Category Archives: guitar

For George Benson’s 71st Birthday, an Interview from 2000

In acknowledgment of guitar icon George Benson’s 71st birthday, here’s the proceedings of a phone encounter from 2000 for the bn.com website on the occasion of his release Absolute Benson. He offered quite a bit of information about his formative years.

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George Benson (My Favorite Things) – (5-19-00):

TP:    On ABSOLUTE BENSON, there are a number of Latin tunes, a number of pieces that refer to the sound I remember from the late ’60s and early ’70s when your career was getting underway.  I wonder if you could tell me some of the people you were listening to seriously at that time, what records fed your attitude towards music.

BENSON:  When I entered into the ’60s, I was just starting to get serious about the guitar.  I was always a singer.  I’d done a lot of singing over the years, and was very popular locally, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  But now I was venturing out… In 1963, I left my home, and I was now a national touring…or international, I should say…I was with a touring band.  I had just been listening to out of the ’60s Sam Cooke as a vocalist; Nat King Cole, who was a musician-vocalist — a pianist… I knew all the pop singers of the time, Sinatra and even Mario Lanza way back…

TP:    Can you name one or two tracks by any of those singers that stand out for you?

BENSON:  In the case of Sam Cooke, his recording of “You Send Me” was gigantic.  But he had lots of incredible things.  He did one called “the Chain Gang,” which was quite a unique song.  But it was style and the tonality of his voice that really came through.  He could sing “Mary Had A Little Lamb” and it would sell.  In the case of Mario Lanza, who was really the first Classical singer to cross over into Pop so easily, “Be My Love,” which is still a very powerful song — his performances will last, I think, a long as there is music.

But I knew all of the popular singers of our time.  And remember, before that I was exposed to a lot of R&B from the old days.  I had heard Chuck Berry’s beginnings of Rock-and-Roll, and I had heard all of Elvis’ first records.  And Elvis was a powerful singer.  A lot of people underestimated him.  Of course, the kids liked him; he was a handsome guy and he was exciting.  But there was something about his voice that was very unique, and I recognized that, too, way back then, and I became a fan then.  I was pretty universal in my listening.

TP:    It sounds that way.

BENSON:  Just to mention on the jazz side, the things that really inspired me: Jimmy Smith had just made the organ a household word — brought it to the forefront.  Before it had been considered just a unique instrument; there were no masters of the instrument who stuck out, who were commercially received.

TP:    And it created a whole new market for guitar players.

BENSON:  And he put the guitar up front, so it was a great platform for guitar players.  So that’s where I was coming from when I was coming out in the ’60s.

TP:    Was Jimmy Smith coming through Pittsburgh?  He recorded quite a bit with Stanley Turrentine, who was from Pittsburgh.

BENSON:  Yeah, that’s right!  And some of his best recordings were made with Stanley Turrentine.  In fact, some of his early recordings in the late ’50s were made with Stanley Turrentine, and just before 1960, when he came out with “Walk On The Wild Side,” which was a huge success pop-wise, which really made him household.

TP:    Do you have any favorite Jimmy Smith record?

BENSON:  I recorded one called “Ready and Able,” when I started my band which was a fantastic recording, and showed his prowess on the instrument…

TP:    That was a recording you were on?

BENSON:  I wasn’t it.  I recorded it with my own band.  Of course, his recording is awesome.  Ours was exciting, but his was an awesome performance technically.  It was a classic performance!  Anyway, I heard that stuff, and it made me interested in guitar players in a much larger way than I had before.  Because I only knew Charlie Christian and maybe Barney Kessel and some others.  But after that, when I came off the road to travel in 1963, I was exposed to Wes Montgomery, and people like Grant Green and Kenny Burrell, who was also on those Jimmy Smith records.

TP:    I know you were hearing those people coming through town or criss-crossing paths, but I have to orient this towards records.  Can you tell me one or two favorite Grant Green or Wes Montgomery sides?

BENSON:  I can explain that.  When I was about 17 we started going to jam sessions.  Every Saturday we’d have a session at a local musician’s house.  He was probably the best guitar player locally.  He would pick up records for us to listen to.  We could steal licks from these records.  The records we were listening to were Jimmy Smith’s ALL DAY LONG, and also we were listening to Hank Garland’s recording called JAZZ WINDS FROM A NEW DIRECTION, and Grant Green’s first recording called GRANTSTAND — all these people.  And the new Wes Montgomery guy!  He was just becoming famous at the time.

TP:    After ten years of being famous in Indianapolis, he was becoming famous everywhere.

BENSON:  The record that woke me up by Wes Montgomery was from an album called SO MUCH GUITAR (Riverside) which was put out I think in 1959.  It featured the song “While We’re Young,” and when I heard him play that I knew that he was more than just a guitar player.  It convinced me that he was someone very special.

TP:    On ABSOLUTE BENSON you have some covers in your style of tunes by Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder and Donny Hathaway.  What are some of your favorite recordings by them?

BENSON:  When I was a young man, my manager said, “George, if you listen to this guy named Raymond Charles (which is the name he used in his early years), you will be successful.  Copy him, because he is the best, and he is going to be very big.”  But after hearing his early recordings, I knew that he was incredible, and “Come Back, Baby” was one of my favorites, a very special song that he recorded years ago.  Had that Gospel feel, but it was different.  It was an honest approach that had everything in it.  It had Gospel-Blues-Pop…everything was in that one song.  So I immediately was a fan of Ray Charles way back then.

In the case of Stevie Wonder, who was very much like Ray Charles in being a prolific writer, a good musician, and excellent singer, above average in all the approaches… They didn’t specialize.  They did everything well.  If they touched it, it was done well!  So Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder in a much more contemporary…of the later days, I should say.

TP:    You play Stevie Wonder’s “Lately” on ABSOLUTE BENSON.  Are there other recordings by him that will be eternally with you?

BENSON:  Oh, yeah, let me think now.  The one Barbra Streisand recorded of his…let me see, now.  My memory is loaded down.  It’s like a computer with so much stuff in it, it’s hard to sort things out.  Let me think about that a little.

In the case of Donny Hathaway, his recording of “For All We Know” is something I sing bits and pieces of almost every day.  I’ve been doing that since it was recorded, way back.  Because it was such an incredible impromptu performance.  I even know the story behind it.  I did hang out with him a little bit to get a chance to feel him out up close and personal, so I got a chance to understand where he was coming from with it.  At one point, I was in touch with him and we were writing songs together.  I went to his apartment and gave him a song that I was working on, and I found out later that he recorded the song, although it never came out.  Then he wrote two songs for me which I never got, because he passed on before I had a chance to get those songs.  But I did hear them.  He wrote them and played them for me, and I said, “When are you going to give those to me?”  He said, “I’m finishing them up; they’re not ready yet.”  But his vocal technique was quite unique, the timbre of his voice.  Those are the things as a singer I had to pay attention to.  But he had many recordings that were great, like the album he did with Roberta Flack called BLUE LIGHTS IN THE BASEMENT.

TP:    There’s a real Latin tinge to this record also.  Have you always been attracted to Latin music and the Latin style?

BENSON:  When I moved to New York from Pittsburgh in the ’60s to play with Jack McDuff, I had a cousin who lived in Spanish Harlem.  So whenever I was in New York, which was very little during my traveling years because we were usually out on the road… But when we came home, what we called home (New York City was my home base), I would stay with my cousin, who lived on 108th and Third Avenue, which was considered Spanish Harlem.  And by the way, I have a son who is Spanish and so does he.  My cousin married a Puerto Rican girl, and my son is half Puerto Rican.

But anyway, we had a lot of association and we heard a lot of the music.  We heard the Joe Cuba records, which were gigantic — “Bang, Bang” and the song “To Be With You,” which was on the jukebox for over ten years around New York.  We were in touch with Johnny Pacheco when I started recording; he was recording with us.  We saw the whole beginning of Salsa music, how it was unacceptable at first to… A lot of Latinos around the world didn’t particularly like Salsa because they considered it a bastard music, but we saw it grow out of that, and now it’s full-grown with Santana!  So things do move.  You know, it was the a lot of the music of that era when we were living in New York.

TP:    Did you listen to très players at all?

BENSON:  Strangely enough, my office was one floor down from Tito Puente.  So my manager and he were very good friends, and he introduced me to him, and him and I became good friends, and eventually we ended up working a lot of the same gigs later.  When my manager introduced me to him, at the time Latin music was not so acceptable to persons who were not in the Latin world.  My manager introduced me to him and said, “George, this is the greatest Latin musician in the world right here.”  I said, “Yeah?!”  From that point on, I began to pay attention to the name Tito Puente.  Sure enough, the whole world has accepted him as being one of the great icons of Latin music.

TP:    Any particular favorites by Tito Puente?

BENSON:  His version of “On Broadway,” which is based on my version, which won him his first Grammy award, is a great example of what he can do.

TP:    Has Joe Sample been part of your world for a long time, or is your collaboration on ABSOLUTE BENSON a first?

BENSON:  No.  Joe and I have been on the same gig, but we’ve never worked together.  It’s usually his band and my band working different sets.

TP:    Well, the Crusaders were a paradigm of the type of band that was covering all the bases and putting them into some sort of very digestible and very musical form in the ’60s, when you were starting out.

BENSON:  That’s very true.  And when jazz music started to wane a little bit, and we had a hard time getting it played on the air, they dropped the name “jazz” from the Jazz Crusaders and became the Crusaders.  But the group was the same.  They did what you mentioned earlier.  They really connected with the audience.  They could take any tune to do that with.

TP:    Were you a fan?

BENSON:  Yeah.  I like uniqueness, and they were unique.  “The Young Rabbits” was the thing that probably… It was more jazz-oriented than anything, but it had a real feel to it.  You didn’t have to be a jazz lover to appreciate it.

TP:    Would you say that when you went out on the road in the early ’60s, your guitar concept was fully formed?

BENSON:  No.  There was a young man in San Francisco… When I decided to go out on my own in 1965, I happened to be in San Francisco, and I spent several days out there.  I was walking around the city, taking in the scenes, and by quite by accident I walked into this club, and I heard a piano player playing who was very good.  I told him who I was, and he said, “Go get your guitar.”  So I went home and got my guitar and came back.  He gave me a lesson in harmony.  He stopped playing for the public… He was a guy who had a big jar on his piano (you know the scenario) for the dollars to be dropped in, and people making requests.  Well, he stopped doing that to show me what he was talking about.  Because I didn’t understand anything he was saying to me.  He was calling off chord changes; I didn’t understand any of them.  He would say, like, “C!” I’d play a C, and he’d say, “No, not that C.”  I said, “Wait a minute.  There’s more than one C?”  And he began to explain.  And man, what I learned has been with me to this day.  His name was Freddie Gambrell.  There’s not much on him.

TP:    Was he blind?

BENSON:  Yes, he was blind.

TP:    He did a record with Chico Hamilton, one trio record.

BENSON:  Is that right?  You know a lot, man!  Freddie Gambrell, man.  He was quite unique!

TP:    In other words, you were an ear player, and as the ’60s developed and your career developed, you learned much more about theory and you’ve been able to continually apply it.

BENSON:  Yeah.  I think people began to notice me when I started to apply the theory that I embarked on after spending that little time with Freddie Gambrell.  I began to experiment.  And what I learned from him I think separated me from the normal guitar thinking.  So I think that made me interesting to other players, who used to ask me all the time, “Where you coming from, man?”

TP:    So he gave you a kind of pianistic conception of harmony which you were able to put on what you did.

BENSON:  That’s right.

TP:    What have you been listening to lately?

BENSON:  I just came back from Hawaii, so I heard a lot of Hawaiian music, and there are a lot of Latin musicians over there.

TP:    You heard them in person.

BENSON:  Yes.  Then they gave me their records, and I listened to their records.  I’ve been listening to Rodney Jones’ latest album, THE UNDISCOVERED FEW.  He’s got some new stuff happening that’s really wonderful.  So he’s reaching out and stretching out!

TP:    A couple of others?

BENSON:  I’ve been listening to a guitar player from Spain called Tomatito.  He’s the newest hot guitar player from Spain.  He’s second only to Paco De Lucia.  Everybody is into him right now.  Tomatito is the cat I’m listening to.  It means “little tomato,” I think.

Let’s see what’s in front of me.  What I do is take stuff and just throw it on.  You’re going to be surprised at this one.  I went back in my archives and put on the Anthology of Smokey Robinson.  The reason why, there’s a song on there that nobody knows about it… You ask people if they’ve ever heard this song, and they say “No.”  It’s called “Bad Girl.”  You ever heard of that?

TP:    I might have… No, I’m thinking of “My Girl.”

BENSON:  “My Girl.”  I think he wrote that, too.  I think Smokey Robinson was one of the writers on “My Girl.”  But this song is called “Bad Girl.”  And the reason why Smokey Robinson is still on my mind is because we used to perform with them.  Whenever they came to my home town, we would be on the same show with them.  That’s way back in like 1959 or the very early ’60s.

TP:    When everything was mixed up, and there would be five-six bands on one show.

BENSON:  Uh-huh.  Well, see, I had a singing group then.  We had the most popular singing group in Pittsburgh.  So they were brand-new, and he was the first artist on Motown when they came out in 1959.   But the song “Bad Girl” was one we used to sing all the time from their early recordings, something he wrote that we sang all the time.  That’s the reason  why I picked up the CD.

TP:    One more, then I’ll let you go.

BENSON:  Let me think of something  that people will recognize.  I don’t want to get too much…

TP:    We can be esoteric and right down the middle, too.

BENSON:  All right.  Whoo, boy.  Well, what’s happening now is people are going back to Django Reinhardt, man, because the French guitar players… Oh, I’ll tell you something else that’s exciting.  Jimmy Bruno and Joe Beck, POLARITY.  There’s some exciting stuff on there!  I was up with Bruno the other day.  I went up to see him at the club in New York, and they lit the place up, though Joe Beck wasn’t with him.

TP:    And you’ve been listening a lot to Django?

BENSON:  to Django, yes.

TP:    Have you heard the Mosaic Box (THE COMPLETE DJANGO REINHARDT AND QUINTET OF THE HOT CLUB OF FRANCE: SWING/HMV SESSIONS, 1936-1948)?

BENSON:  Tell Barnes & Noble to send me that!

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For Bill Frisell’s 63rd Birthday, A DownBeat Article, An Uncut Blindfold Test, and A Few Other Pieces

Best of birthdays to guitarist Bill Frisell, who turns 63 today. Most people who would read this blog don’t need me to say much about him. But on the personal tip, I’ve admired Frisell’s unique sound and concept since the  early ’80s, when he first recorded with Joe Lovano in the Paul Motian Trio, and that decade with John Zorn’s Naked City. During my years at WKCR, I was fortunate  to have a number of opportunities to host him on-air, several times by himself, once in dialogue with Paul Motian, another time in dialogue with trumpeter Ron Miles, his old friend and fellow son of Denver.

I’ve posted below my “directors’ cut” (about 1500 words longer) of a DownBeat cover piece I wrote about Bill and his long-standing trio partners Tony Scherr and Kenny Wollesen, during a week in Perugia for the 2008 Umbria Summer Jazz Festival. I’ve also appended the uncut proceedings of  a Blindfold Test that he took with me around 2000 or 2001, in his extraordinarily cramped room at the former Earle Hotel on the corner of Waverly Place & MacDougal, on the northwest corner of Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village.

Bill Frisell Trio in Perugia, Downbeat, 2008:

At midnight on the first Sunday of the 2008 Umbria Jazz Festival in Perugia, an impromptu party was in full swing on the cobblestoned  streets outside Teatro Pavone, a horseshoe-shaped, five-tiered acoustic marvel with with a giant sunflower chandelier hanging from the ceiling.  It opened in 1740, when Perugia was still an independent city-state, as the gathering place for the local aristocracy. In response, forty years later, a consortium of Perugia’s merchants converted an abandoned nunnery perhaps a quarter mile down the hill into the grander, showier Teatro Morlacchi, a 785-seater with ceiling frescoes.

Inside, however, about 250 listeners paid close attention as the Bill Frisell Trio, with bassist Tony Scherr and drummer Kenny Wollesen, positioned themselves on stage to begin a six-night run.

Smiling, Frisell touched a pedal with his black-shoed foot. Nachtmusik birdsong plinks came forth, resonating against the old wood facades. For the next several minutes, Frisell followed the sounds, weaving an abstract web of tone color—whispery one moment, skronky the next. He inserted electronic sounds into the dialog with pedal taps and dial switches. Wollesen scraped his snare drum, hand-drummed on his hi-hat and stroked a gong on a tree of little instruments placed next to his kit. Gradually, a familiar melody emerged. Scherr inferred a walking bass line, and the tempo began to coalesce from rubato to meter. Then, on a dime, Frisell launched the melody of Thelonious Monk’s “Misterioso.”

This launched a free-associative, genre-spanning suite of songs, each declarative melody transitioning into another—“Moon River,” “A Change Is Gonna Come,” “You Are My Sunshine,” Monk’s “Jackie-ing,” Charlie Christian’s “Benny’s Bugle,” Boubacar Traoré’s “Baba Drame” and Lee Konitz’s “Subconscious-Lee.” Seemingly able to call up guitar dialects ranging from Jimi Hendrix to Mali to Charlie Christian at a moment’s notice, Frisell went for equilateral triangle dialog, simultaneously feeding information to and drawing it from Scherr and Wollesen. The band displayed implacable patience, grabbing sounds, constructing lines and creating musical flow from the environment. If you thought about it a certain way, you might reflect on how the architects and painters who created the look of Perugia between the 12th and 18th centuries responded to the particular light of the Perugian sky and the planes of its topography when they conjured their images and structures. You might also reflect on the ingenuity and learning that went into their designs, and the amount of labor that went into actualizing the final product.

