When jazz guitarists step out on their own, leaving the security of accompanists behind, they face special challenges. Yes, they can handle chords and melody simultaneously, much like pianists. But their scope is way more limited, since they only have six strings and five fingers to work with (unless they’re doing a Stanley Jordan, which ups the complications considerably). Take it from someone who’s been playing guitar for nearly 40 years: Reharmonizing standards for a solo spotlight isn’t all that tough on paper, but when the time comes to consider what your fingers can actually play, your options diminish drastically. Clarity and precision often come at the expense of a full-bodied attack. Solo guitar performances that feature both are hard to come by.
Of course, that certainly doesn’t mean such performances don’t exist. Just look at the catalog of the great Joe Pass, as well as Ted Greene, Barney Kessel, George Van Eps, Lenny Breau, and more modern players like Mimi Fox and Julian Lage. To those names should now be added that of Pasquale Grasso, the monstrously talented Italian guitarist profiled by Ted Panken in this issue.
I could try and come up with a bunch of worthy adjectives to describe Grasso’s playing on his recent series of solo EPs, but in this case I think a picture does a better job: specifically, the portrait photograph of Grasso by Deneka Peniston (below). Just look at that left hand! What is he doing? Is it wise? Does his doctor approve?
The image reminds me of the similarly contorted, spider-like paw that graces the front cover of Allan Holds-worth’s 1987 book Reaching for the Uncommon Chord. Only Grasso isn’t just reaching, he’s finding. Inspired by pianists Art Tatum, Bud Powell, and Barry Harris more than by any other guitar player, he has developed an approach to his instrument that frequently seems to hover right at the extreme bounds of the possible.
He has a ready audience. Guitarists—like yours truly—eat this stuff up because we love few things more than the sound of guitars, especially when we’re hearing them do things we don’t expect. But what Grasso has achieved deserves an audience far larger than those who have a pre-existing affinity for it; in other words, he needs to be heard beyond the guitar ghetto. So if you haven’t heard his Solo Ballads, Solo Standards, Solo Bud Powell, Solo Bird, or Solo Monk yet, do yourself a favor and check them out. I guarantee you won’t be bored.