Interviews » Conversations with Gary Giddins

Conversations with Gary Giddins: on Underrated Jazz Musicians, Part Two

Gary Giddins

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In the final column of his thirty year career as jazz critic of the Village Voice, Gary Giddins wrote, “I’m as besotted with jazz as ever, and expect to write about it till last call, albeit in other formats. Indeed, much in the way being hanged is said to focus the mind, this finale has made me conscious of the columns I never wrote.”

He went on to lament about not having written columns on the likes of Booker Ervin, Charlie Rouse, George Coleman and other musicians most easily categorized as “underrated.”

With that in mind, we thought it would be a great opportunity for Giddins to talk about those left behind, and thus present Part Two of a conversation on underrated, often neglected musicians.


Conversation hosted by Jerry Jazz Musician publisher Joe Maita.

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photo by Lee Tanner

Kenny Burrell

“If you look at the Grove Dictionary of Jazz, it is three volumes of jazz history and it embodies a never-ending challenge to discover all those artists. I think the important thing is to look beyond the most celebrated names. In this regard, jazz is profoundly different from nineteenth century classical music, where the pantheon has proven remarkably stable. A jazz listener will want to hear Miles Davis — his reputation is there for a reason — but so much of the fun in jazz lies in finding those distinct personalities who were extremely individual and inventive, yet abide in relative obscurity.”

- Gary Giddins

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- Listen to guitarist Kenny Burrell play Downstairs Downstairs

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JJM  Before we get started on this second discussion on underrated jazz musicians, have you thought of any others from part one you wish you had included?

GG   There are so many we could have added, so let me make a general statement in response and say that jazz itself is so underrated that virtually anyone I mentioned would qualify. I could mention dozens of musicians unknown to the general public but well known to the jazz audience. We began that particular discussion by talking about musicians I had neglected to write much about during thirty years at the Village Voice. So, I ignored a lot of neglected musicians who had not been neglected by me, preferring to focus on those I never got around to. But once you start, where do you stop?

Of course, many musicians unknown to the general public are also phantoms to the jazz audience. Many enthusiasts may not know a pianist and composer like Andrew Hill or Jessica Williams, who has an excellent new CD on Maxjazz, or Mulgrew Miller, or the great Jaki Byard, who for a very long period was ignored by all but a handful of critics. The contemporary audience is perhaps more likely to catch up with Jason Moran or Bill Charlap, who are younger and have higher record label profiles — and are themselves underrated. I mean, if the future of jazz is in the hands of Moran and Charlap, it’s in damned good hands. If you look at the Grove Dictionary of Jazz, it is three volumes of jazz history and it embodies a never-ending challenge to discover all those artists. I think the important thing is to look beyond the most celebrated names. In this regard, jazz is profoundly different from nineteenth century classical music, where the pantheon has proven remarkably stable. A jazz listener will want to hear Miles Davis — his reputation is there for a reason — but so much of the fun in jazz lies in finding those distinct personalities who were extremely individual and inventive, yet abide in relative obscurity. How many jazz lovers have never investigated Teddy Wilson or James P. Johnson or Mary Lou Williams or Lennie Tristano or Marilyn Crispell — just to stick to the piano players? I can’t believe that The 86 Years of Eubie Blake has never been issued on CD. If you know Thelonious and Bud and Cecil, but have never heard Jelly Roll Morton’s “Dead Man Blues” or “Doctor Jazz,” you are missing something crucial. Same if you know Miles and Chet and Wynton, but haven’t checked out Red Allen, Bunny Berigan, Hot Lips Page, Frankie Newton, and the incomparable Roy Eldridge.

JJM When I first started getting into jazz, part of its beauty was in discovering the artists in the next level down from Miles, Monk and Ellington. I loved Miles and, as a result, became curious about Red Garland. I soon began collecting his records and learned about his own sidemen. Before I knew it I was four or five layers of great players deep, and rarely did the quality ever take a dramatic turn for the worse. It is an amazing field.

GG  Sure, if you go from Miles with Red Garland to Miles with Bill Evans to Miles with Wynton Kelly to Miles with Herbie Hancock, you get a mini-history of the development of piano harmonies. They are four great players who all have a different sense of playing, as demonstrated in Kind of Blue. Why did Miles pick Kelly for the most conventional blues? Because he is such an extraordinary player in that context. On the other hand, you can’t imagine anyone other than Bill Evans playing the harmonies on “So What.” I’ve been listening to Miles Davis in Europe, the first Davis album I ever heard and played to death, because Columbia is finally re-releasing it, after some forty years, as part of a box covering the 1963-64 period. I remember at one point playing it several times in order to concentrate each time on one player. I was trying to understand the way rhythm sections work, so I’d listen focused intently on Hancock or Carter or Williams, to better get a bead on what they were doing. Well, here we are all these years later, and they still sound radical. There are passages where Carter holds the fort with a simple two beat while Hancock and Williams play cross rhythms of such defiant complexity you wonder how they managed not to get lost. The thing is their attack could not be more different than what the Evans or Garland sections had been playing with him.

