[6 December 2005]
Charles Alexander’s statement of the limits of what this set could hope to manage, clearly printed in the well-produced little booklet in the handsome box, fed my doubts about the feasibility of the project it represents. Can four CDs manage everything this set claims to be as a representative of a century of music?
The playing sequence of 75 performances starts with Vess L. Ossman’s ragtime banjo and ends with Mike Stern on a 1981 Miles Davis date. The most recently recorded track is from 2001 (Bill Frisell’s “Ron Carter”). The center of thinking seems to be on the post-Hendrix playing familiar to rock fans that fills CD four. That disc resembles CD one in blurring the distinctions between what’s jazz and what isn’t, but is rather pop. Carlos Santana and Phil Upchurch are on CD four, as well as Jeff Beck. Elsewhere in the set, shortfalls of jazz guitar are due to choices which could be bettered as representations of jazz guitar.
Some music influential on jazz, some influenced by jazz, and in the middle, Jimi Hendrix (indebted to Coltrane, admired by Gil Evans). The early tracks collected showcase the guitar in pre-jazz stages. Vess Ossman played ragtime, and on banjo (a virtuoso who recorded hundreds of titles). Sam Moore (another white man in 1921 New York) played an eight-string quasi-guitar in very rhythmic style, sometimes deploying slide. It’s interesting how far his mélange of influences (Early World?) anticipates many aspects of jazz guitar while not being jazz.
Eddie Lang’s performances were also in the middle, 40 years before Hendrix. He did record with prime jazzmen, but much f what he played was only marginally classifiable as jazz, though highly compatible with the jazz of men he recorded with, like Cuban conga players with beboppers. Lang recorded a unique set of duets with Lonnie Johnson, aligning with Johnson’s Victorian ballad side (which recurred throughout his long singing career) and letting Johnson improvise brilliantly on blues (he never improvised jazz without a blues form, even when recording with jazzmen). Both Lang and Johnson created styles of linear melodic playing that were highly influential. Lang might have become more a jazzman if he hadn’t died young; Johnson lived long but never did.
Johnny Dodds appears on the Louis Armstrong Hot Five “Savoy Blues” recording that Lonnie Johnson guests on, Johnny St. Cyr’s support making a duet of Johnson’s solo. St. Cyr seems to have been a guitarist who also played a guitar with a banjo body for the latter’s greater percussiveness (there’s a good example on another Armstrong record). The desire to include Hawaiians seems to have squeezed out some options, though Lang’s “Add a Little Wiggle” with Frank Signorelli’s piano is fine.
The big blunder is the omission of Blind Blake, a ragtime guitarist who recorded with Johnny Dodds and other jazz persons on the cusp between ragtime and jazz in the late 1920s. Early recordings of ragtime guitar are rare, and it’s interesting how Bill Broonzy and Memphis Minnie differed from Blake: simplifying a ragtime bass part to something less complex which still swung and was important in down-market jazz other guitarists did hear. We do get Casey Bill Weldon’s slide guitar version of this, but it’s not enough.
Rhythm guitar was itself a serious business. The brilliant 1932 Henry Allen/Pee Wee Russell Rhythmmakers title here denies Eddie Condon the justice he’d be done with Bud Freeman’s “Madam Dynamite”. He’s fascinating there, a banjoist who banjo-strung a four-string guitar. With Allen he’s lost in a two-guitar chug with Jack Bland, who gets no comment. Bobby Hackett isn’t here, nothing wrong with that. The sole reason to mention him is that he was so accomplished he could work in big band rhythm sections, though he was unable to read music. For jazz improvisation he became a trumpeter.
Teddy Bunn (who, pace Charles Alexander, wasn’t at all like Lonnie Johnson) probably was the greatest black guitarist 1930-1940, even better than the Lang-influenced Dick McDonough and Carl Kress (well represented here by one of their duets). But his best work was on acoustic guitar, so why include a 1941 title with him on electric? He was on lots of records early on, but after 1940 he almost vanished from general view. Likewise, Al Casey, who died aged 89 just before this set came out. “Buck Jumpin’” was Casey’s feature with Fats Waller, an obvious choice though there are alternatives (solos as well as accompaniments, like the brilliant one which was the excuse to include an unissued test recording by Roy Smeck with a girl singer. At least we don’t get Smeck’s almost notorious Hawaiian guitar). Casey did have a great career on electric and is damned with faint praise. Of the real Hawaiians here, Benny “King” Nawahi has a real jazz group. The included example of Texas Swing is slightly dubious.
