Howard Roberts

 Something's Cooking and Goodies

 

        

    The Sixties often evoke such images and icons as go-go dancers in white vinyl boots, Rowan and Martin's Laugh In, and movies with stylized soundtracks, like What's New Pussycat? and Casino Royale. The recording studios in L.A. were producing more music than ever, and Howard Roberts was one of the busiest session guitarists in town. His hard-driving, bluesy yet silky sound helped create the nation's soundtrack.  No matter if the music derived from Broadway, Brazil or the Beatles, Howard's playing was always recognizable. Musicians call it signing what you play. He had a style, and his style helped define the times.

          But paradoxically, his playing was also timeless and transcendent. He could lend his lyrical lines to a tune some would call a chestnut, for instance Irving Berlin's Marie, and make it come alive. No tune was out of his realm. He was the consummate pro. Lift any of his solos from what you might think is a dated arrangement and you'll find it as sophisticated, classic and enduring as a Rolls Royce.  Listen to his version of Henry Mancini's elegant Charade.  Howard laces it with the blues. It's practically impossible to write about him without using that word too much, but that's what made his playing so durable and influential.

          Howard's recordings were not only popular with the urbane and swinging sophisticates of the day, but they were also eagerly awaited by virtually every serious jazz and rock guitarist in the country. His bluesy renditions of tunes the average rocker wouldn't have had much interest in no doubt educated and inspired many of the more talented players. Hearing his treatment of a song with sophisticated chord changes and an interesting melody line provided an endorsement to a genre that would have been overlooked and unexplored by the average "Fender bender." Because of this alone, Howard should receive a special award in whatever annals are yet to be created.  His influence is incalculable.

          So sit back and enjoy this rediscovered treasure that recalls the Sixties at their most rewarding and one of the great guitar stylists the era.

 

Jim Carlton

Howard Roberts   

 

Jaunty - Jolly! and Guilty!!

     The Sixties were perhaps the golden era for Hollywood studio musicians. In addition to the music produced for the television and film industry, the L.A. scene was burgeoning with popular musical groups. The record business was in the firm grip of a rock revolution inspired largely by the Beatles and scores of hopeful rock bands got record deals. It's even been rumored that many of the more traditional recording artists, who were rapidly becoming anachronisms, lost record contracts merely because of the vast amount of vinyl needed to accommodate the new era's rock acts.  

          Because of this change a curious thing happened that created some strange bedfellows: a number of jazz artists began working as session players.  It's no secret that many of the popular rock groups of the time were ghosted on vinyl by studio musicians. Once again, it was a matter of economics. Most jazzers could read charts well, were by definition inventive, and could nail an arrangement quickly. Studio time was expensive and using experienced players was simply cost effective.

          Howard Roberts was one of those jazz artists who found an abundance of work in the studios. He began playing professionally at age 13  in Phoenix and was working with Art Farmer by age 16. He was 20 in 1950, when he arrived in Los Angeles and began playing jam sessions and after-hours clubs. Shortly after that he was gigging with the Bobby Troup Quartet where he developed a chordal style of playing that helped spark a trend in which small groups used the guitar in lieu of a piano.

          By the late Fifties, he was one of the most sought-after players in town.   He was open-minded and imaginative and his influence on the music scene was profound.  He lent his instantly recognizable, bluesy though sophisticated style to countless pop records and was averaging 3000 sides a year covering dates from Elvis to the Electric Prunes.  A cover story in the guitarist's bible Guitar Player Magazine called him a renaissance man - a sideman, soloist, educator and innovator. 

          Fortunately, in the Mid-Sixties Howard got the call to record as a leader. That wise move by Capitol Records yielded a series of marvelous albums with jazzy treatments of some the era's most popular tunes. What you're holding now are two of the best examples. Jaunty-Jolly! and Guilty!! were recorded in 1967 with Howard fronting such other Hollywood heavies as keyboardists Dave Grusin and Victor Feldman, drummer Shelley Manne, bassist Chuck Bergofer and fellow guitar aces Al Hendrickson, Bill Pitman and Jack Marshall.

          Hearing some of your favorite music performed by great musicians is always a pleasure, but when top session players assemble for one of their own, it's an event. The compelling performances on these two albums offer such an occasion as they showcase Roberts' brilliance and sophistication and document his indelible influence. 

          So enjoy these rediscovered gems from a fascinating time and hear some of its best music played by some of its finest artists. 

 

Jim Carlton 

Howard Roberts   

Whatever's Fair & All Time Instrumental Hits

     Howard Roberts was barely out of his teens when he hit the L.A. music scene in 1950. Before long he was making his presence known as an inventive stylist with a fresh guitar sound that would eventually lead to his inclusion in the pantheon of guitarists comprising such players as George Van Eps, Johnny Smith, Tal Farlow, Jim Hall, Barney Kessel, Wes Montgomery, Jimmy Raney, Kenny Burrell and a handful of others. He earned his way into that rarefied air because his engaging and authoritative playing not only resonated with his peers, but also transcended musical genres to reach both jazz and pop audiences. His accessible and exciting approach established him as one of the architects of the West Coast Sound.

        By the Sixties, he was one of Hollywood's busiest session guitarists with a phenomenal schedule that yielded over 3000 sides a year. He was playing on film and television soundtracks, pop and jazz records, radio and TV commercials, and was literally one of the most frequently heard instrumentalists in the world.

          When Capitol signed Howard for his own record deal in the mid-sixties, he drew from the pool of Hollywood's hottest players and assembled hand-picked rhythm sections for each project. Such music luminaries as drummers Shelly Manne, John Guerin and Earl Palmer, bassist Chuck Berghofer, keyboardists Henry Cain and Dave Grusin, as well as fellow guitar greats Al Hendrickson, Bill Pitman and Jack Marshall all appeared on his various Capitol releases. The musical synergy of these studio aces is evident when you hear their treatments of some of the era's best tunes.

          On this two-album CD, recorded in 1966, Roberts and crew took songs from the pop charts, Broadway and Brazil through some breathtaking loops. As soon as the obligatory customer chorus set the tone, they got down to the jazzy, streetwise, and sometimes savage display of their musical prowess. Hear how they took such showtunes as This is the Life and On A Clear Day for a walk on the wild side. These Broadway melodies were suddenly swinging hard from first downbeat to final coda.  And catch the opening dialog between Howard and organist Henry Cain on Luis Bonfa's Manha De Carnival. It sets up Roberts' 32 bar solo that sizzles like the Carnival itself. Even the dated Bye Bye Blues transforms from a businessman's bounce into a vehicle for H.R.'s clever musical comments.

          If you're not listening already, get comfortable and enjoy this remarkable rediscovered collection of Howard Roberts and friends. You'll hear part of the music legacy left by one of the world's greatest and most important guitarists.

 

Jim Carlton

Howard Roberts

 

Color Him Funky & H.R. is a Dirty Guitar Player

 

    Music history was made in mid February of 1963 at Capitol Records’ Studio A in Hollywood. That’s when Howard Roberts began recording a series of albums that would set the standard for compelling guitar-oriented arrangements of contemporary and standard tunes.

 

The series, eleven in all, beginning with Color Him Funky and a few months later, H.R. is a Dirty Guitar Player, capitalized on the traditional chemistry between guitar and organ. The intense and symbiotic relationship between the two instruments has had many famous incarnations. George Benson, Pat Martino and Grant Green all cut their teeth working with organists. And who can forget the famous Jimmy Smith/Wes Montgomery recordings? Ne plus ultra.

            Howard Roberts, a young veteran of L.A.’s jazz scene and one of the most sought-after session players in Hollywood, was 33 when he signed with Capitol Records. He was the perfect guitarist to carry on the small combo tradition, but with a slightly different spin. Executive producer Dave Cavanaugh wanted a more commercial product that would be appropriate for mainstream and middle-of-the-road airplay. The tracks were short, usually under three minutes, but they weren’t decaffeinated by any means. The playing was always superb, sophisticated and at times ferocious. Howard’s blistering solos throughout both albums testify to his hard-driving style. And the economy of those solos is even further testament to his musical prowess. Creating a short, complete solo that tells a story is an art form in itself.

Color him funky and dirty indeed. In H.R.’s hands every tune here becomes a forum for his bluesy and earthy musical statements. Roberts had the constant capacity to develop and cultivate any tune he played regardless of its style or stature. For instance, the only samba you’ll find in H.R.’s version of Jobim’s great One Note Samba is in the title. It swings from Howard’s elegant intro right through its closing chord. If Ever I Would Leave You is rejuvenated, delivered from being a schmaltzy show tune, and transformed into an exciting event. Just listen. And the treatment of such hip tunes as Neal Hefti’s Little Darlin’  and Frank Foster’s debonair Shiny Stockings are marvelous examples of Roberts’s flawless musical flair and taste.