Incidentally, a trumpeter I didn’t mention in our first discussion is Sean Jones, whose first record recently came out, and who I had heard with Gerald Wilson’s Band at Birdland. He has a tremendous sound, a real bite and a lot of technique. The album is too conventional, despite a high level of playing — but a couple of ballads, ” The Very Thought Of You” and an adventurous “Over the Rainbow” suggest his potential. He sounds as though he has spent as much time listening to Hubbard as Miles, and you have to wonder how he is going to develop. This brings us to the crisis in jazz, beached in historicism; we no longer hear a lot of unmistakable originality. This is probably the first era in jazz history in which there is no real avant-garde; that is, the avant-garde is a phrase like bebop or swing to describe an ongoing movement in jazz, but I’m not aware of anyone doing anything that’s genuinely new. What Miles’s rhythm section was doing in 1963 was new. Now we are looking for players who can master the rudiments of a music of which the parameters are pretty much established. Christ, would I like to be wrong about that, but we shall see what we see. But a period like this is very good for going backwards and exploring the great overlooked artists of other periods who still speak to us. I mentioned Sean Jones’s ballads; you want to hear a masterpiece of jazz ballad playing, listen to Roy Eldridge’s “Wrap Your Troubles In Dreams” and “The Man I Love” in the recent Mosaic box of Roy’s Verve recordings. That stuff’ll stiffen anyone’s spine. It’s timeless.

The problem for contemporary players is not only what they achieve as musicians, but also how they are presented to the public through their recordings. One example of this I always use is Roy Hargrove, who I love to hear perform live. Sometimes he’s off, but when he’s on he is outstanding, especially on ballads — I don’t think there’s a player of his generation or since who can touch him on ballads, a very special talent. Yet I find his records very much a mixed bag. Frequently, something is just missing from them. A classic example of this same problem for me is Sonny Rollins. Every time I review a Rollins concert I get letters from people around the country who’ve never seen him live and think I’ve lost my mind. They’re listening to his latest record and I’m writing about what he is doing in concert, and they are very, very different.

JJM Last time we covered trumpet, saxophone, piano, bass and drums. Why don’t we start on guitar this time?

GG  Guitar is a strange instrument to me. I think I get more records by guitarists than any other instrument — or maybe it just seems like that because so many of them are boring. There is a tremendous facility among guitar players that can really wear you down. For several years consecutively at the JVC Festival they had a guitar evening, and there’d be so many notes that by intermission you were completely frazzled. It is such a relief to hear a guy like Jim Hall or Bill Frisell play because they choose their notes and tell a story. If you look at early guitar, that was basically the style. It is why Eddie Lang and Django Reinhardt still stand up as well as they do. Above all other guitarists, Charlie Christian is the one who put the electric guitar on the map in jazz, although a few people tried it out before him. The thing about his solos is how lyrical they are and how carefully he crafts his solos. Unfortunately he is very much under-recorded because he died young, and he made almost all his studio records with Benny Goodman. But if you listen to his three- or four-minute solo at the beginning of the 1941 recording “Swing To Bop,” which is a “Topsy” derivation recorded at an after hours Harlem jam session, you realize how much further Christian might have gone. His every chorus is so dynamic, pitched in fire. Wes Montgomery had that as well. I still love listening to Wes Montgomery records because his solos tell a story. He invented a kind of format for his solos, where he would begin by playing single note choruses, and then build up to octaves, and then to chords, so there was a framework to his playing. And again, for all his incredible facility, you feel that he’s picking his shots. He was also growing, despite the commercial forces that fed his family but deadened his recordings. Compare the two versions of “Twisted Blues,” the first with a quartet on Riverside, the second with a big band for Verve — the second one is the more stirring. No one could mistake him in a blindfold test. I don’t know that I can tell one young guitar player from another, with a couple of exceptions, and they themselves are already veterans — Pat Martino, Howard Alden.

JJM  Guitar records always seem so uneven to me. For example, much of the work Wes Montgomery did with Creed Taylor is damn near unlistenable.

