N.O.S. Jazz Highlights of 2012: Guitars on the Side

I realized early on as a guitar player that being a frontman was probably not my gig. All of the attention and vanity is too much of a distraction from what I really want to be doing, which is playing the guitar. So I have a healthy appreciation for the guitar-wielding sideman, hanging back with the drums and bass to lay down a solid groove while occasionally throwing out a tasty lead for the sake of musical texture, rather than shameless attention-mongering.

In my last post, I highlighted five of my favorite guitar-centric jazz albums of 2012. In this post, I’ll a highlight a few standouts where guitars played a supporting role:

Christian aTunde Adjuah by Christian Scott

This 2-disc, topically-motivated collection of tracks by trumpeter Christian Scott is sprawling, hypnotic, sometimes messy, and very modern. Not straight-ahead jazz, but an attempt to break from traditional molds and forge a sound grounded in more modern grooves and musical sensibilities. Fans of Miles Davis’ 1970s output — but looking for something more current — should take note. The core band includes Lawrence Fields on piano, Kris Funn on bass, Jamire Williams on drums, and Matthew Stevens on guitar. Stevens provides a subtle and atmospheric harmonic backing for the group, only stepping out on lead where it matters. Check out “vs. the Kleptocratic Union (Ms. McDowell’s Crime)” for a great guitar solo.

Radio Music Society by Esperanza Spalding

If there’s any hope for jazz to reconnect with the American listening mainstream, bassist and vocalist Esperanza Spalding will be leading the movement. Last year’s Chamber Music Society (also highly recommended) was all about melody, composition, and Spalding’s musical chops. Radio Music Society is aimed at demonstrating how all that talent can be applied in a more groove-heavy, pop-oriented context. The roster of contributing musicians includes some leading jazz and session guitarists like Jef Lee Johnson, Lionel Loueke, and Gilad Hekselman. At the end of the day, it’s probably still too much pop for the jazz crowd, and too much jazz for the pop crowd — needless to say, both sides need to get over themselves and meet in the middle at Esperanza’s block party.

Peregrination by the Chriz Hazelton Trio

Guitars and organs are like peanut butter and jelly, as evidenced by the trio effort on Peregrination. Kansas City organist Hazelton is joined by Kevin Frazee on drums and Danny Embrey on guitar. The 10-track set is swinging, funky, full of rhythmic and melodic hooks, and punctuated throughout by tasty solos from all three musicians. Embrey in particular stands out for rock-solid rhythm and bluesy leads that evoke the best of George Benson and Grant Green. My favorite track on the album is “Achilles Heel,” a slow-cooker that drew me to the album the first time I heard it on the radio.

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