Six hours earlier on the same stage, Pat Martino had played the third concert of a parallel 10-night engagement, leading his quartet through a sparkling seven-tune set. Dressed in a crisp white-on-white shirt, black vest and pressed black pants, barely moving a muscle, he spun out a series of high-degree-of-difficulty declamations, each a little sculpture of its own, marked by flawless articulation, an unfailingly plush tone, attention to melody and an enviable sense of form. Martino tore through the swingers and created high drama on the ballads; it was hard to determine whether the solos were set pieces or spontaneous inventions. Ascending the stairs after the concert, a guitarist from another band shook his head at the futility of it all and said, “I’m going to go back to the hotel and throw away my guitar.”
Throughout the week in July, the daily juxtaposition of these two—Frisell a master of space and implication, Martino determined on every tune to display his efflorescent gifts—was a fascinating programming subplot.
“You wouldn’t know it from listening to what I do now, but I’ve listened to Pat Martino a lot, and at one time I was maybe trying to do that,” Frisell said the following day. We sat in a walled-off space in the back of the dining area of the Rosetta Hotel, situated down the block from Teatro Pavone. Frisell wore a white t-shirt, paisley shorts, white Converse high-tops, and horizontally striped socks in bright colors. As we spoke, the kitchen staff prepared a luncheon buffet as diverse as the program he had presented the previous evening.
“I was checking Pat out yesterday, trying to unravel this mysterious stuff he’s doing, and it blows my mind,” he continued. “John McLaughlin was another hero. Day-in, day-out, I tried to play like him, and I couldn’t come anywhere close. I saw a concert with Shakti in the early ‘70s, heard this incredible stuff coming out, and  it was this moment of despair. I realized that I’d never, ever be able to do that. I wanted to quit. Then the next moment it was like, ‘Oh, thank God that’s over with; now I’ll deal with what I’ve got.’”Frisell noted the spontaneous quality of the previous evening’s concert. “It wasn’t planned,” he said. “My mom died a few weeks ago, and I had to miss a bunch of gigs, so I hadn’t been playing. I was feeling, ‘Wow, here I am—now I’m back with my buddies and I really want to play, but my hands are like…I haven’t been playing my guitar very much. So I thought, ‘Okay, I just want to make a sound and see what it sounds like.’”
Perhaps more in touch with formative memories than he might otherwise be because of his mother’s recent passing, Frisell mentioned reconnecting with painter Charles Cajori, now 87, an active member of New York’s art world since the early ‘40s, and a family friend. “His father worked with my father in Denver in medical school, and when he was in Denver he’d come over for dinner,” he recalled. “He’d tell me all this New York stuff: ‘I heard this incredible drummer—I went to the Village Vanguard and I was sitting right under his cymbal.’ That was Tony Williams when he first started playing with Miles. The first Monk record I ever saw was from this guy.“Forty years go by, I’m in New York, and I thought about him. I looked him up on the Internet, and he was teaching at the Studio School on 8th Street in Manhattan. I hadn’t talked to him since I was 14. I wrote a note, and brought it to the front desk at the school, which is around the corner from my hotel. A few weeks later, I got a letter from him. He’d seen me play at the Vanguard, and knew me through Paul Motian and so on, but didn’t connect that I was that kid from way back. Now we’re friends, and he comes when I play. There’s a picture of Monk playing at the Five Spot, and right behind him is a poster that says ‘Cajori’. He was friends with Morton Feldman. He’s in his late eighties, and he said this amazing thing: ‘One thing I’m certain of is that drawing is a worthy endeavor.’ He teaches, and he sees that some of these things are slipping. To be able to draw is important. To be able to play an instrument. The fact that your fingers have to move around. Just that one little thing he said—it’s a worthy endeavor.”
[BREAK]
The first half of Frisell’s 2008 release, History, Mystery [Nonesuch], consists primarily of music that he composed for three collaborative projects with Jim Woodring, a Seattle-based cartoonist who transforms biomorphic shapes into characters in phantasmagoric narratives. He arranged it for a Fall 2006 tour by an octet propelled by Scherr and Wollesen. It’s far from Frisell’s first sounds-meet-images project. The 1995 Nonesuch CDs Go West and The High Sign/One Week document his responses to a pair of silent films by Buster Keaton, and several years ago he scored Tales From The Far Side, an animated film by Seattle cartoonist Gary Larson, a close friend. Indeed, Frisell’s wife, Carole D’Inverno, is a painter whose canvases, both figurative and abstract, reveal an economical command of line and color.
“When the music is happening, it’s not visual,” Frisell said. “But I like to look at art. I can’t draw, but if I didn’t play music I’d probably do something like that. We probably have some instinct or motivation coming from the same place. I’ve said before that when I met Jim Woodring and saw his art, I felt his drawing was a lot closer to what I’m trying to do with the music than a lot of musicians I know. It’s the place you’re trying to get to—to bring something to the surface that’s not always visible or audible, something people feel in this reality that isn’t always there.”
In a drawing dated 1997, Larsen portrays a bespectacled Frisell playing guitar. He scalps him, revealing his brain as a laboratory in which a mad scientist sits in a sort of director’s chair atop a ladder, blowing notes into a large funnel, through which they pass into a complex, Rube Goldbergesque processor, which in turn feeds them into Frisell’s guitar, which is plugged into his left temple lobe.Frisell’s father was a biochemist, and I asked whether, in any way, he references that aspect of his background in his musical production. He demurred.“I didn’t connect with that at all,” he said. “Chemistry classes and that stuff, I failed right out of all of it.”That being said, Frisell’s instantaneous use of electronics—he deploys a distortion pedal and a fuzztone device, two delays, a reverb, and several small music boxes that he attaches to his guitar pickups—within the flow to trigger random elements within a performance, and his ability to work those sounds seamlessly into the warp and woof of his improvisations is a quality that continually astounds the people who hear him most.“Bill totally embraces all this technology,” said Claudia Engelhart, Frisell’s sound engineer and road manager. She met Frisell in 1989 while touring Brazil with John Zorn’s Naked City band, after spending her early twenties mixing for Willie Colon and Eddie Palmieri. “Sometimes he’s creating loops without us hearing them, and then he’ll turn them on and there they are at precisely the right moment. It’s like he’s composing, thinking ahead, when he’s playing other stuff. I don’t know how he does it. My job is to sit and listen, but I daydream a lot when while I’m mixing sound for him—he takes me on these trips.”
By his account, Frisell began using effects towards improvisational imperatives in 1975. “I heard Santana play this incredible sustain sound that sounded like a trumpet,” he said. “I was trying to play like a horn player; I wanted to sound like Miles Davis. So I got a distortion thing. Then I was listening to pianists and admired how they could hold notes down and let them ring. Back then, there was a little cheap delay that had a cassette tape in it which sort of did what my little digital delay does for me now—that piano-y sustained thing.”
He remarked that he practices neither the sonic combinations that he conjures up nor the gestures by which he puts them forth. “It doesn’t make sense to do it by myself,” he said. “It developed from playing live with other people. I like the element that I’m not sure what’s going to happen with the machines. I trigger a loop, and it goes haywire. It’s not like I have something pre-programmed on a push-up button, and, ‘okay, now I’m going to get that sound.’ Sometimes, though, I feel like I get into certain patterns—I can build things up in ways that become predictable to me, and probably eventually to the audience, too. I try to keep it so that it’s not.”
To avoid the predictability pitfall, and break things open, Frisell frames himself with numerous configurations drawn from what is now a repertory company of musicians familiar with his language. Since 1996, when his long-time trio with bassist Kermit Driscoll and drummer Joey Baron dissolved, he’s triangulated Scherr and Viktor Krauss with drummers Wollesen, Jim Keltner, Rudy Royston, and Matt Chamberlin; used several rhythm sections to propel ensembles of varying size with violinists Jenny Scheinman and Eyvind Kang, lap steel guitarist and banjoist Greg Leisz, trumpeter Ron Miles, and reedmen-woodwindists Billy Drewes and Greg Tardy. He’s developed a corpus of string quartet music and formed a quasi-world music ensemble (the Intercontinentals). Then there are the one-off projects—a trio CD with Dave Holland and Elvin Jones, a standards duo with Fred Hersch, a more recent trio date with Ron Carter and Paul Motian, the latter his employer since 1981 with the Paul Motian Trio, with which he continues to perform annually around Labor Day at the Village Vanguard. Still, as he puts it, the trio with Scherr and Wollesen—which first convened for a 1999 week at the Village Vanguard, and performs on Unspeakable, East, West, and History, Mystery—feels like “home base.”
“I’ve listened to thousands of records with Ron Carter, but when I stand there and play a chord, and he plays some note I’m not expecting, and your mind has been obliterated…,” he said animatedly, before breaking off the sentence with a laugh. “You want to stay up in that thing. I want my mind to be blown. Then along come Tony and Kenny. By this time I’d been looking at a lot of other music, songs with words, listening to Hank Williams songs, Roscoe Holcomb and Doc Boggs—things I hadn’t listened to much before. It wasn’t just about I want to play a Monk tune or a Lee Konitz tune, or I want to write my own tunes. I was also trying to remember where I come from—when thinking about a Bob Dylan song when I was a kid, playing this Lovin’ Spoonful song when I was 16. Being honest about what got me playing. I did a record in Nashville, played with a banjo player for the first time. Some people said, ‘Wow, he went to Nashville, and he’s selling out,’ and so on, but for me, it was like, ‘Whoa, this is really weird.’ I was stretching myself, playing with people I’d never met before, people who come from different places, people who didn’t think about music or learn music the same way I did. I couldn’t write out charts for them, the way I used to. It was a whole different way of playing, and I learned so much. Still am.
“Both Kenny and Tony are like my teachers. In so many areas I want to go into, it’s like they know 20,000 times more than I do. Last night, as an encore, we played this Ron Carter song, ‘Mood.’ Tony’s heard that, and he knows 20 different versions of it, and any other song I’d ask him to play. He’s an awesome guitar player and also a singer—he knows the words, too. When I discovered Roscoe Holcomb, who came out of nowhere for me. Kenny went, ‘I got that record when I was 12.’ I’ve put myself in this amazing situation where they can challenge me. But then at the same time they respect me! They just play, and they’re not intimidating. Like I said, they blow my mind.”
[BREAK]
“Bill accepts the way people play, and plays with who they are, rather than with who they’re supposed to be,” said Scherr the following morning. “He’s constantly open to anything he hears. It’s sincere. If somebody is playing an instrument, that’s music—if it’s musical. There’s no preconception of what somebody is supposed to know or not.”
The sky was clear, facilitating a spectacular view of the Tiber River Valley from the terrace outside the Hotel Brufani, the festival’s nerve center. It stands atop the remnants of Rocca Paulina, a massive fortress constructed in 1543 on the order of Pope Paul III to show the town’s staunchly anti-clerical citizens—who had battled for autonomy against Papal authority since the 11th century—who was boss. To emphasize the point, Farnese, then 75, commanded that 138 buildings belonging to the Baglione family, Perugia’s most powerful clan, be razed to the ground.
“I didn’t grow up hearing jazz,” said Scherr. Early in his teens, he played guitar in a rock band in which his older brother, Peter—now a Hong Kong-based classical contrabassist—played bass. “I heard rock-and-roll and soul and all kinds of other music. That’s when I got bitten by the bug of playing with other people—that feeling of discovery and learning how to play together. When I was 14, my brother brought home Miles Davis’ Jack Johnson, and we went backwards from there. Around then I met a guy who would take me to his house, and we’d play guitar. He showed me who Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters were. We would play vamps, what people think of as a standard, a song by the Animals, then we’d turn off the lights and play free. In my mind, it all lived in the same room, because that’s the guy I was in contact with. I suppose it took me a while to recognize that ultimately I was looking for that kind of guy. I never really thought about the difference between the genres. I recognize that in common with Bill, because Bill seems to just hear a song—it doesn’t matter if George Jones or Billie Holiday sang it. He writes beautiful, classic songs, too, with melodies that go around in my head. When it comes down to it, there’s just great songs, great melodies, and people hear them, and want to interpret them and be themselves and have a language with the people they play with.”
Scherr wore a retroish short-sleeved shirt over black jeans, the way young Manhattan hipsters dressed in the ‘80s, when Scherr, now 43, went on the road with Woody Herman. In the ‘90s, he played numerous jazz gigs on bass, joined the last edition of the Lounge Lizards, played with Maria Schneider, and joined Wollesen in Stephen Bernstein’s Sex Mob Quartet.`
“Maria Schneider started asking me, ‘Have you played a lot of rock music or something?’” he related with a laugh. He spoke in a deliberate baritone perhaps an octave lower than the gravelly tenor he displays on his new release, Twist in the Wind, on which he sings 13 songs, including 10 with his own lyrics. “In Sex Mob, which is a kind of a combination of Louis Armstrong and Led Zeppelin, I realized how I actually hear the bass. We went through Seattle, and Bill came to the gig, and called me up soon after, and we started playing. I’m glad that it didn’t happen until I had some idea of what I sound like. At that point, I had been a fan of Bill’s music for quite a long time, and would check out every album, so I had some idea of who he was and what his language is about. It was very comfortable to hear this guy who had his own voice on guitar. An enormous part of what he does is very sophisticated, much more complex than I would understand—though I’ve heard him do it for years, so I might be able to hear something that goes with it. The simpler part that I do understand comes from the guitar language that I know. Bill reminds me to be more open, to wait and surrender to what actually happens, rather than thinking I know already. I used to think I knew. Now I’m sure that I don’t.”
As if on cue, a slender, elderly man in gray shorts, a sleeveless sweater and walking boots appeared before us, took a breath, and began to sing a tarentella of indistinct origin in a clear tenor. He finished, began another, halted, said, “Gusto. Musica.” Then he walked off. Scherr laughed and applauded. “I couldn’t have said better than that,” he said. “Music. Love music.”
About half-an-hour later, Wollesen and I were strolling through the narrow streets, past pasticcerias, pizzerias, gelato shops, and taverns setting up for lunch. We settled on a café not far from a wall built by Perugia’s original Etruscan settlers as a fortification against invaders. It was a touristy place, and his red wine was served cold. In the background, you could hear the Coolbone Brass Band, out of New Orleans, warming up for their daily noontime ballyhoo.
“Bill’s rhythm is killing, and he hears everything,” Wollesen said. “I think his ears are supernatural. Right now, we’re talking at this table, and I hear what you’re saying, but there’s all kinds of sound happening around us. People would think of it as background noise. I think Bill somehow hears all of it. It’s kind of uncanny.“I’ve never really talked with Bill about music. I don’t think he’s ever said one thing to me about what to play. I have to figure it out on my own. It seems strange to me, because almost all the bands I play in, somebody says something about that.”
Perhaps Wollesen  was referring to John Zorn, with whom, several weeks before, he’d played two concerts in Paris, one placing him alongside Joey Baron; or to Butch Morris, whose conduction projects he frequently participates in; or to Stephen Bernstein in Sex Mob; or to Norah Jones and Sean Lennon. “Stephen often tells me exactly what beat to play, and he conducts the band on the bandstand,” he said. “It’s a totally different aesthetic somehow. It’s also a lot louder.”Because of these associations, listeners tend to peg Wollesen as a deep groover and texture-maker rather than a swinger. But as a teenager in Santa Cruz, California, he played in a popular local hardcore jazz unit with saxophonist Donny McCaslin, a peer, and, at the Kuumba Jazz Workshop, where he worked as a janitor in order to gain free admission, observed such drum icons as Elvin Jones, Ed Blackwell, Tony Williams, Billy Higgins, and Paul Motian on weekly Monday night concerts.
“I wasn’t into pop music as a kid,” he said. “It was just stuff that was on the radio. I was into Elvin Jones. All my friends were into that, and so was I. But I listened to a lot of different music—I played in klezmer bands, and I was really into Cecil Taylor and a lot of the really out stuff.”
Towards the end of the ‘80s, not long after he turned 20, Wollesen relocated to New York, moving into a funky apartment once occupied by Deborah Harry. “Purely for economic reasons, I made a conscious decision to take whatever work I could get,” he said. “Playing in so many different bands, different worlds—a rock band, a bebop band, Zorn or Butch—you realize that the fundamentals remain the same. You still have to take care of business, make the shit happen somehow. That means ultimately being in the moment when the music is happening, not projecting something that you learned or something that you already knew, or what somebody told you to play. If you’re still hooked into some other stuff, then you lost it. You’re not there.“I think about painters. They’ll spend hours and hours by themselves, but when it comes down to it, there’s the moment where they put the paint on the canvas. But they spend years getting to that place. It’s like that with music.”
[BREAK]
In November, the Bill Frisell Trio will tour Europe playing to movies—music from Frisell’s Buster Keaton and Jim Woodring projects, and also to a new film by Bill Morrison, who on a previous work used Frisell’s eponymously entitled 2001 encounter with Dave Holland and Elvin Jones as soundtrack music.“It will completely take us out of a lot of the things we’re playing now, force us to deal with a different batch of music, and push us into another zone,” Frisell said. “In some ways, it’s more restrictive, but I’ll have to figure out a way to keep it from being a show, where we do the same thing every night.”Frisell, Scherr, and Wolleson sat around the same table in the same wood-paneled adjunct of the Rosetta Hotel dining room. That night, they would play their fifth concert of the week.“I’m writing music with no parameters, which I love,” Frisell continued. “Having the film there boxes you in, in a certain way, but those limitations sometimes will push you out into someplace you’ve never been. It’s another way to get pushed into moving ahead.”They quickly turned the subject matter to qualities described in our one-on-one conversations—mutual intuition, shared language, trust.

“The time between our gigs always seems too long, but when we get back together we start almost beyond where we left off,” Scherr said. “The conversation just keeps going. I’ve always liked being in bands that really develop something together, like when my brother and I would put together a rock band. and we’d find a drummer, and play, and it would really click, and we’d learn a lot all of a sudden and be real excited about it, and you just couldn’t wait til the next time you played. When people play music together and travel, you get in close quarters, and people’s personalities come out. A thematic language—literal language—goes around the band, a couple of terms that get used for the entire trip or something, a running joke or a running topic. Then the next trip you find new ones. Sometimes it gets totally ridiculous, like that day in Peekskill when we started playing all the major tunes minor and all the minor tunes major. It was so silly, and it had everything to do with who we are. Those kinds of things emerge when you’re not worried about making mistakes, and you’re coming up with ridiculous things because it’s fun. The music becomes less precious and opens up— you feel free to demolish stuff together, and it’s totally okay.”

Scherr gave an example.

“On a lot of tunes we’ll go through the form, and although I’m not thinking about it this way while we’re doing it, it’s like playing a game,” he continued. “For instance, at a certain point on ‘Keep Your Eyes Open’ there’s a little melody, a chord, another little melody, and a downbeat. We’ve played that tune for years, and it’s almost unbelievable how many different ways we can play that chord—a snotty little swipe at it, or a broad, beautiful way of hitting it. Often it’s being open enough to just SEE how we’re going to do it, and toss it back and forth. Sometimes it’s as simple as hitting one note or one chord together on the first beat of the measure. When I first played with Bill, I paid a lot of attention to that. Now that notion has expanded to trying not to think, just to support the new thing I hear, whatever it is, and not answer the question before it needs to be answered.”

“What you play can be determined by the way things bounce around in the room,” Frisell said. “Every day is different, even in the same room—the number of people, the air, the humidity.”

“Bill will start playing a song because something is going on in life, and usually the lyric is totally relevant,” Scherr added. “To me, listening to him is the same as listening to a person I know talk, or hearing a singer.”

“In this group, I’m trying to sing the song on the guitar,” Frisell agreed. He referenced a 2003-2005 engagement as musical director of the Germany concert series, Century of Song, in which the trio joined various singers—among them Rickie Lee Jones, Patti Smith, Elvis Costello, Suzanne Vega, Vic Chestnutt, Loudon Wainwright, and Chip Taylor—in creating new arrangements of iconic repertoire.

“I talked about trying to copy Pat Martino or John McLaughlin years ago,” he continued. “Now it’s more about I’m trying to copy Aretha Franklin or Sam Cooke or Hank Williams. We’ve played “Lovesick Blues” a couple of times  and I’m playing what I got from trying to get even these little nodal things he does with his voice, which is sort of impossible.”

“Bill’s got the meaning of the tune, too,” Scherr said. “Well, there is no one meaning for any tune. We played ‘A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall’ a bunch of different ways, a bunch of times. But I always feel that tune means whatever it means that day, and that’s where it’s living. It’s got a lot of room to be played.”

Lunch was ready, so it was time to clear out, get on with the day, prepare for the evening’s concert. “None of this is secret,” Frisell said. “But it’s this weird, super-intimate thing that we don’t talk about. For me, playing is as close as you can get to another human being. I don’t think whatever we’ve tried to say will break anything, but it’s not remotely close to what’s happening as we’re doing it.”

* * * *

Bill Frisell Blindfold Test:

1.    Richard Leo Johnson, “Sweet Jane Thyme,” LANGUAGE (Blue Note, 2000) (Johnson, 12-string and pedal steel guitar) – (4 stars)

Holy moly!  Oh my God.  I have no idea who that is.  [How did it sound to you?] It was…nice.  I’m trying to…I’m baffled by… It reminded me of some things that I’ve heard, like, Leo Kottke do, and there was a tiny bit of some of the things that Daniel Lanois did with Brian Eno back a ways, like the sort of secondary…whether it was a steel guitar or the kind of echoey, shadowy guitar behind the acoustic guitar.  But I have no idea who that is. [Was it one or two players?  How many guitarists?] I don’t know if it was overdubbed.  But there were at least two, I think. [LAUGHS] There was…was it a 12-string? [There was one guy on a 12-string in real time.] It sounded like there was a 12-string and then some kind of more atmospheric electric guitar as a background, the sort of cloudy sound… [He was playing a pedal steel and a 12-string, so there were two guitars overdubbed.] But there was one person. [One person.  He has a technique to create several voices.  Did you like the song?] Yeah, it was nice.  It didn’t like knock me out.  It was really cool and pleasant to listen to.

I have to think about how I’m going to do the stars.  Because to me, anybody who has decided to play music should get five stars, I think. [That said, there are gradations and...] [LOUD LAUGH] You’re trying to get me to… [I'm not trying to get you to slam anybody.  But the Blindfold Test is what it is.  If you want to give everyone a blanket five stars...] I really don’t like… Well, there’s things I like and things I don’t like, and I think certain things suck, just like everybody else.  But I still…somehow… I don’t like the idea of competition in music.  Also, with what I just heard, it kind of…I couldn’t place what… I don’t know where it’s coming from or what it is.  I don’t know if I would think it was better or worse depending on where it was coming from.  I could almost hear in a film. [He laid down guitar tracks, then he sent the guitar tracks to various improvisers, and they each laid down their tracks on top of his guitar track.  (ETC.) His name is Richard Leo Johnson.] I’ve never heard of him. [This is his second record.  He plays different guitars, and he's a virtuoso, but he only started playing full-time four years ago.  He's 45.  And he's from Arkansas, the north Delta.  He's self-taught.]

It made me be curious to hear how that is juxtaposed to other things on the record.  That’s something I would go do on my own now.  I guess I’m going to have to give it five stars… [If you give 4 stars to something that doesn't knock you out, but you like and respect it, you're really not insulting the musician.] Okay, I’ll give it four stars. [I think if you're going to agree to do the Blindfold Test...] I did it once before, and I gave everybody 5 stars.  But also, everything was Jim Hall and Jimi Hendrix and Wes Montgomery.  Maybe I’ll give it 4.  Maybe that rating system will assert itself as we go along.

But a lot of it is context.  I could see this being in a film or something, or seeing it up against something else where it might be very powerful…

2.    Jim Hall-Pat Metheny, “Django,” BY ARRANGEMENT (Telarc, 1995) (Hall-Metheny, acoustic guitars) (5 stars)

That’s “Django,” I can tell you that. [at 3:35] Oh, I think I finally got who this is.  [at 5 minutes] I guess I’m ready to talk.  Is there a string quartet?  From the first moments of these strings, I thought…Jim Hall was what came into my mind, something in the sound of the writing.  Then I started listening, and I hear one guitar and another guitar, and I didn’t recognize the sound.  But when the first guitarist started playing nylon string guitar, it took me longer than what I thought it should too… I heard a bit of Pat Metheny stuff going on in there, and then I figured that’s got to be Pat playing nylon string guitar.  Then I figured… They did a duet record, but this isn’t that, so this must be Jim’s record where he did these arrangements, and the song, “Django”… [Absolutely.] Thank God I got that right.  But it was kind of confusing, because sonically it was so strange.  First I thought it was an old recording… I thought Jim Hall, and I heard the strings and I thought maybe this was going to be one of those things Jim did with Gunther Schuller years ago or something like that.  But it’s interesting how, without him playing, it fired some kind of response in my brain that me think Jim Hall right away.  I don’t know if it’s because I’m expecting at some point I’m going to hear Jim Hall in a blindfold test.  So I figured out it was Pat playing nylon string, and then Jim later playing acoustic guitar, which you don’t hear that often.  Also, I’ve never heard him make that much racket, singing along, groaning… Sonically they both sounded quite a bit different than you’re used to hearing.  But that was cool.  So now I have to give it stars.  That I’ve got to give 5.  The tune and that he could figure out something else to do with that tune, and those guys… That was great.  And it was cool to be that confused by… Those guys I’d figure I could recognize in two notes anywhere.  Is that on the record “By Arrangement”?  I should have known it right away.

