By naming their first recorded collaboration New Guitar Summit, Jay Geils, Duke Robillard, and Gerry Beaudoin place themselves in a tradition of great guitarist meetings. The title implies importance, and asks listeners to measure this new crop of players against the meetings of performers like Lightnin’ Hopkins, Brownie McGhee, B.B. King, Robert Cray, and countless other standouts. The three guitarists here certainly have the pedigree for the task—Geils as the star of the underrated J. Geils Band, and Robillard and Beaudoin as established and respected solo artists and session men—but they weaken their work by dipping too much into homage and failing to paint a new scene.
The album falls short because it fails to make any compelling original statement. The guitarists only play originals on three of the 11 tracks, and their choices of covers are predictable. New Guitar Summit opens with “Benny’s Bugle”, a nod to Charlie Christian during his time with Benny Goodman. This version is a faithful recreation, right down to the vintage instruments used by the musicians, but that’s the problem. The performance, rather than being a reconsideration of a classic jazz number, is simply a tribute piece. The artists perform well; they’re talented and invested, but that doesn’t make up for a lack of originality. Likewise, New Guitar Summit closes with the Christian-Goodman piece “Seven Come Eleven”. By bookending their album with two of the most famous numbers by one of jazz’s most famous guitarists, the trio explicitly offers itself for comparison. Rather than using the opportunity to break new ground, however, they merely show how studied they are in the tradition.
It would be unfair to criticize the album entirely on the grounds that it’s not original. Geils, Robillard, and Beaudoin aren’t seeking to break new ground so much as to dive into the earth before them. In the process, they create a sonic equivalent of nostalgia. The sound they bring forth echoes other eras, but isn’t exactly of an era. There was never an era in which the standard jazz guitar was a ‘50s Gibson that played Christian-style phrasing on contemporary pick-ups designed to sound old. Just as the precise tone, if not the atmosphere of the album, is unique, so are some of the performances. For example, the trio makes a beautiful harmony on the main melody of “Benny’s Bugle”, adding a specific type of depth to Christian’s number, even as they honor his style.
Unfortunately, the disc does have one problem that can’t be dismissed. Three of the tracks—“Never Say Never Again Again”, “Ain’t Nobody’s Business”, and “Backdoor Blues”—feature vocals, delivered by Robillard earnestly, but not successfully. Part of his challenge is just trying to live up to the originals, especially “Ain’t Nobody’s Business”, which was made classic by Billie Holiday and re-interpreted so effectively by B.B. King. Robillard lacks the voice to match these performances, and even on the other two, one standard and one Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson number, Robillard offers little to the album. The guitar-playing on the disc might not be wholly original, but it’s quite good, and the trio would be better off sticking with instrumental numbers.
All three of the originals on the disc are instrumentals, composed by Beaudoin. The most memorable, “Azzure Mineur”, has a Van Morrison vibe to it and features some stunning alternate picking and some interesting drumming. The other two tracks, “Swing with Dr. Jake” and “Just Among Friends”, are enjoyable, but not monumental works. Like the rest of the disc, these numbers show talent and knowledge, but don’t engage their listeners enough.
New Guitar Summit features three talented musicians performing music they love, and that concept seems like a sure-fire idea. The playing reveals plenty of talent, but not enough excitement or originality to warrant breaking away from the tradition. In the sense that Geils, Robillard, and Beaudoin honor this past, they do a marvelous job; in setting themselves apart from (or within) it, however, they make too little headway.