Archive for the ‘Jazz’ Category

Wes Montgomery playing his ubiquitous Gibson L-5

One thing I’ve learned over the years about guitar playing, especially in my often unsuccessful attempts at playing jazz and blues, is learning how to control the tone of your instrument may be the single most important lesson a guitarist can learn.  A guitarist may have an incredible vocabulary of notes and phrases, but without an understanding of tone and the subtleties of phrasing, the music risks mediocrity.

Tone (this is true for conversation as well) is “How” you musically say something, which I have learned is often more important than “what” you say.   Many talented guitarists, however, are less concerned with tone and phrasing than jazz and blues guitarists used to be. They often sound as if playing loud or fast or distorted is the main goal of their performance.  When I listen to such guitarists, I often feel as though I’m drowning in their incomprehensible sound.

Often, if tone and phrasing is achieved through electronics, amps, pickups, switches, the guitar itself and guitar gear in general, the tone takes on an artificial quality.  Sound equipment has become so sophisticated for guitars, that often achieving a specific “digital” sound becomes the “end” rather than a “means” to the goal of a musical performance.

The true jazz tone is a balance between the sweetness of an acoustic sound and the warmth of a tube amp, as illustrated by a truly great jazz guitarist like Wes Montgomery.  He is a true master of the jazz guitar tone.  The video below of a live performance, is a perfect example of how Montgomery uses tone and phrasing to achieve his distinctive jazz guitar tone.

The film illustrates how Montgomery creates this tone through his unconventional (for a sixties jazz guitar player) and highly influential right-hand technique.  We can see the close-ups with remarkable detail of his left and right hands, useful for aspiring jazz guitarists.  Entirely self-taught, Wes never uses a pick of any kind—only his thumb for chord melodies, single lines, and those chilling octave melodies.  Consequently, the sounds he produces are fat and warm—these are soulful, vocal-like tones that are almost impossible to reproduce with a pick.  Because he is so damn good, he makes it look easy, but, of course, it isn’t.  Even though we may be in awe of his virtuosic abilities, novice players can still learn something about how he executes his technique.  I think for beginners, and it was certainly true for me, playing with the thumb comes naturally.  Until recently, I never thought I could play melodies without the use of a pick, but I do it all the time now.

I heard somewhere that he had a double-jointed thumb, meaning that he could play both up and down strokes with his thumb the way a pick player would use alternate picking strokes with the pick.  I’ve tried it; it’s very hard.

The video really highlights the technique Montgomery uses.  We also get a peek into Montgomery’s interaction with his backup musicians who are obviously totally literate in the language of post-bop jazz.  We can their banter between songs. Right after they finish playing Horace Silver’s “Nica’s Dream,” (named after Kathleen Annie Pannonica Rothschild, one of the great patrons of bebop jazz during the 50s), Wes patiently explains to his piano player, Pim Jacobs, the chord arrangement for “The End of a Love Affair” right before they play the tune.  Montgomery is clearly the leader here, but even so, he is particularly generous by giving plenty of space to his musicians for soloing, and they do brilliantly.

The video: Session was taped in 1965:

Source for video and track list from Steftiaan Video Produkties

Songs performed with track times:  00:00:00 “(I Love) Blues”; 00:05:22 “Nica’s Dream”;  00:14:19 “The End Of A Love Affair ” rehearsal;  00:20:50 “The End Of A Love Affair.”

The amazing rhythm section accompanying Wes Montgomery include Pim Jacobs, piano; Ruud Jacobs, bass; Han Bennink, drums, all Dutch musicians.


As a side note, The Netherlands has always had a reputation for producing remarkably talented musicians, always ready on a moment’s notice to sit in on an American jazz recording session.  I am reminded of one of Coleman Hawkins’ great recordings Dutch Treat, recorded in The Hague, Laren, and Hilversum between February 4, 1935, and June 14, 1938 (eighty-years ago!) during his European sojourn three years before the Second World War. In 1998 Avid records released the most comprehensive collection of his Dutch recordings in a double-disc anthology.


Read Full Post »

Rio Lobo Guitar

I’ve written about Tommy Tedesco and jazz’s “unsung heroes” on this blog before.  It bears worth mentioning once again that many jazz musicians relied on their studio session work more than anything else to put food on their family’s table.  While Tommy Tedesco played guitar as a session musician on albums that garnered millions for well-known artists, he never had a successful recording career himself.

Sadly, Tedesco’s highly influential and often brilliant studio work mostly went unaccredited (cf. Denny Tedesco’s Wrecking Crew documentary and Guitar World‘s 2014 interview with him).  I recently discovered a powerful example of this when I watched the 1970 John Wayne western Rio Lobo.

The opening sequence was fascinating and unlike anything I’ve ever seen before.  William H. Clothier, cinematographer for countless westerns, including many John Wayne westerns, and main title designer Dan Perri, who for many years remained uncredited as the creator of the guitar sequence (Perri, along with George Lucas is best known for creating the famous “opening crawl” main title sequence for the very first Star Wars film:  Star Wars:  Episode IV – A New Hope, 1977) collaborated on the Rio Lobo opening sequence.

The Rio Lobo title sequence shows a Spanish style guitar being played from a variety of different angles, including an “inside” shot of the guitar from behind the strings. Composed by Jerry Goldsmith, the guitar instrumental itself is a rather run-of-the-mill sentimental Spanish melody.  The musician is filmed while he fingers the chords and notes, using standard Spanish sounding arpeggios.

Curiously, I discovered that the guitarist was Tommy Tedesco, though he goes uncredited for his work.  However, the musician shown playing in the film, according to Denny Tedesco, is not Tommy Tedesco.  Tedesco never played using only his fingers; he only played using a pick.

Here’s the main title sequence to Rio Lobo:

How Tommy Tedesco’s playing ended up on the opening title sequence of a John Wayne movie is probably the same way he ended up playing on the Beach Boys Pet Sounds album:  as a dedicated studio musician willing to lend his virtuoso guitar talents to anyone who needed him.

Read Full Post »

Learning Django

The following is a post I wrote last February, but got too sick to polish and publish.  Here it is now:

I’ve got a week’s relief from chemo, so neuropathy side effects, particularly in my hands, have all but disappeared, a good thing since I can now resume my guitar playing.  I’ve been wanting to get back to practicing the Django Reinhardt tune I’ve been working on for the past year—”Minor Blues.”  I’ve managed to get down the first 33 bars (out of 45) of an arrangement by David Blacker, a superb swing guitarist and instructor for TrueFire.com.  Blacker classifies his arrangement as “beginner,” but because of the timing and rhythm of this piece, which is swing time and relies heavily on flurries of 1/8th note triplets throughout the tune, I would place it in the “intermediate” level category.

There’s two versions of Django playing “Minor Blues” that I know of.  Blacker’s arrangement is one of them:

Hubert Rostaing (1918-1990) plays clarinet solo.  Rostaing is probably best known for his clarinet playing on Django’s “Nuages.”

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »