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Hands-On Review:100 Years of Jazz Guitar


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Progressions: 100 Years of Jazz Guitar

A sterling treasury of tracks beautifully sequenced and presented

By Marty Paule

 

Sony 100 Years of Jazz Guitar

This remarkable and ambitious four-disc boxed CD set from Sony BMG Music proposes to document the history of the guitar's development as a jazz instrument, and in this it succeeds magnificently. Beginning with Vess Ossman's banjo performance on "St. Louis Tickle" recorded onto a wax cylinder in 1906 and chronologically ending with Bill Frisell's "Ron Carter" cut in 2001, this encyclopedic collection runs the gamut from the minstrelsy/ragtime cusp to the outer extensions of fusion and rock.

 

Clearly the co-producers—including the likes of Steve Berkowitz, Bob Irwin, Seth Rothstein, John Scofield, and Richard Seidel—didn't make purism a priority in making their track choices. With entries from rockers such as Jimi Hendrix and Jeff Beck, country cats like Chet Atkins and Casey Bill Weldon, and even an exponent of the Hawaiian guitar-like octa-chorda, Sam Moore, the anthology ranges far and wide. Though the turf is diverse, the emphasis on sterling performances is constant.

In the beginning

When I first became interested in the genre I was a bit dismissive where early jazz guitar was concerned. The instrument seemed to be relegated to a strictly rhythm-section role, providing the same function as the banjo in the early jazz bands. I believed that pre-Charlie Christian, there were no jazz soloists. It was only later that I learned that was a misapprehension. For anyone else sharing that prejudice, Progressions should serve as a fast antidote.

 

Of course, as is the case with most prejudices, there is some basis for this misunderstanding. Johnny St. Cyr, heard here on the recording of "Savoy Blues" by Louis Armstrong's Hot Five, provides nothing but rhythmic propulsion by chording powerfully beneath the soloists with his banjo to which he has attached a guitar neck. But sitting in on the date is guest guitarist Lonnie Johnson who executes a fine single-line solo just ahead of Satchmo's cornet break. So much for preconceptions.

 

Some of the other performers on Disc 1 are the usual suspects. Eddie Lang's solo from the 1928 track "Add a Little Wiggle" shows off the power and brilliance of his newly-designed Gibson L5. Lang gets the most out of his axe by leaning into the mic to maximize his instrument's resonance on the track. A less familiar performer is Benny "King" Nahawi on Hawaiian slack key guitar whose workout on "California Blues" incorporates blues and jazz elements. More familiar are Eddie Condon and his four-on-the-floor approach to "Who's Sorry Now" using his four-string guitar to anchor the rhythmic attack. Taking a more down-home approach is Casey Bill Weldon on his "Guitar Swing" that mixes up blues and ragtime elements with Hawaiian-guitar figures on a lap steel.

Island vibes

The interaction between Hawaiian stylists and jazz musicians was an important marriage in 1930s pop music. Many of the islanders were adept jazz improvisers and Innovations presents a dandy example in the form of Sam Koki who tears it up on "Minnehaha," a tune notable for being the first recorded example of an amplified guitar solo.

 

From here the collection heads East to a Paris studio where Django Reinhardt lays down an inimitable gypsy-jazz take on "Honeysuckle Rose." His phenomenal technique and relentless swing proved to be a powerful influence on both sides of the Atlantic and, as this collection's accompanying book points out, Charlie Christian was known to play a note-for-note rendition of Django's "Honeysuckle Rose" solo.

 

Speaking of Christian, the next song, "Love Me or Leave Me," featuring Eddie Durham on electric guitar playing with the Kansas City Five, has the guitarist engaging in exchanges with trumpeter Buck Clayton in which Durham uses double stops and chords to harmonize with the horn. Then in the last chorus, he plays a single-line phrase that anticipates Christian's arrival on the scene shortly after. Backing Durham is Freddie Green, Count Basie's stalwart rhythm guitarist who supplied the pulse in Basie's bands big and small for over five decades.

