“Big Three” jazz guitarists extended to a couple dozen

In his article on the collaboration of Jim Hall and Bill Frisell in the April issue of Jazz Times, Evan Haga refers to the “Big Three” of current jazz guitarists: Frisell, John Scofield and John McLaughlin.

Much as I dig them (and Hall), that designation is a rather typical journalistic foreshortening of a field, relegating to a rich second tier such high-profile powerhouse contenders as Pat Metheny, Pat Martino, Larry Coryell, James “Blood” Ulmer, Vernon Reid, George Benson, Les Paul, Russell Malone, Al Di Meola, Kenny Burrell, Toninho Horta, Romero Lumbambo, Stanley Jordan, Charlie Hunter, Lionel Loueke, Birelli Lagrene, John Pizzarelli, Mike Stern, Leni Stern, Lee Ritenour, Ben Monder, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Marc Ribot, Mary Halvorson, Elliott Sharp, Doug Wamble, Jeff Parker, Earl Klugh and Dave Fiuczynski, for starters. Whaddya think, readers: Are McLaughlin, Scofield and Frisell all that guitaristically dominant?

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  1. Medrawt says

    Especially curious since I’ve often seen Frisell, Scofield, and Metheny grouped together as the “Big Three” of their set – guys roughly the same age who all acknowledge Jim Hall as a prime influence and have all, in very different ways, incorporated some kind of popular vernacular into their music making. You could argue for Mike Stern as a natural member of this group, though I don’t think he’s quite so widely lauded, and certainly for John Abercrombie, but he – like McLaughlin – was born in the early 40s, not the early 50s like ScoFrizzMeth. Of course, I’m talking about musical affinity, not preeminence.
    Not having read the article I’m not sure in what sense Scofield, Frisell, and McLaughlin are supposed to be “the Big Three,” – McLaughlin seems to me quite different as a musician from the other two – but I guess they seem like as fine a choice as any; speaking in terms of prestige rather than personal preference, though, I don’t think they can be elevated above Metheny, Abercrombie, or (maybe) Martino. And then there’s Benson, the wild card: pretty much everyone I’ve read or spoken to who knows from jazz guitar thinks Benson is one of the very greatest “mainstream” jazz guitarists of all time, if not the champ, but he hasn’t made a record like that in 40 years; every once in a while he sits in with some other heavyweight to surprise the hell out of everyone and affirm that, yes, he’s still got it.
    HM: To the honor roll of originals who’ve been productively performing and recording jazz guitar I ought to add Joe Morris and Dave Stryker. And there are still more, of course.

  2. says

    I think the reduction of jazz guitar into a “Big Three” distorts more than it illuminates. Jazz guitar is a pretty big tent by necessity, being that it often incorporates jazz and rock influences (more so than most instruments). Identifying a “Big Three,” even though Haga includes Scofield (a jack-of-all-trades if there ever was one) belies the diversity of styles found among the instrumentalists listed above. These three are really a triumvirate in album sales only (and even that is not really the case, considering Metheny sells a ton of albums).

  3. says

    Are there more?
    I believe DownBeat is still opening mail from disgruntled readers who feel that their favorite pickers were left off the magazine’s extensive list of great guitarists.
    If one was to classify today’s leading guitarists by style and/or major point of reference, you might come up with a Big 10 or 12, but 3? Too reductive, by all means.

  4. says

    As excited as I am to see McLaughlin in D.C. this Wednesday, the “Big Three” I refer to in the piece are Frisell, Scofield and Metheny. I’ve seen that term used online and in jazz rags and I believe it indicates those Berklee-educated baby-boomers with major-label leader deals. In any case, such terms are indeed limiting.
    While we’re discussing Jim Hall and dropping guitar favorites, does anyone know what Ed Bickert is up to? There’s the man who made the Fender Telecaster safe for jazz guitar years before Mike Stern, Frisell, Adam Rudolph and others who record with it today. What a thoughtful, lyrical improviser.
    HM: Thanks for the clarification, Evan — my sloppy reading of your article introduced the mistake, I guess. But I also want to bet that by “Adam Rudolph” you mean Adam Rogers?

