Jazz Guitar Essentials: Ten Must-Hear Albums
Pure Guitar recently had a Facebook entry that solicited people’s choices for the greatest cover tunes by their favorite guitarists. I had a great time sitting back and daydreaming about it, hitting the rewind button on the soundtrack to my life. An interesting thing happened – I suddenly got all warm and fuzzy inside. The mere thought of these songs triggered waves of happiness that flowed over me, just like the first time I heard those tunes. An untold number of songs, and even complete albums, are embedded in my mind. There are note-for-note solos that I could – and routinely do – sing in my sleep. Y’all know what I’m talking ’bout!
So, suddenly I am faced with one of the more challenging tasks I have had in quite a while: create an article about ten essential jazz guitar albums. Where to start? So many to choose from! Which songs should I highlight from each album? I really wanted this to be a pleasurable first experience for both you and me, so I moved carefully through my collection, not quite randomly, but with a very open mindset. I pulled about thirty CDs off the shelf and knew I was going to have to eliminate more than I kept for this maiden voyage.
I followed a few basic ground rules with regard to how the final selection came about:
1) These are not in any particular order. 2) They are not ranked against each other – they all made it to my own personal “Dr. G. Hall of Fame.” 3) These are not the only ones to enter the ranks – they’re just the ones that came to mind while I was in this particular mood on this particular day, and the random number Jas Obrecht and I agreed on (in this case, ten) could have easily been twenty or fifty or one hundred. 4) Since this is, by design, a one-sided affair, there is really nothing to debate about, so just sit back and enjoy the ride – after all, this is just one of my ways for us to get to know each other better. 5) Finally, I tried to find a healthy balance for this collection, one that represents a wide range of styles, tastes, textures, and, quite honestly, a few unexpected surprises. Simply put, I wanted to present a fun variety of the kind of things that turned me on at first take.
Okay, here we go – my inaugural entries for Jazz Guitar Essentials:
Wes Montgomery – The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery
Well, what can I say about this 1960 album? It’s scariest thing anybody has ever heard, not counting Wes’ Smokin’ at the Half Note album, which sounds like this album on steroids. The first album Wes gave to the Riverside label, it swings like mad from start to finish. “Airegin” is the blistering up-tempo opener, and Wes swings through the changes so casually, it’s like he’s strolling through the park. His original “West Coast Blues” is smooth as glass with its medium-tempo cruise. This tune also features the classic Wes improvisational format – the patented single note/octave/chordal solo that we all know and love. “Four on Six” is simply vintage bop guitar at its best – taste personified. The solo on “D-Natural Blues” is insanely delicious, and probably a perfect specimen of taste, swing, rhythmic propulsion, harmonic exploitation, and melodic manipulation. And there’s so much more! Okay, I really, really need to stop – I hadn’t planned on doing a total album review, and this is setting a bad precedence for what is to follow. So, in the interest of moving on…
Charlie Christian – Swing to Bop
We all know Charlie Christian as the pioneering electric guitarist with Benny Goodman’s swing ensembles, but he’s also one of the founders of bebop. Recorded at Minton’s Playhouse in New York during May 1941, this album is like the Holy Grail for bop guitar – this is the Master at work. It’s so perfect that the very first thing you hear on the album is a fade-in of Charlie already in the middle of a blistering jump blues solo that he’s absolutely destroying with his natural, effortless swingability. I actually felt bad for the trumpet player who follows him – it wasn’t even fair what Charlie did to him and everybody else who tried to solo. Although Charlie doesn’t solo first, the same thing happens on “Stompin’ at the Savoy.” He makes you forget everything that happened before he came in, and you can’t hear anything that happened afterwards because his ridiculous killer swing solo is still resonating in your cranium. This solo gives me brain freeze every time I hear it. It’s probably in my top three of all the Charlie solos ever recorded. One of the main reasons is that his tone is the juiciest, fattest, roundest sound ever recorded – and I mean ever.
Kenny Burrell – A Night at the Vanguard
Kenny Burrell is a direct descendant of Charlie Christian, but his unique approach to the guitar is all his own. When I hear him play, many things come to mind – one of them is the word fearless. That is to say, he is not hesitant in the least to go after any idea that comes to mind, which is a true testament to his physical prowess and total control over the instrument. This album documents a time and place I would have loved to have seen: the Village Vanguard in Greenwich Village on September 17, 1959. It features Richard Davis on bass (he’s totally underrated, as far as I’m concerned, but not by those who know!) and Roy Haynes on drums (and he’s still doing it!).
Okay, about the music – here are a few highlights: “All Night Long” is an absolutely swinging medium-tempo blues with a tasty single-note solo followed by the hippest chord solo you could ever want. Kenny’s version of “I’m a Fool to Want You” is clearly one the most beautiful ballads ever performed on guitar – I’d put it up against anything else out there. The up-tempo burner of “Cheek to Cheek” is so sleek, like a sports car slivering its way down a winding highway at 100 miles per hour, without a care in the world – in a word, delightful. Other highlights include “Broadway,” a tune that shows Burrell’s bluesy side, “Soft Winds,” and the Ellington tune “Just A-Sittin’ And A-Rockin’,” which features one of the tastiest back-and-forth switches from single-note lines alternating to chord solos that you will ever hear. Kenny just makes it sound so easy, which is, by the way, his most notable trait. Indeed, the great ones all have that.