3.    John McLaughlin, “Only Child,” TIME REMEMBERED (Verve, 1993). (McLaughlin, acoustic guitar, The Aighetta Quartet, acoustic guitars, Yan Maresz, acoustic bass guitar) – (5 stars)

The first thing that came into my mind was I couldn’t tell how many guitars were playing, and there’s a very low-tuned guitar, and I didn’t recognize the tune.  But then as soon as the soloist started… I was thinking, “What is this?”  Does someone have a 7-string?  It almost sounded like it could have been Johnny Smith or George Van Epps, that beautiful, just lush… I couldn’t tell how many guitars were in there.  Then as soon as my man started playing, I knew it was John McLaughlin playing Bill Evans songs with a guitar quartet.  I might even have this record. [You played some of these songs with Paul Motian.] Well, I’m not sure if I played this tune.  But I thought it sounded just exquisitely beautiful.  He keeps on being one of my heroes.  He keeps holding up.  Every time I hear him…sometimes I think he gets taken for granted a little bit.  He’s just a monster.  I remember going to hear him in Seattle a couple of years ago, and it kind of hit me in the face how heavy he is!  I don’t know what to say.  It was so beautiful to hear that orchestration, lush, thick… Whoever arranged that, it was really beautiful, just listening to the kind of written part and then real kind of moving, and when he started playing it was… He always blows my brains out.  There was one moment when I went to a Shakti concert, and I almost quit playing the guitar.  I just thought, “Man, this is hopeless.”  But it was a good moment because it made me figure out that I had to figure out something else to do other than that.  I’ll never be able to… But he’s so much more… He’s known for being, you know, fast, but he’s a soulful… And rhythmically and harmonically, so…it’s some far-out stuff he’s doing.  I can’t figure out why people don’t… He’s right in there in that line of… There’s Charlie Christian and Wes Montgomery and Jim and whoever all other guys, and he’s one of those main guys for me.  Five stars.

4.    Derek Bailey, “Tears of Astral Rain,” ARCANA: THE LAST WAVE (DIW, 1995) (Bill Laswell, electric bass; Tony Williams, drums) – (5 stars)

It’s hard to talk and listen.  I think it’s Derek.  The thing that’s confusing me is… I’m going to just guess.  There’s Derek who I sort of got right away.  The other is maybe a guitar, but sounds… Is it Bill Laswell?  Because it sounds like a 6-string… It’s higher than a bass.  The distorted one is sort of… And I know Bill Laswell does that 6-string bass thing, so it must be that.  Then I know that they did a thing with Tony Williams.  I kept thinking that sounds like Tony Williams’ tom-tom or something.  It sounds like Tony Williams.  But I didn’t hear him do his Tony Williams yet!  I kept listening to be sure is that Tony.  The sound of the drums, it sounds like Tony Williams, but he was playing so
minimally.  This was also really cool, the way the thing moved forward.  There was this feel, this forward rhythmic motion.  You can’t say 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4.  It’s interesting how just with the sound, they have that…a person’s sound… I heard a tom-tom, and it sounded like Tony Williams.  Is there more than one… I heard some of this, and it was really edited, and it sounded like they didn’t really put… The other thing about what I just heard is it really sounded like they were playing together in the same room.  The thing that I heard sounded much more pieced-together, like Derek overdubbed or they used a Tony drum track.  Maybe this was done that way, too.  I’m not sure.  But as I was listening, I at least felt like I was in the world of being in the same room with these guys playing.  Either it was pieced together really great or they were actually playing together.  But I think I heard that they weren’t all playing together when they did this.  That’s got to be 5 stars.

5.    Jimmy Bruno-Joe Beck, “Lazy Afternoon,” POLARITY (Concord, 2000) – (Bruno, acoustic 6-string; Beck, alto guitar) – (4 stars)

I don’t know what the tune is, but I know I’ve heard it somewhere.  I’m going to make a wild guess.  I don’t really know these people.  One of the guitars has to be a 7-string or something; it sounds really low.  I heard something on the radio, and this sort of reminds me of it.  It’s not Joe Beck and Jimmy Bruno?  I might even have heard this song on the radio.  I don’t know Joe Beck’s playing… He’s one of those guys who’s been around forever, and he’s been on a lot of records in real supportive ways, since the ’60s.  His name is always around, but it’s not like I hear a sound. Recently I’ve been hearing about Jimmy Bruno.  Talk about technique, he’s probably the most monstrous… But then I had heard a little bit of Jimmy Bruno, and I was surprised that he seemed more restrained… See, I don’t know him well enough even to know… I’m sort of assuming that on this tune Joe Beck was probably playing the melodic part and Jimmy Bruno was doing a lot of quite involved bassline and… [Oh, Joe Beck was playing that on the alto guitar.] Oh, he was.  I was thinking that if Jimmy Bruno had been playing the melodic part, it would have been twice as fast.  I heard some live thing with a bass-drum trio that was just off the scale of super fast tempo which was like how could you possibly do that… So I figured out what it was.  But that’s one of those guesses, thinking I’d heard this on the radio and I’d kind of heard about this guy.  It wasn’t based on knowing their sound; it was more an intellectual piecing-together.  It was pleasant.  It didn’t kill me or anything.  It was kind of easy… It didn’t wrench my guts out, so I’ll have to go 4.  But they definitely certainly play their instruments.  I guess there’s a thing with the guitar.  I mean, who am I to say… They can play circles around me as a guitarist.  I mean, they really play their instruments.  But I would maybe have liked to hear… The tune didn’t kill me or something.  Maybe if I’d heard them playing a tune that was richer, it would have been…

6.    A.D.D. Trio, “Three Characters, A.D.D. TRIO: SIC BISQUITIS DISINTEGRAT (Enja, 2000) (Christy Doran, guitar; Robert Dick, flutes; Steve Arguelles, drums) – (5 stars)

This is a guess again.  Is it Sonny Sharrock?  Then I’m lost.  I don’t know.  I really like the feel of the drummer, but I’m pretty well lost on this.  I might be getting in trouble here?  Is it possible that that’s Kenny playing drums?  I like this piece a lot.  But I have no idea who it is. [AFTER] Oh, Steve Arguelles!  I know him and I like him.  There was one moment I thought Robert Dick, but most of what I’ve heard of him is solo things or concert recitals, not in this… I like the feel.  Was the guitar generating some kind of loop?  I like the way the drums were interacting with that…the bass drum.  There was a moment where I thought about Joey Baron.  He had this super-low-tuned bass drum that’s really cool.  I like the feel of the drums.  That confused me, though Robert Dick flashed through my mind.  Then when he did these sort of slide things, something about the tone made me think about Sonny Sharrock.  But it was maybe a bit more reined-in than Sonny Sharrock.  I hate to give it less than 5 stars… I really liked that.  I’ll give it 5.

7.    Bar Kokhba, “Hazor,” ZEVULUN (DIW, 1997) (Marc Ribot, guitar; Eric Friedlander, cello; Mark Feldman, violin; Greg Cohen, bass; Joey Baron, drums; Cyro Batista, percussion, John Zorn, composer) – (5 stars)

Again, this is an intellectual piecing-together.  Is it Ribot?  So it’s the Prosthetic Cubans.  Then what is it?  The cello player… [Who do you think wrote the music?] I don’t really recognize it. [AFTER] Oh, okay!  Wow, now it all comes in there!  I haven’t listened to this stuff.  Now that you say it, I recognize the melodic…the thing with all the sort of Latin stuff, I’m thinking, “What…”  I recognize Ribot.  So that’s that!  That’s Cyro, and Eric Friedlander on cello.  I’ve heard so much about that band, and I think I have the CD at home in my pile of… I liked it a lot.  And Ribot sounded really cool.  He really got the killer tone on there.  I can hear that melody being played by the other Masada.  Aren’t some of these reorchestrations of that material? [He pools the book.] Right, but orchestrates it differently.  I should have known the melody.  But with that kind of Latiny stuff going on, I got sidetracked.  5 stars.  The guitar seemed sort of dominant, so I thought it was the guitar player’s thing.  He got a great tone on that.  There’s a couple of times I’ve heard him… He said he was going to give it to me.  I think he made a solo record of standard songs.  We were in the middle of the night driving somewhere, like to the airport somewhere, and Kenny Wolleson had this tape, and this thing came on, and it was “Body and Soul,” and I thought, “Who is this guy?”  It sounded like an old guy.  I mean, in a good way.  It sounded like some kind of old real guy that I’d never heard of before, and I couldn’t figure out who it was, and he was playing “Body and Soul.”  It turned out to be Ribot.  This had some of that real clean-enough but fat and kind of dirty, real good sound he got on there.  I really liked that. Oh my God. [Think older.] Well, the reason I thought Mark… I’m really going to stick my wiener out!  I heard bit of George Benson in there… [LAUGHS] I thought he’s had some impact on Mark.  Okay.  Wow!

8.    George Benson, “Hipping The Hop” (#6), ABSOLUTE BENSON (Verve, 2000) (Benson, guitar Joe Sample, piano, composer; Chris McBride, bass; Cindy Blackman, drums) (5/4 stars)

[GRIMACES] Man!  This is kind of a strange juxtaposition of things.  When it first came on, I thought it was going to be some smooth jazz thing, then it goes into… It’s an odd convergence of styles.  I’m going to guess Mark Whitfield.  The reason I say that is I heard maybe some of… Most of what I’ve heard of Mark has been more straight-ahead, and I knew he recently did something that I hadn’t heard, and I wondered if that could be it.  Wow!  Is this from George Benson’s new one?  Because I heard another thing on the radio, one song, I don’t know what it was, from George Benson’s new record.  Man, what a monster player!  The other thing I heard was a little more straight-ahead, and it reminded me of what a giant great player he is.  Christian can go from this funk thing to the straight-ahead thing, but it didn’t… It seemed a little on the light side.  The funk thing… It didn’t totally go to the straight-ahead thing and it didn’t go to the funk thing either.  The two things that were going on, going back and forth, sort of caused some restraint on either end.  It was really interesting, though.  Oh, boy, I can’t… So it was George Benson.  How is it that I get in a position that I’m sitting here talking about George Benson like I’m some kind of big-shot?  He’s a giant.  I guess it’s one of those things…the context is… He always sounds good.  It would be great to hear him play with Ron Carter and whomever and just play some tunes.  But who am I to say that?  5 stars for him and 4 stars for the arrangement.  Those guys are great.  Cindy plays great and Christian plays great.  Who knows what was going on in the…

9.    Duduka DaFonseca, “Por Flavio,” THE ART OF SAMBA JAZZ (self-produced ,2000) (Romero Lubambo & John Scofield, guitars; Nilson Matta, bass; Duduku Dafonseca, drums & percussion; Valtinho, percussion) – (

I’m getting confused.  I have to start guessing… I guess I’m obsessing over who… The guitars are very separated.  I really thought the one on the left was John Scofield.  It is John Scofield?  But I couldn’t quite get… Then I started thinking who is this other guy?  He’s playing a nylon string guitar.  I was kind of going off on who’s the drummer.  Then it sounded like there was  a percussionist.  I was thinking about Jack De Johnette for a second, but that didn’t seem right.  It’s getting more confusing.  Then I thought maybe it’s not Scofield.  There’s a lot of guys out there who picked up on some of his stuff.  It doesn’t seem quite like a Scofield record.  [It's not.] The kind of dialogue between the two guitarists was cool.  I like that. [AFTER] I don’t know Romero Lubambo or Nilson Matta.  I knew it was Scofield, but the context seemed so… The piece was great.  I liked the two guitars going off of each other.  5 stars.  It felt great.  Oh, that’s bad.  Did I say Jack de Johnette?  I guess I was thinking too much, “if that’s him, then this must be that.”

10.    Liberty Ellman, “Blood Count,” ORTHODOXY (Red Giant, 1997) (Vijay Ayer, piano) – (5 stars)

I’m pretty sure it’s Steve Swallow.  It’s not?  Oh, my God.  That was a guitar?  It was an awful low-pitched guitar.  But it sounded like a 6-string bass to me.  Now you’ve got me really screwed up!  I just got it fixed in my brain that it was… [So it didn't sound like any guitarist you could pinpoint.] No.  Also because it went much lower than a guitar.  I didn’t know the tune. [AFTER] I should know that tune.  I was thinking this was Steve Swallow playing his 6-string bass, just the sort of pure tone where Swallow gets this sound in between a guitar and a bass.  Now I’m really confused, because it didn’t sound like a guitar to me. [AFTER] I’ve never heard of him.  I really liked it.  I had it totally planted in my brain… I thought it was Swallow playing with Carla Bley or something.  Who was the piano player? [LAUGHS] I don’t know him either!  I heard this chord on the piano and I thought Paul Bley.  I thought Paul Bley and Steve Swallow.  Then I thought, no, that’s not Paul Bley, it’s Carla Bley.  Then I just settled into thinking that’s what it was.  I’d like to check out these guys some more.  5 stars.  Definitely his guitar was tuned…there was some super-low stuff going on there.  I’ve got to check him out.  Moments like that I really notice maybe I’ve been away from New York too much or something.  I don’t even know who any of these people are.  Not one person on this record I’ve ever heard of.  I’m old.  I’m a has-been.

11.    Kevin Breit-Cyro Baptista, “Sao Paulo Slim,” SUPERGENEROUS (Blue Note, 2000) – (4 stars)

I like it.  It’s another one of those weird juxtapositions of things.  It sounds like two kind of slide guitar guys.  Oh, it’s only one?  There’s a statement of the melody and then it sounded like another guy.  It sounded almost like another personality.  But maybe not.  Maybe it’s just the sound.  But he had sort of a… I didn’t sense it right away, but then when he played the solo I got a bit more of that country thing in there.  But then with the…I don’t know what this was.  He sounded, I thought, like somebody from down South, but then the rhythm section I couldn’t… The bass player playing all this little chordal stuff.  I think it was a bass player.  An electric bass player.  Maybe it was a rhythm guitar part that was hidden away in there.  So a kind of active… I’m just lost.  I don’t know this.  I guess I have to… Everybody sounded really great.  The tune didn’t kill me.  So I guess I’ll have to say 4.  But everybody played cool. [AFTER] Oh, shit! Oh, fuck!  Oh, no!  Oh, no!!  I asked him to send me this record.  Oh, shit!  Oh, fuck!  I love him!  I did a gig with him…we did a gig in Seattle where I had Greg Liesz… It was a thing where I had four guitarists.  I had Greg Lies, and Kevin, who has played a lot with Greg, like with k.d. Lang and… Man, I can’t believe it.  And Brandon Ross.  We sort of did a lot of my music that I had already arranged like for horns and stuff, but I had these four guitars.  And Kevin played sort of everything that anyone else wouldn’t play. Like, he had a low-tuned guitar.  So there’s a lot of overdubs on here.  Because it sounded like a band actually playing.  And he’s like a killer… Oh, he plays everything — mandolin, banjo.  I just love him, and I had such a good time playing with him.  I felt a real strong hookup playing with him.  But I never heard him play slide guitar at all, I don’t think.  It was like lap steel or whatever it was.  I don’t know how he can play all these instruments.  I’ve heard him play regular guitar, I’ve heard him play mandolin, I’ve heard him play this kind of 6-string bass guitar, and he KILLS on banjo — he really plays great banjo.  But I’ve never heard him play that slide stuff.  Wow.  Anyway, I really like him.

12.    Tim Berne-Marc Ducret-Tom Rainey, “Scrap Metal,” BIG SATAN (Winter & Winter, 1996) – (5 stars)

Well, it first came on and I thought it was Tim.  Then the guitar player started playing.  It’s interesting.  The writing is very cool, the first statement.  Is it Tim?  Thank God.  It’s weird how things… It’s cool to hear somebody after… I played with him a lot, and we’ve sort of gone on our separate ways, and I haven’t kept track of a lot of what he’s done.  This was really strong.  The writing and how the group was… This is stuff that had always been there in his music.  It’s real distinctive… It’s weird, these little electronic or whatever impulses that shoot through your brain.  Like, the first instant the thing came on, Julius went through my mind.  But then almost immediately, then, I thought, “Oh, that’s got to be Tim.”  Then I started thinking it’s really inspiring the way he… He’s stayed on his writing and…he’s stayed on this path all this time.  I felt really strong that compositionally, whatever was going… I don’t know what that was.  It’s stuff that was going on a long time ago, but you can hear how it’s…it’s just clear and it’s strange and it doesn’t sound like anything else.

There’s a lot of guitar players I’m not quite sure…I haven’t heard enough to know for sure.  Brad Schoeppach passed through my mind at one point, and then I thought Marc Ducret.  It must be Jim Black.  No?  Is it Previte?  Then I don’t know who the drummer is. [AFTER] Oh, shit!  Somehow I was thinking about Jim Black.  That’s embarrassing, because that’s another person I played with… We played a lot, like REALLY a lot, not so much gigs, but we’d get together and play for hours and hours, and I should know him.  But it’s strange, what goes on in my mind, because a lot of time has gone by, and we’re sort of off on these different… I’m over, wherever I’m playing, doing some hillbilly song, and he’s doing this.  It’s kind of…it’s weird.   5 stars.  It sounded great.  I haven’t heard Marc enough to always instantly know that’s him, but every time I’ve heard him, he’s kind of flipped me out. . I heard one time I think in Italy with this group where he just played acoustic guitar with no pickup or anything.  I’ve heard him in a lot of different contexts, and he’s just an off-the-scale great guitar player.  In this context, I thought he really sounded… There’s a kind of soulfulness in there that’s… Different people set people off in different ways.  There’s a feel Tom has that maybe makes Mark play in a certain way.  Anyway, I thought he sounded really great on that.

13.    Attila Zoller-Jimmy Raney, “Scherz 1,” JIM AND I  (Bellaphon, 1980/1995) – (4 stars)

What in the world… You’ve got me there.  I’m lost.  The recording was a little distracting to me.  The guitar in the left ear in the headphones was louder.  I mean, I’m not one to…I use a lot of reverb.  But it sounded like the reverb was kind of hitting on some stuff that was in the headphones.  Sometimes the headphones kind of amplify that stuff.  The one on the left was a lot louder.  And I kept thinking, is this overdubbed with the same guy?  Then right at the very end, the guy on the right, who was softer, came out for a moment by himself.  And I couldn’t recognize the tune.  I just felt lost, kind of.  I kept hearing little bits of something; I thought of a tune, then it sort of went off and I couldn’t follow it.  I liked the idea that there was all this dialogue going on.  It was never clear who was… I almost thought it was the same person.  Sometimes they were so on top of each other that then… Okay, tell me who it is. [AFTER] Attila crossed my mind.  Jimmy Raney was the one on the right.  I know that.  Because right at the very end he played this little phrase by himself, and it had the feel, the eighth note thing.  But the guitar player on the left, which was Attila, I don’t know his stuff that well, but… I guess it was the recording.  It was louder, and it kept sort of dominating the… I wish I could have heard it with Jimmy Raney being louder, because for me the actual rhythmic… Okay, I’ll be critical.  It was just that moment where Jimmy Raney played alone that the feel was killing.  For me, on this particular thing… Maybe it was the recording or the sound…he had also a brighter sound.  Attila seemed to dominate the whole thing.  Maybe Jimmy Raney was sort of following him.  That’s how I would critique it.  I love Jimmy Raney.  But that’s why it made sense when you said that.  4 stars.  Those guys were great, though.

14.    Brad Shepik, “Zdravo,” THE LOAN (Songlines, 1997) (Peter Epstein, alto sax; Tony Scherr, bass; Kenny Wolleson, drums; Seido Salifoski, percussion).

Got me again.  When it first came on… For a moment I… I’m guessing.  It doesn’t sound old guys to me.  It sounds like young guys.  Maybe it’s because I’m getting old; it seemed kind of hyper, like “let’s play this thing in 7.”  But they play great.  It just had this kind of real energetic thing that… I guess maybe it’s this being the last thing, we’ve listened to all this music, and I’m ready to cool out and relax.  And there’s people… See, there’s all these guys who I should… There’s people who went through my mind.  I mean, there’s people I still haven’t heard enough to know for sure.  There was a moment I thought of Briggan Krauss when they were playing the melody, but then when he started soloing I didn’t think it was Briggan.  For a moment I thought Briggan, then again I thought Brad Schoeppach.  It was Brad?  But I don’t really know his… It’s more like an intellectual thing.  Then I thought about this group of guys who haven’t fully formed in my brain when I hear them, like Jim Black… [It was your rhythm section.] It was MY rhythm section.  Oh my God!  Now I’m really… If I say Jim Black… I didn’t recognize who it was, and so let’s think who would be playing with who.  But I also have to say that for a moment Kurt Rosenwinkel went through my mind.  So I hope these guys don’t get pissed at me for this.  I guess so much of the music that I play with Kenny and Tony is so different than that.  But I thought I would know those guys, because I’ve listened to other things they do.  When I say energetic, they’ve got a lot of energy, but a lot of stuff they play is slowpoke, right, or Sex Mob.  A lot of stuff is about these kind of slower feels.  Was this Brad’s stuff?  It sounded live.
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There were guitar players in everything, and a lot of the music I listen to is not guitar-based.  On the last blindfold test I did, there was something, and I said, “Well, that was Paul Chambers on bass and that was Philly Joe Jones… But I screwed that up bad on this one, too; saying that was Jack de Johnette.  I guess it’s weird to zero in just on guitars.  I guess there’s so many different ways.  No one has ever done a Blindfold Test with me and played Bill Evans and Sonny Rollins and Miles Davis.  Those are the things that have affected me.  But this is good.  I hope I didn’t say anything bad about anybody.  As I get older, it’s frightening how much… There’s more and more music accumulating, and less and less I feel like I can hear it.  It seemed like 20 years ago I would spend thousands of hours with one album, listening to it over and over again, and now it’s like you’re sort of flitting from one thing to another fairly quickly. [The music is sort of like that, too.  A lot of people don't go into one sound so much as they delve into a lot of different ways...] But it seems like a lot of people are able to actually absorb and retain a lot of stuff.  I’m less and less able to do that, and there’s more and more stuff piling up.  I have piles of stuff at home that I think “I’ve got to listen to this or that.”

