Ron Carter’s Low End Theory

“Yes my man Ron Carter is on the bass” — I’m not too ashamed to admit that my introduction to bassist Ron Carter came via A Tribe Called Quest. That was probably ten years ago, and I wasn’t listening to much jazz at the time. Little did I know that “Verses from the Abstract” was just the (Q-)tip of the Ron Carter iceberg; the man has anchored a ton of groundbreaking music (check out any recording by the second great Miles Davis quintet), claiming over 2000 album credits.

I was lucky enough to catch Ron Carter and his Golden Striker Trio this past weekend at Bohemian Caverns. Carter is still on top of his game at 77 years young, holding down the low end with some of the most distinctive and emotive lines ever plucked on four strings. The current lineup includes Donald Vega on piano and Russell Malone on guitar. Malone’s signature bluesy lead lines and hard-swinging comping have made him an in-demand sideman for the likes of Sonny Rollins and Diana Krall; not surprisingly, he’s masterfully adept at responding to Carter’s subtle harmonic cues. Ron Carter is always in his element opposite guitar players — check out Alone Together with Jim Hall or the 2006 eponymous trio recording with Bill Frisell and Paul Motian.

Photo: Andre Silvestre

 

All Thawed Out

 

I’m officially back from my winter blogging hiatus, with a backlog of posts waiting for prime time. I like to think my excuses were legitimate — foremost among them being preparation for my first gig in at least eight years! My jazz band masterclass performed for the first time last week at Jazzy’s in Bowie, Maryland. The repertoire included tunes by Wayne Shorter, Antonio Carlos Jobim, and Andy Timmons, and I was using all my free time to get my chops up to speed. I’m looking forward to a few more gigs this summer.

I also vacationed to New York City a couple weeks ago, which included a few guitar-themed diversions. The Metropolitan Museum of Art is currently hosting an amazing collection of 35 early American guitars, including an assortment of pre-Civil War Martins (the earliest known Martin, from 1834, is pictured above). The exhibit was clearly designed with input from guitar geeks, because the descriptions included detailed technical analysis of the instruments — particularly the evolution of C.F. Martin’s bracing pattern from the Spanish-style fan to the X-brace reinforcing the top of most contemporary steel strings.

The other highlight of the trip was catching Pat Martino’s organ trio at Birdland. This was my second opportunity to see Martino live, and I was once again blown away; the man’s combination of old-school soul and awe-inspiring chops is unmatched. Besides being a legendary picker, Pat has a fascinating backstory that makes his music all the more inspiring. I waited for an autograph after the show, and he’s also one of the warmest and most likable musicians you’ll ever meet. Besides catching him live, make sure to pick up Martino’s latest release, a (formerly) bootleg live recording from 1969 appropriately titled Young Guns.

 

2013 Track of the Year

I’m working on a couple “best of” album lists for 2013, including best guitar and best Americana albums (to be cross-posted on No Depression). In the mean time, I’ll share my favorite track of the year.

There’s not a guitar to be heard on “When Love Was King” from Gregory Porter’s Liquid Spirit. It’s no matter, because every guitarist picking a ballad or slow blues can learn something from the man’s careful phrasing, vocal timbre, and masterful use of dynamics. Guitarists often try to emulate aspects of the human voice on their instrument, but rarely do they achieve anything quite this sublime. Happy New Year!

Live Review: Mary Halvorson Quintet at the Outpost Performance Space

It was only about halfway into the Mary Halvorson Quintet’s December 19th set at Albuquerque’s Outpost Performance Space, on a new tune provisionally titled “No. 51,”  that the guitarist herself took an extended solo break. Her spidery lines, liberally sprinkled with altered tones and creatively dancing around the meter, revealed a musician more than up to the task of jazz improvisation. However, any effort to judge Halvorson on solo merits alone is completely missing the point.

Mary with her vintage United Code franken-guitar in 2011; she played the unique instrument through a Twin Reverb at the Outpost gig. Photo by Andy Newcombe.

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“Joy Spring” or a Joyless Frethand Mess?

So “Joy Spring” by the late great Clifford Brown is actually a pretty cool tune. The title is a little ironic given the temperature plunge in DC the past couple weeks. Also, Brown was a trumpet player and clearly didn’t write with the fretboard in mind. There’s just no ergonomically friendly way to approach the melody; you’re either stretching to grab the intervals, making liberal use of the weak 4th finger (pinky), and/or shifting position every few measures. In fact, taking on “Joy Spring” — or any tune written for another instrument — is a great exercise for guitarists, albeit with considerable frustration potential.

I’m working the tune because I was recently bumped up a level in the jazz band masterclass program, which feels really good given how much time I’ve been putting in on the instrument. It does mean a whole new repertoire though. In addition to “Joy Spring,” the group is tackling other timeless standards including “Witch Hunt,” “Nothing Personal,” “How High the Moon,” and “Moanin’.” These tunes span the swing, bop, post-bop, and modern eras, and are each challenging in their own way. As a guitarist in an ensemble context, my role is primarily rhythmic and harmonic. However, on “Joy Spring” in particular, I’ve set a personal goal of being able to keep up with the horns in belting out the melody.

Following up on my last post, the New Yorker has one of the best Jim Hall tributes I’ve read so far. Like one of Jim’s solos, it hits all the right notes and gets straight to the point. Also, if you don’t yet have any Jim Hall albums in your collection, any of the collaborations cited in the essay are a great place to start (I’m partial to “The Bridge” by Sonny Rollins).

