Guitars and jazz tradition, popularism, innovation

Jazz at Lincoln Center opened its canon to Swing Era guitar heroes Django Reinhardt and Charlie Christian last week, while John Scofield, one of the instrument’s current avatars, disappointed in performance of This Meets That with his trio + Scohorns. Where does the six-string ax belong, and what’s it to do?

Belgian gypsy Reinhardt (1910 – 1953) and Oklahoma City-raised Christian (1916 – 1942) are the most recent inductees into the Nesuhi Ertegun Hall of Fame at Jazz at Lincoln Center, the first players of the guitar to be so honored by Wynton Marsalis’s “House of Swing,” though that instrument is by far the most popular musical device in America, and has been for more than 50 years. John Scofield is one of its current avatars, a skilled, clever, ambitious and often inspired performer, though a recent set at New York’s Blue Note left something to be desired. All of which suggests the conflicts surrounding the six-string ax.
The story of jazz as related by most overseers — not only Ken Burns, but also Andre Hodier, Marshall Stearns, Mark Gridley, Alyn Shipton, et al — has seldom incorporated the guitar as a significant signifier, despite its being flourished by such early stars as Lonnie Johnson and Eddie Lang (circa 1928), Eddie Condon and Eddie Durham. The guitar in old-timey, folk, country, blues and rock ‘n’ roll — yes. But the role of the unamplified guitar in New Orleans (Johnny St. Cyr played with Buddy Bolden and recorded with Jelly Roll Morton; Danny Barker was one of Wynton Marsalis’ early teachers) and the parts played by jazz-oriented people like Les Paul in the development of the electric instrument into its dominant role today have been overlooked in the study of brass and reeds, pianos and drums, singers, soloists and big bands.
That secondary status was understandable enough in the first half of the jazz century, though besides breakout artists like Reinhardt and Christian there were prominent and pleasing players such as Oscar Moore (with Nat King Cole’s trio), Barney Kessell, Tiny Grimes, George Barnes, Mary Osborne, Tal Farlow . . . In the 1950s, as the guitar emphasized its prominence via rock ‘n’ roll, it gained higher profile in jazz, too, culminating perhaps in the career of Wes Montgomery (another obvious candidate for Hall of Fame). Since then, with the advent of Grant Green, Larry Coryell, George Benson, John McLaughlin — and not least due to Miles Davis’ crystalization and popularization of electric improvised music (In A Silent Way, Bitches Brew, On The Corner, etc.) — the guitar has been rampant in jazz. Performers including Chet Atkins, Kenny Burrell, Herb Ellis, Joe Pass, Jim Hall, Lenny Breau, Jimi Hendrix, Pat Martino, Pat Metheny, Larry Carlton, Lee Ritenour, Derek Bailey, Bill Frisell, John Abercrombie, Earl Klugh, Stanley Jordan, Emily Remler, James “Blood” Ulmer, Vernon Reid, Bern Nix, David Fiuczynski, Russell Malone, Leni Stern, Elliott Sharp, Mike Stern, Duck Baker, Brandon Ross and Mary Halvorson are among those who’ve demonstrated that an enormous range of creativity and expression can be tapped using the guitar. By now the instrument’s obvious potential and its recorded heritage are second to none.
However, its broad appeal and success across genres has also proved problematic — as if there are too many choices available to the instrument’s adepts. Scofield, for instance, can play abstractly or lyrically, with delicacy or crunch. At the Blue Note on the last night of a run of five he opened the show with a version of “The House of the Rising Sun,” a much-covered song dating back at least to 1934 and immortalized in the ’60s by Eric Burdon with the Animals. Sco plucked the melody with restraint, against a distinctive New Orleans shuffle, which is one of his preferred rhythms. Frisell joins him for the rendition on This Meets That (which I haven’t heard), but wasn’t at the gig. Not a problem.
The more distinctive attraction of this project, though, was Scofield’s inclusion of three musicians playing horns — doublers employing baritone sax-bass clarinet, tenor sax-flute and trumpet-flugelhorn to add a soupcon of variety to the arrangements. Except for “House,” the repertoire was all Sco originals, mostly distended blues set to backbeats. These songs gave the guitarist plenty of space for soloing; he was seldom at a loss for ideas, though he seemed pressed to sustain unrelenting high energy, and the flow of his statements occasionally faltered under such labor. Meanwhile, the horns served not as a riffing section pushing Sco to exciting peaks, not as individuals naturally integrated into group improvisation, not as specialists extending the songs’ conceits via nicely crafted chamber music parts. They did a bit of all of that, and not dishonorably, but a week later I remember few of their highlights and less of Sco’s new themes.
Maybe after his last album, Out Louder, a second outing with the jam band Medeski, Martin & Wood, and the production before that, That’s What I Say featuring the music of Ray Charles, Scofield’s hit the next stage of the challenge of maintaining a young rhythm ‘n’ blues (read: populist if not outright commercial) audience while keeping himself interested in what he’s playing, too. Traditional jazz fans have abjured the guitar right along for somehow tainting their musical ideals. I suppose the prevalence of guitar in other vernacular American music threatens the purists, while attracting audiences who could care less about purism, but just like the sound.
Great jazz guitarists have staked out both ends of the popularity poll — Benson, for instance, downplaying his plectral virtuosity to sing banal dancefloor hits, Bailey avoiding any hint of conventional melody and harmony in the performance of what sound most like empirical investigations. Other guitarists have staked out positions in the middle ground, but it is not easy — they seem to declare that they’re frankly seeking an audience or playing jazz for jazz’s sake alone. Scofield straddled the possibilities, this time out seeming to waver between rather than bridge the chasm.
The resulting uncertainty affected the music — what was it meant to do? — and left the audience lukewarm (not just me — end-of-show applause wasn’t all it might have been). Well, you go to hear live music and take your chances (though the Blue Note’s weekend cover charge and minimum, in this instance $40 per person, may discourage less-than-flush risktakers). The Jazz at Lincoln Center elevation of Reinhardt and Christian avoids questions of what the guitar in jazz could/should/must/might/can do by reaching back to the era before blues, rockabilly, bossa nova and psychedelia claimed the instrument as an essential prop and iconic acoutrement. Now it’s up to guitarists to break stereotypes and make music that grips us in the here and now, whether that be jazz or the jazz beyond jazz.
Scofield’s done it before (“What It Is” and “That’s What Happened” from Miles Davis’ Decoy are good places to catch him at his best, or try this trio clip from the Blue Note in 2004 with bassist Steve Swallow and drummer Bill Stewart). I always think the chance is good he’ll do it again.