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Filed under Bill Frisell, Blindfold Test, DownBeat, guitar, WKCR

For Mike Stern’s 61st Birthday, a 2003 Downbeat Feature

Today is the 61st birthday of master guitarist-composer Mike Stern, and to note the occasion I’m posting the print edit of a feature for DownBeat  that it was my privilege to write in 2003. I’m also linking to a conversation we had in 2009 for the www.jazz.com website.

Mike Stern:

Guitarist Mike Stern usually spends Monday and Wednesday nights playing at 55 Christopher, a dimly lit bar on the ground floor of a brownstone in Greenwich Village. Discolored white sound tiles coat the low ceiling, which hovers above some 20 tables placed between a long bar and a yellowish west wall festooned with photos and LP covers. The bandstand is an 8 x 10 rectangle in the back corner with a fourth wall that doubles as an aisle along which customers can wriggle backstage to the cramped restrooms, which had seen better days 20 years ago, when Stern, who was then Miles Davis guitarist of choice, began his residence.
Stern doesn’t need this twice-a-week gig when he’s off the road. But 55 Christopher serves his purposes well.  “I’ve always got to find a place where I can play regularly,” says Stern, who staked a similar claim in the early ‘80s at a famously bacchanalian Soho bar called 55 Grand. “Otherwise I’d  be playing in my room. It gives me joy, and over time I learn a lot. I’m  grateful to have a regular gig where I can try different things. It stretches you.”
“It’s the longest-running jazz show in New York, and on a recent installment, the second set of a frigid January night, Stern stood before a jam-packed house. He held his guitar hip level and wore black pullover, black jeans and black sneakers. Eyes shut, bending his neck at a slight angle and swaying to the beat, he strummed a rubato melody, slowly resolving into the familiar refrain of Cole Porter’s “I Love You” over drummer John Riley’s crisp brushwork. Then Stern developed an extended solo, phrasing interactively with the drummer, carving out chorus after chorus with immaculate execution, sustaining thematic logic, linear invention and melodic focus at a staggering pace, inexorably ratcheting up the tension.
Like a world-class relay runner, tenorist Chris Potter took the baton full stride, and launched a tonally extravagant statement filled with intervallic zigzags and surprising resolutions in the manner of 1965-vintage Sonny Rollins. Guitar and tenor sustained fresh dialogue on further tradeoffs. Francois Moutin was in complete command of his instrument, carving out surging melodic bass lines while clearly stating pulse and roots. It was world-class collective improvising by a unit that had never played together until that evening.
Curiously, Stern has rarely showcased this freewheeling aspect of his tonal personality on his 12 leader records since 1986. “A lot of people have told me they  like to hear a live record, and I’d love to do one,” says Stern, 51, citing the room’s acoustic idiosyncracies as one reason why such a project remains elusive. “At the end of the day, you want to document what you do. But whenever I get around to recording, I have new tunes I want to play.”
Stern offers 11 brand-new ones on These Times, his debut release for German label ESC. As on Voices, his 2001 finale for Atlantic, he explores songs with words and songs with sounds, blending the distinctive vocal timbres of Richard Bona and Elizabeth Kontomanou into the guitar-keyboard-sax voicings that are his trademark. He propels it all with forceful beats by Bona and Will Lee on bass, drummers Vinnie Colaiuta and Dennis Chambers, and percussionist Arto Tuncboyacian. Kenny Garrett and Bob Franceschini split the sax chores. Alternating gnarly burnouts and lyric ballads, Stern and producer Jim Beard is customary keyboardist weak the themes by which Stern has established his compositional identity and tonal personality to an international audience since 1981, the year he joined Davis and recorded an extended solo on  at Time, the opening track on Man With A Horn.
“One thing about Miles that always impressed me is that he always played music he wanted to play,” Stern says. “While I was with Miles, he was offered a fortune to play with Ron Carter and Tony Williams in Japan. But he was just interested in what he was doing, and didn  want to be swayed. At the same time, he always had this balance of wanting to reach people. That’s in all his music. Somebody who doesn’t  really know jazz can still get Miles Davis. And balance is always important to me, however I come up with it.”
Those imperatives and an encounter with Bona at a European festival inspired Stern’s  recent immersion in the voice. “He had the day free, so I grabbed Richard and brought him to my hotel room, where I had a little amplifier, and we were playing some standards,” Stern recalls. “He knew my stuff, and he started singing a couple of my ballads, which I thought was great. One way I write is to sing the melody and write it down, so I have tunes that lend themselves to singing. Anyway, when I was thinking about doing Voices, I asked him about it, and he told me that he knew the idea would work and that he’d sing a few tunes. So I leapt into this new thing.”
“Getting the gig with Miles was the pinnacle of jazz success for a young musician at that time,” says John Scofield, Stern’s friend since the late ‘70s and his guitar partner with Miles in 1982-83.  “Your status went up. That’s all there was to it.”
“Miles made it clear that he didn’t  want me to do what he did,” says Stern, who diligently followed the trumpet legend’s  instructions to “turn it up or turn it off.” “He would leave all the space, and he wanted more aggression and energy from me. He’d move his hands to signal Al Foster to open up behind me. It was almost like he was working with shapes. A lot of the music was easy vamps, and they’d go on for a while, so you had to milk it for whatever you could. He also wanted a lean sound, which you can get with just guitar and no keyboards even if you play a lot of notes. I have him in my ear to this day, that beautiful vocal sound and his phrasing.

Stern likes his drummers hard-hitting and in-the-pocket, and observers, noting his high-visibility associations with Miles, Blood, Sweat & Tears, Billy Cobham, Jaco Pastorius and Steps Ahead, often refer to his music as fusion. The term puzzles Stern, a hardcore Jim Hall-Wes Montgomery acolyte who continues to transcribe the solos of John Coltrane and McCoy Tyner to slake his thirst for new vocabulary. In 2002, he recorded Four Generations Of Miles (Chesky) with fellow Milesians Ron Carter, Jimmy Cobb and George Coleman.
“Blood, Sweat & Tears was one of the first jazz-rock bands, and Billy Cobham played what people have called fusion,” Stern says. “But I always wanted to hear some more swinging. When I first played guitar in the 60s, I listened to lots of blues, and then Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton and cats like that—and then got into jazz. Motown was always on the radio. And I always loved Joni Mitchell’s  Blue. So I didn’t leave one part of me behind, but incorporated all of it. Sometimes the sound and sensibility of rock or blues gives me more color and a wider range of expression, a singing quality, more legato and horn-like than percussive.”
As he did in the days when fusion was creative and organic, Stern takes pains to sustain his edge. “I try to be aware of content and find new stuff all the time,” he says. “I try to get players who are going to kick my ass. You react to the people around you, so if the drummer is playing energy, you’re likely to try to match it. The hardest thing is when I’m trying to play some funk with a jazz drummer, and you can tell it isn’t going on. It happens the other way, too. Only a handful have that balance, to play in the middle of the beat but keep that creative jazz sensibility. Sometimes they throw you in a huge hall in a festival, and you want someone who can slam it down.
“But when I write, I look to have the whole picture—both the lyrical and the more slamming stuff. I want the arrangements to have a quality of spontaneity, so there’s conversation between drums, bassist, soloist and keyboard, but I also want enough production to support the tune, even the less complicated ones, so there isn’t  any, ‘yeah, the solo is cool, but the tune ain’t  happening.’ The singable stuff is simpler, but sometimes the hardest to write, because you can  hide behind college chords. On those, I don’t want to write a bunch of weird harmony that’s vague but intellectually impressive. I want to limit myself.”
Simplicity of expression is a complex proposition for Stern. “One of the challenges on the guitar is to try to get a legato, horn-like phrasing,” says Scofield, who alternated with Bill Frisell as Stern’s guitar foil on the 1999 album Play. “Frisell, Pat Metheny and I do it by not picking every note. But if you do pick every note, you can get a precise attack. The problem with that style is that it can sound real mechanical; some guitar players try to do it, and it’s sloppy and weird. Mike can produce a beautiful legato sound but be absolutely accurate on his lines. I don  think I’ve met anybody who does that the way Mike can, and he could do it when I first met him.
“Whatever I have together didn’t  fall from the sky like rain,” Stern says. “It takes a lot of work. I still try to push myself to develop the potential I have. To sound fresh every night I have to discover new stuff, push the envelope. So I’m studying all the time.”
Frisell can speak to Stern’s  obsessive practice habits.  “I met Mike right after he got off the road with Blood, Sweat & Tears, and we immediately started playing at his apartment for hours and hours,” Frisell says. “You can practice all you want and not sound like an individual. But Mike was—and still is—thorough. He would work on every possible thing he could think of. We did ear-training exercises, trying to hear different harmonic structures against a certain note and testing each other. He did it to the point where I couldn’t  believe what he was hearing. All the elements you hear in his playing now were there in his apartment in the 70s.”
“Perfectionism is a character asset,” Stern says. “But it works against you if it paralyzes you. Once I was struggling with some pieces, and my composition teacher, Edgar Grana, told me that one rule is not to judge the tune, but finish it and play it with other people. That  the way you grow. If you throw it out halfway through, you won’t  know what you have. I remember Pat Metheny telling me, “You’ve got what you need, you sound terrific. All you’ve got to do is go out and play.” He recommended me for Blood, Sweat & Tears, and I thought I’d go do the audition and get turned down. But they called me back for the gig.
“My focus then was on playing more like Jim Hall—to play slow and hear whatever I was doing, and not let my fingers get ahead of me. I wasn’t concentrating on technique at all; I figured I’d be able to play tempos later on if I had to. But Blood, Sweat & Tears used to play Spain as an instrumental, and I couldn’t  make the tempo. So here was this real-world situation where I had to deal! Jaco was in the band then. He was a direct guy. He told me, ‘That slow and steady stuff is great, but now you’ve got to start practicing to get your chops happening more.’ Jaco and I were maniacs together. Later, when I lived over 55 Grand, he’d  crash with me upstairs. Then we’d  play downstairs non-stop.”

During the early 80s, Scofield says, 55 Grand “became the musician club in New York.” Lured by a louche, no-holds-barred atmosphere, A-list musicians from all varieties of jazz converged to play and be merry into the wee hours. “It wasn’t  like a fusion club and it wasn’t  a free music club,” Scofield recalls. “It was diverse, but it wasn’t  slick. Everybody played there. The owner didn’t charge much money to get in, and we could play whatever we wanted all night long.”
“I always think jazz is going in about five different directions,” says Stern, who now drinks coffee to sustain late nights at 55 Christopher rather than the cognac and cocaine combo that fueled his 55 Grand marathons. “In jazz there’s tons of music that’s timeless—when you rediscover it, it’s fresh again. Then there’s stuff that combines this-and-that, a fusion of different influences with a jazz sensibility at the core. A lot of that was happening at 55 Grand. It was a very cool hang, but self-destructive.”]
In 1984, Miles Davis told Stern, who was showing up to gigs visibly inebriated, “You have to cool out.” “I wasn’t  ready to do it,” Stern recalls. He joined forces with Pastorius, withdrew after a year to enter rehab, sobered up, moved to a quiet East Side neighborhood and rejoined Davis.
“The second time with Miles, he had two keyboard players, and was moving to the stuff he did with Marcus on Tutu, more pop-oriented and arranged,” Stern says. ”I could leave more space, and it felt more natural to do in that environment. He actually had me play some acoustic, nylon-string guitar. But the first band was open. When he told me we were going on the road after I played Fat Time, I said, ‘Great, that will be fun. Who’s playing keyboards?’ ‘Nobody. Just you.’ I was nervous. ‘Don’t  worry. I hear it. You just play.’ No one really knew what he wanted to do.
“You always had to be on your toes; sometimes we  get used to an arrangement, and he would change it on us at the last minute. He liked it when I  lay a chord underneath one of his notes, so I needed to listen closely to know what pitch he was playing. I didn’t get it right away. I thought some of this was going to fall flat on its face—and some of it wasn’t so happening. But some of it was amazing. That’s  what he was looking for.”

“Some people say, ‘I don’t care what anyone thinks.’” Stern remarks. “But that’s a bit strange for me. Music is supposed to be communicative.”
During an end-of-January week at Iridium in support of These Times, Stern balanced the populist imperatives that inform his writing with the workshopping attitude of musical adventure that inspires his 55 Christopher sessions. A heavyweight unit of Bona, Franceschini and drummer Dave Weckl helped Stern navigate five challenging compositions, replete with shifting tempos, gorgeous melodies, provocative hooks, and just enough harmonic protein to fuel the solos. Weckl modulated seamlessly from straight-eighth to spangalang; Bona, accompanying himself delicately on electric bass, sang two songs in a pure falsetto tenor, Stern matching his tone with lyric grace. During the burnouts, Bona carved out Afro-Pastorius flavored countermelodies that transcended the notion of a bassline. To use a cliche, the music was beyond category. Jazz, rock, blues and world feels coexisted and flourished, freed from their compartments, knit together by the smiling leader.
The tone of the proceedings recalled a comment from Frisell.  “I first became aware of Charlie Parker and bebop and the music of the ‘40s and ‘50s at just the moment when things were getting electric,” Frisell said. “So for me, that music was a natural continuum of using what was around to move ahead to the next step. Nobody knew what Fusion was; it didn’t seem that different from other moments that would happen along the way. Then after a few years, it seemed that fusion became codified. Patterns emerged, and people started fitting things into them. It became a style that you fit something into, just like jazz did. For me, jazz is a process of trying to make something happen.”

That was the way Miles Davis did things, and Stern seems to channel his restless spirit as organically as any of his fellow Miles alumni. “Whenever I hung out with Miles, he’d have the radio blasting to whatever was current at the time,” Stern says. “He was into all kinds of music. The more I step back, the older I get, I respect him even more. He was always moving.”

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Filed under Article, DownBeat, guitar, Mike Stern, Miles Davis

R.I.P. Jim Hall (Dec. 4, 1930-Dec. 10, 2013)

Very sad to hear of the passing of Jim Hall, the master guitarist-composer who was a universal influence on guitar sound and practice post-1965. He was playing wonderfully as recently as Nov. 22 and 23rd at a Jazz at Lincoln Center event with two of his acolytes, John Abercrombie and Peter Bernstein. I’d like to share three items documenting separate encounters with Mr. Hall (who I first had the opportunity to meet during the ’90s on several WKCR encounters), most recently in October for the program notes for the aforementioned concert. I’ve also appended the proceedings of a public DownBeat Blindfold Test that we did in Orvieto—where he was performing all week in a two-guitar context with Bill Frisell, bassist Scott Colley and drummer Joey Baron—right after New Year’s Day in 2010, and a conversation for a piece I wrote for DownBeat about the emergence of modern jazz in Greenwich Village during the ’50s. I haven’t transcribed the proceedings of our WKCR shows, in which he related his personal history in some depth. You’ll be able to find biographical particulars elsewhere, but this documentary from the late ’90s, written by his daughter, Devra Hall, is a great place to start, as is this conversation with Larry Appelbaum. So are these DownBeat articles, from 1962 and 1965, respectively.

* * *

Jim Hall Concert with Peter Bernstein & John Abercrombie – Program Notes:

“Jim Hall is, in many ways, to me, the father of modern jazz guitar.”–Pat Metheny

“I used to focus on playing like Jim Hall, trying to play slow and really hear whatever I was doing, not let my fingers get ahead of me. I love Jim because it’s not a whole lot of notes, but he generates so much intensity with such a poetic vibe.”—Mike Stern

“Jim Hall is like a magician that makes the rabbit pull him out of the hat. He’s so quirky and unorthodox, but always musical, with a purpose to everything that he plays and does. There’s so much beauty in his playing. Most guitar players go for the jugular vein. Jim Hall showed us that it’s okay to go for the G-spot, too.”—Russell Malone

“Jim plays the baddest stuff I’ve ever heard. It’s like guitar playing from the future, but yet it’s happening right now.”—Julian Lage

* * * *

On this evening’s concert, guitarist Jim Hall, 82 years young, augments his trio with fellow plectrists John Abercrombie, 69, and Peter Bernstein, 46. Both regard the elder maestro as a preeminent signpost figure in their stylistic development, while most closely resembling him in the individuality of their respective voices.

A game-changer for the last four decades, a key figure in assimilating and coalescing the various streams that entered jazz expression during the ’70s, Abercrombie—like Hall—remains a work in progress in his golden years, as is evident on 39 Steps, his lyric, harmonically erudite 2013 release on ECM (his 24th for the label since 1974), and on its immediate predecessor, Within A Song. On the latter date, Abercrombie reconfigures in his own argot four songs from ‘60s recordings by Sonny Rollins, Art Farmer and Bill Evans to which Hall made consequential contributions. Among them is “Without A Song,” from Rollins’ 1961 masterpiece The Bridge.

“I heard it in a record store when I was 17, and had an epiphany,” Abercrombie told me last year. “I didn’t know what he was doing, but it sounded so perfect. That was the strongest reaction I’ve had to any piece of music from the jazz world.”

Bernstein experienced his own epiphanies as Hall’s student at the New School during the latter ‘80s. “Playing duo with him then, I’d wonder how he kept the harmony and time so clear,” he recalls. “He’s such a great listener, so supportive, so empathetic—all the things that he is as a human being come through when he accompanies.” Over the subsequent quarter-century, he’s  earned the esteem of peer-groupers like Brad Mehldau and Joshua Redman, and elder masters like Rollins, Jimmy Cobb and Lou Donaldson for his touch, the voice-like quality of his tone, the melodic and harmonic clarity of his solo declamations, and, as Hall notes, “his complete avoidance of cliches.”

“Jim introduced a completely new aesthetic,” Bernstein says of his mentor. “He came out of Charlie Christian and Freddie Green, and doesn’t shy away from playing the blues and bebop, and doing things that the guitar wants to do as an instrument. At the same time he’s a very intellectual musician with an advanced harmonic concept.”

As always, Hall will follow the core principles by which he’s operated since his debut recording with Chico Hamilton in 1955. “I try to make each performance kind of a composition,” he says. “The idea of improvising in the first place is doing whatever it takes to appropriately get out of the guitar whatever goes through your mind. Ideally, all of us on stage—whether it’s three or four or five—will always be listening with that same target in mind, to make it into a nice composition.

“I picture myself as a listener when I’m playing or writing. That’s one reason why I solo the way I do. I like to leave space for the listener to reflect on what’s been played already, and then take them some place else.”

Ted Panken

* * *

Jim Hall Blindfold Test (Raw):

1.   Julian Lage, “Lil’ Darlin” (from SOUNDING POINT, Decca, 2009) (Lage, guitar; Jamie Roeder, bass; Tupac Mantilla, percussion; Neal Hefti, composer)

I actually know him. That’s Julian Lage. I’ve known him since he was 11 years old. I think he’s 21 or something now. I really admire him. He’s very different. A lovely young guy. On this record also, although not on this track, he has a banjo player, Bela Fleck, who is outstanding. That was a Basie tune, right? Right, “Lil’ Darling.” It was a completely unique treatment of a standard jazz tune. Basie’s guitarist, Freddie Greene, was amazing. He really kept the Count Basie band together. When Freddie left, they sounded great, but it just was not the same without Freddie Greene on guitar. In fact, I wrote a piece which we’ll play this evening called “OwedTo Freddie Greene,”

2.   Egberto Gismonti-Alexandre Gismonti, “Aguas & Dança” (from SAUDAÇÕES, ECM, 2009) (Egberto Gismonti, acoustic guitar, composer; Alexandre Gismonti, acoustic guitar)

That’s amazing guitar playing, and I have no idea who it is. Egberto Gismonti wrote it and played it? I know Egberto Gismonti, and he is a fantastic musician. He plays fantastic piano, and he’s a composition… I think he lives in Rio still. That’s one of the marvelous things about music. You just played a record by a very young guitarist, and now you played one by a slightly older Brazilian guitar player. [Brazilian music has been in your repertoire for many years.] It’s kind of a gringo version! I just admire Brazilian music so much. We’re playing a piece this week called “Cavaquinho.” I was in Brazil several times, starting in 1959 or 1960. It felt like everybody in Rio played the guitar. Music was coming out from everywhere. It was a great experience.

