harmonies of Evans' music. With the effervescent Moore and Harewood urging him on, Alden literally devours the challenging "Displacement" – which sounds like a cross between "I Remember You" and "Giant Steps" – with swift, roller-coaster single-note lines that take your breath away.

Reviewer: Scott Albin


George Benson: Witchcraft

Track

Witchcraft

Artist

George Benson (guitar)

CD

Witchcraft (Jazz Hour JHR 73523)

Buy Track

Musicians:

George Benson (guitar),

Mickey Tucker (piano), George Duvivier (bass), Al Harewood (drums)

.

Composed by Cy Coleman and Carolyn Leigh

.

Recorded: live at Casa Caribe, Plainfield, NJ, April 1973

Albumcovergeorgebenson-witchcraft

Rating: 96/100 (learn more)

Benson's commercial success meant overproduced albums and an increased emphasis on his pleasing vocals, which diminished opportunities to display his full guitar prowess, except for certain concert, festival and club appearances. He maintained a realistic and sanguine attitude about all this: " People who love jazz musicians love us when we play what we want to play, and we're starving. But then, as soon as you commercialize your sound...the jazz fans and critics are down on you. Want to hear me play jazz? Pay me. Give me a million dollars and I'll make the greatest jazz record you ever heard, 'cause that's what I'd lose playing it." In April 1973 live at The Casa Caribe, he gave the "purists" what they wanted. On "Witchcraft" he digs in after Tucker's jubilant piano solo, burning through his solo with a fantastic blend of extended phrasings and dynamic chorded passages.

Reviewer: Scott Albin


Charlie Christian: Up On Teddy's Hill

Track

Up On Teddy's Hill

Artist

Charlie Christian (electric guitar)

CD

After Hours (Fantasy OJCCD-1932-2)

Buy Track

Musicians:

Charlie Christian (electric guitar), Don Byas (tenor sax),

Joe Guy (trumpet), Nick Fenton (bass), Kenny Clarke (drums)

.

Composed by Charlie Christian

.

Recorded: live at Minton's Playhouse, New York, May 1941

Albumcovercharliechristian-jazzimmortal-dizzygillespie-1941-afterhours

Rating: 100/100 (learn more)

Eddie Durham, inventor of the electric guitar, taught Charlie Christian to play it in 1937. Two years later, Christian was hired by Benny Goodman and quickly became the most influential guitarist in jazz – a preeminence that, despite Charlie's untimely death in 1942 at age 25, he would retain for the next two decades. On this track we hear him in 1941, live at Minton's – that after-hours laboratory for the soon-to-emerge style called bebop – and already it's clear that Charlie was leading the experiment. "Up on Teddy's Hill" shows how he'd transformed his early influences (the guitarists of Texas blues and Western Swing bands, Django Reinhardt and Lester Young) into long single-note lines and harmonic progressions that were way ahead of their time. First Byas, then Guy gamely try to hold their own, but Christian's innovative multi-chorus solo is the centerpiece.

Reviewer: Scott Albin


Tal Farlow: Meteor

Track

Meteor

Artist

Tal Farlow (guitar)

CD

The Swinging Guitar of Tal Farlow (Verve 314 559515-2)

Buy Track

Musicians:

Tal Farlow (guitar),

Eddie Costa (piano), Vinnie Burke (bass)

.

Composed by Tal Farlow

.

Recorded: New York, May 31, 1956

Albumcovertheswingingguitaroftalfarlow

Rating: 97/100 (learn more)

Before he became the reclusive sign painter of Sea Bright, NJ, and before his comebacks in the late 1960s and mid-'70s, Farlow was the "monster" guitarist of the 1950s, his huge hands and unsurpassed technique and imagination amazing all those who heard him. Outside of his association with Red Norvo, Tal's rapport with pianist Eddie Costa and bassist Vinnie Burke was probably the most rewarding. Costa played like a rumbling freight train, very percussively and rarely in the upper register, sometimes locking hands in unison. On the boppish "Meteor," drummerless as was their wont – although Farlow inventively tapped time unamplified – the trio's spellbinding interplay is fully spotlighted.

Reviewer: Scott Albin


Bill Frisell: Monica Jane

Track

Monica Jane

Artist

Bill Frisell (guitar)

CD

This Land (Elektra Nonesuch: 9 79316-2)

Buy Track

Musicians:

Bill Frisell (guitar),

Billy Drewes (alto sax), Don Byron (bass clarinet), Curtis Fowlkes (trombone), Kermit Driscoll (bass), Joey Baron (drums)

.

Composed by Bill Frisell

.

