Bobby Broom Picks Five Instrumental Jazz guitar CDs

written by Bobby Broom for Jazz Voicings, his bimonthly Chicago Jazz Magazine column

After hearing George Benson play Paul Desmond’s “Take Five” on his Bad Benson record, I was off on my personal journey of jazz discovery. I bought as many records as I possibly could within the budget of my allowance. That usually amounted to one or two records a week – not bad for a fourteen year old.

I began to make sense of the jazz idiom and language by connecting the dots between musicians on records, reading the liner notes from those records and casually investigating other written history of jazz’s storied past. Learning about the big names in the music was a way of discovering what I liked as far as styles and categories were concerned. But regardless of a musician’s proposed jazz stature, their all-star associations, or their tainted reputation as a sell-out, the music always had the last say in determining what I liked.

It’s interesting that on my journey I consistently landed on the islands of the clean-toned jazz guitarists rather than the distortion or other effects-laden six stringers who were certainly more in vogue during the 1970s. These cool jazz guitar sounds became some of my favorite getaways.

When asked to pick five recordings by jazz guitarists that had the most profound effect on me during my formative years, the first that comes to mind is George Benson’s Breezin’. I had become familiar with Benson when I finally decided to look into jazz after hearing crossover hits by Herbie Hancock and Grover Washington, Jr. In fact, as stated earlier, hearing Benson was what set the jazz wheels in motion for me. Around two years had passed between the beginning and I’d become “hip” to Charlie Parker, Dizzy, Miles, Wes, Coltrane and many of their colleagues. I was enamored with and ever changed by modern, straight ahead jazz; but when I heard Breezin’ I was elated!

The jazz guitarist had done exactly what Herbie and Grover had done in creating a crossover, jazz/pop hit; but not only that, he’d managed to play some of the most compelling jazz guitar ever recorded while doing so.

I didn’t care to think about whether it was jazz or not. No funky backbeat from Harvey Mason’s drums, thumpin’ electric bass, keyboards or strings can erase the creativity of George’s ideas on the changes of “Affirmation” and “So This Is Love,” or his fire and dead on technique on “Six to Four.” I didn’t know what to do first, groove along or get busy trying to figure out what he was playing on those songs!

The fact that Breezin’ is great jazz was never in doubt to me, and the possibility that it could also be popular was an exciting bonus for this kid in bell-bottoms.

My other hero at the time was Pat Martino, the six-string slinger from Philly. When I heard his version of “Sunny” from his live recording I was lying in my bed in agonizing pain awaiting a hernia operation the next day. But by mid-solo I had to find a way over to my stereo to turn up whoever that was! After that I was forever a Martino fan.

The record that epitomizes his power for me is his We’ll Be Together Again, a duet with pianist Gil Goldstein on Fender Rhodes. It was released in 1976, the same year as Breezin’ and couldn’t have been more different.

The first tune, a suite in three movements, is chockful of music that was way above my head at the time. So I just listened to the rest of the record, which was full of beautifully haunting versions of standard tunes. While writing this piece I revisited that first tune on the record, “Open Road.” I didn’t know what I was missing! It struck me that this composition is a comprehensive example of all of the best of Martino’s musical attributes at their height.

The vibe that record has is due to the instrumentation, the duo’s interaction, the recording quality and Pat’s superior playing. On each tune he first makes the ultimate statement by playing the melody with the accuracy and nuance of a master. He goes on in his solos to dissect the progression of chords, playing one idea after another but never repeating himself. He had the perfect balance of technique, subtlety, authority, and sensitivity. In 1976 Pat and George gave super-power to the art of jazz guitar. They were the kings of that era. I’m sure Wes Montgomery would’ve been proud.

Montgomery set the stage for 1970s jazz guitarists and future generations to come with the groundwork he laid in the sixties. He made sophisticated and swinging records with his organ trio in the late fifties and early sixties where he introduced two revolutionary approaches to the instrument in playing melodic lines either in octaves or bolstered by chords. Wes would use these techniques flawlessly during his solos as well, without at all diminishing the content of his improvisations.