3.  Bobby Broom, “In Walked Bud” (from PLAYS FOR MONK, Origin, 2009) (Broom, guitar; Dennis Carroll, bass; Kobie Watkins, drums; Thelonious Monk, composer)

I don’t know who that is either. [SINGS REFRAIN] I’ve forgotten the name of the tune. “In Walked Bud,” that’s right. Fantastic guitar playing. I could have used a little more harmonic sense, maybe a chord now and then just filling in, but it sounded great. Tell us who it was. Bobby Broom? I just know the name. [He’s played with Sonny Rollins since the early ‘80s.] I know Sonny Rollins. [LAUGHTER] That’s why Sonny doesn’t call me any more. Working with Sonny was probably my most important job. I first heard him with Max Roach’s group with Clifford Brown and Richie Powell, and I admired his playing. I joined Sonny in early 1961. I was only 12 years old. It was very challenging, because it got me practicing. I’m serious. Sonny was and is one of my heroes. I was in the hospital for a long time this year with back surgery, and Sonny called. He never talks very much, but in the hospital we talked for 45 minutes on the phone one day. I almost hesitate to get into this, but in those days there was still a lot of racial crap going on, and Sonny made me aware of it. All of my early heroes were African-American—Charlie Christian, Duke Ellington, Coleman Hawkins, and then Sonny later. It was just fascinating. I was so honored to play with him. This may not be appropriate to say, but I think with our new American President, it’s gotten so much better just in terms of getting along together.

4.  Kurt Rosenwinkel, “Fall” (from REFLECTIONS, Word of Mouth, 2009) (Rosenwinkel, guitar; Eric Revis, bass; Eric Harland, drums; Wayne Shorter, composer)

I don’t have any idea who that is. It seemed like it was in an odd meter, 7/4 or 5/4.. I don’t know what they were performing. . It sounded a great ensemble, and I admire the guitar player—it sounded good to me, but I don’t know anything about it. Oh, it’s Kurt. It’s interesting. A lot of this is brand-new to me. If I listen to music, generally it’s classical music. If I listened to great guitar players, it would be depressing. Bela Bartok. He plays good guitar. It’s amazing how guitar playing has just opened up and gotten better. Bill Frisell and I have known each other since Bill was a teenager, I think. Now I’m learning from him. That’s how it goes. It seems to me that one of the requisites of being involved in music, or any art form, is that it keeps growing, and if you’re open, then you will grow as well, and not stop someplace and say, “Well, that’s over; now I’m just going to keep playing this G-7 chord.”

5. John McLaughlin, “Stella By Starlight”(from THIEVES AND POETS, Verve, 2003) (McLaughlin, acoustic guitar, arranger)

Again, I don’t know who that is, but it was an amazing guitar player. I know it’s “Stella By Starlight.” It sounded like B-flat. For me, I love that melody so much, I think that I would not have put all that filigree. I would have concentrated on the melody and the words to the song. I think that needs to be presented. It seems like each piece, especially if it’s a song, should probably be presented in a different way, and this is a love song, and it has nothing to do with flashy picking like “I Got Rhythm” or something. This is an amazing guitar player; again, I didn’t particularly like the way the song was treated. This song came from a period where there were so many fantastic songs that I think need to be played more. I feel like, in a lot of ways, younger people are cheated because recording stuff all got into the hands of marketing people. It’s great to hear lovely compositions performed and recorded again. [AFTER] That was John? I knew I’d insult a friend. Again, I wish I could do that. I’m sure I have a lot of things which would embarrass me.

6. Wolfgang Muthspiel-Brian Blade, “Heavy Song” (from FRIENDLY TRAVELERS, Material, 2006) (Muthspiel, guitar, composer; Blade, drums)

Again, I don’t know who that is. It’s interesting, and it made me think about amplification. It sounded like an excellent guitar player. It’s funny. I still like the sound of the acoustic guitar just being amplified a little bit, but that was a whole different genre, I guess. I hope you’ll hear, when we play later, that I like to be able to hear Scott Colley on bass fiddle, not necessarily amplified, and Joey Baron, who is close to me and I can hear everything he plays. I understand amplification and the need for it, but I think it needs to be, in general, kind of tuned down a bit. Maybe start over with Andres Segovia or something—I don’t know. Because when you perform as a quartet, you’re part of a group of four people, and I like to be able to react to what Scott plays in the bottom of the texture, and then what Joey does. That’s just my personal preference. On the other hand, I don’t want to sound like some old fogey up here. I enjoy all of this music. It’s just that my feeling about music is different. Because I couldn’t hear the individuals in the group at all, and it puzzled me. [AFTER] It would probably make one interesting track on a CD, I guess. Again, I love all the guitar playing. [It’s interesting. I’m selecting one piece from a CD that reflects a broad spectrum of music.]

7.  Adam Rogers, “Sight” (from SIGHT, Criss Cross, 2009) (Rogers, guitar, piano; John Patitucci, bass; Clarence Penn, drums)

That one I really enjoyed. Again, I have no idea who it is, but in relation to what I was saying earlier, I could hear the whole texture very clearly. Marvelous guitar playing, and he or she… Do you know Sheryl Bailey? She’s a great guitar player, too—I hate to say “he” all the time. The guitarist would listen to what was happening and react. It seemed like people were listening. I love that. And it sounded very original, too. The shape of the piece, the chord changes, the bassline—it really kept my attention. It wasn’t Les Paul, was it. [LAUGHS] I loved Les Paul.

8. Pat Metheny-Brad Mehldau, “Ahmid-6″ (from METHENY MEHLDAU, Nonesuch, 2006) (Metheny, guitar, composer; Mehldau, piano)

Again, I do not know who it is, but it’s another amazing guitar player. Again, I wish that somehow or other, there was some clarity at the beginning of the piece, so I would know what they were improvising on. The playing was amazing, but it just sounded like playing over chord changes pretty much, and I would like to have… Like with a painting—you have a background and then some stuff added. But I thought it was great playing. I never had great facility, so I just play slowly, and then, when I play a little bit faster, they say, ”ooh, it’s fantastic.” [AFTER] I’ve known Pat since he was about 15 years old. He’s done so well.
.
9. Jonathan Kreisberg, “The Best Thing For You” (from THE SOUTH OF EVERYWHERE, Mel Bay, 2007) (Kreisberg, guitar; Matt Penman, bass; Mark Ferber, drums; Irving Berlin, composer)

That I enjoyed a lot, too. Whoever it was really presented “The Best Things Thing For You Is Me,” presented the tune very clearly—and again, the guitar player was amazing. I enjoyed it. On every selection you played, I thought the guitar playing was pretty stunning. But that one was clearer to me, because whoever it was played the melody so well.

* * *

Jim Hall (Vanguard 70th) – (Jan. 30, 2005):

TP:   70 years in one place in Manhattan. It’s staggering.

HALL:   I agree.  I don’t know how old he was when he died…

TP:   He was born in 1903. He was close to 90.

HALL:   I remember when he had the Blue Angel uptown.

TP:   And he had it for 20 years. He got it when the Vanguard was already ten years old.  Billy Taylor, Jimmy Heath and Roy Haynes all were here before you.

HALL:   Yeah. I visited with Chico Hamilton and played at Basin Street East, but I finally moved here around 1960.

TP:   The clubs I can ask you about would be the Five Spot, the Bohemia…

HALL:   I played the Bohemia with Jim Giuffre and Bob Brookmeyer, and we played opposite Miles’ sextet.

TP:   So it was a trip to New York before you moved.

HALL:   Right.

TP:   I can ask you about the Bohemia, the Five Spot, the Half Note, and Bradley’s.

HALL:   The place where I first worked with Sonny Rollins was owned by the Termini Brothers – the Jazz Gallery.

TP:   Let’s start with your first trip to New York with Chico Hamilton and Basin Street, and the Bohemia. What was Basin Street like?  Do you recall the layout of the room or the ambiance?

HALL:   It was my first trip to New York as a musician, and the whole thing was kind of overwhelming.  It was Chico’s quintet, and I think Jerome Richardson played with us instead of Buddy Collette, because Buddy was doing the Groucho Marx television show or something. We played opposite Max Roach with Sonny Rollins and Clifford Brown, Richie Powell and George Morrow. As I remember, it was laid out like a big board meeting room or something, and there was a bar and lots of tables.  All kinds of people came in. One time I looked up, and Richie Powell was sitting there with his brother, Bud Powell.  Erroll Garner came in. Sammy Davis, Jr., came in and sat in on drums one night!  I don’t know how long the place lasted, though.

When I was with Jimmy Giuffre… Later on he was managed by Norman Granz. But there was a guy doing the booking whose name I can’t remember, but he also managed Mort Sahl, and Mort had a show on Broadway for about three weeks called The Next President.  Jimmy, Bob and I played there with Mort Sahl, and then we’d go down to the Bohemia and worked there, too.

TP:   What was the Bohemia like?  It was a big room on Barrow Street?

HALL:   Exactly.  It looked like a high school auditorium.  I remember there were lots of tables set up, and the bandstand was kind of raised in the back, like an auditorium, kind of.  As I said, we worked opposite Miles’ great group with Bill Evans.

TP:   What was the atmosphere like, the clientele?  I guess it was a lot different than Basin Street. Maybe not.

HALL:   This was all so new to me… I remember Stan Getz came in one night, and down in the dressing room he was trying out one of John Coltrane’s horns, and I played a couple of tunes with Stan.  Another time I remember Neshui and Ahmet Ertegun came in with Queen somebody… Her husband was King Hussein of Jordan, I think, and he had fired her because they couldn’t have kids together. So the Ertegun brothers came in with her, and I was sitting with Charlie Persip.  Charlie was working with Art Farmer someplace, and he came in to hear Miles’ band.  I said to Charlie, “You see that beautiful lady? That’s Queen Saroya (I think) of Jordan.” Charlie said, “No shit?”

Anyway, it was great working opposite Miles and…

TP:  Was the place full all the time?  I get the feeling reading about it that it was a very popular room, and all the cats would go down there to hear.

HALL:   Probably.  It was hard to have a perspective.  First of all, I did the show with Mort Sahl.  David Allyn sang on Mort’s show, too. The club didn’t have the coziness of the Vanguard, certainly, or the magic, I think.  It was more like a theater, I felt.  So was the Jazz Gallery, a bit.  They had an interesting background at the Gallery, though, with moving lights or something behind us.

TP:   Did you also play the Five Spot?

HALL:   Yes.  I remember it being crowded all the time, and very… I was staying at the Van Rensselaer Hotel in the Village at the time, and I worked opposite Ornette Coleman’s group there once with Jimmy.  It was Ornette and Charlie Haden and either Ed Blackwell or Billy Higgins, probably Billy. That was a thrill.  I also remember hearing George Russell play with a ten-piece group or so there. I remember the Five Spot as being small and kind of dark, and it seemed like the epitome of hipness, sort of.  Thelonious Monk came in one night. Then Leonard Bernstein came in; that was the time he jumped up on the stage and kissed Ornette or something. Cecil Taylor would sometimes come in late at night.  He and Buell Neidlinger were buddies, I think, and Cecil would play sometimes after work, or…
TP:   Sit in after the last set?
HALL:   Yeah.  It just seemed like an extremely hip place, that’s all.

TP:   The epitome of hipness is a nice phrase. What do you remember about Ornette being there?  That’s an engagement that sort of rocked the world.

HALL:   I guess.  I had known Ornette in California.  Actually, he was doing a date with Red Mitchell and Shelley Manne and Don Cherry.  Red was a close friend, and he invited me to the record date.  When I got there, I was in the control booth, and Red was sitting in the control booth, and they were playing without him.  Red was very controlling, and he kept asking Ornette, “Well, how many measures before this? How many bars?”  Ornette would say, “Just trust me.”  So Red got frustrated, and he bailed.  He was sitting in the control booth for a while. But I loved Ornette’s playing right away. I’d gone to a conservatory of music, and I heard Bartok and Hindemith and Schoenberg and all those people, so it didn’t surprise me.  But I loved his playing right from the start.  But it was great being around Ornette when he was kind of breaking ground.

Then John Lewis had Ornette and Don both up at the School of Jazz at Lenox…

TP:   Oh, I forgot that you were on Jazz Abstractions.

HALL:   Right.  And John would bring in ringers to go to this music school.  It was every summer for two or three weeks, I think, at the end of the summer up at Lenox.  He got Don Cherry and Ornette there as students, and Attila Zoller was there as a student, Gary McFarland… It was kind of a rich period. But obviously, you don’t realize it when you’re living it.

TP:   Of course not.  What were the Termini Brothers like?

HALL:   They were great.

TP:   Soulful guys?

HALL:   Yeah, they were just nice guys. When I was a kid, all the club owners were these guys with the broken nose and cigars and stuff, and the Termini Brothers seemed like they would have been good neighbors or they could run a grocery store, or something like that.  Really nice.

TP:   And you played with Sonny at the Jazz Gallery.

HALL:   I  did. It was on St. Marks Place just east of the Bowery.

TP:   I know you played at the Half Note quite a bit.

HALL:   Yes.

TP:   It seems that all the musicians enjoyed playing there.

HALL:  It was really relaxed, and the Canterinos, Mike and Sonny, they were great. The bar made a sort of oval around the bandstand, and they had this great guy, Al the waiter, who wore this tuxedo all the time, and he would kind of drag his feet when he walked, and he would call out orders. It’s probably on some records. He’d say, “Son-ny!!” when he wanted beers or something.

TP:   Is he the guy who would always light people’s cigarettes?

HALL:   Yes.  We called him “the torch” sometimes.

TP:   Back when you got to town, all the clubs went to 4 a.m., right? Three sets, 2 a.m. last set?

HALL:   Yeah.  When I worked at the Five Spot, they had this Budweiser clock right above the bandstand that would kind of circle around slowly, and I’d look at the clock and it would say 20 of 3, and I’d play about an hour, we’d play an hour, and I’d look up and it would say 15 minutes to 3!  I think it went to 4.  You played long.

TP:   And the Half Note was isolated, so it had to be a destination.

HALL:   That’s right.  It wasn’t in the heart of things at all.

TP:   It seems the mid ‘60s is when a lot of the small piano rooms downtown cropped up.  But Bradley’s, the Knickerbocker, Village Corner.

HALL:   I wasn’t a regular at Bradley’s, but I did hear a lot of… I heard Jimmy Rowles there with Red Mitchell, and stuff like that.  The Knickerbocker somehow seemed not as important to me. Bradley’s was a fun hangout, and I liked Bradley, and I got to know Sam Jones really well there.  In fact, when Sam was dying… Sam was a big fan of boxing, so anything having to do with boxing, I cut it out of the newspaper and would mail it to him.

TP: In the ‘60s and ‘70s, were there other places you’d wind up trying to get to?

HALL:   Just to hear music?  On the one hand, I loved Zoot Sims and Al Cohn, and they were at the Half Note a lot.  The Half Note moved uptown or to midtown for a while, but it didn’t seem to gel. I played there with Paul Desmond, Ben Riley and Ron Carter, and we played opposite the Bill Evans Trio there.  I remember the Cantorino brothers and the old man wearing tuxedos. They were all dressed up. That seemed kind of weird to me.

TP: How did the clubs in New York differ from the clubs in L.A. and Cleveland?

HALL:   I’m not sure. In Cleveland there was a club called Lindsay’s Sky Bar that was very hip. I heard everybody there. It was a bit like the Vanguard.  It was small and dark, and I heard Charlie Parker there. I heard Art Tatum. I heard Red Norvo with Tal Farlow; that’s where I heard Tal.  I heard Stuff Smith; that was great.  That was a very hip club. There were a couple of them in Cleveland. Later I heard Charlie Parker with Miles Davis and Max Roach at a different club. So there was stuff to hear.

But for some reason, my brain always goes to the Vanguard.  The sinkhole!  I mean that in a good way.  You go down there, and you’re in an environment. After I spoke with you the first time, I made a list of all the people I had heard there and stuff.  I lost part of it.  But Jesus, I remember hearing Jack Teagarden there, and Slam Stewart was playing with him. I heard Ben Webster there. When Giuffre was playing at the Bohemia, Ben Webster was at the Vanguard, and I went over before I knew him.  Oh, and I think I worked opposite Mike Nichols and Elaine May.  Irwin Corey was there a lot, and I remember hearing Lenny Bruce there.  I think Mort Sahl, but I’m not sure.  I heard Wes Montgomery there with Paul Chambers and Wynton Kelly, I think. And I worked in a duet with Miles’ group with Wynton and Jimmy Cobb and Paul and Hank Mobley.

TP:   So you’ve been working at the Vanguard for almost fifty years.

HALL:   Seems like it!

TP:   Has it changed?  New sound system, they removed a post…

HALL:   I’ll have to check with Jed about this, or maybe you could, but there was a Japanese company that came in, and they wanted to get the sound of the Village Vanguard somehow, and they measured it from top to bottom, everything, and then as a payoff they gave them a new sound system.  So that changed the whole thing!  It cracked me up.

TP:   For better or worse?

HALL:   I really don’t know. I’ve just always enjoyed playing there somehow.

TP:   What does it? Is it the spirit?  The sound?

HALL:   The sound is good. It’s mostly just the ambiance, all the pictures on the wall.  So many memories.  And Max Gordon sitting in the back there.  And that kitchen is… Talk about magic meeting.  One time, on Paul Desmond’s birthday, my daughter cooked something for his birthday, and afterwards my wife and I and Paul went to the Vanguard. Thelonious Monk was working there before his son. I think Thelonious was not doing too well then. It’s the only time I’ve ever had a conversation with Monk, was with Paul Desmond and Thelonious.

TP:   And you’ve continued to play there steadily since ‘57 or ‘58.

HALL:   Right.  I remember hearing Joe Lovano with Bill Frisell and Motian there. That almost got me in a fight with Stanley Crouch later on. He put them down… I saw Stanley and Wynton Marsalis on Charlie Rose, and Stanley was pontificating, and they started putting down Miles Davis by his later bands. Stanley said, “I could tell he was going out by the way he was dressing?”  I thought, “Shit, what about Duke Ellington?” That really infuriated me, and I thought especially Wynton to say anything negative about Miles, and Miles opened so many doors for people… I always thought Miles could play silence better than most people could play notes. So I went in to hear the trio with Lovano and Bill Frisell and Paul Motian, and I was knocked out. I came outside, and Stanley was outside.  He said , “Oh, Jim Hall, down there listening to that junior music, huh.” So that got me bugged, and I started arguing with him.   P.S., Stanley called me the next day to have lunch after we had a shout-out!

TP:   Are clubs different now than they were when you first hit New York?  Are the audiences different? The general run of clubowners… But you don’t play that many other clubs.

HALL:   The Blue Note sometimes, and the new Birdland. Somehow the Vanguard… Maybe it’s because it’s underground. But somehow it seems like home to me.

TP:   There’s something about it that is jazz, nothing but jazz…

HALL:   Exactly.  I was working there once with Don Thompson and either Elliott Zigmund, or maybe Ben Riley, a trio, and some guy came down the stairs and robbed Cliff Lauder at the door with a gun while we were playing “Body and Soul” or something.

TP:   But the Vanguard has stayed the same pretty much.

HALL:   It really has.

TP:   It’s so rare in 2004-05 to have anything similar to what it was 20 years ago, even 50 years ago.

HALL:   Part of me likes to move forward and not live in the past, but nevertheless, the Vanguard has so much poignancy and nostalgia.  Did I tell you about Lorraine Gordon and Henry Kissinger? Jed told me that Havel was there, and a few minutes into the set Henry Kissinger came down the stairs and Lorraine wouldn’t let him in!  She said, “You can’t come in; the set’s already started.”

TP:   I think eventually she let him in, but made him pay.

HALL:   She said, “Okay, that will be thirty dollars.”

TP:   Who are you going to play with on your night?

HALL:   I’m not sure yet.  I might just do it as a duo. Maybe Henry Kissinger will come in and make a speech.  He says, “Perhaps you don’t know who I am.” She said,”Oh, I know all about you; that’s part of the problem.” You’ve got to love that, no matter what kind of pain in the ass she is.

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A 2006 Downbeat feature on Bucky and John Pizzarelli (it’s Bucky’s 86th Birthday)

7-string guitar master Bucky Pizzarelli turns 86 today. In 2006, DownBeat gave me an opportunity to write a feature piece on Bucky and his son, the guitarist-singer John Pizzarelli, which I’ve appended below.

* * *

Some fathers and sons bond over sports or cars or tools. But John “Bucky” Pizzarelli, Jr. and John Pizzarelli, III, keep Oedipal tensions at bay with music.

Both taught early on by Bucky’s uncles, each a pro, the Pizzarellis made their first 7-string duo dates for Stash in 1979 and 1984, and continued the dialogue on six disks for different labels between 1995 and 2001. As John’s career as a singer-entertainer evolved through the ‘90s, he deployed Bucky’s unparalleled rhythm guitar skills on various Telarc projects, most recently Thank You, Mr. Sinatra.

They celebrated their shared obsession at a recent taping of the the younger Pizzarelli’s syndicated radio show at Nola Studios in Midtown Manhattan on Passover Eve, marking Bucky’s eightieth birthday with a listen-and-talk session centered around his numerous influences and career landmarks.

“That’s the chords of ‘China Boy,’” Bucky remarked, as the opening bars of Wild Cat, a 1928 Eddie Lang-Joe Venuti barnburner, came through his headphones. He sat facing his son and singer Jessica Molaskey, his daughter-in-law, across a narrow rectangular table in a cramped cubicle.

“I like when they go from G7 right down with whole tones,” he continued, as Venuti swung wild violin variations, propelled by Lang’s propulsive guitar pump. “Want to buy a guitar?”

“That’s what we used to do in car rides all over the nation,” John announced on mike. “I’d make tapes like this, and he was a captive audience. That’s how I got my father to actually speak to me. Now, what guitar did Eddie Lang play? For ten points!”

“The L5 Gibson.”

“Who’s the guy I met in Salt Lake City?”

“Oh, Alvino Ray. He had one.”