George Benson – In Concert at Carnegie Hall
When this was recorded at Carnegie Hall in April 1975, George Benson was already out of his contractual obligations with Columbia Records and had been working for seven years with Creed Taylor on CTI label. The previous May, he had recorded the Bad Benson LP. This Carnegie Hall concert is absolutely stunning to me. The first tune galloping out of the gate is a sick, spitfire version of “Take Five.” Dear readers, let me tell you: his licks sound like liquid, flowing so steadily, a bubbling fluidity that spills relentlessly over the ears. It’s truly sick what this man is doing to that guitar. The solo on Freddie Hubbard’s tune “Sky Dive” is dizzying in its sheer velocity, dexterity, and flawless execution. Oh, the humanity! Benson’s solo on the surprisingly honey-dripped version of “Summertime” is frightening enough, but the real killer is that he perfectly scat sings along with each note, creating the incomparable effect that he has clearly patented over the years. He’s done this so well, in fact, that if anyone else dares to go there, they are officially doing the “Benson” thing, but probably not nearly as well. Mind, you, this is all before the Breezin’ phenomenon that propelled him to pop stardom in the late ’70s. Not that it mattered anyway, because George always found a way to include a few burners on every album (and yes, we will discuss the Breezin’ album on a later date for that very reason). The closer, “Octane,” has that title for a reason – you need to hear Benson’s solo to believe it, and I should just leave it at that.
Pat Metheny – Secret Story
Let me just admit upfront that this 1992 album actually had a direct and significant impact on my life. I fell in love with it the first time I heard it while working on my PhD at Florida State University, and it became my dissertation topic and eventually my first book, Emotional Response to Music: Pat Metheny’s Secret Story. As for the music, it is beyond jazz – it’s world music, as in it defies category. There is just so much there, it’s practically indescribable. It’s orchestral, cinematic, passionate, ethereal, hypnotic, primal scream, and everything in between. With fourteen tracks and over an hour’s worth of music, it’s truly impossible for me to name the best pieces or even a favorite solo – there are so many to choose from. So I won’t even try to do that for this particular entry – that’s how seriously I feel about this. The album simply has to be experienced, and I would strongly suggest listening from beginning to end, with no breaks in between. It’s like watching a movie through your ears. It’s very much a guitar album but so much more than that. Metheny just happened to choose the guitar as his vehicle to express himself as one of the greatest American composers. I could say so much more here, but I have to push on for now….
Oscar Moore – The Oscar Moore Quartet with Carl Perkins
Okay, here is someone that you might not be expecting – Nat “King” Cole’s guitarist from 1937-1947. Moore was a West Coast guitarist who did film scores in Los Angeles and was one of the earliest to use electronic pickups. Hs style can adequately be described as a cross between Django Reinhardt and Charlie Christian. Beyond the obvious stellar sides he cut with the Nat Cole trio, this rare CD contains music from a 1954 session for Skylark Records (later Tampa Records). The backing band is Carl Perkins (the jazz pianist rather than the rock guitarist famous for “Blue Suede Shoes”), Joe Comfort on bass, drummer Lee Young (yes, Lester’s brother!), and Mike Pacheco on bongos on some of the sixteen tracks. The opening track, “Roulette,” comes blistering out of the gate, showcasing some of the most energetic and rhythmically sophisticated guitar solos on record. Moore has an absolutely beautiful tone and touch, and his phrasing is exquisite – he is easily one of the most underrated guitarists of our time. Just listen to how he swings effortlessly on “Love for Sale” and “Kenya,” or the tenderness he displays on “Body and Soul.” And on “Blues in B Flat” he sounds so much like a perfect blend of Charlie Christian and Herb Ellis, also a Charlie disciple. My favorite solo is the brief but delectable take of “Samson and Delilah.” Yes, this album will certainly add depth to your collection while expanding and enhancing your palate. And who couldn’t use that?
Carl Kress & George Barnes – Two Guitars (And a Horn)
This is a deliberate curve ball I’m throwing at most of you. The Kress/Barnes duo performs some pretty well-known tunes with a great sense of swing, impeccable harmonic depth, and melodic sophistication that will really surprise you. Not exactly household names, each of these artists began recording in the 1930s, and later in life they performed together regularly – in this case, at a club called Chuck’s Composite in New York City in 1962. Their music will instantly conjure the Lonnie Johnson/Eddie Lang partnership. Carl Kress was a fantastic chord-melody banjo player who switched to guitar, but here’s the kicker: he didn’t alter the banjo tuning, he simply transferred it over to guitar. Not only that, but he also never used a pick – he’s getting that tone and attack straight from the flesh. So he sounds like Bucky Pizzarelli when he comps, but he used a non-traditional tuning the entire time. Meanwhile Barnes, who is a Charlie Christian disciple, sounds more like vintage early Les Paul in his tone, phrasing, and vibrato speed when he solos. From the standpoint of clean tone and precise articulation, I can also hear a bit of George Benson and Russell Malone somewhere in there. Both of these younger players had to have listened to Kress and Barnes in their development. Wait – now that I think about it, Russell is, in fact, the one who turned me on to this album back in Atlanta sometime around 1991! Well, in the interest of passing it forward, here you have it now.
