Having played and recorded with literally all my favorite jazz artists, from Billie Holiday, Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young to Nat King Cole and Oscar Peterson, Herb Ellis has always been an iconic musician to me. When I met him in the late 1990s he was in his mid-to-late 70s. Terry Holmes, his close friend and manager, convinced Herb that recording with me would be an enjoyable experience, so we booked a few days in Jack Gauthier’s Lakewest Recording Studio in West Greenwich, R.I.
I originally wanted to cut two tracks with Herb for an album of duets with different guitarists. Not knowing Herb personally, I was a bit nervous about playing with him. We used Marty Ballou on acoustic bass and Marty Richards on drums; both are versatile players with impressive backgrounds in jazz, blues and all sorts of roots music. Terry Holmes came along with Herb and provided us with solid old-school acoustic rhythm guitar on most tracks. I’m not sure what the first tune we cut was, but directly after that first take Herb looked at me and said, “You know, you can’t put just any two guitar players together and have it sound like this.” I was immediately put at ease, and from that moment on played with confidence knowing that Herb approved of our instant musical friendship.
Herb loved to play the blues and played it with fire and taste. His playing at that age was still full of the adventurous spirit he displayed throughout his entire career. I was constantly amazed by how naturally competitive he still was at his age. Although his chops weren’t quite as sharp as they once were, he played each solo with a sense of beautiful, spirited abandon. Not content to just lay back and play it safe, he went for it every time with true jazz spirit. We went in to cut two songs and ended up with two albums! (1999’s Conversations in Swing Guitar and 2003’s More Conversations in Swing Guitar.) It was that much fun!
Herb and I did a few live shows together, and they were always great. Herb always had a few great music-related jokes to tell, for which his timing was as good as it was in his guitar playing. He was a real down-home gentleman and a hell of a lot of fun. I regret we hadn’t met earlier and didn’t see more of each other; I also regret not getting the chance to try his wife Pat’s grits he bragged about so often. He was, with his close friend Barney Kessel, the second generation of the southwest guitarists who single-handedly developed the idiom known as jazz guitar. Both Herb and Barney were close followers of Charlie Christian, and both men reshaped Christian’s original style into their own and were greatly responsible for bringing jazz guitar into the future.
One of my favorite things about Herb was how his love of the blues always showed in his playing and in the way he phrased. Like Charlie Parker, he could be harmonically complex but at the same time could play a blues that would kill you. I thank God that the late Terry Holmes had the foresight to see what great fun those albums would be. Playing with Herb is certainly one of the real highpoints of my career. We miss you, Herb!