GG  Well, I don’t really consider them when I think of Wes. That period in the late sixties was deadly for jazz. Once he became commercial they really didn’t let him do anything else. He had a beautiful sound and they mired it in extremely over-produced, frequently trite Don Sebesky arrangements, so that the last really great Montgomery recording is the one from the Half Note with Wynton Kelly — some of the best guitar playing on record. After listening to that you want to go strangle those guys who had him doing nothing but “California Dreamin’” and “A Day In The Life” and the other stuff he hardly gets to improvise on. I was lucky in that I got to see him live in Kansas City at an amphitheater shortly before his death. It was an all-day concert with sets by the Adderleys, Clark Terry, many others, and when Wes’s quintet took the stage the serious jazz fans I was with decided that would be a good time to get something to eat. But what he did was fascinating. He opened with “California Dreamin’” — one chorus, the theme, got his applause, and then went into one of the most stirring sets of music I’ve ever heard. Needless to say, we were very happy to go hungry.

JJM  What about Grant Green? His popularity has been on the rise.

GG  I am glad you mentioned him because he’s another example of what I’m talking about. The beautiful thing about Grant Green is that his solos also tell a story. He is very much in the Charlie Christian tradition. He has a tremendous blues sense, he swings beautifully, and you feel he doesn’t waste any motions. A marvelous musician, and I think one reason his rep has taken an upward swing is because there is clarity and definitiveness in the way he plays. But I remember in the early seventies when Ted Dunbar came along, people made jokes about him because he was the first guitar player who seemed to be influenced primarily by Grant Green. Green was very much overlooked during his day because he didn’t have flashy technique at a time when Wes Montgomery dominated and the young George Benson and Pat Martino were coming up. On top of that, his labels — first Blue Note, then Verve — attempted to steer him into light soul settings.

Another great guitar player who isn’t well known in the jazz world is Johnny Smith, who was primarily a studio player with a gorgeous sound. Mosaic recently did a superb compilation of his work. He made a famous record with Stan Getz, “Moonlight in Vermont,” which every guitar player in the country tried to imitate because of the chords he played and the way he got from one to the next. But because he spent a lot of years doing studio work, he never really sustained a jazz reputation. Nevertheless, the guitar playing on the Mosaic collection is frequently tremendous. He briefly hit the road to tour with Bing Crosby in the seventies, which was the first time I encountered him. A very modest guy and player, subtle but ingenious.

JJM  You a Kenny Burrell fan?

GG  I’ve always liked Kenny Burrell, another understated player. For me, the definitive Burrell record is Guitar Forms. That’s just a great record, period; he plays beautifully. Gil Evans wrote the arrangements for about half the tracks, and on the others it’s Burrell and the rhythm section. Incidentally, both Steve Lacy and Elvin Jones were in Gil’s band for that session — gives you an idea of how eager musicians were for studio assignments. Elvin also wrote the blues, “Downstairs,” that opens the album. It was an ambitious record since each track was recorded in a different style — from funky blues to fin de seicle impressionism. It is a beautifully engaged album. It amazes me that even after all these years — nearly forty — it’s hard to find any other album like it. Kenny did another great record in Chicago a couple of years later with a talented arranger named Richard Evans, I think, on Cadet, and again the orchestrations inspired him to make each solo count — the way big bands focused the attentions of soloists in the thirties and forties. Otherwise, most of the Kenny Burrell records I go back to have him teamed up with somebody else who inspires him, like Coltrane. He’s an elegant player, never tasteless, and I can listen to him a lot longer, for example, than I can Joe Pass, who at times strikes me as virtuosity run amok.

JJM   What did the era of fusion do for this instrument?  You began by saying it is hard for you to listen to or find really interesting guitar records, and I am curious if you think fusion changed the way the instrument was played?

GG  Of course it did. Many of the guitarists who came up in that period are exciting players, but because they were working in a fusion context, they are not often considered jazz musicians. Another guitarist I like a lot is James Blood Ulmer. While he was certainly influenced by Jimi Hendrix, he came up with a very individual style. He is not a virtuoso in the conventional sense, but he can be a dramatic player, and he’s certainly not someone playing usual themes and variations. Hendrix is amazing, of course; the older I get the more enthralling I find him, whereas when I was younger I was put off by the vocals, the punishing drums, the whole rock affect. Now, who cares? I find his death as confounding as Clifford Brown’s — leaving off in the middle of the story. Another fusion guitarist I like is David Fiuczynski.  In fact, you can always find exciting metal players, including him, on any of the albums by Ronald Shannon Jackson. Howard Alden is a throwback, on the other hand — the opposite of fusion. He goes back to the styles of the twenties and thirties, but with tremendous facility and an abiding knowledge of what came later. On a good night, he can be quite gripping, as though he were intent on avoiding clichés if he has to break his knuckles to do it. When he plays duets with another great musician — Bucky Pizzarelli, for example — he is invariably inspired. Yet I’ve also heard him on automatic pilot. There is something about that instrument that seems to make virtuosity the common coin. Two other challenging guitarists I need to mention are Marc Ribot, especially his two solo albums, where he brings Monk to the fretboard, and Joe Morris, who does the same for Ornette Coleman. They work on the fringes of mainstream jazz, yet they are powerful, original players.