 

A real curiosity follows in the form Oscar Aleman's "Whispering," a technically and emotionally brilliant solo record by the underappreciated Argentine player who spent most of his career laboring in the shadow of Reinhardt. Following a pair of tunes by two of the 1930's premiere guitarists, Allan Reuss and George Barnes, Charlie Christian makes his inevitable appearance in a collection such as this. Though the compilers' choice of "Solo Flight," seems an obvious one given its startling departure from what had come before in jazz guitar, it is an essential one. Until Christian, no one had embodied the soul of a saxman like he did. His immense dexterity and fluid style would forever rewrite the book on jazz guitar making the instrument once and for all a true solo instrument.

 

The tune that comes next, "Buck Jumping'" by Fats Waller with Al Casey featured on guitar is a 1941 recording demonstrating that Christian's influence was practically instantaneous. Taking a countrified turn, the next track is "Twin Guitar Shuffle," a Bob Wills track featuring guitarists Leon McAuliffe and Eldon Shamblin, that also quotes Christian as the two guitarists trade licks like a pair of horn players.

Hipsters one and all

The next pair of cuts makes a nice coupling with Teddy Bunn's fleet treatment of "The Spirits of Rhythm" and Slim Gaillard's "Palm Springs Jump," offering a tasty look into the early 1940s zoot-suit music culture. Next is the Nat King Cole Trio's "Gee Baby, Ain't I Good to You" with Oscar Moore laying down ultramellow blues chords behind Cole's velvet voice. Disc 1 ends on a full-bop note with Tiny Grimes playing unison lines with Charlie "Bird" Parker on "Red Cross."

 

Disc 2 continues in the boppish direction as Bill De Arango matches chops with Dizzy Gillespie on the 1945 side "Ol' Man Rebop" demonstrating fast fretwork that keeps up with the goateed trumpeter. Barney Kessel's "On Green Dolphin Street" a fixture in many jazz guitarist's repertoires clearly shows the skills that would lead the Oklahoman to become one of the hottest players in jazz by the early 1950s.

 

George Van Eps shows off his orchestral approach in a very relaxed reading of "What's This Thing Called Love." His complex approach is augmented by an extra low "A" string giving him more range in his bass lines. Jimmy Raney's treatment of "Body and Soul" offers ample evidence of his intense study of beboppers such as Parker and Powell. His exploration of the harmonic and melodic possibilities of the song are breathtaking.

 

Chuck Wayne's accompaniment of Tony Bennett on the venerable crooner's chestnut "My Baby Just Cares for Me" is sensitive and mellow and matches up exquisitely with the singer's voice.

Studio magic, '50s style

Les Paul makes his appearance as the world's oldest shredder with the phenomenally fast and breathless "Runnin' Wild" in which his multitracked LP pours out harmonies and sped-up single lines counterpointed against then-wife Mary Ford's vocals. Chet Atkins demonstrates his mastery with "Mountain Melody" that marries up country picking with jazz lines for a sound all his own.

 

Tal Farlow's "Yardbird Suite" captures Bird's melody fluidly with intricate bop lines pouring out of his axe effortlessly. His ideas seem limitless. Next up is Johnny Smith whose reading of "The Boy Next Door" is characteristic of his ultracool, dexterous approach that emphasizes chord melodies.

 

Disc 2 heads way south of the border with the next tune, Laurindo Almeida's "Tocata," a quietly adventurous piece that is ideally rendered on his nylon-string instrument. Jim Hall's immediately recognizable style is on display with his treatment of "I've Got You Under My Skin." His interactions with pianist Bill Evans explore the chordal and harmonic frontiers of the song as these two masters maintain an articulate musical conversation.

 

Brazilian jazz makes its first appearance with Joao Gilberto's mellow "Aguas de Marco" in which he accompanies his subdued vocals with equally subtle guitar—a sound that helped launch the Bossa Nova craze of the early 1960s.

Mid-century masters

Though better known for his incredible facility on the chromatic harmonica, Belgian jazz cat Toots Thielmans, who was a student of Django, shows on "Bluesette" that he's a rhythmic master on the guitar as well as a phenomenal whistler. Moving back to the U.S., Disc 2 next presents Kenny Burrell, a model of concision and economy in his treatment of "Midnight Blue," a mover and groover that shows off a large selection of his melodic and rhythmic chops.