 Howard chose organist Paul Bryant for the initial sessions that yielded  Color Him Funky. Bryant’s authoritative playing perfectly complemented the feel laid down by studio stalwarts, bassist Chuck Berghofer and drummer Earl Palmer. Burkley Kendrix took over the organ honors on H.R. is a Dirty Guitar Player and lent his impressive abilities to the section. Other keyboardists such as Henry Cain, Charles Kynard and Dave Grusin made appearances later in the series but Howard’s engaging playing easily connected with all of them leaving no question that these sessions belonged to him.

 

These albums document the beginning of an era that produced some of the finest work by one of our true jazz guitar virtuosos. Now we have the opportunity to listen to these gems and appreciate musical style at its best.

 

 

Jim Carlton

May, 2002

 Joe Pass

 

Simplicity & A Sign of The Times


    When pro jazz guitarists speak of their heroes, a few names are invariably mentioned: Django Reinhardt, Charlie Christian, Wes Montgomery, George Van Eps and Joe Pass. There are many others in the rarefied air of true jazz guitar artistry but those five always garner the most attention from their peers. I can say this with authority because in the past few years I’ve interviewed several of the world’s jazz guitar greats. When I asked for influences and favorites, those five were mentioned as a matter of course. No one I talked to even took a beat to think about it. By definition, innovators, or those often referred to as genius talents, are unique, give us new perspective and leave legacies that are long-lasting and valid.

 

 This two-album Cd celebrates the genius of Joe Pass, showcasing him in disparate settings during an important era of his career. Simplicity gives us the post bebop Joe swinging elegantly and creatively with a small group of first-rate sidemen. Here is jazz guitar with an urbane and sophisticated feel that only a master of the genre can purvey. His tone is warm and round and his improvisations are eloquent. Listen to his lines on “Tis Autumn” and the languid “Last Night I Had the Craziest Dream.” Those melodic interpretations and dynamics are a precursor to Pass’s later career conjugation as a solo jazz guitar concert artist, which was the brainchild of visionary producer Norman Granz.

  

A Sign of the Times is frankly a curious album which had the obvious objective of generating mainstream or middle-of-the-road airplay. On it, Joe played hit tunes of the 60s that were garnished with vanilla arrangements and background vocals that sound as if they wafted in from an elevator. He was clearly not in his element. These were not jazz sessions or jazz tunes. Even the great Chet Baker, featured on flugelhorn, had no chance to play anything but supportive, straight-ahead arranged parts. On several cuts Joe even played the 12-string guitar, a instrument I’ll wager he borrowed for the session. Pass, nevertheless, couldn’t restrain his jazz chops for long. On Henry Mancini’s “Moment to Moment,” he soloed with the ferocity of a pent-up, underfed grizzly. “Sweet September” and “What Now My Love” both gave Joe a little room to swing, which he did with his usual flair. Point is, you can take the boy out of the country, and so on.

 

Pass’s virtuosity addressed any situation that arose, whether it was bebop with Zoot Sims, creating moving-voice chord changes behind Ella, small combo work with Oscar Peterson or playing a one-man concert of jazz standards. These albums, as dissimilar as they are, provide a glimpse of the artist during an era that signaled the beginning of his apotheosis and both, in their way, testify to his brilliance.

 

 

 

Rich Walker

 

Lazybird Revisited

 

    Today, the art form of legit jazz is in a commercial slump. Sales are abysmal and only a few jazz artists are well known by the Boomer generation and their offspring. Gone are the days when the great music of Gershwin, Ellington and their peers was routinely on the pop charts.

 

For a few generations now, most popular songs have been in concert with our fast-food culture. Like our once nutritious diet, contemporary tunes have suffered a major reduction in quality for the sake and accessibility of the mass consumer. People don’t know what they like as much as they like what they know; and they’ve been given something labeled jazz that isn’t jazz. It may have similar instrumentation but it isn’t jazz anymore than it is a Daisy

air rifle. Smooth jazz is the yuppified relaxed-fit jeans of music. There’s just something embarrassing and telling in its concept. The hard reality is that it’s a manifestation of the Boomers’ bad luck in coming of age when popular music, with a few exceptions, was an artistic yawn. So many of the record companies were selling widgets, if you will, that had nothing to do with good music. The new, pimply-faced market was dictating much of the country’s radio airplay and it all became a sad, vicious circle. This is the same generation who sneered at their parents for listening to Lawrence Welk’s band. No, that music didn’t swing either but at least Welk hired good players and often paid tribute to our great composers. And you have to admit he was always good for a few laughs.

 

Real jazz, perhaps, has become elitist by default. And its practitioners are, ironically, the finest the art world has, simply because jazz artists are bound to give us what they have at a moment’s notice. A jazzer on the gig puts invention on the line with no rewrites. Jazz is the most difficult and demanding of all the traditional art forms because, by definition, it’s extemporaneous. Jazz musicians often have to decipher an enormous amount of complex information during a given performance. Chords are frequently altered and may have sophisticated voicings and the changes can come at rapid tempos. Point is, a good argument can be made for jazz artists being the most comprehensive of the art world.

 

Fortunately, like all great art, real jazz will always be with us. It may thrive only among its own, and appeal to cults and the cultivated, but it will always, even in various conjugations, transcend time and trend. Hip is as hip does, and those who must play jazz are those who are exploring progressive musical forms and ideas. 

 

What you have in your hand is the real deal. Rich Walker, who’s been the jazz guitarist to hear in Central Florida for decades, has assembled some of the finest jazz musicians this side of anywhere, all superb rhythm section players and soloists. A list of their collective credits would be long and impressive, but that’s not what’s important here. What’s important is your listening to them create great music. You’re treated, appropriately, to John Coltrane’s Lazy Bird with the Cd’s title track. Between that homage and its inventive reprise, Lazy Bird Revisited, Walker and company flex impressive chops on some imaginative and clever originals, a sentimental standard, a couple of new ballads, which Rich respects by emphasizing their melodies and using scant embellishment because a good artist knows when less is more. And you’ll hear Walker, the bona fide blues singer, belt a blistering and definitive version of I’d Rather Drink Muddy Water

 

This recording is just what it was meant to be - an artistic declaration by first-rate musicians. It’s unblemished by a heavy-handed producer and no doubt unnerving to industry execs who conspire to sell plasticware to some target demographic. It’s just excellent straight-ahead jazz. And these days, ain’t it great to buy a Cd and not have any buyers’ remorse? Yes indeed.  

 

Jim Carlton

 

The Byrds

 

Sanctuary IV

 

 

    This fourth volume of Sanctuary highlights recordings from the Byrds’ Nashville sessions, which yielded the landmark album Sweetheart of the Rodeo. It was on that album that their more traditional music roots manifested and gave the world perhaps the first country rock recording by a major musical group.

Gram Parsons, who’s featured on most of the lead vocals here, is often given credit for influencing the band’s direction toward the country rock genre. To an extent that’s true, but both Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman had cut their teeth on folk, country and bluegrass.  Parsons, in fact did not, but he nevertheless had a predilection for those traditional forms of which he was a great exponent. And although McGuinn and Hillman had recorded several country songs on previous Byrds albums, Chris Hillman aptly refers to Gram’s role in the Byrds as, “a catalyst.”

Parsons’ first real foray into traditional music was with his excellent early-sixties folk group the Shilohs who, though cute and commercial, performed many Appalachian tunes which were given at least the sound of authenticity in large part from Paul Surratt’s frailing banjo style. 

In the mid-sixties Parsons performed in various Greenwich Village coffee houses, and though his repertoire then was mostly contemporary urban folk, it was there he was further exposed to artists performing the Appalachian, Ozarkian and grass roots American music that influenced him.  In fact, few know that Gram played respectable 5-string banjo. Many times I accompanied him on guitar while he played such tunes as Salt Creek and Earl’s Breakdown for friends and family who were casually gathered to listen to his latest. 

Gram's seminal group the International Submarine Band was one of the first rock groups to explore, record and even hang their hat on country music. So there’s no doubt that Parsons was instrumental in the Byrds’ commitment with Sweetheart, but the album was really a synergistic effort of the combined musical influences and ideas of McGuinn, Hillman and Parsons.

As a youngster, Chris Hillman listened to bluegrass and country music and perfected his prowess on mandolin. By the time he was in his late teens, he was well known on the West Coast bluegrass scene as a superb player and had recorded with the Scotsville Squirrel Barkers and the Hillmen a.k.a. the Blue Diamond Boys, who were one of the first bluegrass bands to venture beyond typical bluegrass fare. Hillman wrote in the liner notes of a reissued version of The Hillmen CD, “We were trying to expand the parameters of bluegrass music. I believe we were one of the first bluegrass groups to go beyond the traditional mold and explore other musical sources, incorporating the 'new' folk songs of Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan, as well as writing our own songs."