JJM  Ever since the fusion era with Al Dimeola, John McLaughlin and those kinds of players, I have to admit I lost interest in listening to the guitar. I just think the instrument became overexposed in the same way that Kenny G overexposed the soprano saxophone — to a point where I can’t even listen to the instrument anymore.

GG  Yeah, I agree. You are reminding me of another guitarist, Bireli Lagrene. When Lagrene was twelve or thirteen, Vanity Fair sent me to Salzburg to write about him. He had made a record called Routes to Django, and I was overwhelmed by it — a brilliant album. It was incredibly exciting to hear this young prodigy playing in the style of Django Reinhardt with so much feeling. While I was there I interviewed him through a translator, and I traveled with him and his band, hearing him play a couple of concerts. I thought he could have the world at his feet — at least the little world that we are talking about. But he was a young guy and he loved everybody and wanted to play like all of them. He wanted to play like BB King, as well as the fusion players from the Dimeola and McLaughlin generation. So, when he plugged in and played in their style he became sort of faceless and was reduced to being just another fusion wizard. But when he unplugs and goes back to the Django style, on one hand it seems more derivative because it is so “Djangofied,” but at the same time he seems to be more individual, more impassioned, more himself. And for me it’s certainly far more pleasurable.

JJM  Do the jazz marketers look at the guitar as the most logical instrument to expand their audience with?

GG  Not anymore. The instrument that they look to expand their audience is the blond-haired female singer. You have to really dig to think of a young popular jazz guitar player. The days of the Johnny Winters and Stevie Rays and even the McLaughlins are over.

JJM  Pat Metheny, probably.

GG  Of course, Pat Metheny. He can certainly play, and I have enjoyed him since I saw his concert with Ornette Coleman. He was wonderful.  I was listening to Song X a few days ago, the LP — I don’t even know if it’s on CD. You wouldn’t call him underrated, considering the size of his fan base, and I have to admit I don’t often think of him as a jazz guitarist because I have so little interest in the fusion records he made with that pianist who thinks he’s Liszt, Lyle Mays — Liszt as a sentimentalist.

JJM  Well, I guess you could categorize that music quite simply as modern day mood music.

GG  Yes, it is mood music that seems corny to me. It is like bad, overstated romanticism. The techno geeks love him for reasons I’m not interested enough to explore.

JJM  Metheny’s music almost always grabs me immediately, and I listen to it the first time quite enthusiastically. When I put it on again and try to recapture the excitement I had for it, I find myself skipping through it, wondering why I was so interested in it in the first place.

GG  I feel exactly the same way. I don’t think I have even kept a Metheny album except for Song X. But that’s a helluva record.

JJM  What about Russell Malone?

GG  One of the most talented guitar players to come on the scene in the last ten or twelve years, along with Mark Whitfield, whose career seems to have drifted. But I have the same reservations about Malone as with, say, Joe Pass. He’s a tremendous player, especially when sitting in someone else’s band or providing accompaniment and solos — as he did for Diana Krall. I frequently find him to be a very satisfying musician. But another critic and I went to see him one night at the Blue Note with his own group and we left in the middle of the set. During every number, he threw in everything but the kitchen sink and then finally threw in the kitchen sink. He showed that he could play faster than anyone and more notes than anyone, but there was not a great sense of music. After all the pyrotechnics, numbness sets in.

Another guy I find difficult to understand is John Scofield, whose fusion puts me to sleep, yet when he plays in an interesting context — such as the record he made last year with Roy Haynes — he is very effective. A guitarist whose work I have always loved is Pat Martino, who’s been around since the sixties. I’ll go out to see him when I can. He dropped out for a while because of illness, but he has come back full force. He’s a virtuoso who rarely forgets the importance of feeling, style, energy. There’s a sense of urgency in his work.

JJM  What about the guitarists who recorded for ECM? Did you ever get into any of them?

GG  Ralph Towner puts me into a coma. Seriously, I don’t want to put these musicians down, they are all very gifted and have their audiences. It’s just something that I tried to get into and couldn’t. If there is a hell, you can bet they are listening to New Age music. That’s why I try to live an upright, moral life — fear of eternity scored by George Winston. Towner is better than that, I guess. But anything that smacks of ambient music makes my skin crawl. My daughter can’t understand how I can listen to music and do nothing else. To her generation music is something that goes on in the background while you talk or play video games or do homework. I’ve done a lot of writing in noisy newsrooms, but I can’t write a lick if music is playing.

JJM  ECM marketed their music brilliantly, but to serious listeners it became formulaic. They were the model for Windham Hill Records, I am sure…

GG  That’s right.