Recorded: Astoria, NY, October 1992

Albumcoverbillfrisell-thisland

Rating: 92/100 (learn more)

"Monica Jane" is basically a country blues, with Drewes's preaching alto improv preceding Frisell's beautifully paced, dramatic solo, replete with rich bent-note lines – surprisingly conventional perhaps for him, but a gift for the listener. Frisell, the master of soundscapes for guitar – from over the top to hardly even there – is drawn to all facets of American music, be it ragtime, Western Swing, country, marching band, the Latin tinge, folk, the compositional style of Julius Hemphill, the performing style of Jim Hall, or, as on this track, just the blues, ma'am.

Reviewer: Scott Albin


Grant Green: Jean de Fleur

Track

Jean de Fleur

Artist

Grant Green (guitar)

CD

Idle Moments (Blue Note 7069)

Buy Track

Musicians:

Grant Green (guitar), Joe Henderson (tenor sax), Bobby Hutcherson (vibes),

Duke Pearson (piano), Bob Cranshaw (bass), Al Harewood (drums)

.

Composed by Grant Green

.

Recorded: Englewood Cliffs, NJ, November 4, 1963

Albumcovergrantgreen-idlemoments

Rating: 95/100 (learn more)

There was an attractive freshness and simplicity to Grant Green's linear-styled playing, and his bluesy tone was instantly recognizable. Often underestimated, on fast, tricky numbers such as this track, he could surprise with the intricacy of his phrasing and runs, and the cleverness of his rhythmic variations. The fraternity of guitarists respected and learned from him. When recorded in 1963, Henderson and Hutcherson were emerging Blue Note stars, and each solos brilliantly after Green's lesson in structure and expressiveness. Harewood's drum work is both tasteful and propulsive, his fills flawlessly executed throughout.

Reviewer: Scott Albin


Jim Hall: Big Blues

Track

Big Blues

Artist

Jim Hall (guitar)

CD

All Across the City (Concord Jazz: CCD-4384)

Buy Track

Musicians:

Jim Hall (guitar),

Gil Goldstein (piano), Steve LaSpina (bass), Terry Clarke (drums)

.

Composed by Jim Hall

.

Recorded: New York, May 1989

Albumcoverjimhall-allacrossthecity

Rating: 93/100 (learn more)

On this dark-toned blues dedicated to Stanley Turrentine, Hall displays his advanced harmonic sense and lyricism in the delicate, clean lines of his solo. What he said of Turrentine applies to him: "He doesn't overplay, and he has a particularly effective way of placing notes." Hall is all about texture and shading, never flashy. Influenced greatly by both Jimmy Giuffre and Bill Evans, he in turn has rightfully influenced many guitarists – who in turn have inspired him. Goldstein and LaSpina also improvise exceptionally well on this track from one of Hall's best and most diverse recordings.

Reviewer: Scott Albin


Pat Martino: Catch

Track

Catch

Artist

Pat Martino (guitar)

CD

Live at Yoshi's (Blue Note 7243-4-99749-2-0)

Buy Track

Musicians:

Pat Martino (guitar), Joey DeFrancesco (organ), Billy Hart (drums).

Composed by Pat Martino

.

Recorded: live at Yoshi's, Oakland, CA, December 15-17, 2000

Albumcoverpatmartino-liveatyoshis

Rating: 98/100 (learn more)

Martino's medical history is well known. Having suffered a brain aneurysm in 1980 that left him with no memory of how to play the guitar, he re-taught himself by listening to his own recordings. So the second time around, Martino's biggest influence was himself! His playing became progressively stronger as he continued his comeback, and Live at Yoshi's is one of the best guitar-organ sessions of all time. At his best, Martino is one of a select group of artists who can make you shake your head in awe: a virtuoso capable of acute clarity at great speed, and with the ability to seemingly execute instantaneously any idea from his fertile imagination. He swings hard and combines his predilection for both bop and soulful blues into a distinctive style and attack. "Catch," which is also on his 1994 Interchange CD, is one of Martino's best tunes, and his long driving solo is infinitely varied and rhythmically diverse. DeFrancesco has to follow this, and with Hart's relentless support is able to maintain the intensity and high creative level established by Martino.

Reviewer: Scott Albin


John McLaughlin: Extrapolation

Track

Extrapolation

Artist

John McLaughlin (guitar)

CD

Extrapolation (Polydor 841598-2)

Buy Track

Musicians:

John McLaughlin (guitar), John Surman (baritone sax),

Brian Odgers (bass), Tony Oxley (drums)

.

Composed by John McLaughlin

.