On Roger McGuinn’s solo CD, Live From Mars, he talks about the incipient days of the Byrds and Jim Dickson introducing him and Gene Clark to Hillman because they needed a bass player: “Chris was a bluegrass mandolin picker who was good enough to learn to play anything.” Hillman’s bass playing incorporated his bluegrass chops with a feel for melodic lines that perfectly complemented the Byrds’ folk rock sound.

Roger McGuinn studied at the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago where he met, and was influenced by, the great Bob Gibson. Soon after, Roger became an accompanist for the Chad Mitchell Trio and the Limelighters. When he hit the L.A. scene in 1963, gigging in such clubs as the Troubadour, he felt that his vision of combining traditional and contemporary folk music with rock and roll was a real possibility. And his appreciation of Dylan and the Beatles served as impetus to integrate both of those styles, along with traditional folk music, into something unique.  His twelve-string guitar style was unlike anyone else’s and provided the Byrds’ diacritical element and signature sound.

          In 2000, Sweetheart of the Rodeo was inducted into NARAS’ Grammy Hall of Fame because of its importance as an innovative step in merging different forms of music that yielded a new sound that’s been a part of American culture ever since. 

 

Jim Carlton

 

 Mike Leland

Momentum

 

    This music is anomalous in many ways from what’s routinely offered by record companies today. It was recorded live without effects processors or stilted “smooth jazz” clap tracks. You’ll hear acoustic instruments with no separation among them, save what occurred naturally in the room, reminiscent of  Rudy Van Gelder’s vintage, and now revered, Blue Note recordings. And, you’re getting real artistry from first-rate jazz musicians who encountered the recording session and the compositions with no rehearsal. In short, it’s spontaneous art, which is indicative of real jazz, the only art form, to wit, in which artists have to put their expertise on the line at a moment’s notice.  Pianist and composer Mike Leland’s work is intended for the discerning listener and not for the prosaic, pedestrian commercial marketplace. There’s no vacuous, slick production here. This is live jazz, the way jazz should be presented.

 

The protean Leland’s apotheosis is a good story. He began his career as a jazz guitarist who made a good living at a tough racket. But when tendonitis interfered with his guitar chops, a switch to piano catalytically and serendipitously, yielded a number of marvelous original tunes. A new axe manifested new things; so typical of the valid artist. He composed songs of flair and originality that are hip without being trendy; two things which are truly mutually exclusive. Trend is fashion that comes and goes, but style is classic by definition. And these tunes are crafted. They’re vibrant with melodies and chord changes that construe genuine talent and understanding of the genre.

 

And speaking of classic, the sturdy, swinging melodic support by Greg Peterson on the upright bass provides a broad foundation for Leland’s deft improvisations while Damon Daniel’s understated, elegant touch with brushes evokes images of Roy Haynes in his prime in that he lends his exquisite taste to accentuate and complement the trio’s synergy. 

Frank Padilla’s discriminating percussion work that accents without ever being intrusive or heavy handed. That’s a great definition of talent in itself.

 

This is urbane, enjoyable jazz with no pretense; just fine artists exploring original works and creating an event well worthy of the art form.

 

 

Gram Parsons

 

Another Side of This Life

The Lost Recordings

 

     I was asked to write about Gram Parsons and provide the backstory of these recordings. I've had them in safekeeping for more than 30 years, sharing them only now and again with those who had a special interest or place in his life. Much credit for their release should go to Roger McGuinn who suggested Bob Irwin at Sundazed Music as someone who would give them the artistic attention and respect they deserve.

          Gram and I met in late 1959, hung out as fast friends in our early teenage years, started playing rock and roll together in high school and maintained a mutually valued friendship until his death. I say this to provide a thumbnail sketch of my credentials to write this. With that said, I offer some recollections and observations about someone who has touched the lives of untold numbers of fans and musicians, and a man who helped shape modern music history. 

          His influence on me is profound, but who cares?  If you've ever been lucky enough to have been befriended by someone as magnetic and brilliant as he, you know the feeling, because that's a personal experience and largely indescribable - even overwhelming in retrospect. 

          He was the kind of person you knew was in the room even if he was silent and your back was turned.  He had a presence like Miles Davis, Gable or Elvis.  To many people he was larger-than-life and his continued cult-hero popularity and music legacy is testimony to that.  He was gentlemanly and comfortable with his charisma, often hilariously funny and exuded an urbane quality that would rival Gore Vidal's. Too many think of him as the shy Southern boy shitkicker with a slow drawl, but that's just not so. He had an enviable que vive and zest for life that belied the tragic circumstances of his death. His drug use was no doubt a way of exploring other psychic arenas as opposed to an escape. Nobody with his personality would want to escape.  Explore perhaps, but not escape. Pioneers such as he by nature, by definition, seek what's new and different.

          His apotheosis and demise have been written about and examined almost continuously since his death, again testimony to his influence, but so often have yielded erroneous conclusions. But in fairness, even those of us who knew him well still disagree because everybody presents different sides of their personality to different people.

          What I can attest to is the obvious: his enormous talent. His voice, I think, had qualities not unlike Billie Holiday's with similar strengths and frailties. It had such edge, yet employed a softness with that magnificent phrasing. Just listen to his recording of She from his GP album and you'll know what I mean.

          For those who don't know, Gram was influenced by such artists as Fred Neil, Buck Owens, Don Rich, Albert King, George Jones, Gene Pitney and even the country pop star, Jim Stafford. Stafford was the lead guitarist in our high school rock band, The Legends.  Jim was three years older than we were and played great guitar even back in 1962.  He was the avuncular "older brother" we both looked up to.  Truth is, Stafford, was the one who encouraged Gram to play country music. Jim hates for this to be told because he doesn't want to sound as if he's trying to claim credit.  But I was there, and I know.  No doubt Jim saw what I did - a kid with the ability to take virtually any form of music and make it his own. 

          These recordings were made on a, then consumer state-of-the-art, Sony 500 reel-to-reel machine that a family friend had brought back from Tokyo.  It was one of the best toys a teenage boy ever had.

          Our first taping session was in March of 1965 when Gram was home from New York on a visit. By that time his Harvard career was being supplanted by the lure of the folk music scene of Greenwich Village. He was dropping names like Fred Neil, Dick Weissman and Bob Dylan, and was busy making a name for himself playing the old Night Owl Cafe on West 3rd. He was an urban folkie and damn good at it. Some of the tunes on this CD, to my knowledge, are the only surviving recordings of his foray into the  Village folk music scene.

          Subsequent tunes on this CD document his explorations and love of R&B (Searchin' & Candy Man) and then continue to give us a glimpse of the incipient stages of his landmark group, The International Submarine Band, which many credit as being the archetype Country Rock group.

          I'm grateful to Bob Irwin for the loving care he's given this project. His producing chops are legendary in the music business and the digital magic he's employed to clean up these recordings are proof that modern technology can indeed be used to enhance, though not intrude on, great artistry.
 

 

Vic Juris

A Second Look

 

    For several years now, Vic Juris has been emerging as one of jazz guitar’s most brilliant and inventive exponents. His apotheosis from sideman for such jazz luminaries as Dizzy Gillespie, Freddie Hubbard, Lee Konitz and Phil Woods to featured player has been noteworthy in the jazz community and led to his being heralded by his peers as someone who belongs in the pantheon of jazz’s best.

 

    Like any seasoned player, Juris has covered a lot of ground musically. He first gained notoriety with jazz fans when working with saxophonist Eric Kloss. He paid his blues dues in organ trios with Wild Bill Davidson, Don Patterson and Jimmy Smith, explored fusion with Barry Miles’ band, played an integral role in altoist Richie Cole’s group in the 1970s and even did a stint recording and gigging with Mel Torme. And while continuing his steady climb working with many of jazz’s most celebrated, Juris teamed with fellow guitarists, Larry Coryell, Birelli Lagrene, David Fiuczynski, Russell Malone and Jack Wilkins to honor Charles Mingus with a memorable 1997 tribute concert. More recently, Juris has been featured with heavyweight reed man Dave Liebman, who joins him here on three tracks.

 

    This release showcases Vic Juris’ latitude on both the archtop and nylon string guitars. His authoritative and imaginative ideas integrate well with Liebman’s tenor and soprano phrases. Their reciprocal lines on the opener and title tune, “A Second Look” are a harbinger of the interplay among all the players on this recording. Solid support from bassist Jay Anderson and drummer Tim Horner provide the kind of foundation and fluidity that affords a soloist the freedom to explore and express without reservation. We’re treated to several lyrical solos by Anderson that add to the synergy of the group. Also enhancing the ensemble feel is how Horner’s drums are strategically placed in the mix, a nice touch by Anderson who also engineered.

 

    Juris’ excellent choice of tunes further endorse his credibility. A languid and interestingly reharmonized version of “All the Things You Are” manifests a haunting side to Jerome’s Kern’s masterpiece. And the arrangement of Cole Porter’s “So In Love” is just as engaging. Juris invents akimbo lines and his deft comping subtly enhances a melodic solo by Anderson. On Bill Evans’ “Very Early” Juris solos over a prerecorded, but understated track of himself. He employs this technique again to good effect on another of his five compositions in this collection, “Barney K,” an impressive up tempo bossa with a melody that lingers in your mind.