 

Few guitarists have had as profound an effect on jazz as Wes Montgomery. His unique style—in which he substituted his thumb for a pick, employed parallel octaves, and always mined the funkiest elements in a melody—has been endlessly aped by lesser instrumentalists. "Unit 7" is a typical sample of this titan's approach.

 

Economy is a hallmark of Herb Ellis' inimitable style. Borrowing from both the swing and bop canons, he made a name for himself as a foil for pianist Oscar Peterson as well as vocalist Ella Fitgerald, showing an uncanny ability to keep up with these two jazz titans. On "Naptown Blues" he makes it sound easy.

 

Disc 2 closes out with a quartet of numbers from four guitarists whose heydays occurred in the 1960s: Hank Garland, Howard Roberts, Grant Green, and Joe Pass. Garland's journeyman technique made him a Nashville regular on pop and country sessions; his mastery on "Move" makes it clear that he was equally at home in the jazz milieu. Roberts was a studio staple on the L.A. scene, authoring a number of respected instruction books. His "Easy Living" shows off his total mastery of the ballad form. "Jean de Fleur" by Grant Green is a sprightly tune that matches up nicely with the guitarist's clear, bright approach. Joe Pass ends the disc with the standard "Night and Day" from 1964. Taken at a quick tempo, the track is a fitting showcase for his formidable technique.

Bad, bad Benson

Disc 3 gets out of the starting blocks fast with George Benson's "Clockwise" an organ-backed jump tune that brings forth the funk and speed that's won him acclaim for decades. For listeners more familiar with his later pop-inflected output, this track will be revelation.

 

Next up is Pat Martino who works six-string magic on "Just Friends" giving the tune a hard-bop reading that proves his mastery of the groove tune. He's followed by Lenny Breau working out on "A Taste of Honey," invigorating the '60s pop tune with innovative moves in which his chording counterpoints a Fender Rhodes comping behind him. Charlie Byrd, who was among the first to find a home for the Spanish guitar in a jazz setting and was also largely responsible for bringing Brazilian jazz to the ears of North Americans, gives his treatment of "How Insensitive" a pronounced Latin feel.

 

In the 1960s Gabor Szabo was among the great synthesizers on the jazz guitar scene, blending in elements of rock, soul, and funk that resulted in substantial commercial success. On "Gypsy Queen" he mixes up these elements in an alluring brew.

 

A disciple of Wes Montgomery and Tal Farlow, Larry Coryell has at various points in his career worked in a wide range of jazz sub-genres. On the selection included here, "June 15, 1967," he shows his bluesy feel and technical accomplishment off to great advantage.

Out there

Sonny Sharrock's "As We Used to Sing" and Derek Bailey's "Should Be Reversed" are both stylistic and chronological departures from the disc having been recorded in 1991 and 1997 respectively. They are the first examples of "outside" guitar playing in the collection and represent the genre well.

 

Sequencing Jimi Hendrix's "Manic Depression" followed by John McLaughlin's "Birds of Fire" reveals that the rocker and the jazzman shared a great deal. The segue underscores the two guitarists' equally explosive techniques and symphonic conceptions and inevitably causes us to muse on what might have flowed from Hendrix in latter days had he lived.

 

Taking the temperature down several degrees, Mick Goodrick weaves his glistening guitar lines in and out of leader Gary Burton's vibes on the very mellow "Coral" from 1973. John Abercrombie extends the mood with "Ralph's Piano Waltz," a 1974 recording that is ample evidence of his sophistication. Next comes Ralph Towner with his "The Prowler" that shows off the guitarist's accomplished and understated acoustic guitar technique. Pat Metheny, one of today's most respected guitarists, has been at the top of his game for a long time as his 1974 track "Bright Size Life" demonstrates with its adventurous approach to tempo and harmonics.

 

There is a lineage and cross-fertilization that exists between Metheny and Brazilian guitarist Toninho Horta whom he met and worked with in 1980. The samba and Bossa Nova inflections of Horta's "Aqui, Oh!" hearken back to an earlier, gentler style while taking the form forward towards a new millennium. "Midnight In San Juan" performed by Earl Klugh is the disc closer and is a prime example of the jazz lite vogue that has held sway during recent decades.