Otto “Coco” Heimel, however, is a big find, one of too many great jazz guitarists too exclusively confined to background roles. The Ink Spots are a marginal inclusion, but the unissued 1938 obscurity “Little Rock Getaway” from George Barnes is wonderful. Charlie Christian’s “Solo Flight” with the Benny Goodman big band is terrific, but the set’s title mentions jazz guitar not guitarists. No more than one track per guitarist seems arbitrary, given that two men mentioned extensively in the accompanying booklet together get less time than the dubious inclusion of Phil Upchurch. Django Reinhardt is the other oft-noted giant, and a dozen better choices come to mind, looking at what’s here (“Honeysuckle Rose”). He played a lot with Grappelli, OK, but jazz guitar? Oscar Moore played well with Nat Cole, but Jimmy Shirley was the pioneer electric guitarist in the guitar-piano-bass trio. Similarly, Tiny Grimes followed in Art Tatum’s trio, and one of his features with Tatum would have been a better choice than “Red Cross”.
Slim Gaillard, presumably here for his name, wasn’t asserted as a minor Charlie Christian follower, but combined huge musicality and modest technique to create a very direct and very influential electric guitar style (ask B.B. King). We miss Floyd Smith’s electric slide feature with Andy Kirk’s band, but happily not Alan Reuss’s feature with Jack Teagarden’s big band, where he otherwise mostly supplied rhythm. Freddie Green was a very great rhythm guitarist who (it doesn’t say) kept things going by voicing the same chords differently, finding alternatives. The fascination of that work should be mentioned. He’s heard on a title with the great arranger and able trombonist Eddie Durham playing solo guitar. As I recall, prior to electric guitar Durham experimented with resonators and his acoustic guitar sounded like an electric. We do also get Oscar Alemán, a brilliant Argentinian pure jazzman who certainly wasn’t the only big talent to vanish.
Criticisms, but interesting music. CD two, however, is the best of the set, with Bill de Arango with a Dizzy Gillespie group, and Barney Kessel more on his own. A prodigy Christian admired, Kessel did miraculous things with ballads despite being the out-and-out jazzman the notes say he was. Tal Farlow with Eddie Costa (brilliant pianist, died young) and Vinnie Burke on bass should sell the album his title comes from. Mosaic’s series of “The Complete Recordings of” includes Johnny Smith, here unaccompanied and with an incredibly full sound, swelling bass part, singing top. Laurindo Almeida denied being a jazz musician, but with Bud Shank’s brilliant alto and bass and drums he fashioned an extension of Reinhardt and Lang, well up there with Shank’s bop harmonies. Joao Gilberto hardly plays jazz, but the veiled sound in accompaniment to Stan Getz is a stunning revelation of possibilities.
But why Les Paul with Mary Ford’s singing and his own novelty-effect, electronically speeded-up guitar? There are terrific trio records available to better display Paul’s work. Chuck Wayne with Tony Bennett is again hardly optimal in guitar content. There’s loads of Chet Atkins’ guitar on his selection, but he simply restates the theme in different colours of cowboy pop. And Toots Thielemans whistles right through his selection, covering his guitar. But there’s Jim Hall with Bill Evans, Kenny Burrell, and in Peterson-supercharged trio with Ray Brown there’s Herb Ellis (damned with faint praise in the notes) to make up for it.
Howard Roberts is a revelation, Grant Green merely OK (neglected, early departed, but happily much recorded and playing better than here). Joe Pass was excellent 40 years back, but also improved. Hank Garland is another revelation, here with Gary Burton. And I’ve not mentioned Jimmy Raney’s “Body and Soul” or George van Eps emerging on disc 20 years after he replaced the early departed McDonough with Carl Kress.
On CD three, Burton will turn up again with Larry Coryell (though not at his most distinctive) and the musically reclusive Mick Goodrick, splendid but still not good as Garland. Was it more important to sample George Benson’s first album than to have him more audible as he is with Mickey Tucker’s piano trio? Lenny Breau is miraculously lyrical (I didn’t know him) and pardons much, and Pat Martino’s selection is fine as well.