 

    Another original, “Dizzy, Trane and You” is a frantic hard bopper on which Liebman and Juris trade ferocious solos. The set closes with a breezy treatment of Glenn Miller’s hit, “Indian Summer” highlighted by Juris’ magnificent ideas that really breathe life into the venerable tune.

 

    Vic Juris is simply one of jazz’s finest. His playing is modern, creative and progressive yet steeped in tradition. He’s indeed arrived and this collection belongs in any jazz enthusiast’s library.

 

 Michael Anthony

 New Journey

 www.michaelanthonyonline.com

 

    Former Hollywood studio guitarist Michael Anthony turns in an impressive set of originals and standards on his latest, “New Journey.” Anthony, now among a large number of greats who are retired from the moribund studio scene, is residing in Albuquerque, teaching, gigging and creating good jazz.

 

    His playing expresses that same breezy sense of lively musical fun that Howard Roberts had. And as with Roberts, there’s still plenty of sophistication and validity. In fact, fans will no doubt notice glimpses of H.R.’s influence via a few nicely placed whole-tone runs that are often heading for a coda. Still, Anthony is his own man and an excellent exponent of the craftsmanship of a great composer. For instance, his version of Cole Porter’s “You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To” swings elegantly with the flair of a player who understands Porter’s gift. A charming rendition of “Flamingo” creates the appropriate tropical mood while Anthony and the group explore the tune’s changes. The playful version of Miles’ “Four” ‘in five’ is as refreshing as his atmospheric and inventive solo take on the marvelously harmonized “Nuages.” Jimmy Van Huesen and Johnny Burke’s “It Could Happen to You,” a tune that’s too often overlooked, and “Yardbird Suite” are standouts among great choices.

 

    Bassist David Parlato and drummer Andrew Poling contribute swinging and authoritative support throughout. They, along with organist/engineer Sid Fendley, are a synergistic group that provide a soloist of Anthony’s caliber with foundation and interplay. After all, any group is only as strong as its weakest member and there’s no weakness in this equation and no filler on this recording.

 

Jim Carlton

 

Russell Malone

Playground

MAXJAZZ

www.maxjazz.com

 

    One of the best known jazz guitarists in L.A. told me that he’s purchased several copies of Russell Malone’s “Playground” and is distributing them among musician friends. “It’s a joy turning appreciative people on to something special,” he says. Malone, now a well-known player himself, received much of his early seasoning in organ trios, a practical tradition that’s yielded some of jazz’s most prominent and progressive guitarists. On this, perhaps his best album to date, he shows us once again why he’s earned the admiration and endorsement of his peers.

 

Malone gets down to business straightaway with two of his own compositions. He wails on opener “You Should Know Better” and his ferocity on the clever and compelling “Blues for Magrew” is juxtaposed nicely with the following cut, a lovely, relaxed version of Billy Strayhorn’s “Something to Live For,” a marvelous choice as is Jerome Kern’s “Remind Me,” a standout that’s worth the price of the Cd. Here his warm, round tone complements a stunning solo arrangement in which he employs an abundance of tasteful and inventive ideas. But then that’s Russell Malone’s playing in a nutshell.

 

He’s in great company here, too. The frantic bopper, “Sugar Buzz” could leave many a rhythm section breathless but instead brings out the best in the ensemble. Joe Locke’s vibes and Martin Bejerano’s piano work integrate splendidly with Tassili Bond’s bass playing and E.J. Strickland’s drumming.

Only lack of space prohibits the appropriate superlatives.

 

This recording has a wonderful balance of modern and traditional elements. Perhaps a telltale sign that Malone is in touch with his roots are his dedications to the memories of Ray Brown, John Collins, Benny Carter and Nathen Page, a guitarist who deserved wider recognition.

 

This collection showcases Russell Malone’s amazing range and artistry as well as his integrity as there’s no watered-down cut intended for smooth jazz airplay. It’s simply a great addition to any jazz enthusiast’s library.

 

Jim Carlton

 

 

Tim May

Trio

 

Tim May – Guitar

Abe Laboriel – Bass

Bob Zimmitti – Drums

www.timmayguitar.com

 

 

    Tim May is among a small handful of steadily working studio guitarists remaining on the scene in Los Angeles. That in itself speaks volumes in a town full of extraordinary players. On his new Cd, “Trio,” featuring all original compositions, May forsakes his protean studioman persona and expresses himself as a first-class jazzer and imaginative and thoughtful composer.

 

May’s tunes are melodic and have the character and construction that lend themselves to improvisation. In fact, it’s tough to choose exceptional cuts here because they’re all outstanding. And the listener gets his money’s worth as each rendition is lengthy. May’s extended lines, however, are always captivating and never gratuitous. All his solos build and they all tell a story.

For instance, “Heartfelt” is a sleeper that opens as a nicely accessible melody that dramatically develops into a smoldering guitar solo followed by a cagey musical conversation with bassist Abe Laboriel and drummer Bob Zimmitti, both superb and complementary players who provide excellent support and urbane musical dialog.

 

“Balooze,” features the trio taking a blues through some breathtaking paces. It’s an incendiary riff tune that showcases a scorching May solo and more great exchanges with Laboriel and Zimmitti. But May’s rich melodic sense manifests in spades with rubato intros to “Yo Bro,” opener, “New Waltz” the introspective “April Fool” and “Keepin’ Up With The Boys.” “Old Cliches” belies its title; it’s a delightful tune with a Latin feel that’s devoid of anything hackneyed and “Lawless Theme” is yet another blues-based romp with keen interplay and vibrant solos.

 

Once in a Downbeat blindfold test, Joe Pass evaluated an Eric Clapton cut, “Badge” by saying “I don’t know who that is but there are cats here in L.A. who can do that, and do it everyday, right on the button, right on demand.”

Ironically, that issue featured a transcription of George Benson’s solo on Miles’ “So What” by a young college kid named Tim May. Now, more than thirty years later with May as a studio veteran, just imagine how far the bar has been raised. This is simply jazz guitar at its best. May, along with heavyweights Laboriel and Zimimitti are playing real jazz for a generation that’s been all too ignorant of a great art form.

 

Jim Carlton

 

Author: Conversations With Great Jazz Guitarists

 

Andreas Öberg

Young Jazz Guitarist

Hot Club Records HCRCD 162

 

    Swedish guitar star Andreas Öberg, well known in Europe for his Gypsy stylings, offers this recording of what he says is his real love, bebop. And what amazing bebop it is. Öberg has help from the extraordinary Marian Petrescu at the piano and the excellent Jorgen Smeby and Robert Ikiz at the bass and drums respectively. This is a recording that could very well cause some stateside players to sit up and listen to what’s going down in Europe as a result of Djangophiles there who revere, celebrate and perpetuate the Gypsy sound. Along with Jimmy Rosenberg and Romane, Öberg has emerged as one of the genre’s modern exponents.

 

He says as a young teenager he cut his teeth on fusion but soon discovered George Benson, Bireli Lagrene and later, Django. By the time he was 18, he was gigging with many of Sweden’s most famous jazz names and well on his way to being a star of Gypsy swing. But this foray into bebop, or at least his concept of it, will no doubt enhance his visibility in the mainstream jazz world.

Oberg and Petrescu’s unison playing of musical phrases, usually heads, at lightning speed is astonishing. Both players possess intimidating chops that dispatch notes at a rate that some will no doubt label gratuitous, but there’s no denying that their playing swings. Well-developed and inventive solos underscore and actually complement the flashy stuff and its compelling call. Usually mature jazzers aren’t so impressed by speed, but it can be used judiciously and creatively. Certainly horn and reed players have availed themselves of all their instruments will allow, but we’ve had relatively few valid jazz guitarists who can blaze like this at will. A shining example here is “My Kind of Bebop,” built on the Cherokee changes. After a breathless head, Öberg’s ride is non-stop balls-to-the-wall excitement followed by Petrescu’s statement of stunning double octaves. The jaw-dropping unison on the closing head is sheer artistic precision.

 

Standouts include opener, “Stompin’ at the Savoy,” with a swing tempo that’s right in the pocket with the guitarist expressing himself with flair and using his monster chops to say something fun. Ditto for Petrescu with a solo that builds like crazy. Smeby’s bass playing is outstanding while Ikiz’s brush work is solid and swinging throughout. “Le Q Theme” is an Öberg original that’s haunting and beautifully composed. It’s melodic with good changes and expressed with both warmth and vibrancy on a nylon string guitar. “Helen,” a ballad is another of the guitarist’s originals that reiterates his maturity as a composer.