  5. Kandie Webster says

    Thank you guitarist afficianados for expressing more wide-ranging views on this narrow-minded topic…I have personal preferences of my top guitarist, solely based on what I like to hear.
    I used to hate the electric guitar sound with a passion, but one jazz guitarist, specifically, brought me around to open my ear to the beauty of what he plays. And from that stems an appreciation (not necessarily liking) of other jazz guitarists. I still do not like the rock guitar sound at all.
    To say any three players are the “Top 3” overall is just…wrong! As beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so is music in the ear of the listener.
    And Howard, it is pleasure to be asked my opinion by you on the topic. Thank you for the opportunity.

  6. Medrawt says

    Well, that makes more sense; regardless of where they “ought” to rank (silly!) Metheny, Scofield, and Frisell do make a natural group representing a certain strain of modern jazz guitar that’s quite distinct from, say, Russell Malone (or Joe Morris, or Dave Fiuczynski, or Doug Wamble…)
    re: the sound of jazz guitar, I was a fan of rock (and rock sounds) before I was a fan of jazz, but I don’t care for a heavily distorted tone in a primarily acoustic setting (I especially don’t like the way it sits with an acoustic piano), and I honestly think a lot of phenomenal jazz guitarists have really unfortunate tone by the standards of any genre. But I’m actually not a huge fan of the modern superdark jazz guitar sound either, though it can be quite beautiful at times. If you go back and listen to, say, Charlie Christian or Grant Green, you’ll hear brighter, more expressive (in my opinion) sounds that range from sweet to rude just like a horn. Frisell, Metheny, and Scofield all have very identifiable personal sounds, of course.
    And lastly, I believe Bickert is more or less in retirement, whatever that may mean for someone in his circumstances.
    HM: Re the tone issue: McLaughlin’s tone on his solid-body “rock” instrument is not what I’d call distorted, rather it is bright and crisp, and Corea mainly used electric keyboards that were *more* distorted, so the guitar lines ranged and rang) clearly, cleanly over them.

  7. says

    Taking nothing away from the excellent jazz guitarists mentioned by fellow commentators, I think that Benson is more than a wild card, notwithstanding his pop/R&B emphasis since Breezin’. Metheny himself has acclaimed Benson as the greatest living jazz guitarist.
    Medrawt, Jimmy Smith’s 1982 recording “Off the Top” (with Benson, Grady Tate, Ron Carter and Stanley Turrentine), and Benson’s own “Tenderly,” (1989) and “Big Boss Band (with the Count Basie Orchestra)” (1990) all display Benson at the height of his considerable “mainstream,” straight-ahead powers.
    His a capella version of the title cut “Tenderly” is a masterpiece and, on the same date, his improv on “Stella By Starlight” is simply stunning.
    But, alas, this is ultimately personal preference and choice. If a poll of jazz guitarists were taken, I wonder what the order of influence would turn out to be. A listing of the top 10-20 living guitar influences might be a telling study.
    And I wish that Benson, and my favorite of all time, Joe Pass, could have recorded some duets together. Virtuoso, Volume Five: Pass and Benson, might have been the ticket to heaven.

  8. says

    In my opinion, this sort of competitive polling is always unfair to everybody. Certainly there are a few musicians who are supreme on their instruments, and then there are lots more who are greatly rewarding to listen to, and then there’s every level all the way down to sheer torture (especially on guitar). But why does everyone have to be in competition? Music just isn’t like that, and truth be told, when life is like that, it just gets ugly.
    In the music generally known as “jazz,” I love the playing of Brandon Ross and Jef Lee Johnson and Jean-Paul Bourelly, and also Olu Dara, who plays lap guitar while singing and telling stories as no one else can. And of course there are many phenomenal musicians who play guitar in blues music and African music.
    But no one will ever move me to my bones by playing a guitar as Sonny Sharrock did. It took me years to go anywhere near a guitar player after he left us.