Charlie Byrd apparently hated amplifiers and stuck with acoustic and a microphone. The string is the thing, says John Scofield in introducing the little book, and it is interesting to pick up on Charles Alexander’s hints about Byrd-like or guitar-ish players and those who bend electric guitar to the semblance of what some horn might do in solo. Mary Lou Williams heard a few notes coming from the stage when she entered a club one night. Trombone? Nope. It was Charlie Christian. Derek Bailey of English Free Jazz fame developed something different, discarding the straightforward playing all other guitarists try to achieve, and the student’s efforts avoid buzz noises and side-effect harmonics. He developed the latter, but since it’s hard to imagine where his Jesuitical New Thing might have gone, his old recordings can seem oddities. The track here seems to be from 1997, though,
Before him here there’s Sonny Sharrock from a lauded 1991 album with Elvin Jones on drums, storming nicely in straight-up jazz with a Hendrix influence on “As We Used to Sing”. The little Hendrix number (“Manic Depression”) is itself a marginal inclusion. Then John McLaughlin with the Mahavishnu Orchestra? This is a different sort of borderline from what was mentioned above, more than anything else an excursion into different territory, slightly awkward to identify as guitar music because it’s played with rock volume on a 12-string electric with accessories: almost but not quite guitar, like Sam Moore’s octachord, and yet very different from that. The cultural coordinates are more obvious than Moore’s, if not quite the same as the raga playing of Debashish Bhattacharya in sitar tradition, but following up on the Hawaiian guitar craze that hit India when some of the items on CD1 were new.
After the familiarity of Gary Burton with Mick Goodrick, there’s John Abercrombie’s pinched-sounding light electric on “Ralph’s Piano Waltz”, and Ralph Towner’s fairly straight “The Prowler” solo on classical guitar—which goes out to the borders of jazz and comes back. Pat Metheny’s “Bright Size Life” has the benefit of Jaco Pastorius’s bass guitar, as well as admirable drumming, with Pastorius’s solo and duetting with Metheny after the latter’s solo being a claim for inclusion as a sort of jazz guitarist. Does Toninho Horta really make it as anything other than a jazz-influenced Latin performer with all the extra vocalists? On “Midnight in San Juan”, Earl Klugh also seems like a Latin performer with fusion accompaniment, or like Gene Bertoncini or some other current acoustic player (none represented here) rooted in the 1930s.
As for CD four… Carlos Santana? Phil Upchurch? Their fans might like what follows, but rather a lot of that is along the same lines, and references in the All Music Guide to the jazz interest being minimal on some of these offerings seems fair, such as the omission from my old printed volume of names like Jeff Beck (whose presence on this set occasions apologetics from Charles Alexander). A bit too much fusion uniformity, following the absence of tension on the opening two titles, most of the items are fusion recordings from 1975-1977 (this is the fourth volume of what supposedly covers a century!), but it’s not because James Blood Ulmer’s “Church” was recorded in 1983 that it sounds refreshing. He toils with simple violin and drum accompaniment to a kind of musical extension of primitive electric blues guitar that only John Lee Hooker recorded extensively. Others like Wright Holmes remained more obscure.
Bill Frisell’s 2001 “Ron Carter” is nice, but not representative of any of several aspects distinctive to Frisell. John Scofield has a lengthy workout, but like the Frisell, his selection again represents a rock-like bag. Well, it’s one thing he did in 1998. And with St. Miles Davis, Marcus Miller’s bass guitar, and Al Foster and Sammy Figueroa’s percussion, Mike Stern is in a different jazz class to anything on this set prior to Ulmer.
In summary, Charles Alexander’s notes are enlightening on CDs two through four, and Andy Aledort’s commentary on a handful of titles from Ossman through Jim Hall to Scofield might enlighten a studious listen. There’s a lot of music here, and if you consider the set merely as a bulk buy of samples (which it too often is, considering its billing and production), it would be a good idea to check websites that list everything aboard here and follow the samples. You could also have a hunt for combinations of budget recordings that might be an alternative to this set, which is not so different from some better budget selections. There is a lot of music on these four CDs, but the definitive representation of jazz guitar it’s not.