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  1. Hugh Branson says

    I am disappointed that you omitted Johnny Smith from your list of jazz guitarists. He was not only a magnificant performer, but he also set a new standard for jazz guitar players.
    Thanks for your note, sorry to disappoint. There are dozens of great jazz guitarists I left out, and dozens I haven’t sufficiently explored or appreciated yet. Thanks for tugging me on Johnny Smith — I might have also mentioned Jimmy Raney, Sonny Sharrock, Irving Ashby, Pete Cosey, Baden-Powell, Luis Bonfa, Bola Sete, Marc Ribot, George Freeman, Anthony Wilson, Jeff Beck, Al Casey, Eldon Shamblin, and so do, here — without trying to be encyclopedic or exhaustive, just among many who might come to mind. . . HM

  2. says

    Hi Howard,
    Enjoyed your blogging above on jazz guitar.
    As we head towards 2008 there is an overflow of people who can play their instrument really really well in jazz music. Unfortunately, there are a limited number of people who have a rampant imagination like guitarist like Bill Frisell (especially his earlier discography!) or a saxophonist/composer like Henry Threadgill.
    The imagination and creativity of great players like Scofield who has made some excellent records, is highly challenged by his busy touring schedule and the demands of his fans and record company to keep making records every year.
    Generally, jazz records today all deserve 3 stars. (rarely more or less) This is because people know how to play this music quite well but are rarely willing to take chances and put out something that might be disliked. (Isn’t the potential to fail is a crucial part of making art?) Since this is how artforms continue to grow, it seems like jazz is going to be stuck here for a while.
    Unitl we find a way to express ourselves more like Ornette does or perhaps look to artists in other disciplines like director David Lynch you critics can put two of your stars under your bed to rest for a while.
    tim posgate
    greetings Tim — Toronto-based bright light on the guitar-blog-Guildwood Records scene, who leads a 3-horn + gtr Hornband featuring tuba&barisaxist Howard Johnson.
    I’m glad not to rate records by stars anymore, but I dn’t mind rating movies with stars on Netflix.