Progressions: 100 Years of Jazz Guitar
This four-CD compilation is the equivalent of a full-semester graduate seminar in the history of jazz guitar, except more fun. It encompasses 78 guitarists on 74 tracks, drawn from 33 record labels, opening with Vess Ossman’s ragtime banjo on “St. Louis Tickle,” recorded in 1906 on an Edison Cylinder, and running through Bill Frisell’s digital loops in 2001. There is a booklet full of photos and nostalgia, plus track-by-track annotation by Charles Alexander, an erudite, passionate scholar of the jazz guitar.
The guitar’s evolution into primacy as a jazz instrument began with banjos, banjo-guitar hybrids and Hawaiian steel guitars, which were used to generate the necessary volume to be captured on record. On “Savoy Blues,” from 1927, Johnny St. Cyr’s powerful chords behind Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five are strummed on a hybrid (guitar neck, banjo body). But by the 1930s, new higher-volume instruments like the Gibson L5, positioned close to the microphone, enabled acoustic guitars to supplant banjos. Rhythm guitarists like Eddie Lang, Roy Smeck, Eddie Condon and Carl Kress (whom most modern listeners have read about in the jazz history books but have not heard) are here on acoustic instruments, driving their bands with on-the-beat swing and also taking compelling chordal and single-note solos. The real breakthrough came around 1940, when magnetic pickups enabled guitars to be amplified and heard in large jazz orchestras.
Most of the tracks in this collection are short, so even the true epiphanies fly by quickly. We get less than three minutes of melodic transcendence from Django Reinhardt. In less than three minutes, on “Solo Flight,” with Benny Goodman’s 10-piece ensemble in 1941, Charlie Christian’s streaming lines upstage the bandleader and change the electric guitar’s status forever.
We then move into the early beboppers (Barney Kessel, Jimmy Raney, Chuck Wayne, Tal Farlow), to Brazilians (Laurindo Almeida, João Gilberto), to major figures of the postbop era (Jim Hall, Kenny Burrell, Grant Green, Joe Pass), to Wes Montgomery (a category unto himself), to postmainstream modernists (John Abercrombie, Pat Metheny), to the avant-garde (Sonny Sharrock, Derek Bailey), to the popularizers that Howard Roberts, including himself, called “industrial guitarists” (Eric Gale, Lee Ritenour, Earl Klugh). The depth of this collection comes in its willingness to acknowledge important counterparts usually considered outside the traditional jazz idiom, like the Hawaiian Sam Koki, the Argentinean “enigma” Oscar Alemán, Western swing players Leon McAuliffe and Eldon Shamblin and rockers Jimi Hendrix, Carlos Santana and Jeff Beck.
The true mission of any compilation is to provide discoveries and to stimulate the acquisition of individual albums. For some, the stunning revelation here will be the masterful clarity of Barney Kessel. For others, it will be the sensuous ear candy of George Van Eps or the subtle, soulful elegance of Jimmy Raney, or the warp-speed authority of Nashville guitarist Hank Garland’s first (and, tragically, last) jazz recording.
For myself, the fact that the mission succeeded is confirmed by a new Post-It “note to self” on my desk: “Find out more about Sonny Sharrock and Gabor Szabo. Get some Lenny Breau records immediately.”