The last disc

Carlos Santana's unmistakable, sustain-drenched tone on "Europa" gets Disc 4 off to a Latin-tinged and passionate start. "Santana on a jazz collection?" you might ask. Why not? The guy clearly has his feet planted in a number of genres and this emotional minor blues crosses several of them.

 

The Marvin Gaye tune "Inner City Blues" as interpreted by Phil Upchurch marries huge technique with an advanced funk factor that offers ample explanation for the incessant demand this session guy experiences. The late Eric Gale, who died in 1994, was another funkster supreme and a much in demand studio whiz as evidenced by his take on "Thumper." As its title implies, this hard-hitting six-string workout emphasizes the blues-influenced approach of this masterful session player.

 

"Spiral," recorded in 1975 by Larry Carlton, is emblematic of yet another studio musician who has mastered an array of styles and genres. Anchored by a somewhat generic rhythm section and accompaniment, Carlton tears it up riding atop the mix with abundant creativity. Lee Ritenour makes his entry amid synths serving up edgy-toned lead lines on the propulsive "Captain Fingers."

 

Unlike the rest of the guitarists in the early going on Disc 4, Allan Holdsworth has never been a session player. Influenced early on by Coltrane, he has evolved a flowing and fast legato style all his own. On 1975's "Mr. Spock" he puts his technique to work in the context of the powerful Tony Williams Lifetime combo. Al Di Meola lays down his formidable and incendiary technique in the aid of the rock-heavy "Race with the Devil on Spanish Highway"—a song that should appeal mightily to even died-in-the-wool rock enthusiasts.

Speaking of rockers

As with Hendrix and Santana, some purists might question the presence of Jeff Beck on this anthology. Such questions ought to be put to rest upon listening to "Cause We've Ended as Lovers" from 1975. While all the histrionics associated with Beck are here, there are also undeniable facility and imagination at work. James 'Blood' Ulmer can be an acquired taste, yet his "Church" seems immediately palatable in the context of this disc's selections. An unrepentant rule-breaker, he improvises in an idiosyncratic and free manner that never loses sight of the underlying, hard-driving beat.

Bill Frisell is among our most eclectic guitarists today. His work has run the gamut from out-there experimentalism to traditional jazz forms to country-inflected rambles. On "Ron Carter" he collaborates with steel guitarist Greg Leisz to create a sonic form that veers between rock, country, and avant-garde jazz.

 

As with Frisell, John Scofield gained prominence in the 1970s and has gone on to become one of today's most influential stylists. On "Hottentot" he maintains a tasty funk line against a traditional organ-combo backing that speaks to his love of all things soulful. "Postizo" by Mark Ribot pushes us back out on the bleeding edge of modern jazz guitar. As is often the case with this New York scene-maker's work, the genre is uncatgeorizable while the chops are obviously authentic. Closing out the disc and the collection is Mike Stern's 1981 recording "Fat Time." One of fusion's most respected proponents, he was a rock guitarist when Miles Davis singled him out to be a player in the trumpeter's 1981 comeback band. An ensuing career as both a leader and sideman has served to validate Davis's call. On the track featured here, Stern serves as a sympathetic foil for the leader's muted trumpet.

 

Aside from the great taste that went into making the tune selections for Progressions, there was clearly plenty of dedication and creativity that went into the accompanying 144-page book. Packed with wonderful photos of the musicians, their instruments, and ephemera of the trade, it makes a terrific read independent of the music.

 

Beginning with an introduction by co-producer John Scofield, the artist-by-artist commentary is written intelligently and compactly by Charles Alexander, founder of England's Jazzwise Publications. A particular treat is a section of mini-interviews in which 25 of today's premier guitarists name their guitar heroes. The book closes with a selection of transcriptions and analyses by Andy Aledort that brings some fascinating musical elements into focus and provides would-be fret wizards with notation of some landmark passages.

 

Unless your collection of jazz guitar albums is gargantuan, Progressions: 100 Year of Jazz Guitar is about as essential a collection as has ever appeared. Click or call now to order your boxed set and get ready to immerse yourself in 100 years' worth of the finest jazz guitar there is.