Recorded: London, January 18, 1969

Albumcoverjohnmclaughlin-extrapolation

Rating: 98/100 (learn more)

McLaughlin's first album was a classic some feel he never topped, a precursor to the jazz-rock movement, and a showcase for his improvisational and composing skills. Those who weren't convinced by his playing soon after on In a Silent Way or Bitches Brew, or with The Tony Williams Lifetime, would usually be referred by those in the know to this relatively obscure release. The 4-minute title track is a miniature gem on which McLaughlin and Surman each display glimpses of their power, energy, sensitivity and inquisitiveness. It sets the stage for the further brilliance that follows on this session. The guitarist's characteristic rushes of notes, effective use of space, and richly chorded passages were to be among his trademarks from here on out. Surman's swaggering baritone with its thick, rough-edged tone makes quite an impression as well.

Reviewer: Scott Albin


Wes Montgomery: Unit 7

Track

Unit 7

Artist

Wes Montgomery (guitar)

CD

Smokin' at the Half Note (Verve 829578-2)

Buy Track

Musicians:

Wes Montgomery (guitar), Wynton Kelly (piano), Paul Chambers (bass), Jimmy Cobb (drums).

Composed by Sam Jones

.

Recorded: live at the Half Note, New York, June 1965

Albumcoverwesmontgomery-wyntonkelly-smokinatthehalfnote

Rating: 99/100 (learn more)

Recently released as part of the Jazz Icons film series is a video of three Wes Montgomery concerts in Europe in 1965. In it, the close-up camera focuses on his unorthodox thumb-picking technique, an invaluable glimpse for students and admirers. Those who never saw him play in person wish they had been at those concerts, or perhaps at the Half Note in New York City that same year, when this track was recorded with the rhythm section that best complemented him during the 1960s. Montgomery's solo begins with inventive, careening single-note lines, followed by a section emphasizing his always highly skilled use of octaves, before concluding with an energizing display of his trademark block chords. The use of his thumb and the resultant thick, resonant sound, as well as his imaginative rhythmic variations, are the icing on the cake. Kelly, Chambers and Cobb as usual create a perfectly buoyant backdrop.

Reviewer: Scott Albin


Django Reinhardt: Mystery Pacific (aka Mysteric Pacific)

Track

Mystery Pacific

Artist

Django Reinhardt (guitar)

CD

The Complete Django Reinhardt & Quintet Of The Hot Club Of France Swing/HMV Sessions (Mosaic 190)

Buy Track

Musicians:

Django Reinhardt (guitar), Stéphane Grappelli (violin),

Marcel Bianchi and Pierre Ferret (rhythm guitars), Lois Vola (bass)

.

Composed by Django Reinhardt & Stéphane Grappelli

.

Recorded: Paris, April 26, 1937

Albumcoverdjangoreinhardt-djangology

Rating: 99/100 (learn more)

Influenced by Eddie Lang, Django Reinhardt in turn inspired Charlie Christian, Les Paul and especially many Europeans who also came out of the Gypsy guitar tradition, most notably Bireli Lagrene. He developed his original style to compensate for his crippled left hand, damaged in a fire. Django's rapid, breathtaking single-note lines at up-tempos, and his expressive lyricism on ballads were an unbeatable combination. This track is a "train song," and one of the most boisterous of such jazz treatments ever recorded. Django and Stéphane as usual share the solo time, while the rest of the Quintette du Hot Club de France lays down a fiercely driving "locomotive" foundation. After Grappelli's passionate solo, Django enters with a scintillating run and never looks back, varying his attack to great effect in a fluent, concise improv.

Reviewer: Scott Albin


John Scofield: Let's Say We Did

Track

Let's Say We Did

Artist

John Scofield (guitar)

CD

Time On My Hands (Blue Note CDP7-92894-2)

Buy Track

Musicians:

John Scofield (guitar), Joe Lovano (tenor sax), Charlie Haden (bass), Jack DeJohnette (drums).

Composed by John Scofield

.

Recorded: New York, November 19-21, 1989

Albumcoverjohnscofield-timeonmyhands

Rating: 95/100 (learn more)

What do you get when you mix fusion, funk, soul and bop? Perhaps a guitarist sounding like John Scofield. Add a penchant for writing quirky, often whimsical tunes that are just plain fun to listen to, and you have a very entertaining musical concept. With his dampened tone and behind-the-beat distinctive style, Scofield is always immediately identifiable. His fruitful collaboration with Joe Lovano regrettably lasted only a few years. From their first CD together, backed by no less than Charlie Haden and Jack DeJohnette, this track stands out for its loping, engaging theme. After a bassline and cymbals start things off, the memorable melody is played in tight unison by Scofield and Lovano, and then reprised several times, with only a short solo break apiece for guitarist and tenor. Doing more with less.

Reviewer: Scott Albin


Add your comments here

Check out more ‘Dozens’ here