New Sheryl Bailey on the Way

The video is a little rough, but NY-based Sheryl Bailey really kills it on this rendition of Gershwin’s “The Man I Love.” Single note lines, chord soloing, dissonant altered tones — it’s pretty much all there in her astonishingly well-crafted solo. Sheryl has a new organ trio album due out New Years Day. I’ve had her big band album A New Promise in pretty consistent rotation since it came out in 2011, and I’m looking forward to the new small combo LP. Bailey is adept in a variety of band formats, while also being a prolific writer/composer. Her instructional material on TrueFire is also worth checking out.

The jazz guitar scene (in keeping with the broader guitar scene) isn’t exactly known for gender balance. That said, beginning with Emily Remler in the 1980s, women have represented some of the more notable and forward-looking jazz pickers. Sheryl is certainly one example, profiled as a “Rising Star” in Downbeat’s 2013 Critics Poll. Avant gard-ist Mary Halvorson (also featured in the Critics Poll) continues to enjoy a great deal of critical acclaim for her chops and abstract compositional approach. And don’t forget Mimi Fox, one of my favorite latter-day purveyors of straight-ahead jazz guitar — whether leading a combo or carrying on Joe Pass’s legacy in solo settings.

The Complete Jazz Guitarist

I recently picked up The Complete Jazz Guitar by Jim Hall. The trio date, with Carl Perkins on piano and Red Mitchell on bass, was his 1957 debut as a leader. It’s a solid bop set and an interesting footnote in the development of Hall’s sound. His playing is restrained, melodically grounded, and only beginning to reveal shades of the subtle complexity that would lead him to loom large in the evolution of jazz guitar. From the standpoint of a jazz student like myself, The Complete Jazz Guitar also helps Jim seem a little more mortal; his sound and technique on the album is something I feel I can aspire to and achieve — less daunting than his masterful accompaniment of Sonny Rollins on The Bridge, for instance.

To that end, my jazz instruction in DC is off to a good start. The lessons with Steve Herberman are kicking my ass — in a good way. We’ve been dissecting one of my favorite standards, “Autumn Leaves”, which has involved some painstaking (but illuminating) arpeggio and scale etudes, intervalic exercises with the melody, and even a little transcription (see the Cannonball Adderley album Somethin’ Else for one of my favorite versions of the tune). I highly recommend Steve as a teacher; besides just being a super down-to-earth guy, he’s also very enthusiastic about teaching and accommodating of your personal goals as a student.

I also attended my first “jazz band masterclass” this week; the jazz ensemble program comes via sax player Jeff Antoniuk and his local cadre of master instructors. I’ll have the opportunity to sit in with a full band every other week and receive expert guidance on the ins and outs of jazz performance. This week our guest instructor was Brazilian bassist — and Montgomery College artist in residence — Leonardo Lucini, who shared theoretical and stylistic perspective on navigating the samba standard “So Nice,” among other tunes. It was a good first class, and I’m looking forward to future sessions. In the mean time, back to the woodshed…

Walk “39 Steps” with the John Abercrombie Quartet

Last year, John Abercrombie released an album of standards that appeared on my 2012 shortlist of favorite jazz guitar albums. His 2013 followup is a collection of mostly originals, performed by a quartet featuring Mark Copland on piano, Drew Gress on bass, and Joey Baron on drums. 39 Steps shares the contemplative, acoustic vibe of the standards album, but demonstrates that Abercrombie is still a cutting-edge innovator among modern jazz pickers.

The addition of Copland sets 39 Steps apart from much of Abercrombie’s latter-day output, in which he is often the sole chordal instrument. Copland (a saxophonist turned pianist) has a sparse, open sound that melds well with the guitarist. The album’s tone is set by the ethereal opening tune “Vertigo,” followed by a swinging yet still-cerebral “LST.” Other reviews have noted shades of Bill Evans in this album. Indeed, fans of the Village Vanguard recordings, or Evans’ telepathic collaborations with Jim Hall, will find much to enjoy in the chemistry of this quartet.

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6-String Metronome

Great footage of the Basie Band, circa 1965. Freddie Green’s archtop comping comes through nicely in the mix. Green was the band’s metronome for five decades, arguably as pivotal to the band’s sound as Basie himself, or any of the all-star soloists that filtered through the lineup. Notably, he almost never took a lead — not because he wasn’t capable, but because he saw himself first and foremost as a member of the rhythm section. Green’s rock-steady, harmonically sparse chord playing is still a model for swing and bop guitar, particularly in contexts where guitar and piano occupy the same space.

I think most guitar players, regardless of genre, can take a cue from Freddie Green. Back in college, I used to play in the house band for a weekly blues jam. Every week, I encountered players who could wail on a solo, but often phoned it in when it was time to comp and pass the spotlight to other players. Besides being bad form (and a great way to earn the ire of the band), that lack of rhythmic attention usually creeps into solo lines that are long on notes but short on groove (i.e. tedious).

I’ve been seeking out jazz albums where the guitarist plays a primarily supporting role. Lee Konitz with Warne Marsh is a great example; the two iconic sax players take center stage, supported by Sal Mosca on piano, Oscar Pettiford on bass, Kenny Clarke on drums, and Billy Bauer on guitar. Bauer is one of the unsung guitar heroes of the swing-to-bop transition, having recorded with luminaries like Benny Goodman, Lennie Tristano, and Charlie Parker. He could play a mean lead (evidenced on his only solo album, Plectrist), but takes a backseat on the Konitz/Marsh meeting, providing warm chordal backing for the blowers. Rhythm-seekers should also check out Coleman Hawkins’ The Hawk Flies High, which features Barry Galbraith on guitar. Galbraith only has one short (yet tasty) solo on the album, but his rhythm playing throughout is solidly rooted in the Freddie Green tradition.