  9. says

    Yes, thanks Howard — I did mean Adam Rogers. Speaking of Rudolph, though, his Moving Pictures has one of the most underrated pickers out there in my opinion — Ken Wessel.
    HM: The guitar list continues. My point wasn’t initially to be exhaustive of all skilled, original, creative current guitarists — nor did I mean to be snarky, Evan — just meant to question the terms of the canon (to which I myself contributed unconsciously, subbing McLaughlin for Metheny in the original article, slipping on my own Big 3 assumptions).
    That said, I agree completely with Evan about Wessel, who always contributes heroically — cf. my recent posting on the Don Cherry tribute led by Karl Berger at Symphony Space. Kenny’s music with Ornette in Prime Time is overlooked — as was his partner Chri Rosenberg and earlier Pt guitarists (I’m thinking of you, Bern Nix!) not to mention the innovative, spirited bassists, electric and otherwise, in Ornette’s past two-decades ensembles: Charnett Moffett, Albert MacDowell, Jamaladeen Tacuma, Tony Falanga, Greg Cohen,
    Hey: Ornette’s scheduled for Jazz at Lincoln Center next September!
    Anyway: Guitar in jazz today obviously interests lots of readers-listeners, and I might post on how tradition-linked guitar-jazzers’ not always easy adaptations to ’60s guitar-dominated popular music may be evident in the main streams of jazz guitar as it exists today. Might hear Frisell’s and Metheny’s Americana rural references akin to Coryell’s in the ’60s with Gary Burton, Scofield’s funk ‘n’ blues out of Leo Nocentelli of the ’60s Meters; McLaughlin continuing the Brit invasion (Yardbirds’ especially) hard rock line; Benson expanding on Wes; Sonny Sharrock’s significant influence peaking through now and again (McLaughlin obviously knows Sharrock’s music, and assume same of Joe Morris, for one).
    Or maybe I could even get an assignment to expand on that thesis!

  10. says

    re: “Scofield’s funk ‘n’ blues out of Leo Nocentelli of the ’60s Meters”
    That’s particularly evident on Sco’s new Piety Street disc, with original Meters bassist George Porter, Jr. and other New Orleans-based musicians.

  11. says

    As much as McGlaughlin, Scofield and Frisell please my aural palette, there are certainly other strong contendors that deserve consideration. What about Mark Whitfield? And how about the funkadelic B.D. Lenz? In recent weeks, Lenz was awarded the 2008 “Rising Star Award” for best Jazz Band from Gigmasters based on outstanding achievement.
    HM: Mark Whitfield – but I haven’t kept up with him. (And I’m getting cds from Al di Meola that I’ve got to catchup with. . .) As for Lenz, top tier or up ‘n’ comer? Adding him as another to check out.

  12. says

    “I think the reduction of jazz guitar into a “Big Three” distorts more than it illuminates.”
    McLaughlin still remains my favorite jazz guitarist of all time and he is as consistent in his output as anyone.
    That said, currently Rosenwinkel, Monder, and Ribot are my dudes.
    Nice topic.

  13. alan says

    First time poster…what’s the socio/cultural thing/need for hierarchy/competition in every single part of our lives…it’s art, and the special thing about art is that it’s NOT a competition. The best guitarist? What does that even mean?
    HM: Good question, thanks for the point, but it requires an in-depth answer I can only take a stab at briefly. Ranking does seem built into the culture, before and beyond the arts. Something about selectivity and a human desire/need for validation of preferences?

  14. says

    I’m with Jim in my love for Rosenwinkel and Monder. I just listened to Braxton’s Quintet (London) 2004 and was impressed with Mary Halvorson.