 

A refreshingly up tempo and engaging version of “Flamingo” is devoid of the Gypsy feel that lingers in many of Öberg’s solos. This one is straight ahead with a great progressive feel. The quartet’s trading fours en route to the coda flexes everybody’s chops and good taste. Luis Bonfa’s “Samba de Orfeo” captures the feeling of the Carnival with sizzling solos and a rapid “September Blues” is scorching from front to back. Duke’s “In a Sentimental Mood” showcases Jorgen Smeby’s bass playing and endorses him as one of Europe’s best. It’s again Marian Petrescu’s turn to shine on “A Night in Tunisia” which is a precursor to his amazing double octave intro to “Nuages” a tune that’s hard to swipe from a guitarist of Öberg’s caliber.

 

So, it’s flying fingers all over this CD, and some might liken this to Jimmy Bryant meets Yngwie Malmsteen, but like Bryant, and say, Danny Gatton, Öberg’s solos are not haphazard. They’re nicely developed and he knows where he’s going, as does Petrescu who’s a perfect companion here. And honestly, sometimes it’s the flash itself that makes this album so compelling. Perhaps it’s a manifestation of the Gypsy influence and perhaps, with Öberg being just 27, it’s youthful exuberance, but still it’s magnetic. My guess is that Öberg’s endemic Gypsy sensibilities along with his love of bebop and meticulous chops will serve as diacritical elements that could distinguish him from the rest of the pack.

 

Jim Carlton

Calvin Newborn

New Born

Yellow Dog Records 1159

I was delighted to see this release. Calvin Newborn is among the few who truly qualifies for the attribution, “legendary.” For starters, he befriended and mentored a very young Elvis Presley, played on B.B. King’s first sessions at Sam Phillips’ Sun Records in 1949, and challenged all comers on a nightly basis to guitar battles at the Flamingo Room in Memphis circa 1950. What’s more, he was once referred to by Freddie Green as “…the greatest guitar player in America.” That’s arguable of course but nobody was flashier or more colorful on stage. He was indeed the artist as entertainer. In fact, it’s common to see old iconic photographs of a jumping Calvin, yes, Newborn airborne, in retrospective works on the period. Perhaps his only rival photogenically was Cab Calloway.

Nevertheless, Calvin has spent most of the last few decades under the radar and living in the long shadow cast by his brilliantly talented brother Phineas. So, many will construe this event as Calvin the phoenix because now, at seventy-something, the guitarist is back. According to the accompanying liner notes, he’s literally cleaned up his act in that he’s been clean and sober for more than a decade. He’s also earned a B.A. in Humanities and is again playing with the command and feeling that inspired and touched his devout followers years ago. He says even his surname expresses his new life being the name his ancestors chose when they were freed from slavery.

For this album the guitarist surrounded himself with a first-rate rhythm section, augmented by trumpeter Scott Thompson and reed player Herman Green, both creative soloists who complement the guitarist perfectly. Drummer Renardo Ward, whose credentials include gigs with the Jazz Ambassadors and Cyrus Chestnut keeps it all in the pocket. He drives the band with the excellent taste of a veteran jazzer. Also great is Knoxville pianist Donald Brown, an adventurous player, who’s been working with guitarists quite a bit lately being featured on albums by both Mark Boling and Rich Walker.

The cuts range from bar band blues, “After Hours,” to atmospheric portraits, “Streetwalker’s Stroll,” to an urbane version of Strayhorn’s “Lush Life.” Newborn covers all that ground musically and he does it well. The blues is down home and the jazz is sophisticated. His playing is accessible and reminiscent of Grant Green’s in that it can engage the listener and evoke real identification with what he’s creating.

Memphis is at the heart of America’s blues scene and Calvin Newborn has been an integral part of that scene and sound for almost sixty years. He’s been overlooked for too long and it’s great to have him back.

Jim Carlton

Jim Hall

Magic Meeting

ArtistShare.com

Although many consider Jim Hall an intellectual player, his work has always been accessible to the jazz listener and even captivating for pros. He’s taken us on his adventures with Sonny Rollins, Chico Hamilton, Jimmy Giuffre, Art Farmer, Bill Evans and others. And for me he’s at his best when he’s adventurous. On this recording, his first trio album in ten years, Hall’s playing is yet again progressive and provocative. It was recorded live over the span of a week at the Village Vanguard in the spring of 2004. Bassist Scott Colley and drummer Lewis Nash join Hall in producing evocative, dynamic and even enterprising jazz.

Hall’s somewhat surprising signal-processed sound on the opening tracks conjures comparisons to the Stern/Scofield tone. But it’s interesting to hear how Hall’s influence on those two modernists, and others, is being echoed in his own playing. On the opener “Bent Blue,” Hall sets the mood with an abstract groove that’s at once primal and contemporary. The tune develops into a lengthy discourse that becomes more engaging with each measure and discloses a conversation that’s reminiscent of Hall’s trio work with Giuffre on such tunes as “Train and the River.” The second track, Joe Lovano’s “Blackwell’s Message,” is a similar form that sidesteps the traditional but grabs the listener on a gut level, which is what great art should do. But writing about such a performance is inadequate. It should be experienced.

Scott Colley and Lewis Nash are perfect partners here with a combined brilliance that’s both complementary and comprehensive. There’s never a sense of anything missing. In fact, somebody once asked Art Farmer why there was no piano in his quartet and he responded, “When you have Jim Hall, you don’t need a piano.”

For “Skylark” Hall is back to his recognizable tone but with barely discernable amplification that nicely acknowledges his guitar’s acoustic sound. The trio takes the tune though some wonderful paces with Colley’s extended solo a standout. But perhaps Colley’s best showcase is “Canto Neruda,” a Spanish-flavored Hall original on which the guitarist amuses himself playing various rhythmic figures in four sharps while Nash and Colley stretch out. Nash has an unerring intuitive sense and his mallet and brush work throughout this recording are first rate.

Hall’s tune “Furnished Flats,” is full of tremendous exchanges and desultory tempi. “Body and Soul” has had few, if any, better treatments and Sonny Rollins’ “St. Thomas,” with Hall sporting a pretty cool programmed steel drum sound is just plain fun.

The idea behind this limited-edition recording is almost as progressive as the CD itself. It was created via ArtistShare, a consumer interactive concept that designates the purchaser an “active participant.” Various categories, including Gold, Silver and Bronze net the buyer/patron perks and privileges depending on the amount ponied up for participation. For instance, for a 20K downstroke you can call yourself an executive producer. But my take is that any idea that gets this caliber of artistry to market is a good one. Still, buying a copy of this CD gets you very little change back from your twenty. And although it’s very well worth it, in a perfect world it would be more accessible to the jazz enthusiast. Highly recommended.

Jim Carlton

Author of Conversations With Great Jazz Guitarists

Jimmy Bruno

Live at Chris’ Jazz Café Vol. 2

Mel Bay MB20559DVD

This live DVD from Mel Bay gives you the best seat in the club - actually, because of the comprehensive camera work, something better than that. Jimmy Bruno is the cynosure of all eyes throughout this compelling set of seven standards that includes tunes from Gershwin, Charlie Parker, Jimmy Van Heusen and Miles. With help from organist, Lucas Brown, drummer, Daniel Monaghan and tenor man, Chris Farr, Bruno flexes his relentless chops for nearly two hours creating some breathtaking lines that’ll have you wondering where the ideas come from. Organ trios, plus one, have been a tradition in Philly for decades, and this one with Bruno at the helm strongly maintains the legacy.

The set begins with the bar raised high as the group offers a scorching version of Sonny Stitt’s “Eternal Triangle,” a harbinger of the uncompromising ferocity to come. Two well-placed torchers, “Darn That Dream” and “Lover Man,” give the audience a chance to breathe between burners and showcase Bruno rendering impressive rubato intros on his Benedetto 7-string. Watch Jimmy’s face after his ride on “But Not For Me.” The camera catches a look that says, “Yeah, I just nailed it.” In no way was it egotistical or smug, just a reflection of satisfaction. It’s a nice moment typical of this production’s immediacy and lack of pretense.

Monaghan and Brown are solid and superb throughout. And tenor man, Farr, acquits himself very well, especially considering the breakneck tempos and lengthy renditions. But this is clearly Bruno’s show and because the two-camera shoot covers his comping as thoroughly as his solos, it’s a fine opportunity for scrutiny and study. Or, just sit back and soak up the great jazz with your one-time cover charge being the price of the disk. And certainly one viewing is not enough here.

A bonus, post-set interview is informative and efficient as Bruno responds to questions that flash on screen. It works well and lets us in on Jimmy’s background, opinions, techniques, and observations. He answers without hesitation and nobody can say that this guy doesn’t know his stuff. Highly recommended.

Jim Carlton

Randy Johnston

Is It You?

High Note HCD 7112

    Randy Johnston has found his place in the pantheon of contemporary jazz guitarists as a consistent and inventive player. He renders imaginative lines while rarely venturing outside harmonically, at least on this recording. Not that going outside is a bad thing at all, but it’s refreshing to hear one of the new breed of jazz guitarists routinely developing lines that are thoroughly melodic. Johnston’s ideas are never contrived and he can play scalding lines as well as anyone but he’s evidently artistically secure enough to express himself with an attitude and tone that honors his musical antecedents while maintaining a comfortably traditional but certainly hip attitude.