The contrapuntal work on “A Foggy Day” is world-class. The Barnes solo phrasing in “Blue Moon” is so sweet, and Kress serves as the perfect solid bottom for Barnes’ flair. “Three Little Words” has probably the most impressive solo – it’s a fantastic up-tempo smoker, with Barnes switching to a superb walking bass line while Kress comps gleefully along in perfect timing. I could go on and on with this – there are 25 tunes that sound like each one is better than the one before. It’s amazing how much music these guys squeezed out of two or three minutes per song, but believe me, you feel totally overjoyed with each piece. Like a delicious box of candy with assorted flavors, this album is tastefully done and incredibly filling.
John Scofield – Quiet
I brought this album to the party because it is such a unique treasure among jazz guitar enthusiasts, and such a great contribution from one of our most beloved veterans. Scofield has given us great music for years, but he really outdid himself on this one – it’s unlike anything I had ever heard from him up to that point. In April 1996, John teamed up with bassist Steve Swallow to create some of the most beautifully orchestrated pieces assembled. French and English horns, alto flutes, tubas, and bass clarinets are all at home among the traditional jazz instrumentation of acoustic bass, drums, tenor sax, trumpet and flugelhorn. The stunningly beautiful consonant-dissonance that occurs on these nine sculptures is like hearing gravity defied before your very ears. But the absolute beauty of it is Scofield sitting in the middle with the sweetest nylon-string guitar lines. His touch shifts from light as a feather to angular and biting at his every whim, and it’s such a joyous ride. “Tulle” is a cruise with the top down. “Away with Words” is like walking through a winding maze. “Door #3” feels like floating on a magic carpet ride. And “Bedside Manner” is my favorite of all – like being awake in a dream state, with one of the thickest, lushest harmonies moving at a glacier pace underneath the most careful and caressing guitar melody imaginable. These are the kind of things that come to mind when I hear the textures the band creates – oh, you just gotta taste this!
John Pizzarelli – Naturally
John Pizzarelli has definitely earned the right to move out from under his father Bucky’s long shadow. His track record is stellar, with so many excellent albums to his credit. He is now widely considered one of the greats, not only as a guitarist but as a vocalist, not to mention his extensive work with big bands, Tin Pan Alley, Broadway show tunes, and the classic Cole Porter song book, among others. He’s sort of our guitar version of Harry Connick, which is not bad company in the least. In fact, I feel it puts him in a unique category.
I had a hard time picking my favorite album – each one has swinging, single-note and vocal-scatting solos that make you happy just listening to them. John always makes bouncy, happy, sensual feel-good music, and he is one of the best at it. On this album, the opening track, “Splendid Splinter,” is just the right kind of up-tempo jump blues to kick things off, with his entire solo done in Benson-esque scat-style – it’s just fantastic. “Lady Be Good” is another highlight. Then there is “Seven on Charlie,” which conjures the obvious reference to Goodman’s guitarist, and this track even has a clarinet solo to bring home the point in case anyone missed it. For me, though, the best of the bunch is the blistering title track, “Naturally,” which allows Pizzarelli to sit at the Big Dog table with anyone, anywhere. The thing I love about all his albums is that there is never a shortage of tunes, and this one is no exception, with thirteen swinging tracks of big band and small combo arrangements. Tasty tone, strong sense of swing, harmonic sophistication, and melodic wit – that’s John Pizzarelli.
Mark Whitfield – The Marksman
I included this one because it’s one of the best debut albums I have ever heard. This Berklee graduate was hand-delivered to us in 1990 by none other than the Master himself, George Benson, who even lent him his vintage D’Angelico for the session. When you have an endorsement like that, straight out of the gate you move to the head of the class. This dude swings like he has been doing it for years well beyond his age – “Blues From Way Back” pumps as hard as anything I have ever heard (it doesn’t hurt to have Marcus Robert comping changes underneath you, either). “The Very Thought of You” and “In a Sentimental Mood” show how much respect Mark has for the proper way to handle a ballad, while “Medgar Ever’s Blues” showcases his grittier side. His medium-tempo version of “There Is No Greater Love” shows how directly George has influenced Mark’s dedication to establishing the rich tone, drop-dead swing, and world-class phrasing that all the greats have. It’s probably the strongest performance on the album and it’s the perfect way to end his first album. And the perfect way to end my first collection of essential jazz guitar albums!
Well, I’ve just about worn myself out describing all of this incredible music. All this talk makes me wanna go play, so I’m outta here…catch you cats later. In the meantime, keep on swingin’. And please, feel free to share your favorite jazz guitar album choices in the comments section below.