Track Listings


Disc 1
1. St. Louis Tickle- VESS OSSMAN
2. Chain Gang Blues- SAM MOORE
3. Savoy Blues- JOHNNY ST. CYR and LONNIE JOHNSON
4. You're The One For Me- SOL HOOPII
5. Add A Little Wiggle- EDDIE LANG
6. Clowin' The Frets- EDDIE BUSH
7. California Blues- BENNY "KING" NAHAWI
8. How'm I Doin' / Dinah- ROY SMECK
9. Who's Sorry Now- EDDIE CONDON
10. Danzon- CARL KRESS & DICK McDONOUGH
11. China Boy- OTTO "COCO" HEIMEL
12. Minnehaha- SAM KOKI
13. Swingin' On The Strings- INK SPOTS
14. Honeysuckle Rose- DJANGO REINHARDT
15. Guitar Swing- CASEY BILL WELDON
16. Love Me Or Leave Me- EDDIE DURHAM & FREDDIE GREEN
17. Whispering- OSCAR ALEMAN
18. Pickin' For Patsy- ALLAN REUSS
19. Little Rock Getaway- GEORGE BARNES
20. Solo Flight- CHARLIE CHRISTIAN
21. Buck Jumpin'- AL CASEY
22. Twin Guitar Special- LEON McAULIFFE & ELDON SHAMBLIN
23. I'm Walkin' This Town- TEDDY BUNN
24. Palm Springs Jump- SLIM GAILLARD
25. Gee Baby Ain't I Good To You- OSCAR MOORE
26. Red Cross- TINY GRIMES

 

Disc 2
1. Ol' Man Rebop- BILL DE ARANGO
2. On Green Dolphin Street- BARNEY KESSEL
3. What Is This Thing Called Love- GEORGE VAN EPS
4. Body And Soul- JIMMY RANEY
5. My Baby Just Cares For Me- CHUCK WAYNE
6. Runnin' Wild- LES PAUL
7. Mountain Melody- CHET ATKINS
8. Yardbird Suite- TAL FARLOW
9. The Boy Next Door- JOHNNY SMITH
10. Tocata- LAURINDO ALMEIDA
11. I've Got You Under My Skin- JIM HALL
12. Aguas De Marco [Waters Of March]- JOAO GILBERTO
13. Bluesette- TOOTS THIELEMANS
14. Midnight Blue- KENNY BURRELL
15. Unit 7- WES MONTGOMERY
16. Naptown Blues- HERB ELLIS
17. Move- HANK GARLAND
18. Easy Living- HOWARD ROBERTS
19. Jean de Fleur- GRANT GREEN
20. Night And Day- JOE PASS

 

Disc 3
1. Clockwise- GEORGE BENSON
2. Just Friends- PAT MARTINO
3. A Taste Of Honey- LENNY BREAU
4. How Insensitive- CHARLIE BYRD
5. Gypsy Queen- GABOR SZABO
6. June 15, 1967- LARRY CORYELL
7. As We Used To Sing- SONNY SHARROCK
8. Should Be Reversed- DEREK BAILEY
9. Manic Depression- JIMI HENDRIX
10. Birds Of Fire- JOHN McLAUGHLIN
11. Coral- MICK GOODRICK
12. Ralph's Piano Waltz- JOHN ABERCROMBIE
13. The Prowler- RALPH TOWNER
14. Bright Size Life- PAT METHENY
15. Aqui, Oh- TONINHO HORTA
16. Midnight In San Juan- EARL KLUGH

 

Disc 4
1. Europa (Earth's Cry Heaven's Smile)- CARLOS SANTANA
2. Inner City Blues- PHIL UPCHURCH
3. Thumper- ERIC GALE
4. Spiral- LARRY CARLTON
5. Captain Fingers- LEE RITENOUR
6. Mr. Spock- ALLAN HOLDSWORTH
7. Race With The Devil On Spanish Highway- AL DIMEOLA
8. Cause We've Ended As Lovers- JEFF BECK
9. Church- JAMES BLOOD ULMER
10. Ron Carter- BILL FRISELL
11. Hottentot- JOHN SCOFIELD
12. Postizo- MARC RIBOT
13. Fat Time- MIKE STERN

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