“Alvino Ray told me that two of the first Lloyd Loar L5s were sent to Eddie Lang. He had Alvino Ray up to the hotel room, and said, ‘This one is great, but the finish is a little cracked on this one, so you can have it.’ Alvino showed it to me in Salt Lake City about a year before he died.

“It’s a good thing he didn’t show it to Bucky, because he wouldn’t have it any more,” Molaskey said..

“He knew. I called and said, ‘I saw the Alvino Ray guitar,’ and you were like you had seen it.”

“When I was with Vaughan Monroe on the Camel Caravan many years ago, he played Flight of the Bumble Bee on that thing. It had a big, thick neck on it, because he liked classical guitar.”

“That’s the only thing he changed. So it’s a one-of-a-kind guitar.”

Similar Bob-and-Ray meets Nick-and-Nora banter marked the ensuing 80 minutes, as Bucky—a first-call New York studio player from 1954 to 1970 who embarked on a still-efflorescent second act as a combo, solo and duo 7-string specialist—rattled off the guitar models of Freddie Greene, Tony Mottola and Carmen Mastren; told first-hand anecdotes about Ray Charles, Paul Simon, Julie London, Rosemary Clooney, and Les Paul; offered concise histories of Carl Kress, Dick McDonough, George Van Epps, and Zoot Sims; and parsed aesthetics with blunt, erudite precision.

Later, in Nola’s Studio A, father and son had much more to say.

[BREAK]

TP:   Tell me about your family background.

BUCKY:   My grandfather came from Abruzzi, and just by accident he went back, and my mother was born in Italy after they settled in America. My father was born in the States.

TP:   Your uncles, Pete and Bobby Domenick, played mandolin and banjo. Did they come out of an Italian vernacular music tradition?

BUCKY:   No. They wanted to Americanize us, so they never even taught us the language.

TP:   One was a professional musician and the other had a day job.

BUCKY:   Pete worked 35 years in the office at Barbers Linen & Thread in Paterson, New Jersey. On weekends, he played gigs – weddings mostly. Bobby, the younger brother, got to play with all the bands.

JOHN:   Well, Pete insisted on it. Pete sent him out.

BUCKY:  He went on the road with Teddy Powell and Bob Chester, with whom he did a great record called Octave Jump. They played in a band at the Meadowbrook led by Frank Dailey. They had local guys, and Joe Mooney was the arranger. What impressed me most is that it was the Depression, people didn’t have enough money to buy two eggs, and these musicians were all dressed up all the time and driving nice cars. They made $50 a week, $35 a week in a big band! So I wanted to do what Bobby was doing. I have pictures of him and Buddy Rogers on a polo field, the whole band standing there in suits with black-and-white shoes.

TP:   How old were you when started gigging?

BUCKY:   Around 15. $3 and $5 jobs. I made 20 bucks on my first New Year’s Eve gig.

TP:   John, were you aware as a kid of all this history that informed what your father was doing?

JOHN:   No. Slam Stewart stayed with us, and I knew he was a great player, but I had no idea he’d played with Art Tatum and everything else. Zoot Sims was the swingingest tenor player I’d ever heard, but we had so much fun with him, it was just, “Hey, Zoot Sims is over.” Benny Goodman is when all time stopped in the house. When he played nearby and they said, “Come over for dinner” and he accepted, it was a big deal. We had to wait upstairs and get out of the way. Everybody was on their best behavior. But we had Jimmy Rowles, Joe Venuti, Les Paul, Joe Pass. Joe Pass played the guitar in front of me when I was 15, and I remember going, “Jesus, I never heard that.” With his two fingers, not a pick. I figured, “I’ve got to get in on this.” I had to learn their tunes to talk to these guys.

BUCKY:   He fit right in.

JOHN:   Bucky was one of the lucky ones, because he figured out how to continue to make a living when it wasn’t that popular. He wasn’t a big star. But I loved what he did, I’d go to gigs, and I thought it was the greatest thing I ever saw. It still is.

TP:   Bucky, you were born the same year as John Coltrane, Jimmy Heath and Randy Weston. Did bebop attract you?

BUCKY:  It did, but I couldn’t make a living playing bebop. Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie were fantastic. But I hear 26 alto players and I couldn’t name you one of them. I always told myself, “Duke Ellington never played bebop and neither did Count Basie,” and that’s what I went by.

TP:   John, were you attracted to Coltrane, Wayne Shorter, Weather Report?

JOHN:  No. The hippest thing we had was Kind of Blue. We also had Seven Steps To Heaven with Ron Carter, Tony Williams and everyone else.

BUCKY:   See, I was playing a lot of classical guitar. Miles made a record of Rodrigo.

TP:   Sketches of Spain.

BUCKY:   Right. If you heard Julian Bream’s original recording of Concierto De Aranjuez, you wouldn’t like Miles. I’m telling the truth. That beautiful guitar solo is what I go by. Now, Gil Evans wrote a beautiful arrangement for Miles. Miles couldn’t hit a wrong note. Whatever he did, worked.

TP:   Did you have any formal education?

BUCKY:   No. It’s whatever I learned from my uncle, or stole from guys I met. I always met somebody that I got something from.

TP:   Your experience was not dissimilar.

JOHN: I spent ten years at the University of Bucky Pizzarelli. In 1980 we did the Pierre Hotel for 8 weeks, 7 to 11, and I knew six songs. By the end, I had a repertoire. I did four-hour solo gigs by myself, so I had to learn tunes. Then I learned single note playing after three or four years of just playing the chords. It helped me learn how to harmonize songs I didn’t know, which was the most valuable lesson of all.

TP:   A lot of guitar players say they want to phase like a horn and not guitaristically.

BUCKY:  George Barnes played that way. But I think you have to go with what’s coming out of your guitar. My style is to keep everything in three notes in the chord. I syncopate them any way I want, and whatever we’re playing is always in the chord.

JOHN:   Django and George Barnes and Les Paul before the multi-track each had that similar, right-on-top-of-the-beat Charlie Christian attack. With George Barnes I love the  idea that if he plays one note, it’s going to swing its ass off. It’s not about the guitar being a horn. That’s how I can get around being less educated than these kids I heard when I judged the Thelonious Monk competition. They played beautiful solos on Isfahan; they can play rings around everybody, because they’ve been educated to learn all these modes. Every time the chord shifts a half, they can find it. But I find that younger players lack the idea to play one note and attack it.

BUCKY:   Swing it. Above that, there was a guy called George Van Eps, who played all by himself, and it was like heaven when he played any kind of song. His harmonies…  Nobody is ever going to play like that.

TP:   You inherited his mantle as a 7-string player.

BUCKY:  That’s where I got it. When you made up solos on 6-string, you played in open keys where you had an open string. Johnny Smith used to tune down to D, so he would have a string to give him a bass note. With 7-string, you can play in any key you want, and get a beautiful note. You get D-flat, low C, C-flat…

TP:   You seem like an encyclopedia of harmony.

BUCKY:   Well, that’s the whole thing! I don’t write anything down. I try to get it all in my body. Then when I have to play, it’s there.

JOHN:   He has a basic sense of what the harmonies are supposed to do. I’ve heard him learn songs four different times over the 25 years, and come up with another way out of the woods. He doesn’t want to get too crazy with the harmonies either. But he always wants to make sure there’s a bass note with the chord.

TP:   Bucky, did you ever sing like your son?

BUCKY:   Never did.

TP:   Do you know the lyrics?

BUCKY:   No. Gee, Baby, Ain’t I Good To You, that’s about as far as I go. It’s a short song.

JOHN:   But  there’s a way he plays the melody on ballads. He approaches Body and Soul like Coleman Hawkins does, but the way he plays it on the guitar is so right. The ballad things. On Polka Dots and Moonbeams or These Foolish Things, the way he milks the melody, there’s a class to it that’s untouched.

TP:   Bucky, you don’t mind staying in the background. You can play just rhythm guitar and be very happy.

BUCKY: Rhythm guitar is more important than the guy playing the melody sometimes. I make records with a lot of guitar players, and I’m very content to play in the background.

TP:   But you, John, have an extroverted personality.

JOHN:   Yeah, it’s like Pete and Bobby. They were real crazy guys, and he’s always been studious and smart!

TP:   But you’re also a studious and learned guitar player. Are you content to just play rhythm guitar?

JOHN:   If it’s a good band, I’ll do it in a heartbeat. I like playing rhythm with my brother Martin because he plays the bass like the way rhythm guitar should be. I always thought we play ballads really well because we learned it from him.

BUCKY:   A lot of the new guitar players don’t know how to play rhythm.

TP:   Is it a lost art?

BUCKY:   Yes. When the bands died out, nobody wanted to play rhythm any more. Today, when your kid goes to school, “I wrote this and I’m going to play this, and I’ll make an album of my own music,” and [SINGS SEQUENCE OF 16th NOTES], all over the place.

JOHN: They don’t even learn to comp behind soloists.

BUCKY: Turn around and comp.

JOHN: Or play behind a singer.  An 8-bar solo. He does that better than anybody. If I say, “Just noodle underneath the singer,” he knows what to do.

BUCKY: When they stop, you jump in. If they don’t stop, you’ve got to get out of the way.

JOHN: You hear him do all of that with Rosemary Clooney. He does the chords, accompanies her, and then plays single note lines underneath it.

TP:   Bucky, I don’t know exactly what you mean by “new guitar players.”

BUCKY: Well, the younger guys.

JOHN:   [LAUGHS] But you’re 80!

TP:   You’ve done so many records in the last 6-7 years, it’s impossible to claim anything as your latest…

JOHN:   I can’t keep up with him.

TP:   But your new DVD with Frank Vignola [Favorite Solos, Mel-Bay] blew me away.

BUCKY: But what did I do on that? I just played rhythm behind him. I only improvise on one number, Moonglow.

JOHN: Frank’s a banjo player.

BUCKY:   Frank’s got that wrist.

JOHN: Howard Alden, too.

TP:   What do you think of the European Django players, the new Gypsy Swing people?

BUCKY:  There are so many of them, they cancel each other out. They learn the solos from the record. We don’t. We have to formulate those solos, make them work.

TP:   As a kid, did you learn solos from records, like Charlie Christian solos?

BUCKY:   I think I got halfway through Rose Room that he played with Benny Goodman.

TP:   But you told John to learn Django’s solo on Rose Room.

JOHN: He never learned any of that.

BUCKY:   I could never do it.

JOHN:   You learned the songs, though, like Sweet Chorus and Tears. Also Solo Flight.

BUCKY:   Yeah, I recorded that, just the solo. No chords on it.

JOHN:   He was playing it backstage with Tal Farlow. Tal said, “Yeah, it was the first thing I learned,” and they played it together, note-for-note, at the same time.

BUCKY:   Charlie Christian was a big, big factor. I had Charlie Christian on those 78s. The bartender let me take them home. I played them on my victrola.

TP:   It must feel great to be able to express yourself on recordings in so many different contexts.

BUCKY:   When I do what I want to do on a guitar, yes, it feels great. Sometimes it doesn’t come out the way you want it. Playing an instrument makes you get up for whatever you have to do. If it’s going to be a bossa-nova, you’ve got to do this; for a swing thing, do that; for a ballad, do that; behind a singer, it’s something else.

TP:   You make it sound very simple.

JOHN:   It’s not simple.

BUCKY:   You know what the hardest thing is? Playing four-four rhythm on a slow ballad. It is! BOOM. [REST] CHICK [REST] BOOM [REST] CHICK. And make it…

TP: I want to rush while you’re saying it!

BUCKY: [LAUGHS]     That’s what I mean.

JOHN:   There’s a great record of Prelude To A Kiss where he did that. Dave Grusin made an  Ellington record, and he plays rhythm. Norris Turney played it.

BUCKY:   It’s in a movie.

TP:   What kind of guy was Vaughan Monroe?

BUCKY:   Oh, great bandleader. He was a good musician. He sang, he read music, and he played good trumpet. had good… I just worked with the Moon Maids. They’re all pushing 80.

JOHN:   You had a big band and strings. Right?

BUCKY:   Well, we only had 6 strings, but when we did the radio show every Saturday, we added 6 more local guys.

TP:   But you were never a guitar soloist in that band?

BUCKY:   No. I played rhythm. I played The Third Man theme. [SINGS REFRAIN] It was in an Orson Welles movie, and it was the popular song on our show, so I played it about 6 weeks in a row. Whenever the band took a rest, I’d play Stompin’ At the Savoy or something like that, then the band would play the last chorus.

TP:   Another thing you mentioned learning from your father is presentation and comportment. Dressing clean.

JOHN:   That’s how his uncles were, too. He spent a lot of time with Uncle Pete, who was like his father, and Uncle Pete wore pressed shirts, tie, suspenders, gorgeous suits. A saved-his-money-and-looked-great guy.

TP:   It must be nice to get validation from Bucky Pizzarelli and his peer group.

JOHN:   He’s the hardest. I played rhythm on the James Taylor record of Mean Old Man [October Road]  and I played the verse on it. When I played him the record, he looked up and said, “Who’s playing rhythm?” “That’s me.” “Oh.” He knows the guitars and the players, and he thought, “Well, that’s got to be somebody.” That’s a good thing.

TP: He doesn’t sound at all overbearing.

JOHN:  I wanted to play guitar because I liked it. I had a good time playing with my friends, and we had equipment, so everybody wanted to come to my house. Every once in a while he’d say, “It goes like this.” He gave me little pointers here and there.

TP:   And he wouldn’t say “turn that shit off.”

JOHN:   He’d say “turn it down.” But never, “Turn that shit off.” Once I was listening to My Old School on a cassette in the dining room. There’s a lick he plays on the out chorus, and my father came in and said, “That’s the one you want to learn, because that’s the hot lick.”

I took Bucky to see Pat Metheny on the First Circle tour, and he really got it. I was crying, I thought it was so good. Pat would switch guitars, and my father kept saying, “Who’s the guy who comes out with the guitars?” “He’s the tech; he takes them and tunes them.” “He tunes them?!” Here’s Bucky with one guitar while this guy has 12. The synthguitar came out. He’d say, “Oh, he’s got the Screamer now.”  He said, “Oh, he gets a big, round classical sound. That’s great. How does he do that?”

TP:   Jim Hall had a great influence on Metheny and a lot of the guitarists of that  generation.

JOHN:   In the late ‘80s I  was in a trio that wanted to play a lot of Bill Evans songs, and they were always talking about Jim Hall, so I went to hear him with Gil Goldstein, Steve LaSpina and a drummer. I remember thinking, “Well, he’s Bill Evans.” It wasn’t ding-ding-a-ding Charlie Christian, even though he’s a huge Charlie Christian fan. Jim Hall was totally beyond me – in a good way. It’s like Van Eps is for us, Jim Hall is for other guys. He was one of the 12 guitarists at the table at the Thelonious Monk competition I judged. I said, “Why are you asking guitar players to learn Donna Lee? They should learn Slipped Disk.” He looked at me and goes, “Charlie Christian.” “They should be learning guitar pieces,” I said. Then I wasn’t allowed to speak any more. It was like, “No-no, they’re going to learn Donna Lee and they’re going to like it.” [BUCKY COMES IN AS JOHN SINGS REFRAIN]

BUCKY: Slipped Disk.

JOHN:   Yeah. I said, “That’s the guitar piece.”

BUCKY:   [SINGS REFRAIN]

JOHN:   7 Come 11.

BUCKY:   That’s guitaristic.

JOHN: Guitar players should learn guitar solos. That’s the history of the guitar. Charlie Parker is Charlie Parker. That’s the alto contest. It shouldn’t be the guitar contest.  There’s enough hard guitar shit to learn.

BUCKY:   That’s true.

JOHN:   Learn a Van Eps solo. Try that.

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John Abercrombie’s Uncut Downbeat Blindfold Test

It’s John Abercrombie’s birthday, giving me an excuse to post the complete proceedings of a Blindfold Test I conducted with him about ten years ago.  His responses were terrific.

* * *

John Abercrombie Blindfold Test (Raw Copy):

1.    James Blood Ulmer, “Sphinx” (from MUSIC SPEAKS LOUDER THAN WORDS, DIW/Koch, 1995/1997) (James Blood Ulmer, g.; Calvin Jones, b.; Rashied Ali, d.) – (5 stars)

I love the feel of this piece.  It reminds me a little bit of something from sort of semi Sonny Sharrock, but not really.  It could be one of these Albert Ayler tunes or something like that, something in that vein.  It sounds like somebody who’s playing with their thumb a little bit, but it’s not Wes!  It doesn’t really sound like him, I didn’t know he played anything this out, but it could be… Could it be Kevin Eubanks?  It sounds too harmonically oriented to be Sonny Sharrock, but that was still my first take on it.  It still could even be somebody like that, but… James Blood?  Wow!  This is great.  I don’t know that tune.  I have to get this.  I’ve heard some other stuff by Blood and I liked it.  I have some of this stuff where he was singing that I enjoyed, but I’ll have to get this.  This definitely sounds very hip to me.  Very open.  And it’s kind of funny; that’s why I thought it was Sonny Sharrock, because of some of the similarities.  He sounds to me more harmonic.  I hear more harmonic information in his playing.  It’s cool.  And I think he does sort of play with his thumb a little bit, because it’s got a little bit of that feel.  It’s plucky.  He chokes the notes a little bit, so it… I’ll give this 5 stars.  I still like it. [AFTER] Now that you tell me it was Rashied Ali, it makes total sense, because I played with him once, and he has a great way of playing a sort of open music.  you really feel like they’re playing on a form or something.  It really has a great swing, a pulse to it.  It’s not just free.  I think that’s what makes it work.  That’s what makes everything sound so great.

2.    Gerardo Nunez, “Calima” (from CALIMA, Alula, 1998) (Nunez, guitar; Danilo Perez, piano; John Patitucci, b; Arto Tuncboyaci, d) – (4 stars)

An acoustic guitar.  Two players or it’s overdubbed.  I hear other parts.  That first part with just the guitar overdubs was just impeccable technique, whoever it is.  I mean, it’s almost perfect technically.  But I can’t tell from that who it is.  I might know, not by the content of what he’s playing, but just somebody playing the guitar that well.  This sounds like a Spanish Classical piece.  I’ll make a stab.  It’s not that guy Fareed Haque, is it?  Fareed is so technically proficient, that that’s what this kind of reminded me of.  The little bit I’ve heard him play Classical stuff, he has that kind of flawless technique.  I like it.  The beginning was beautiful, and this has a nice rhythm feel.  The approach of the guitar player… It sounds like everything’s almost kind of written, or it’s things you would include in a Classical or a Flamenco technique.  But it’s not a famous Flamenco player, I don’t think.  Now you’ve piqued my interest.  It’s not Paco, is it?  I’ve heard Paco do things that are kind of like this, with hand drums and of course that kind of technique is akin to a Flamenco player.  So it’s definitely somebody Spanish.  I can’t guess.  It’s very nice, but I can’t figure out who it is.  I’ll give it 4 stars for the really great feel.  Flawless guitar technique.  Wow.

3.    Jim Hall-Dave Holland, “End The Beguine” (from JIM HALL & BASSES, Telarc, 2001) (Hall, g; Holland, b) – (3-1/2 stars)

The bass player almost sounds like it could be Dave Holland, playing one of his little… But it’s probably not.  The only reason I mentioned Dave Holland (and I don’t think it’s Dave) is because I’ve played little pieces with Dave where it has this kind of feel.  Dave writes some of these little Indianesque-sounding, Arabian… The bass player does sound like he has some of Dave’s rhythmic concept, but I don’t know who… [Why don't you think it's Dave?] I don’t know.  I have to listen more.  I have to hear him solo to really know.  [Can you glean anything from the guitar player?] I’m not gleaning well right now.  It’s someone who’s Dave-like, but I don’t think it’s Dave.  The sound is not quite what I’m used to hearing; Dave has a bigger sound.  But then, he could be recorded differently.  And Dave usually sounds a little punchier.  And also Dave has certain rhythmic phrases that he does, because I’ve played with him so much, and I didn’t hear any of those.  But it does have an aura of that. It’s Dave?  Wow.  The guitar sounds like a 12-string.  I thought maybe it was Gismonti playing the 12-string, but I don’t think he and Dave ever played together. But the opening thing didn’t sound anything like something Gismonti would play.  That sounded more jazzy.  This is definitely somebody who’s a jazz player of sorts.  I know it’s not Ralph Towner, because it’s not good enough to be Ralph Towner playing 12-string. [LAUGHS] It’s good, but it’s not like what Ralph would play.  I don’t know if he started out on this instrument.  Did he change… No, there it is.  It’s all the same instrument.  I’m not going to get it. Can you give me a hint? [You're going to feel bad if you don't know who it is.] Oh, I think I know who it is now.  See, that’s all you had to say.  It’s Jim.  This sounds so different than what I’m used to hearing Jim play.  Harmonically and rhythmically, some of the chords… Now it does make sense that it’s Jim to me.  But at first it didn’t.  Maybe I still have Blood’s music in my head.  Because the opening, the first reading of the opening sounded a little Delta-like.  I got Dave, though.  I was pretty sure.  This is that album where Jim plays all the different duets.  I haven’t heard it.  Not that I have to, but I’ve never heard Jim play a 12-string guitar.  It’s not the instrument he normally would play.  It’s not the most interesting thing I’ve heard Jim do, but it’s still good, and I needed a hint from you to actually figure out who it was, although I was pretty good about Dave.  3-1/2 stars.  I think if I had heard him play on an electric guitar, with his more rounded tone and the tone I’m used to, playing a similar thing, I would have probably nailed it.  But like you said, it was hearing him play that instrument.