Being hip and accessible is a gift that’s tricky enough to pull off and few do it better than Johnston. Case in point is his treatment of Jimmy Van Huesen’s “Nancy.” His playing is lush and vibrant and perpetuates a jazz guitar style that no one would dare label anachronistic even though he employs a traditional tone and approach. Same goes for his rendition of “Who Can I Turn To?” It’s flashy and impressive but exudes the credibility of a seasoned artist.

Or catch his original, “Jump Back” which has heat and energy that’s reminiscent of Martino’s “The Visit.” In fact, this entire set is first rate from front to back. And at this point in his career, you expect nothing less from Johnston as he’s been a name jazzer for a few years now.

There’s help from the solid and swinging Dwayne Burno on bass and Gene Jackson at the drums. Both provide the deft and sturdy support one would expect. Xavier Davis at the piano on five tracks comps and solos in stellar fashion. Notice his gospel-flavored comping on the old PD tune, “Careless Love.” It’s a nice touch that even manifests during his modern solo.

One of the album’s many highpoints for me is Johnston’s original, “The Jump Through,” a six minute romp that showcases the quartet’s collective chops and interplay. There’s never a sense of competition, just very talented players engaging in a jazz dialog. And that’s true for the entire recording.

Also a tip of the hat to acknowledge the excellent liner notes by Jim Fisch, who may be best known for his book, House of Stathopoulo, a comprehensive overview of the Epiphone company. Writing good liners is an art that should balance praise and information. Fisch knows how.

Jim Carlton

Author of Conversations With Great Jazz Guitarists

The Anthony Wilson Trio

Savivity

Groove Note
GRV1030-2
www.groovenote.com

Anthony Wilson’s star is beginning to loom large. Certainly his recognition factor was enhanced by his touring and recording with Diana Krall since 2001, but other featured turns with such artists as Al Jarreau and Aaron Neville, among others, along with an impressive list of awards and nominations are serving to endorse and amplify his considerable status in today’s jazz world.

This CD, ”Savivity,” is essentially part two of his last trio release, “Our Gang,” and offers a further listen to the reciprocal and cohesive sound Wilson has forged with organist Joe Bagg and drummer Mark Ferber.Just listen to “Sea Blues,” a ultra-cool tune that will have plenty of avid guitarists wood-shedding the solo to quote whenever a blues in C crops up. And while Wilson offers it effortlessly with undeniable flair, Bagg and Ferber also jump on it as if to say, “we’ve paid our blues dues and here’s how.”  Other standouts are a smoking version of Jerome Kern’s “All The Things You Are,” Cole Porter’s “You’re The Top” and Wilson’s own “Savivity,” a thoughtful and ethereal composition that musically defines a word that was evidently minted by the guitarist as an homage to his friend John Savlove, an inspirational figure, writer and musician in Vermont. If Savlove was a motivating force behind this recording, more power to him.

Wilson has earned the admiration and respect of the jazz guitar community because his melodic, insightful and progressive approach has established him as one of the very best in what’s fast becoming a crowded arena. There are probably more great jazz guitarists now than ever before, and Anthony Wilson’s been blessed with the right stuff. This is the kind of collection jazz guitar enthusiasts wait for: great tunes interpreted by a great band. Yeah, it’s a small band, but so much the better. Organ/ guitar/drum trios are traditional fare and will forever serve as a jazz keystone. And hearing musical dialog of this caliber among three players with such remarkable chops sets the bar high.

Jim Carlton

Lenny Breau

Master Class DVD

Guitararchives Music Inc.

www.guitararchives.com

The world of jazz guitar owes rock and roll’s Randy Bachman a debt of thanks for making available this marvelous DVD of a Lenny Breau master class, which is believed to be the last known footage of Lenny. Bachman and Breau, both Canadians, were pals early on in Winnipeg, and this offering Bachman says, is produced in gratitude to Lenny.

The session, from 1982, was taped at the University of Southern California with a home video camera. But the lack of high definition doesn’t much matter. Lenny’s engaging demeanor and brilliant playing is captivating enough to hold the attention of any serious player.

Lenny, very happy with his two-week-old Kirk Sand 7-string, explains that because of the guitar’s short scale it can accommodate a high ‘A’ string (an .08 gauge), on top without it breaking. It’s a setup he’d been searching for. Most 7-string players augment the bottom end with a low ‘A’ string. Of course Lenny was typically unconventional.

And he shows off his new axe by putting several standards through some extraordinary paces. Lenny begins with “Stella,” goes on to a waltz-time version of “The Nearness of You” complete with right-hand tremolo and some rubato passages thrown in, explores McCoy Tyner’s “Visions” with some outside harmony and he reharmonizes Randy Goodrum’s “You Needed Me,” a tune Lenny calls “a country melody with jazz changes.”  We’re also treated to Lenny’s famous Chet-inspired tour de force version of “Freight Train,” Bill Evan’s “Funny Man,” a killer medley of “I’ll Remember April ” and “On Green Dolphin Street ” as well as “Send in the Clowns” and the great Van Heusen/Burke tune, “It Could Happen to You.” What’s interesting is that after so many years, and perhaps too many renditions by too many players of at least a few of those tunes, Lenny’s ideas are fresh and interesting even today. Many guitarists believe he belongs in the pantheon of genius players.

The event also benefited from the class being knowledgeable, appreciative and attentive. Its members asked good questions. One prompted Lenny to explain in detail his technique with artificial harmonics and another offered an observation about the economy of Lenny’s left hand movement. It’s obvious that both the audience and Lenny Breau got a lot from this very special event. And if you’re an avid reader of this publication, there’s no doubt that you will too. Highly recommended.

Jim Carlton

Al Viola

Jazz great and studio musician Al Viola, Frank Sinatra’s favorite guitarist, died at home in Studio City, California on February 28, 2007, after quietly battling cancer for many months.

Viola began his music career in Brooklyn, New York after learning a few guitar chords from his older brother. Soon he was playing neighborhood restaurants with a violinist friend and bringing home a considerable amount of money that was well appreciated by a large family during the Depression. Realizing such gratification by playing music inspired young Al to continue developing his talent.

During a hitch in the army, Viola met pianist Page Cavanaugh, and along with bassist Lloyd Pratt, formed the legendary Page Cavanaugh Trio. After serving Uncle Sam, they moved to Los Angeles, became a top recording act on RCA Victor, appeared in several films and were an outstanding draw on the nightclub scene. They toured the U.S., Canada and Europe and, later, accompanied a young Frank Sinatra, becoming an important part of the singer’s early success.

Al Viola’s relationship with Sinatra lasted five decades and he was considered the singer’s guitarist of choice. Viola recorded many albums with Sinatra and frequently appeared with him on concert tours and television specials. Often, as a concert highlight, Sinatra would feature Viola’s solo accompaniment, which provided the lush ambient mood for a torch song. “It was very demanding because you couldn’t take for granted that Frank would hold any given word for the same number of beats each time. I had to prepare for anything. Sometimes I thought I should have a special guitar with a very long neck,” Viola joked in my 2003 interview with him.

Once, while on tour in Europe, Sinatra surprised his friend by presenting him with a Ramirez classical guitar that he’d purchased in Spain. “To tell you the truth, I was nearly in tears,” Viola recalled. He later used that instrument on countless recordings including the atmospheric soundtrack of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, one of the guitarist’s most noted film performances.

Viola entered the studio scene in Hollywood in the early Fifties and became a first-call instrumentalist for film, television and recording dates. A brief list of his film credits includes: Blazing Saddles, Camelot, The Godfather, Mrs. Doubtfire, Paint Your Wagon, Stagecoach, West Side Story, The Wild Bunch, Some Came Running, The Silencers and When Harry Met Sally.

Viola’s many television credits include: Richard Diamond, The Fugitive, The Jonathan Winters Show, The Julie Andrews Show, The Don Knotts Show and several Sinatra specials. An impressive, although incomplete, list of musical artists with whom Al recorded includes: Sinatra, Andre Previn, Nelson Riddle, Julie London, June Christy, Manhattan Transfer, Gordon Jenkins, Natalie Cole, Neil Diamond, The Supremes, Linda Ronstadt, Ella Fitzgerald, Bobby Darin, Marvin Gaye, Mel Torme, Sammy Davis Jr., Jimmy Witherspoon, Dinah Washington, Lou Rawls, Billy May, Neal Hefti, Don Costa and many more. He ultimately appeared on more than 500 albums.

