JT's July/August 2010 Issue: Stringing It Along

One of the most valuable lessons jazz teaches us is that there was musical life before Jimi Hendrix. To the general populace, it seems as if music begins and ends with the distorted electric guitar. That worldview holds water only until you hear Louis Armstrong, or Charlie Parker, or, for that matter, Django Reinhardt. Long before Leo Fender carved his first Strat or Jimmy Page lit his first cigarette, jazzbos were buying the stairway to Heaven. If you researched hard enough, I’m sure you’d find proof of drink-soaked young men trundling down 52nd Street playing air-alto. I recently saw McCoy Tyner alum Azar Lawrence play a devastatingly powerful set of Coltrane (and Coltrane-style) music in Baltimore, and it became easy for me to understand what Eric Clapton meant in JT a few years back when he discussed how his playing in Cream was aesthetically influenced by Trane. Lawrence’s tenor didn’t need a wah-wah pedal or a Marshall full-stack to provide transcendence, but his playing still inspired audience members to stand up and scream as each passing chorus snowballed in intensity. So JT and the artists we cover have the unique ability to entertain and excite without use of the amplified six-string.

But to ignore the instrument in jazz would be to overlook so many incredible players—like our cover artist John McLaughlin, who, developing with influences from acoustic jazz and psychedelic rock, figured out how to have it both ways. McLaughlin matched the enduring jazz ideals of virtuosity and ensemble interplay with certain signs of the times—rock’s sonics and volume, a vague but intense spiritual yearning—to create something wholly unique. As Geoffrey Himes discovers in his story, much of McLaughlin’s inspiration in life and music, both then and now, comes from Coltrane—and A Love Supreme specifically. (Unlike Slowhand, however, McLaughlin made it his business to grasp jazz’s harmonic inner-workings rather than just its ambience.)

Of course McLaughlin has proven, through his playing with Shakti and on albums like Friday Night in San Francisco, to be just as thrilling on acoustic guitar. A terrific proponent of acoustic jazz guitar featured herein is the U.K.’s Martin Taylor, who presents an intriguing duality: At the same time he perfects traditional jazz guitar, he’s also becoming a formidable instructor via his sophisticated online teaching platform. Another certified archtop master, and one who’s also worked as an online clinician, is Frank Vignola, the subject of this month’s Before & After. Vignola, a remarkably versatile player who, also like Taylor, recently released a new Django-indebted disc, worked for years with the late Les Paul at Iridium Jazz Club in Manhattan. In Opening Chorus, Bill Milkowski writes about how that venue is working to keep Paul’s legacy alive with regular Monday night performances featuring the icon’s working band with special guest guitarists. Judging by the wide range of pickers who have sat in thus far in the series, it’s clear how deeply Paul’s work is felt throughout the music world, whether via his own music, his namesake instrument or his studio innovations.

One of Paul’s most important breakthroughs was his employment of multitrack recording—something our last feature subject, Charlie Hunter, has made a career of defying. On a hybrid instrument, Hunter simultaneously plays guitar and bass parts: If it sounds novel, it is, but as I found out in the course of writing the piece, Hunter is also an exceedingly serious, determined artist. His latest overdub-free recording, Gentlemen, I Neglected to Inform You You Will Not Be Getting Paid, is rife with memorable tunes and thick grooves, and proves you don’t need to witness Hunter’s brawny fingerstyle technique in person to enjoy his music. Like McLaughlin or Les Paul, Hunter sees the electric guitar as a springboard for the imagination. Maybe jazz needs the instrument after all.

Originally published in July/August 2010

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