4.    Arsenio Rodriguez, “Rhapsodia del Maravilloso” (from Sabu, PALO CONGO, Blue Note, 1957/1999) (Rodriguez, guitar; “Sabu” L. Martinez, Raul Travieso, Israel Travieso, Ray Romero, congas; Ernesto Baro, bass) – (5 stars)

That’s a different instrument, too.  That’s either a 12-string or a tres.  A tres.  I got it.  That’s not Arsenio Rodriguez, is it?  I love this stuff.  The main reason I know about him, when I used to work years ago in a band called Dreams, was a trombone player who passed away named Barry Rogers, and Barry’s second instrument was the tres.  He used to play trombone and tres with a lot of the Latin bands, and he played me some Arsenio Rodriguez and said this was the cat.  This is more in the context of a rhythm section, but the bass player is very strongly prominent here, too.  This sounds not unlike the duet with Jim Hall and Dave Holland, in a strange way, because the tres is a double-stringed kind of instrument, if I’m not mistaken.  This gets 5 stars.  I’m not surprised I got it. But once I figured out what the instrument was… I know Wes didn’t record on tres!  I can make jokes.  But I know that other people didn’t, so it has to be either the heavyweight guy or somebody I didn’t know.  Beautiful music.

5.    Nels Cline-Gregg Bendian, “Mars” (from INTERSTELLAR SPACE, Atavistic, 1999) (Cline, el.g; Bendian, drums) – (3 stars)

Definitely sounds like a real free electric guitar player, but somebody with a lot of chops.  I don’t recognize… Wow.  Twisted.  I like it.  I can’t tell from the content of what he’s playing who it is. [Do you have any idea of what it is they're playing?] I may know it.  I’ll listen a little bit more.  That part sounds like a tune!  There are a lot of guys I haven’t heard maybe that much.  Could it be Vernon Reid?  I don’t know.  It’s too jazzy to be Vernon.  Vernon would be more like Hendrix and Rock.  This has that tone, but it’s obviously somebody who’s played… [It's a West Coast player.] Now I know who it is.  Nels Cline.  Nels is the only guy I know on the West Coast guitar-wise who would play something that might sound like this.  It sounds great.  For my ears there could be a little more dynamics, but I’m not playing it.  It maintains a real high density level at all times.  Which I enjoy playing more than I enjoy listening to, I think.  But I like it.  It’s definitely got some harmonic knowledge and some lines that he’s using… I’ll give it 3 stars. [This is "Mars" from INTERSTELLAR SPACE] Oh, I would never get that!

6.    David Fiuczynski, “Down Under” (from CHARTBUSTERS, Hip-Bop, 1995) (Fiuczynski, guitar; Dr. Lonnie Smith, organ; Lenny White, drums) – (4 stars)

Nice guitar tone.  I like the tone.  It’s over-driven, but in a nice sort of sweet way.  I like that. That part sounded like something Scofield would play.  Amazing technique.  All these lines here are pure Scofield.  Pretty pure.  But the other stuff isn’t.  He’s a funny composite of things, real blues-drenched, a great tone, some real heavy… Those lines didn’t sound… Super slinky technique.  Amazing.  Some of it sounds pretty original.  He definitely sounds like a pastiche of a lot of different players, but amazing control.  This sounds like Larry Young almost.  Dr. Lonnie.  I could tell by these sort of broken arpeggiated things he does that kind of go across the keys.  That’s beautiful.  Now I can guess on the guitar player, and it may be a wrong guess.  Is it Paul Bollenbeck?  I’ve heard Paul play things that are technically like speed of light.  This guy’s got speed-of-light technique.  Definitely 4 stars. [AFTER] Fiuczynski!  He sounds amazing.  He really does.  It’s amazing technique.  Great lines.  Some of them directly culled from the Scofield vocabulary.  Sounds great.  Like I say, he’s a pastiche of many things.  But he sure has picked some good things to put in his trick bag.

7.    Russell Malone, “Heartstrings” (from HEARTSTRINGS, Verve, 2001) (Russell Malone, g.; Kenny Barron, p.; Christian McBride, b; Jeff Watts, d.; strings; arr. Johnny Mandel) – (4-1/2 stars)

Another great guitar sound.  I like this sound.  This sounds a little more familiar to me.  I think I know who this is.  Is it Russell Malone?  I heard this actually driving in a car one time, and I was so taken with the pretty sound he got… It really is a lovely sound.  I distinctly remember it.  When I first heard it, I wasn’t sure who it was, so it was like in a blindfold test.  I was driving my car waiting for the announcer, and I was kind of going through my mind, and Russell’s name was one of the names that popped into my head.  I don’t know his playing that well.  I’ve only heard him on a couple of things, but this is the best thing I’ve heard him do with his tone.  His solo is very bluesy, more than I’m used to hearing him play.  Maybe he’s more of a bluesy player than I realize.  I haven’t checked him out that much.  Isn’t he from Georgia?  I thought the solo was really good.  The time when I did hear this record in my car, this is exactly the tune I heard, and I was struck not only by the sound, but by some really interesting parts in the solo that I wasn’t expecting.  Because the solo has kind of a very laid-back, bluesy feel, and all of a sudden there’s these oddball notes and a couple of funny phrases.  So I thought it was a very good solo, well-constructed and a beautiful tone.  I’ll give it 4-1/2.

8.    Simon Shaheen, “Blue Flame” (from BLUE FLAME, 2001, Ark-21) (Simon Shaheen, oud; Bassam Saba, nay & fl.; Billy Drewes, ss; Adam Rodgers, ag; Francois Moutin, b; Lorenzo Martinez, bongos; Steve Sheehan, caxixi, brushes, cymbals, diembe, durbakka; Jamie Haddad, hadjira drum, cymbals, hadgini) – (5 stars)

It’s an oud.  There’s a couple of oud players I’ve heard, and one is the guy who records… I’ve heard a few.  I brought back some music from Istanbul.  But I can never pronounce this guy’s name.  Isn’t this Rabih… No?  Then maybe I don’t know who this person is.  There’s a couple of guys I used to listen to.  There’s a guy who records for ECM, Anwar, but he wouldn’t play this kind of stuff. This is more rhythmic; he’s more floaty, from what I’ve heard.  Then there’s the guy that used to make the records for Enja years ago, Rabih ..(?).. This is what it reminds me of.  I like the solo a lot, maybe more than the composition.  I like the feel of the composition, but I like the sound of the solo.  I like this part.  It’s really open. It’s almost like a jazz player playing oud.  But it’s not.  It’s an oud player playing oud.  It’s got a looseness to it, though.  Makes me want to play with a pick again, hearing some of these fast lines.  The solo was absolutely beautiful with the rhythm section.  It’s so loose.  It sounds like they’re playing in 5/4.  It takes me a while to figure out sometimes what the odd time signature is, but I’m pretty sure it was 5, which is a very hard time signature to play in — at least for me.  But it was so loose and so effortless.  And the sound of the oud, it’s like one of my favorite instruments.  It almost sounds like somebody took a classical guitar and tuned it down real low so the strings are really elastic.  It’s really one of the warmest instruments.  But this guy, I’m sorry I didn’t know him.  Now I’ll have to go and listen more to him.  5 stars.  It’s totally happening.  I wish I knew him.  Now I will know.

9.    Joe Morris, “Manipulatives” (from UNDERTHRU, Omnitone, 1999) (Morris, guitar; Mat Maneri, violin; Chris Lightcap, b.; Gerald Cleaver, d) – (3 stars)

This almost reminds me of something I did years ago with Barre Phillips and John Surman and Stu Martin.  I played on a couple of tunes on Barre’s record.  The rhythm section sounded like this, kind of in time but really kind of wacky.  This is kind of how I played back then!  It’s interesting, but I wish it was a little more cohesive somehow.  The rhythm section seems to be almost overpowering the soloist a bit.  It also could be the mix.  If you heard these guys play live, maybe it would be the opposite, or maybe it’s perfectly balanced, but it sounds a little more… The thing about this kind of playing to me is… Which is what I liked more about, say, the Blood Ulmer thing.  Even though that was rambling and a little wacky, it’s clear somehow.  It has a real cohesiveness.  This doesn’t have that.  This feels scattered, kind of.  It’s not my most favorite stuff.  It’s probably me!  I have no idea who he is.  I could make an educated guess. Joe Morris.  Wow!  I’m a good educated guesser.  I like this, but for me it lacks the cohesiveness of the Blood Ulmer thing or maybe even the Nels Cline thing you played me.  It’s in that same genre.  Well, my band can no doubt at times sound like this!  It sounds more balanced during the violin solo in terms of the actual sonic density of it.  This is another kind of music that maybe I like to play a little more than actually sit down and listen to it.  But because I play this way, I can appreciate it.  It’s fun to play this way and they sound good.  My educated guess for the violin player is Maneri.  But I don’t know him.  He sounds good.  Now the music is starting to gel for me.  Even though it’s more dense, it sounds better now.  3 stars. I like what they’re trying to do, but it doesn’t sound as cohesive as some of the other stuff to me.

10.    Kurt Rosenwinkel, “A Life Unfolds” (from THE NEXT STEP, Verve, 2000) (Rosenwinkel, guitar; Mark Turner, ts; Ben Street, bass; Jeff Ballard, drums) – (5 stars)

I’ve got to know this.  It’s probably a 7-string guitar.  Very nice.  Again, sometimes I go for the tone first.  Even if I’m not trying to figure out who it, almost all the players… Actually, everybody you played me today has a good tone, in their own way.  They’re all different, too.  Every one of them had a completely different approach to the tone of the guitar.  This sounds so familiar to me.  It’s a very nice composition.  It’s beautiful.  I think I know who this is.  I think it’s Kurt Rosenwinkel.  I know this.  This is from his second CD.  This is gorgeous.  I remember when bought this CD, and I liked the whole CD, but I remember when I got to this tune, I played it three or four times.  I had to hear it that many times.  This guy has got something that’s different.  I don’t know what the tuning is.  He’s definitely got the guitar retuned on the bottom on some lower strings.  You can hear them… A very clear but warm tone.  Again, I’m attracted to the tone, but he also is a very fluid, melodic player — lyrical, let’s say.  He also sings when he plays.  When I’ve heard him, he sings these little falsetto things.  Sometimes he’ll actually sing the lines, and he’s not just playing some blues ideas.  He’s playing some complicated lines and he sings with it.  So the response to that is he actually hears what he plays!  It’s amazing.  This is a great composition.  5 stars all the way.  Playing, composition…this is great.

11.    St. Germain, “Montego Bay Spleen” (from TOURIST, Blue Note, 2000) (Ernest Ranglin, g.; Ludovic Navarre, conductor; Alexandre Destrez, keyboards; Idresse Diop, talking drum; Carneiro, percussion) – (3 stars)

Nice groove, nice atmosphere.  It’s hard for me to tell who the guitar player is.  The actual guitar playing sounds a little more mainstream than I thought it would sound hearing the rhythm.  I thought the guitar player might play further out, but this is more in playing.  Very sparse.  He’s not playing a lot.  Sure it’s not one of my records?  No… What the hell was that?  That sounded like an edit.  I couldn’t tell; it was so strange. It’s strange, because most of what he’s playing is kind of straight, and then when he played these quirky lines, it didn’t seem to fit in with the rest of what he was playing.  This is a hard one to even make an educated guess at.  The tone is like a jazz guitar tone, a sort of brighter sound.  It’s not my favorite; I like a darker sound.  Well, that’s HIS sound.  I shouldn’t comment. But it sounds like a big guitar with sort of a bright sound, like a big jazz box — or at least a medium-size jazz box.  This one completely stumps me. 3 stars. Ernest Ranglin!  Sorry.  There’s no way I could get it.  I know the name.  Is he from Jamaica?

12.    Sylvain Luc & Bireli Lagrene, “Stompin’ At The Savoy” (from DUET, Dreyfuss, 1999) (Sylvain Luc, Bireli Lagrene, guitars) – (4 stars)

Acoustic guitar duo.  Wow, he’s so astute!  I like the way they’re breaking it up. The one guy is playing almost like a percussion instrument, tapping.  The guy playing the solo sounds very blues-like.  Good blues player.  Mmm!  I like this guitar player a lot.  Whoo!  I want to steal some of his lines.  Impeccable kind of technique, but very bluesy at the same time.  I mean, he’s not like somebody who I’d all of a sudden go, “Oh, that’s Wes or Kenny or Sco or Bill Frisell or Grant Green.”  A lot of this kind of playing… I think it’s great.  I totally admire it, and think it’s fantastic.  But it doesn’t have as much of an instantly identifiable thing.  It’s like amazingly great guitar playing.  Is this the second guy playing now?  I can’t tell.  I think maybe it’s the second guy.  It almost sounds like something I’ve heard before, but I can’t put my finger on it.  I mean, it’s “Stompin’ At The Savoy.”  I know the tune, but I don’t know the… Some of the other things you played me, I might know the player but not the tune.  Here I know the tune but not the players.  Is it Bireli Lagrene?  Yeah, and there’s another guy on this.  I’ve heard this before.  I think this is the other guy playing, but I can’t remember who it is.  Sylvain Luc.  Okay.  I may even have this.  It’s amazing playing. I’ll give it 4 stars because it maybe didn’t sound as original as some of the other things, but man, I wish I had those chops.

13.    Derek Bailey-John Butcher, “High Vortex” (from VORTICES AND ANGELS, Emanem, 1992/2001) (Bailey, guitar; Butcher, ss) – (4 stars)

Sounds like my train is here!  I’d better run and get to the platform.  It’s the 5:07; it’s in early.  I’m trying to figure out if the instrument on the right is actually a guitar, whether it’s processed, or if the bass is being bowed… Derek Bailey?  It’s a horn.  Is it a horn?  I can’t tell. Soprano saxophone?  Then maybe it’s somebody like Evan Parker.  No?  Somebody whose name I probably know, but wouldn’t be able to… [He's English] I figured he’d be a gentleman.  I’m sure when I hear his name, I’ll know it.  I may even have played with the guy, because I’ve played with some English musicians.  This is the kind of thing that unless you really listen to this music a lot, it would be hard to tell.  But it’s instantly identifiable as Derek Bailey…because he’s instantly identifiable! [LAUGHS] It’s the least guitar-like in terms of what most of the world thinks of as guitar playing, but I knew who it was pretty quickly, whereas some of the other things I wouldn’t know, especially when it’s amazing feats of technique.  I’m impressed with that.  But I know who he is when I hear him.  So that’s kind of an interesting take on it all — style or being able to recognize somebody, even if it’s just abstract, in comparison to what you played before. I’m really nice today.  I’ll give it 4 stars.  I like it.  He sustains a mood that’s kind of interesting. It’s like free playing that’s sort of… You can go on for a long time, because the density is not so dense as a couple of the other things you played for me, that are hard to listen to.  It’s very quiet, it’s almost chamber-like, so you can listen to it and get inside it.

14.    Mark Elf, “Cheek To Cheek” (from DREAM STEPPIN’, Jen-Bay, 2002) (Elf, guitar; Neal Miner, b; Lewis Nash, d.) – (3 stars)

“Cheek to Cheek.”  Again, I know the tune.  We’ll see if I know the player.  But this sounds like somebody, just from the outset, who’s a real traditionalist.  Nice-a feel, like Lawrence Welk used to say.  They’ve got a good feeling.  This could be a lot of different people.  Again, it’s not one of the major guys that I grew up listening to.  It’s not Tal or Jimmy Raney, but it has that kind of sound.  It sounds like a more modern recording.  Nice.  It’s someone who kind of bridges.. They’re a bebopper, but they’ve also got a swing kind of feel to it.  Is it somebody like Howard Alden?  It’s great playing.  I just don’t know… It could be several different people.  That’s why I mentioned Howard.  But yeah, this is maybe a little more bebop than Howard, a little more Howard.  This has a little bit of that swing feel.  He loves the eighth note, and he manages to play just about every one.  There’s a little space.  It’s not somebody like Cal Collins, is it?  There’s a lot of these guys whose playing I’m sort of familiar with, but I don’t really know them that well. [He's not a Concord artist] Then I wouldn’t know him.  If it’s not ECM or Concord, I’m screwed.  It’s none of the guys I really know.  And I don’t think it’s someone like Bucky Pizzarelli, because he doesn’t play this many lines.  It’s not someone I know.  It’s not Jack Wilkins.  That’s a modern voicing.  Wow!  It’s got me stumped.  I don’t recognize the bass player and drummer particularly.  Everybody is good, but nothing is grabbing me.  It’s funny, he sort of ends with something a little more modern, a little harmonically different.  The other playing was pretty inside, in a way.  It’s very good, but it didn’t strike a bell with me.  3 stars.

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Filed under Blindfold Test, DownBeat, guitar, John Abercrombie

Uncut Blindfold Test With Vernon Reid, Who Turns 53 Today

To mark guitar giant Vernon Reid’s 53rd birthday, I’m posting the uncut proceedings of a DownBeat Blindfold Test that he sat for a few years back on the occasion of the release of Birthright, an unaccompanied Ulmer recording that he produced, following the ensemble dates Memphis Blood: The Sun Sessions (2001) and No Escape from the Blues: The Electric Lady Sessions (2003).

* * *

1. Henry Threadgill, “Biggest Crumb” (from MAKE A MOVE: EVERYBODY’S MOUTH’S A BOOK, Pi, 2001) (Threadgill, as, comp; Brandon Ross, eg; Bryan Carrott, vb; Stomu Takeishi, eb: Dafnis Prieto, d) (4 stars)

I said before I was not going to try to guess, because I’ll get it all wrong.  But this is very reminiscent of a period of jazz and improvised music… It’s very much in the Henry Threadgill-Anthony Davis… I sort of would take a stab at guessing the guitarist. I think maybe Brandon Ross, maybe Michael Gregory… The thing about it is the sense of space, the sense of giving each note a kind of weight. Which comes from… There’s a certain kind of power in applying one’s chops in that way, to give each note its dignity, if you will. This reminds me of a certain time period, or a certain school of composition, very much like Oliver Lake, Henry Threadgill… It’s the kind of thing that Jay Hoggard used to do. There are other players that have come up, like Ben Monder, who… I mean, Ben Monder is absolutely outrageous.  Or Jef Lee Johnson, who’s another monster, has an unbelievable amount of chops, but is also able to give each note a kind of dignity.  I don’t mean that in any pompous or stiff kind of way, but more like the space around the notes really has an important sense of weight. I would say Frisell is another player, in a completely different way than the school I’m talking about… But he’s another practitioner of that, giving weight to the notes, a kind of dignified weight. I loved it. I don’t want to be too easy a marker, but I would give it 4 stars. [AFTER] It’s a school that I have a great deal of respect for. I love it. I think about a whole bunch of cats, like Baikida Carroll.  Jerome Harris, who’s a phenomenal bassist-guitarist and one of my personal heroes, is part of that whole crew. Even cats like Tim Berne… There’s a thing about giving space and angles. It’s very angled and pointillistic. Very astringent. Not sentimental at all, but not cold. Not at all cold.  Not mathematical.

2. Robert Lockwood, Jr., “Terraplane Blues” (from THE COMPLETE TRIX RECORDINGS, 32 Jazz, 1977/2003) (Robert Lockwood, Jr., vocals, g; Robert Johnson, composer.) (2½ stars)

This is one of those records that I should be able to just say, “Oh, yeah, that’s his date! Jimmy Kimbrough!” Know what I mean? [LAUGHS] It’s a funny thing with records like this, is like… Oh, man! One thing that’s interesting about it is that the tuning is so… It’s slide guitar in an open tuning, with the guitarist sort of, to most ears, out of tune. Know what I mean? But that’s part of an aesthetic that’s like not trying to plug into a chord tuner and work that out. I wouldn’t want to hazard a guess. I’d probably get it wrong. [What did you think about the way he sang?] It’s very funny, because that “you-hoo!” reminds me very much of Robert Johnson. There’s somebody else who it reminds me of and maybe that’s who it is! “Terraplane Blues.” But whenever I hear a song like this, I want to hear “Hellhound On My Trail.”It’s a firmly traditional approach.  These sorts of things are difficult to critique, because it’s like who am I? How dare… Certain traditions are sacrosanct almost. One of the things I like about a cat like Alvin Youngblood Hart is that he’s taken this approach, but he’s singing about modern times. It’s very much like someone that’s studied to be an oil painter but is painting modern subjects. Alvin will have a song about a crack dealer in a country blues style, which I think is really important for the development of the music, and I think traditions can’t get stuck in stone. [Did that sound like a guy who was born in the tradition or a younger guy?] It’s very funny, because the tuning says to me that it’s an older traditional thing, but it could very well be a younger guy tuning with that kind of tuning, which would be very… Not arch, but it would be very knowing. It’s a real gesture for a modern person to have an open tuning in a country blues setting where the tuning is out of tune. It feels…I don’t know, a little arch. Whereas I almost expect it with the more primitive… I mean that in terms of the more primal blues recordings. It’s kind of hard, because you compare this to “Death Letter” by Son House… That is another level of what this is. But it’s a respectable performance.  It’s hard to say how much this performer had at stake. I mean, he’s firmly in command of the idiom, whether it’s an older performer or younger.  But I didn’t get a sense of… It was good. Can you give it stars?  If “Hellhound on My Trail” or “Death Letter” is 5… I mean, it’s well performed.  I wasn’t sure if… It’s weird… [It depends who it is, kind of?] Well, actually it doesn’t.  Because if it turns out to be an older character… If it’s a younger guy, wow.  If it turns out to be Keb Mo’, it’s like, dope. If it’s an older cat, it’s like “Oh.” But these things do have qualitative differences, too. Like I said, if I’m taking “Hellhound On My Trail” as a 5 and “Death Letter” as a 5, or “Devil Got My Woman” as 5, this is really maybe 2-1/2. [AFTER] Really! All right. You know what? It’s so funny, because I love him in more urban… To me, he’s a city blues guy, and I love him with a rhythm section and like that. I think he’s brilliant. I think this is the sort of thing where it’s cool that he can do it, but this is not really his… I mean, who am I to say? It’s like a performer I really dig, but this particular song didn’t do it for me.