Although Viola had a jazz background, having been influenced by such guitar pioneers as Charlie Christian, Eddie Lang and Oscar Moore, he was known among his peers as a comprehensive and versatile player. He could set the scene perfectly for a Sinatra song, improvise extended solos with jazz combos, or drive Harry James’ big band with ferocious rhythm playing on his unamplified Gibson L-5. In 2004 he told me, “It’s such a treat for me to play time with a big band.” And producers and arrangers knew him as someone who could punctuate a film score with insightful style and create the perfect mood. His most famous soundtrack credit was, ironically, as a mandolinist not a guitarist, for his brilliant rendition of “The Godfather Theme.” He had to pass, however, on the film’s sequel, Godfather II, because he was on a world tour with Frank Sinatra.

Touring with Sinatra was a logical choice that led to his leaving the studios after decades. He said the TV show Miami Vice, “with one fellow doing the entire score on the synthesizer,” was a harbinger of what was to come for studio musicians. “So when I saw that Frank wanted me, I decided to hang in with him. I got to go to London nine times and Japan six times. And I’d often get to take my wife with me. Also, it was a cultural advantage for me to learn what was going on around the world.”

Al Viola was quite popular among his peers and is remembered fondly. “He played up until the end and none of us knew he was sick,” says studio guitarist, Tim May. “He was always playing and passing on his expertise at guitar clinics. And I’d see him at (L.A. nightclub) Spazio a lot, and he was the coolest guy ever, just the best. He always remembered your name and

was totally enthusiastic about playing guitar.” Another studio great, Dennis Budimir recalls, “We all got our starts by filling in for established players who couldn’t make a given date. I was lucky enough to sub for Al many times early on. He was a terrific player and delightful guy.” And veteran studio guitarist, Mitch Holder said, “He played great every time I got to hear him. And he was always warm and friendly to everyone.”

Viola played on a number of noted jazz recordings including “The Intimate Miss June Christy” in 1953 and Buddy Collette’s “Buddy’s Best” in 1956 along with trumpeter Gerald Wilson and drummer Earl Palmer, a group he  toured with. The guitarist also recorded many albums under his own name including, “Lament,” in the late Fifties, “Alone Again,” in the Seventies, “Prelude To a Kiss” in 1980 and more recently, “Mello’ as a Cello” and “Pacific Standard Time.” Another among Viola’s latest releases is a tribute CD to one of his early heroes, Eddie Lang, entitled “Stringing the Blues,” along with guitarists Bucky Pizzarelli and Howard Alden.

 In 2004, Al Viola received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C. He died at age 87.

Earl Klugh

Naked Guitar

Koch Records

www.kochrecord.com

This collection is a departure from Earl Klugh’s typical smooth jazz fare and it’s a pleasure to hear such a good player express himself by playing standards for a change. You can’t begrudge his making a handsome living from the feel-good stuff but this is a welcome addition to his catalog.

A previous album, The Earl Klugh Trio, showcased the guitarist’s impressive ability to solo over changes. But this one, Naked Guitar, highlights his chord soloing and arranging chops with nice tunes that are beautifully reharmonized with creative voicings and lots of taste. This recording is also different from an earlier solo album from a dozen or so years ago that was no doubt more of an homage to Chet’s influence than this one is. There are no stride bass lines here, just first-rate renditions of good tunes.

Klugh pays respect to Leroy Anderson with a well-explored version of “Serenata.” Few wrote pictures with music better than Anderson who is too often overlooked as a source of great material. Another nice choice is “Baubles, Bangles and Beads,” that Klugh delivers with a crisp and cheerful treatment. Even the melodramatic chestnut “Be My Love” is decorated with stylish restraint. It’s one of those tunes like “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” that has a built-in big ending, but Klugh avoids the temptation of going over the top and instead shows off his right-hand tremolo for an exquisitely crafted coda. The lush interpretation of “The Summer Knows” is an atmospheric lament that could convince you that the guitarist had the Bergmans’ lyric in mind as he played. And I’m sure many fingerstyle enthusiasts will want to conquer the playful “Ding Dong the Witch is Dead” which is just as much fun as his famous rendition of “If I Only Had a Brain.” 

Klugh’s knack of maintaining his commercial appeal is to be admired, and while these arrangements are all sophisticated and interesting, I only hope they prove accessible to his faithful followers and fans. If so, it could mean

more releases from him that are of this caliber. That would be something to look forward to.

Jim Carlton

Author of Conversations With Great Jazz Guitarists

 

Haunted Heart

Mundell Lowe and Jim Ferguson

Lily’s Dad’s Music Inc.
Nashville, Tennessee
615-429-5254
www.jimfergusonmusic.com
www.mundelllowe.com

Tennis great Jimmy Connors, when in his thirties, said he could no longer win a final unless he closed out the semis in three sets, meaning he couldn’t recover enough physically overnight to win after playing five sets the day before. But fortunately for musicians, so often the older they get the better they get. Witness, among many, Jimmy Wyble, Marian McPartland, Dave Brubeck and the great Mundell Lowe. What a treasure Mundell is bequeathing the guitar community with an ongoing legacy that’s long, hip and distinguished.

In this collection, Mundy teams up with bassist and singer Jim Ferguson for a great artistic fit. As Lowe provides lush, swinging and vibrant comping as well as lyrical and bluesy lines on a marvelous choice of tunes, Ferguson complements with sturdy, creative bass lines and singing that’s sometimes reminiscent, at least in vocal register, of Rosemary Clooney, something that grows on you quickly.

The album is urbane in concept and presents enjoyable virtuosity for thoughtful adults who aren’t interested in today’s lackluster pop music. And it’s a joy to hear Mundell in a spartan setting where we’re getting such a pure dose of his talent. Consider the rendition of “There’s a Small Hotel.” Mundy’s interpretation is supported superbly by Ferguson’s bass lines and unvarnished by, if you’ll excuse me, too much arrangement. He can improvise and express himself knowing that a rock-solid Ferguson always has his back. Suffice it to say there’s a real synergy between these two masters. And when Jim Ferguson solos, always melodically with nice legato phrasing, Mundell comps with that wonderful innate sense of taste that he’s known for. 

Another real plus is Lowe’s lush rubato treatment of Bill Evans’ “Very Early” used here as a precursor to the lovely “Waltz for Debby” featuring Jim’s lilting vocal and authoritative solos by both players in an up-tempo 4/4 before winding back down to a 3/4 time reprise. And the renditions of “My Foolish Heart” and “I’ll be Seeing You” are just plain gorgeous. They’re enough to make you grab your current pelvic affiliate and head to the nearest romantic fireplace. It you can’t get lucky with these tracks playing in the background you never will.

“Mean to Me” is yet another highlight with Ferguson’s understated vocal and a solo by Mundell that employs the same economy and punch he used decades ago on Peggy Lee’s “Why Don’t You Do Right?” His solos always say so much but he never overplays. And as the great man says, “Harmonize the melody, don’t melodize the harmony.” Oh, what we can learn from Mundell.

Jim Carlton

Andreas Öberg

Solo

Hot Club Records
HCR 182
www.hotclub.no

In this, his first solo album, Sweden’s Andreas Öberg joins a rarified few jazz guitarists, to wit, Martin Taylor and Tuck Andress, who employ a comprehensive and holistic approach to solo guitar. Öberg is known for his fiery, Gypsy-influenced, sophisticated bebop lines and there are plenty of those here to appreciate. But this recording demonstrates a broader palate and showcases his phenomenal depth of talent. Let it serve as validation and notice that this guy is the real deal. As they say down South, “He plays a gang o’ guitar.”

Like Tuck Andress, Öberg does whatever it takes to achieve his vision of a given tune. He’ll slap the fretboard for percussion, juxtapose engaging bass lines against moving voice chords, make a statement with artificial harmonics or octaves, or sometimes just let his stunning single-string lines deliver his message a la Joe Pass. And it’s all performed with a virtuosity in which the rhythm never lags or suffers.

This collection begins with the guitarist easing into a percussive rendition of “Manha de Carnival.” It’s a bold opening track because he shuns the prosaic customer chorus and presents a stylized version of Bonfa’s tune that grows on you with each listen. He follows with a vibrant treatment of Jimmy Heath’s signature tune, “Gingerbread Boy,” a vehicle for an amusing dialog as he becomes both bass player and soloist with no overdubs or punching in.

But all the tunes here are treated with style. And they’re all great including Öberg’s own compositions, “Venus” and “Open Road.” But his explorations of “Old Folks,” “Yesterdays” and Gershwin’s “Soon” and “But Not For Me” demonstrate that he, at age 27, is already a mature artist who appreciates and understands the craftsmanship of great composers. Few other players that age today are routinely interpreting our best standards with such flair and insight.

When someone is gifted with such astounding chops there’s an inherent danger of gratuitous flash but not with Öberg. Yeah, his playing is blazing at times, but there’s precision and purpose behind every line. Listen to his breathtaking rendition of “Tenderly.” There are lines galore, but each is going somewhere and telling the story. As one jazzer friend commented after hearing Öberg’s last quartet album, “The guy is actually thinking that fast.”

