Monday, 30 March 2009

The Guitar: shouldn’t be all about Benson and Klugh

THERE is a worrisome trend about the modern jazz guitar that requires proper study for the purpose of advancing the craft, especially with the fact that an increasing number of young people are now playing the instrument all over the world, including Nigeria.
A welcome development this is, considering the fact that the guitar suffered serious setbacks in those initial days of the forties until Charlie Christian came to the rescue. Before this intervention, the instrument was relegated to the background merely as a chord affair, a tool for accompaniment until the innovative effort of Charlie Christian forced it to the frontline as a solo vehicle.
My worry however is that this whole new generation of guitar players are being inspired by George Benson and Earl Klugh–– two smooth players who have, however completely commercialised the artform and are being idolised for so doing. The spiral effect is that today’s young guitar players are sounding the same, note for note, phrase for phrase; whereas the guitar dynasty goes beyond George Benson and Klugh. The Nigerian experience offers a good explanation.

LISTENING to some of the frontline guitarists such as Kunle Ayo, Bright Gain, El Jazz, Ogunkoya and the long list that now fill the scene, it’s like one is listening to George Benson in tonal conception, style, phrasing, dynamics and even the scat-singing along guitar solos. These musicians are brilliant at least for the ability to acquire a technical skill that can help further their progressions and interpret their ideas for self-expression, but they all borrowed from George Benson; and it is quite obvious.
There is no harm in borrowing and even leaning on a mentor as we all know that art is derivative, but when a whole generation begins to sound the same, then, art ceases to exist.
These young guitarists claim to be influenced by Wes Montgomery, perhaps the greatest technician of the guitar, who in fact inspired George Benson, but Benson was only affected by Montgonery’s smooth, commercial side. Benson imbibed the pop-oriented spirit that Montgomery invested in such cross-over efforts as California Dreaming and A Day in the Life recorded in 1966 and 1967 respectively — for commercial success.
Wes Montgomery was one of the great jazz guitarists, a natural extension of Charlie Christian, whose appealing use of octaves became influential and his trademark. He was noted for outstanding feats in jazz, including chorded solos even at the octave. But he died prematurely in 1968.
Talking about Wes Montgomery as an influence, why would George Benson and his followers not listen to Montgomery’s hard bop guitar on such artistic masterpieces as Full House, Moving along, The incredible Jazz guitar, The Montgomery Trio, Movin Wes, The alternative Wes Montgomery and a whole lot of his recorded works within the short span of his life.

THE new generation of guitar players should now look beyond Benson and Montgomery and reach out to such undividualists as Kenny Burrell, a great blues man, and an epitome of good taste and solid swing.
Highly in demand from the beginning of his career, Burrell has appeared on a countless number of records during the past 50 years as a leader and as a sideman. Among his more notable associations have been dates with Stan Getz, Billie Holiday, Milt Jackson, John Coltrane, Gil Evans, Sonny Rollins, Quincy Jones, Stanley Tuerentine and Jimmy Smith.
From the early 70s, Burrell began leading seminars and teaching, often focusing on Duke Ellington’s music. He toured with the Phillip Morris Superband during 1985-86 and has led three guitar quintets, even though generally Kenny Burrell plays at the head of trios and quartets. Some of his masterpieces include such Blue Note sessions as Blue Lights, Kenny Burrell and John Coltraine, Bluesing Around, Night at the Vanguard, Moonglow, Ellington is forever, Soul call and a host of others.
Kenny Burrell’s consistency as a bop guitarist who never dabbled in crossovers for commercial success truly recommends his artistic spirit to a generation of serious just musicians.
There are many other guitar players whose artistic approaches can help bring about the variety that is needed today on the guitar jazz scene. Check out great names such as Grant Green, Les Span, Benny Kessell and more.
A severely underrated player during his lifetime, Grant Green, one of the most soulful guitar players jazz ever experienced, had a beautiful sound and excellent guitar skills. He maintained that he listened to horn players rather than other guitarists, and his single-note fingering and style, which avoided chorded playing, was unique.
Green’s extensive foundation in rhythm and blues’ combined with a mastery of bebop and simplicity helped him put expression ahead of technical expertise.
Green was a superb blues interpreter and his later material was predominately bluesy though he was also a wonderful ballad and standards soloist. He was a particular admirer of Charlie Parker and his phrasing often reflected it. He played in the SOS with Jimmy Forrest, Harry Edison and the saxophonist, Lou Donaldson. He also collaborated with many organists, among them Brother Jack McDuff, Sam Lazar, Baby Face Willettee, Gloria Coleman, Big John Patton and Larry Young.
During the early ‘60s both his fluid, tasteful playing in organ-guitar-drum combos and his other dates for Blue Note established Green as a star, though he seldom got the critical respect given other players. Green played with Yousef Lateef, Joe Henderson, Elvin Jones, Hank Mobley, McCoy Tyner and all the jazz greats. Sadly, drug problems interrupted his career in the ‘60s and undoubtedly contributed to the illness he suffered in the late ‘70s. He died in 1979.
Green has a whole legacy that will be of use to the young, aspiring jazz guitar players. Among them are such brilliant albums as Green Street, Idle Moments, Grants first stand, Complete Blue Note with Sonny Clark, Feeling the spirit, Green is beautiful, Carrying on, Alive, Green Blues.

HOWEVER, it is advisable for a complete throwback on Charlie Christian who began this whole artistic trend. His time in the spotlight was very brief. Born in 1916, he died in 1942, shortly after unleashing a revolution on the jazz scene.
Some of his reissues which will certainly be of help to a young, ambitious guitar player are Charlie Christian with Benny Goodman, Live Sessions at Minton’s Play House, Solo Flight, The Genius of the electric guitar, Jazz Immortal, Charlie Christian/Leser Young.
It can be said without exaggeration that virtually every jazz guitarist that emerged during 1940-1965 sounded like a relative of Charlie Christian.
He played his instrument with the fluidity, confidence and swing of a saxophonist. Although technically a swing stylist, his musical vocabulary was studied and emulated by almost all the bop players. Charlie Christian had a dominant influence on all the players. He still has.

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