And so, during the first two-thirds of his recording career Montgomery further documented the fact that the highest level of jazz could also be achieved on the guitar. In the mid-sixties he teamed with the Wynton Kelly Trio and various other jazz luminaries to record, ply his craft and further establish his hierarchy in the jazz world. My first encounter with Wes’ music was on a live album from 1969 called Willow Weep For Me, which tracks would later be included on the favorite Smoking at the Half Note sessions with the Wynton Kelly Trio. Wes was in full bloom here, blowing and swinging hard and stamping his trademark on every tune.

In the late sixties Wes signed with Verve Records (and later A&M) and producer Creed Taylor. Together they formulated a template for his commercial success. Playing popular songs, exploiting the use of his trademark and distinctive octaves, employing string sections and integrating the improvised solo more within the framework of the whole arrangement, became elements of Wes’ A&M recordings which would make him popular beyond jazz circles.

My favorite of these later records is Bumpin’ from 1965. Out of eleven tunes it contains only three standards: “Con Alma,” “The Shadow of Your Smile” and “Here’s That Rainy Day,” each one heavily arranged by Don Sebesky. You won’t hear Wes play any burning solos on these tracks. (For just one example of that, see “Dearly Beloved” on his Riverside release, Boss Guitar.) On Bumpin’ there are his gorgeous sounding octaves playing the melodies and his captivating chord solos announcing the last of the “three tiers” of his perfectly constructed solos, after the single lines, then octaves.

Wes made some beautiful music for listening on the Verve and A&M records. Although they were not “blowing sessions” (a moniker for records in which jazz musicians display their mastery via extensive soloing), his musicality was as intact as ever as he embraced the role of artist, painting his fully developed style through the canvases that Sebesky and company had created. Additionally, he introduced the sound of the jazz guitar to the general public by entering their lives through the airwaves, while also making it safe for future jazz guitarists to explore beyond the boundaries of what is thought of as jazz purity.

Two current-day jazz guitar heroes come to mind and must be included on this list of guitar records that informed my stylistic direction. Pat Metheny and John Scofield both came to the fore during the 1980s.

Scofield first came to my attention through his work with jazz-fusion pioneers (drummer) Billy Cobham and (keyboard player) George Duke’s, Cobham/Duke Band. By his 1980 trio recording, Bar Talk, his playing style was matured and displayed via his flourishing compositional skills. What intrigued me about this record was John’s clear grasp of and respect for the jazz guitar tradition, which he seemed to integrate with an honestly chosen gritty tone, which hints at blues and rock guitar styles. His jazz vocabulary, fanciful improvising on chord changes and use of octaves and chords, combined with his biting tone and bluesy bends and wails, all on glorious display on this record, would eventually capture a legion of fans while inspiring a new generation of wannabe jazz guitarists. John Scofield’s Bar Talk is one of my personal favorites.

Pat Metheny is arguably one of modern-day jazz’s most popular guitarists. He has certainly taken advantage of the extraordinary opportunity to perform and record that he has been given over the past thirty years. I first heard of Pat as a result of his 1976 trio record, Bright Sized Life, with bassist Jaco Pastorius. But I became a fan with his 1982 release, Off Ramp. This record became an instant classic with its radio hit, “Are You Going With Me?,” which was a total anomaly, having no actual melody, but just a hook-like chordal vamp. On this tune’s extended guitar solo, Pat introduced his guitar/synthesized trumpet-like sound, which would be one of his trademarks for years to come.

Metheny, like Scofield is a prolific composer and has used this gift as an impetus for growth as a jazz guitar player over the course of years. In fact for me, and I suspect many listeners of Off Ramp, the attraction was as much about the songs as it was Metheny’s then still developing playing style. He would continue to grow as a jazz guitarist while taking thousands of fans along for the ride.

Pat, like all the other players mentioned here, inspired jazz guitarists to dream, practice and imagine and develop.

Thanks guys.