Öberg pays great respect to his influences: Django, Bireli Lagrene, George Benson, Martin Taylor, Joe Pass, Tuck Andress and French virtuoso, Sylvain Luc. He is already well-known in Europe, and because of his recent jazz festival jamming in Wales with Anthony Wilson, Bucky Pizzarelli and Cory Christiansen, there’s no doubt that word about him will spread quickly in the guitar community. So, if you’re not hip to him yet, you’re missing out on one of our finest players. But he’s young and will no doubt be around for a long time. 

Jim Carlton

Lenny Breau

Mosiac

Guitarchives Music Inc.
Box 1000, Salt Spring Island
BC Canada V8K 2M2
www.guitarchives.com

This CD is an excellent companion to the Lenny Breau Master Class DVD that’s reviewed elsewhere in this issue. Randy Bachman, famous rocker and guitar enthusiast, and the man behind Guitarchives, has assembled a fascinating, entertaining and detailed collection of rare recordings by Lenny Breau, appropriately entitled “Mosaic.”

The CD is divided into segments listed as “fragments” and each comprises one or more complete tracks. In addition to the great playing, we get a potpourriof rarities that normally wouldn’t be available to the average fan. For instance, it would be tough for even a Breau completionist to find a recording of Lenny spoofing a friend’s uncle on a telephone answering machine, Phil Upchurch recalling his first meeting with Lenny, or funny extraneous off-mic recording session banter.

But the music is the main focus here and the handsome accompanying booklet provides the listener with the backstory on each track. That background enhances the listener’s experience and presents glimpses of Lenny’s personality as well. And Bachman left much of the material unedited to preserve the integrity of the given moment.

Thanks, not only to Randy Bachman, but to Phil Upchurch as well, who provided demo tracks that are believed to be the last recordings of Lenny. Upchurch also wrote a heartfelt tribute that’s included in the extensive liner notes.

All of the tracks are of surprisingly good quality and Bachman rightfully calls them “some of Lenny’s greatest moments.” Truly, this collection would be an important addition to the listening library of any serious player. Lenny Breau was no doubt jazz’s most eclectic guitarist, and although he incorporated many styles of playing into his own, he was, nevertheless, a bona fide original.

Jim Carlton

Author of Conversations With Great Jazz Guitarists

Pat Martino

Remember: A Tribute To Wes

Blue Note 11226

Pat Martino said that creating this CD, his homage to Wes Montgomery, allowed him to reflect on a very influential time in his past: Wes’ Riverside era from 1959 to 1963. Martino said it also acknowledges his period of recovery from memory loss that he suffered as a result of surgery to correct a brain aneurysm in 1980. The guitarist worked his way back to playing again by listening to his own albums along with Montgomery’s. So, most of the ten tunes here are from Wes’ Riverside period before he was discovered by the public-at-large.

This isn’t slick like Lee Ritenour’s tribute CD, “Movin’ Wes,” enjoyable with its punchy horns, string sections and appealing arrangements, but it’s not meant to be. This is strictly a small jazz group paying its respects. And Martino and company turn in just what you want. David Kikosko on piano, Scott Allan Robinson at the drums and bassist John Patitucci, along with percussionist Danny Sadownick provide a genuine feel for what Martino says is a “dream come true” recording. The guitarist even provided copies of the original performances for band members to help them focus on the ensemble sound that he wanted. Says Martino, “You can’t make an authentic tribute to Wes without the initial study and without understanding the culture and the aura of his time.”

One of the tunes here that isn’t from the Riverside days is “Road Song,” which Martino covered on “The Visit, his first recorded salute to Wes back in 1972. But while that album was done in the spirit of appreciation, “Road Song” was its only bona fide Montgomery composition. I’m glad it’s included here. This collection contains two of my favorites from Wes’ album, “The Incredible Jazz Guitar,” “Four on Six” on which Martino solos ferociously and “West Coast Blues,” offered with a sprightly tempo that’s a bit quicker than the original. Another classic from Wes’ Verve days is Sam Jones’ killer tune, “Unit Seven” that Wes recorded live on “Smokin’ at the Half Note” with Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers and Jimmy Cobb. I just wish Martino’s solo was as out in front in the mix here as Wes’ was on that Rudy Van Gelder engineered recording.

But what can you say about Pat Martino? He’s occupied an exalted place in the pantheon of great jazz guitarists for decades now. He’s invariably worked with other fine players and always produced great music. This album provides that same reliable, high-caliber excellence. But then, from Pat Martino you’d expect nothing else.

Jim Carlton

author of Conversations With Great Jazz Guitarists

Al Hendrickson

Obit

Al Hendrickson, a jazz guitar pioneer and one Hollywood’s best and busiest studio guitarists died July 19, 2007 of a heart attack at his home at North Bend, Oregon.

Hendrickson, born May 10, 1920 in Eastland, Texas, began playing lap-steel guitar as a youngster in Venice, California but got his first six-string guitar lesson from a school classmate in Reno where his family had settled in the late twenties. In 1937, after his high school graduation in Santa Monica, Hendrickson took a job with Garwood Van’s band at San Francisco’s St. Francis Hotel. There he sang on nightly coast-to-coast broadcasts and played the lap-steel Hawaiian guitar during intermissions.

A few months later, Hendrickson headed to Los Angeles where his reputation grew quickly. He became a charter member of Artie Shaw’s Gramercy Five and was recognized as one of the new breed of jazz guitarists concomitant with Charlie Christian. In a 2004 interview, he recalled “We’d play the Palace Hotel in San Francisco during the week, then fly back to L.A. every Monday to do The Burns and Allen Radio Show and then do a recording date at RCA in the afternoon. Then, it was back to San Francisco. We did a lot of recordings of the original Gramercy Five and that’s really how I got my foot in the door with the studios.” His first recording session apart from Shaw’s group was at Universal in 1939. It was a movie call for the Andrews Sisters. The date itself was inauspicious yet it marked the beginning of a studio career that would last more than four decades.

Hendrickson enjoyed a first-call status in the studios throughout his career and recorded with virtually every big name in show business. In 2003, when asked about some of his most memorable moments, he said, “I did lots of sessions with Sinatra with Nelson Riddle, Don Costa and Billy May, and all of his things with Gordon Jenkins. I think he made some of his best records with Gordon.” The guitarist went on to cite his role on Ray Charles’ landmark album, “Modern Sounds in Country and Western,” teaching Marilyn Monroe how to play ukulele for her song “Runnin’ Wild” in the film Some Like It Hot, and sitting in the desert with the band led by Count Basie in a scene from Blazing Saddles. “That wasn’t really Basie’s band, just studio players, but I was still making like Freddie Green, ” he recalled. Hendrickson joked about playing banjo on Louis Armstrong’s “Hello Dolly” and guitar on the hit “What a Wonderful World ” as two of his “most dubious artistic achievements.” And he recalled overdubbing parts for the Beatles’ final album “Let it Be,” but said he remembered few specifics about the sessions. “It was just another gig,” he mused.

Although known primarily as a studio player, Hendrickson found time early on in his career to work with several jazz artists. In addition to Shaw’s Gramercy Five, he played with Benny Goodman’s band and sextet, and worked in small groups with Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong, Louis Bellson, Andre Previn and Benny Carter. He even sang the vocal on Goodman’s hit, “Slow Boat To China,” which led to an album on Liberty Records with Al singing using the stage name Tommy Hendricks. He laughed, “I just wasn’t that interested in being a singer. That was the trouble.”

There are many who believe the title of “world’s most-recorded guitarist” belongs to Al Hendrickson and not Tom Tedesco, who was often introduced as such. Hendrickson began his studio career long before Tedesco did, and with more than 5000 film credits, 15, 000 record dates, hundreds of television shows in addition to countless radio programs in the forties and fifties, perhaps the title is, in fact, Hendrickson’s. But another celebrated studio-great and longtime friend of Hendrickson’s, Bob Bain suggested, “That’s a title Al would never have claimed. That just wasn’t in keeping with his personality.”

In a 1975 interview, noted studio guitarist Howard Roberts spoke with appreciation about Hendrickson stating, “Al Hendrickson is one of the best and busiest guitar players in the world, and has been for thirty five years. His experience is vast; he can sight-read anything and he can play in any style.” Studio veteran Mitch Holder recalls that it was Tom Tedesco who graciously hosted the guitarist-studded event that was Hendrickson’s retirement party. “Every great guitarist in town was there. We all kept joking that if a bomb dropped on Tommy’s house no name guitarists would be left in L.A. There was Lee Ritenour, Larry Carlton, Tim May, Pat Martino, Robben Ford, Dennis Budimir, Bob Bain, Herb Ellis, Ron Eschete and many more. It was a real tribute to Al,” Holder said.

Hendrickson played regularly well into his retirement. He even jammed with musician friends the night before he died and mentioned that he felt like he’d never played better. Al Hendrickson was 87.

Jim Carlton