Les Paul: The Best of Les Paul: 20th Century Masters/The Millennium Collection
Sure we're all familiar with his technical innovations (consciously or otherwise) including contributions like - even arguably inventing - the solid body guitar and multi-track recording. Not to mention the famed guitar that bears his name (which this 86-year-old continues to collect royalties on every time some snot-nosed hack drops his trust fund money on one). But how many of us have actually listened to a Les Paul record? The Best of Les Paul: 20th Century Masters/The Millennium Collection may be as good a place as any to start. This compilation covers Paul's years with Decca Records from 1944 to 1948 before he had perfected his innovative recording technique and was subsequently released from his contract for a perceived lack of commercial appeal. As a result, the "gee whiz" factor on this disc is relatively low and the focus is instead on Paul's adept handling of jazz, country, and pop standards.
The 12 songs are culled from only seven sessions which not only provide a hint as to how in demand as a session musician Paul was, but also the corresponding ethic with which he approached the work. He is skillfully accompanied by his trio comprising upright bass (future competitor Leo Fender hadn't yet invented the electric version), piano, and the lost art of percussive acoustic rhythm guitar. Paul infuses the Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, and George Gershwin compositions with his trademark lightning fast leads suggesting that perhaps as early as 1944 he was feeling constrained by such fare yet managing to maintain a respectful reverence of the material. He casts a wide enough net to include a then in-vogue Hawaiian song, "Hawaiian Paradise", as well as a country tune "Steel Guitar Rag". The reality, however, is that the songs, while incorporating some stylistic elements of their respective genres, quickly return to Paul's most comfortable milieu of melodic jazz. He works with vocalists on only a handful of the songs, including Bing Crosby on "It's Been a Long, Long Time" and the Andrews Sisters on "Rumors Are Flying", proving that he is equally well versed in accompanying as he is in leading. Crosby's timeless croon remains as inviting as a pair of broken-in slippers next to a warm fireplace while either the Andrews Sisters or their accompanying orchestra can be held accountable for providing the only truly musty smelling song on the disc.
All in all, Paul provides pleasant if not challenging jazz with the occasional glimpse of virtuosity subtly snuck in under the radar. The collection could conceivably be filed by a misguided record store clerk under the dreaded "Easy Listening" category just as easily as the eminently more respectable "jazz" heading. After listening to this disc, however, the ultimate question may be does Paul still have relevance over 50 years later to two subsequent generations weaned not only on the distortion pedal but also the drum machine? As history has proven time and again, each successive generation of musicians has consistently rediscovered earlier music and converged on facets relevant to their own distinctive milieu. Rock musicians of the '60s found the blueprint for hard rock and heavy metal encoded in the blues, DJs created hip-hop from breakbeats buried in the grooves of funk and soul vinyl. With this in mind, it may be high time for Les Paul to be rediscovered. You never know what you might find.