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Six-String Theories

Bill Frisell, John Scofield, Julian Lage and Marvin Sewell on the state of jazz guitar

Julian Lage, Blue Note, NYC, April 2014
Kurt Rosenwinkel and Eric Clapton, Crossroads Guitar Festival, Madison Square Garden 2013
John Scofield
Marvin Sewell
Bill Frisell

John Scofield remembers when he, Pat Metheny and Bill Frisell were the new kids on the block. In the early ’60s they had all started out as rock ‘n’ roll fans; by the late ’60s they had turned their backs on rock ‘n’ roll to devote themselves to the examples of Wes Montgomery and Jim Hall. In the ’70s they would help to fuse those two streams into a third that has dominated jazz guitar for several decades.

“This huge thing happened in the mid- to late ’60s,” recalls Scofield, 62. “All these devices were invented to change the tone of the guitar, like the wah-wah pedal, the distortion box, the fuzztone. Our generation bought all that stuff, plugged it in and saw what it did. It was the same stuff that gave Hendrix, Clapton and those guys their sound. Then Miles used it in his stuff. It didn’t seem to change how you played, but it changed how you sounded, and how you sound ultimately changes how you play.

“Me and my generation were young enough and dumb enough to try everything. Jim Hall and Wes Montgomery already had their own sound, so why would they want to mess around with some rock ‘n’ roll stuff? But we didn’t have our sound yet, so we would try anything.”

Now Scofield looks up and, much to his surprise, finds himself one of jazz guitar’s esteemed veterans. He sees the field undergoing another dramatic change, one that he describes as a great diversification. Bop, blues and blues-rock are no longer the dominant flavors of influence; now they have to share space in the guitar palette with modern European art music, African music, American country and folk music, free improvisation, Latin music and more.

Like the previous tectonic shift in jazz guitar styles, this one has also been driven by technological change, but the most crucial change has not been to guitar equipment. With the onset of the Internet, nearly every album that’s still in print is instantly available to a young player. With a few clicks of the mouse, he or she can hear an audio clip or see a video of an Indian raga, a Mississippi Delta blues, a trad-jazz stomp, an Appalachian fiddle tune, a Congolese soukous dance, a Cuban ballad, a Benny Goodman/Charlie Christian swing hit, a Kenny Burrell soul-jazz tune or a John Scofield funk number.

This is a very different incubator than Scofield’s generation grew up in. “When we were young,” he remembers, “we had our seven jazz albums next to our bed and played them over and over again.”

“We’re in a wide-open era like the 1920s,” claims Julian Lage, 26, one of the leaders of jazz guitar’s new generation. “I see more correlation to that decade than to the ’70s. In the ’20s, it was like now: Everything was fair game. There were so many things to choose from because there was no one set style. It was the Wild West. Jazz guitar had this crossover to the blues and to country music; a lot of the technique was coming out of Irish tenor banjo and Italian mandolin. I have a fondness for the ’20s, because it reminds me of today when the styles and techniques are also so diverse.”

“I recently played with Julian in a Jim Hall tribute at the Blue Note,” says Frisell, 63. “His facility on the instrument is just mind-boggling, but what’s really exciting is that his eyes are wide open in wonder at everything around him. He plays with that bluegrass guy Chris Eldridge [of the Punch Brothers]; he made that record with Fred Hersch [last year’s Free Flying, on Palmetto]. When you listen to him, you can’t pinpoint where it’s coming from. You say, ‘Wait a minute, was that Bartók or what?’ He’s got such a massive scope that there’s no telling what he’ll do. It’s like that with a lot of the young guitarists. We don’t even know what it will be yet. We’re hearing it as it’s happening.”

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Originally Published