3. Rodney Jones, “Oliver and Thad” (from THE UNDISCOVERED FEW, Blue Note, 1999) (Rodney Jones, g. & comp; Lonnie Plaxico, b; Eric Harland, d; Robert Allende, perc.; Earl Gardner, tp; Morris Goldberg, as; Tim Ries, ts; Charles Gordon, tb) (4½ stars)

Swinging the doors off! Wow. All right, now. It’s so fun, man! I would take a stab at Grant Green. Whoo! It’s also so wild, because it also reminds me of one of my teachers, Rodney Jones. Rodney Jones and Bruce Johnson, too. I love it. Beautiful. I love this. The use of parallel fourths. [SINGS THEM] Beautiful arrangement. You know what’s so funny, man, I can’t tell whether this is an older recording or… [HORN SOLI/SHOUT CHORUS] It’s such a… Wow!  Whoo! I love this. It blows me away.  Totally blows me away. Killing. It’s such a kind of late ‘50s-early ‘60s kind of arrangement.  It’s a total jazz lounge, hipster… It’s such an arched-eyebrow arrangement. You know what I mean? It’s Hip with a capital H. Phenomenal. And this is very much built on Wes Montgomery’s kind of chordal voicings. Man, I loved that! That is outstanding. I mean, it’s so funny, because I’m hearing… First I’m hearing that R&B’ish, almost kind of funk to it. To me, Grant Green had this whole kind of… It’s very uptown, very kind of North Philly or Harlem type of thing. It really brings to mind a whole social milieu. There’s a whole thing that went along with music like that. There’s so much to admire.  The arrangement sounds more like a transcription, the way the chord solo was arranged for the horns. I said it reminded me of Rodney Jones. I could hear Rodney arching his eyebrow and doing that, absolutely. I’m probably going to be wrong, but the school of playing is a very kind of hard swing school that incorporates… Obviously, the bebop thing is there, but it’s also very modal, very modernist. The augmented fourths, or augmented fourth type of things, the superimpositions and things like that. And very aware of… Wes’ thing was very much. Bruce Johnson has a song called “I Remember Wes”. [SINGS REFRAIN] That’s the school. I would hate to be wrong!  But it reminds me of Rodney. 4-1/2 stars.

4. Egberto Gismonti, “Salvador (branco)” (from DANÇA DOS ESCRAVOS, ECM, 1988) (Gismonti, guitars, composer) (3½ stars)

I’m going to take a guess and say Egberto Gismonti. I spent so much time listening to DANCA DOS CARBAS, and listening to his duet record with Nana Vasconcelos. The ten-string guitar thing. At first, I was thinking, “Okay, this is an oud” or something. But this is… He’s got a very punchy, very physical, very… It’s interesting, because it reminds me a bit of Ralph Towner, even though it’s very different, but there was a certain kind of attack and very kind of dense clustered improvisation that was very much a kind…I don’t know about ECM school, but it was very… If that’s not Egberto, well, sure… It’s hard to think of a record label as having a school, but it’s very intense, terse melodic statements, attacking the instrument… It’s sort of like the anti Michael Hedges. It’s weird. Like, the level of playing ability is astronomical. It’s incredibly high. Stratosphere. It’s a virtuosity that’s very… It’s very not Paco De Lucia. It’s very much not that. It’s also tied to… You could picture this happening in the Amazon by the side of a river. I will stick by… If that’s not Egberto Gismonti, it is someone who is paying an homage. How many stars?  Egberto is one of these cats that’s almost… I won’t say it’s above criticism. The playing is phenomenal, the improvisation is phenomenal. He’s done other pieces that I’ve liked better. As far as the realm of guitar players, 5 stars, but for his own work… If that’s who it is!  If I’m right, comparing it to his own work, I’d give it 3½.

5. George Freeman, “I Wish I Knew” (from REBELLION, Southport, 1995) (George Freeman, g; Von Freeman, p; Penny Pendleton, b; Michael Raynor, d) (4 stars)

This is very romantic. Beautiful tone. What I like about this is that this is a very much… People should only play ballads if they really believe. I think a lot of times, it’s like an exercise where you’ve got to play a ballad, that’s how you’re a well-rounded player, blah-blah-blah. But to me, ballads only sing if there’s a THERE there. It’s not really about the chops, but it’s really about the commitment to what the melody is, or what the lyric is, or what that feeling is.  And this person unquestionably has that commitment. I love the minimalism in this approach. Because the minimalism is not for any lack of… You can hear the players negotiating the changes very well.  But there’s a kind of forbearance.  It really is about wanting to tell a story. To want to tell the particular story of this song. It seems to me that so many of these songs were wartime songs and post-war songs, from the ‘40s and ‘50s, this kind of writing… The guitar just sings. It sings. I love the use of… If you want to talk about techniques, I love the use of slurring in some of the phrases. I love this. I’m a little… I would guess Grant Green again! [LAUGHS] When I talked about Rodney… [You’re in the right geographic range.] I’m in the right geographic range. It’s not Grant Green. It’s definitely not. Whoo! Using fourths like octaves! I love that. Well, this isn’t my favorite part of the solo. You can leave the fourths alone now! It’s beautiful, though. Beautiful player. Man, it’s weird, because I hear a little of the Jim Hall thing, strangely enough. It sounds like a solid body guitar… Definitely not Jim Hall. I’m in a real bind. Because I know I’ll just throw names out. Definitely 4 stars. [AFTER] Fantastic! What year is this? Good heavens! Man, I love this. Good for him. I loved that. That’s fantastic. So that’s Chico Freeman’s uncle? Has Chico ever made a record with him. What’s up with that? I’m almost positive that was a solid body guitar. Very, very nice.

6. Mike Stern, “Chatter” (from IN THESE TIMES, ESC, 2003) (Stern, eg. comp.; Kenny Garrett, ss; Arto Tuncboyaci, perc.; Jim Beard, p, synth; Will Lee, b; Vinnie Colaiuta, d; Elizabeth Kontomanou, voc) (4 stars)

That head is a bitch! [LAUGHS] They’re still playing the head! It’s very neat. It’s kind of spiffy! [LAUGHS] I mean, it’s incredibly well-arranged music. First thing I want to say is Mike Stern. Some of that phrasing. [Is “spiffy and neat” positive or negative?] It’s cool! It’s very… I mean, there are several people. I’m trying to figure out who that is soprano. It’s a very kind of New York school recording. It’s weird. There are certain people… It makes me think of like super bop head mixed with the Scott Henderson type of trip, too. But it’s funky, too. Not that Scott Henderson isn’t funky… But it’s hard to play.  There are several people I could turn around and go, “Oh, it could be that person.” I like it, too, because it’s sort of goofy, in a weird… [LAST CHORD] See, that’s what I mean. See, that ending, the neat ending. That’s what I mean, it’s neat. Boy, that’s a tough one, man. In the rock section of the solo, it made me think of Mike Stern. It reminded me, for that matter, of Leni Stern. I’m not trying to lump people into a bag. But there was definitely a part of that that’s reminiscent of Mike. See, I didn’t want to play the guessing game.  The worst thing is I actually got a few right, and now that I got a few right, I’m like “Okay.” It’s very well done. The musicianship is high. Like, everyone that’s on the set is kicking. It’s a little nudge-wink-wink. It’s a little bit of “because I can” which is in the mix, which is fair enough, because everyone from M-BASE to Tribal Tech is kind of there—“because I can!” I’ll give it 4. [AFTER] Mike plays at a super high level. Mike’s walked in the fire, and I have mad respect for him, and admiration, too, because he plays his ass off. It’s funny, because a cat like him, there isn’t really much that he can’t play, so then it becomes a question of choices. Because he’s at that level of technical accomplishment where… So it’s really about choices. I mean, this was cool. A little overdetermined for my taste.

7. Bill Frisell, “Ron Carter” (from BLUES DREAM, Nonesuch, 2001 (Frisell, eg, comp.; Greg Leisz, guitars; Ron Miles, tp; Curtis Fowlkes, tb; David Piltch, b; Kenny Wolleson, d) (4 stars)

This is lovely. There’s something, for want of a better word, grand about it. There are two guitar players? Wow! This is a hard one. Mmm. Man, the phrasing reminds me of Frisell’s. It’s so funny, because the tone is so, in a way… If this is Bill, it’s the more agro side of his playing. Then the other person I’m thinking is Dave Tronzo. I’m grasping at straws. If it’s not Bill, the person is not a stranger to Bill’s work. It’s weird, I’m saying that, but it’s strange… It’s so… Okay. Listening to it, I will stick my neck out and say it’s Frisell. For the other guitarist, I could guess Wolfgang Muthspiel… I said Tronzo before. Maybe Tronzo. If not Tronzo, then I’m stumped. I don’t know that Marc Ribot and Frisell have recorded together, which would be frightening! But I loved it.  It was very stately.  I loved the simplicity of the bass line. I’m a sucker for that. I kind of came up with A Love Supreme playing in the background. [The piece is named "Ron Carter."] I love that. I think people should start naming free jazz tracks for people in our government. Miles did it, and people should never stop that. I want to have a song called “John Ashcroft,” 20 minutes of total… Do an entire record where every record is a member of the Bush Cabinet. Condy Rice. That would be pretty funny. But I’ll give this 4 stars. I loved the arrangement.

8. Bireli Lagrene, Jimmy Rosenberg, “Swing ‘49” (from DJANGO REINHARDT NY FESTIVAL: LIVE AT BIRDLAND, Atlantic, 2000) (Lagrene, lead gtr solo, Rosenberg, 2nd guitar solo; Frank Vignola, rhythm guitar; Jon Burr, b) (3-3/4)

Whoo!  Whoa-hoo-hoo-whoo-hoo!  Whoa! Wow! It’s weird. I know who I want to guess the  guitar player is, but I can’t think of it. My brain won’t allow me his name. This is a gypsy kind of… I’ll know when you say the name… I’m completely blanking on it. But I’ll tell you what.  There was one arpeggio in the beginning of the thing that was just HO-LEE COW! This is the kind of thing Larry Coryell loves to do, though. This is very much a Larry Coryell… Larry Coryell is funny, because… This could be Larry and Julian. I was thinking about somebody totally else, but now… Because… Oh, BROTHER!! The playing is outrageously good. The other gypsy kid… It’s killing me. I can’t think of who it is. I hate when that happens to me.  He’s technically phenomenal, and I’m literally blanking on his name. But you know, the thought that it’s Larry… This guessing game is a craziness. Hey, man, shit, it… It’s a very regimented… It’s the kind of style where the playing is very on-the-beat. It’s like 16ths, 32nds, 64ths, with the occasional triplet thrown in. This is the kind of thing that you either do or you don’t. Heh-heh. I guess every music is like that, but… It’s another episode of “because I can.” They’re killing. They’re killing players. Star-wise? Can I give stars for technique and stars for… To me, shit, technique, it’s like, wow, 4½—the technique is high. The music? You know, I have to be in a mood… It’s sort of like music that wows me, but, like, “wow.” It’s music I respect. I love Django, of course, because Django is the great poet of the style. But the tune… So the technique is 4½, but the actual music I’ll give 3. That’s 3-3/4. [AFTER] I could not for the life of me call his name up. Especially after hearing that first arpeggio, I’d instantly say, “Oh, that’s Bireli Lagrene.” Absolutely. You know, he was a prodigy like Pat Martino. He was like a wunderkind. The guy’s playing at an incredibly high level. It’s like a heavily traditional thing. You go, “Okay, that’s great, I respect it, it’s wonderful, blah-blah-blah.” It’s a vernacular thing. It’s like not my thing, you know. Heh.

9.  Jimmy Smith/B.B. King, “Three O’Clock Blues” (from Jimmy Smith, DOT COM BLUES, Verve, 2000) (King, g, vocal, comp.; Smith, organ; Neil Hubbard, John Porter, g; Chris Stainton, p; Pino Palladino, b; Andy Newark, d)

[INSTANTLY] B.B. King. Well, I could have told you after that first note. B.B. King, baby! One of the King family. Freddie, Albert… You know what I love about this? He sounds committed. Tell you what. One time I saw Miles Davis and B.B. King, and B.B. King was opening for Miles Davis—the Beacon Theater. B.B. King opened up a can of whup-ass. Let me tell you something. I’d seen Miles before after he came back, and my jaw must have just pulled open. He came out, and I was enthralled. I couldn’t help myself. B.B. King came out, and maybe he knew he was opening for Miles Davis, but… You know all that kind of showy stuff?  He came out, and it was like, “Oh, no. Miles, you gon’ have to work tonight.” It took two-three songs before Miles… I mean, Miles was great. But B.B. King came out, and it was like, “No-no, no-no-no. No.” B.B. King will pull out some Charlie Christian shit out on your ass. Don’t sleep. He will pull some shit. “What did you do…?!” Lovely, man. The tone. The tone! The TONE. Tone. I like that this is an acoustic band. This is a little bit away from his… He’s a very popular artist. But this is more a back-in-the-day type of vibe than what he’s been doing a lot lately. I had the honor of working with Mr. King in the studio, co-producing a couple of tracks, and it was one of the great honors of my life to be in his presence. So I am very biased. People talk about the B.B. King style, and they don’t know what they’re talking about. It’s so encoded in his hands. You know what I mean? I’d definitely give it 4. [AFTER] Jimmy Smith?  See, that might be why! [LAUGH] It had that quality, man, of just… It’s raw. It’s rawer. Beautiful.

10. Noel Akchoté, “Peanut” (from SONNY II: THE MUSIC OF SONNY SHARROCK, Winter & Winter, 2004) (Akchoté, guitars; Sonny Sharrock, comp.) (3 stars)

Buggin’ out on the prairie! I like this. And one of the things I like about this is that it’s really not an attempt… It really is about the melody. It really is not about the technique. This is the kind of thing which is very difficult to do, to be interesting by oneself. I would take a guess that it’s Marc Ribot. It’s not Marc? Is it John Preshante(?)? Well, I don’t know who it is, but I like it. Marc put out a solo record which is very much in this… But that’s an electric guitar record, and this is obviously acoustic. But just the idea of just the guitar naked, but in a particularly… To do something that’s really not so based on kind of trying to do a virtuoso, Joe Pass type of thing, but just the melody, and really just an approach to what the song is. It’s not meant to blow you away with the guitar playing. It’s meant to deliver a particular interpretation of a melody. It’s funny, man. That to me is much more risky. Because if you are a guitarist of some accomplishment and you just keep at it-keep at it-keep at it, get it flawless, and record the flawless, impressive thing, there’s a certain… It speaks to an already going conversation about the guitar, that it should be done by highly skilled practitioners who play flawlessly. That’s very much a conversation about the instrument that is incredibly limiting. That’s not to say that people who can’t play should just do whatever.  And can’t-playing is more like, “Well, I really want to play like this, but I haven’t put in the time to play like that, so I’ll play like this.” Or, “I’m really not prepared to deliver this melody.” Or, “I’m not committed to the melody.” Or, if there is no melody, “I’m not committed to my improvisation.” And I’m not committed to it stand or fall. I’m making excuses about it, or I’m doing this fallback thing where, okay, well, I’ll put in something impressive technically or I’ll play the bebop thing so you know that I can play. To put in the bebop phrase to let you know that I “can play.” This whole need to justify. It’s a particular disease that guitarists have. It’s sort of like this idea that I’ve got to come up and let you know that I’m impressive like Buckethead or impressive like Sean Lane or impressive like this one or that one, and not to let the melody be itself. Obviously, these things can take you to technical places. I’m certainly not anti-technique. But what I liked about that piece is the fact that it is, in a way, a kind of un-playing, that is really about the song, about that melody, and there’s something very… I hear the wide-open plains. Obviously, a bluegrass cat would approach it in a totally different way, or someone into the Country-and-Western thing is going to go into the idiomatic thing. But I can go on and on and on, and I’ll stop right here! How many stars? Sticking my neck out… Having said all of that, then I give him 1! 1 star. 1 star forever, buddy! I’d give him 3.[AFTER] I have never heard of him. It’s interesting, because there’s this French cat, Marc Ducret. Wow! This cat is a cat of high accomplishment and derring-do.

11. John Scofield, “Name That Tune” (from LIVE: EN ROUTE, Verve, 2004) (John Scofield, g.; Steve Swallow, eb, comp.; Bill Stewart, d) (4½ stars)

It’s very interesting. This is Pat Metheny at his best. I might be wrong. I could be very wrong. It’s so not his tone. But the phrasing is so Pat Metheny at his most free, where he’s kind of… Like, on RIGHT SIZE LIFE, he played a couple of things by Ornette, and… It was a funny thing with Pat. Because on the one hand, Pat has got this… There’s a public, the popular face of Pat Metheny. And Pat Metheny operates at clearly three or four different levels. There’s the kind of damp hand…there’s the kind of moist and sensitive guitar-synth thing. Now, I give him a lot of credit, because I personally am really dedicated to guitar synth as well. But he’s really the kind of standard bearer for that.  Then there’s the very melodic kind of guitar playing thing. Then there’s the shit that’s like, okay…the OTHER part. That’s what I love. The SONG X kind of thing. [It’s not Pat Metheny, but generationally you’re in the ballpark.] That’s funny, because it’s very like Pat Metheny. Is it Scofield?! No way. Scofield!  Holy shit. Wow, this is fantastic! It’s so interesting, because there’s a school, Scofield, Metheny, Mike Stern… I mean, wow! He’s fucking going off! All right! I’ll give it 4½.  I’ll tell you what, man. When he joined Cobham… Cobham was one of those cats who brought out great guitar players. Tommy Boland. Stern. Ray Mouton, who nobody knows about, who is working in Las Vegas, who… He actually came to a Living Color gig, and I didn’t get a chance to see him. Ray Mouton is out of New Orleans. Truly gifted. Phenomenal guitar player and guitar synthesist.

12. Blood Ulmer, “What Is” (from FORBIDDEN BLUES, DIW, 1996) (Ulmer, eg, comp; Calvin Jones, ab; Calvin Weston, d)

Blood. I got it right. Instantly. He has a singularity. In a lot of ways, he’s very reminiscent of B.B. King, because his tone really resides in his hands. He has huge hands, and he has this way of making the notes literally pop out of the guitar. Sitting with him in his loft, and just hearing him play acoustically, it’s the same thing. The notes just pop out of the instrument. The band is playing fantastic, and Blood is just… Really, to me, two of the main guys in free guitar are him and Sonny Sharrock. Blood is a cat of almost mythic power. I mean, there is a real, dare I say it, dark majesty about him. 4½ stars, definitely. I didn’t give anything 5. I reserve 5 stars for hearing “My Favorite Things.” Or hearing…

[What would those things be? What would be a 5-star record?]

A five-star record would be literally something that… It would be very idiomatic to me. A five-star record to me wouldn’t have so much to do with the… The song would just destroy me. If it was possible, five stars would be hearing something that’s so connected to my life… It  would be hearing “My Favorite Things” for the first time. That would be 5 stars. “My Favorite Things” changed my life, because I knew The Sound of Music version, and hearing Coltrane’s version of it, I was struck by how different it was and how the-same it was. He’s playing to the lyric. He’s not using the song to blow over. He’s playing to the lyric. “When the dog barks, when the bee stings, when I’m feeling sad, I simply remember my favorite things…” I mean, that’s what he’s playing to.  And that conversation has lasted all the way up through Outkast putting an uncredited version of “My Favorite Things” on “The Love Below.” That’s a very powerful conversation for a piece of music to have.  And that is there because of Coltrane’s version. That’s 5.

Five stars is hearing Sly Stone’s “Family Affair” for the first time, or hearing “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” the first time, hearing “Are You Experienced” the first time. That’s what that is. It’s like hearing “Never Mind The Bollocks”… Like, hearing “God Save The Queen” the FIRST time. Having the impact of it… In terms of improvisation, James Blood Ulmer, 5 stars is like the first time I heard “Are You Glad To Be In America?” The audaciousness of it. It’s like hearing the first U. Shrinivas tape I heard when he was 12 years old. He’s an Indian mandolin player.  And knowing, hearing him, that eventually his paths would cross with John McLaughlin, and he would eventually become involved with Shakti. It was inevitable. Like, hearing it, I said, “This kid is at least as good as John McLaughlin, and he’s 12 years old.” So those kinds of things are five-star experiences. Like, literally hearing “Remain In Light.” The first time I heard it, I was unmoored. I was like, “What is this?” Or hearing “Sucker Emcees,” the first time I heard it, is 5 stars.

So it’s not to denigrate anything I’ve heard. But it’s a very specific sort of thing, like life is different… It’s not really whether the cat playing this or that… But it’s like life is different now. Like, the first time I heard “Believe It,” heard Allen Holdsworth… But it’s not just Allen Holdsworth playing it. Because that record is weird. It’s a very ambient record almost. The sound of it is very ambient. It’s very unusual out of anything in the Fusion oeuvre. The song for me is “Wildlife.” I love the melody of that.

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