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CD Review: Progressions: 100 Years of Jazz Guitar

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Definitive is a dangerous term when it comes to music collections or compilations. That’s because the term is just so — well– definitive. That said, if Progressions: 100 Years of Jazz Guitar isn’t a definitive collection of the history of jazz guitar to date, it comes awfully damn close.

Recently released on the Legacy Recordings label, Progressions is a four-CD box set containing more than five hours of music recorded from 1906 to 2001. It contains 75 tracks collected from over three dozen record labels that explore the full range of the jazz idiom, from basic ragtime to swing to bossa nova to jazz-rock/fusion to the variations of bop and free jazz. Yet breadth alone is not the measure of definitiveness. In fact, broad scope alone serves no purpose unless it is accompanied by selectivity. That’s where Progressions stands out.

The compilers — who include guitarist John Scofield — did not approach their task with blinders on. They recognize that jazz guitar and its influences are not pegs you can put in narrowly defined holes. You will find the giants here, Django Reinhardt, Charlie Christian and Wes Montgomery just to name three. But you’ll also find artists that might shock some jazz snobs. Thus, Progressions not only gives you electric guitarist Leon McAuliffe and steel guitarist Eldon Shamblin of Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys, it includes Carlos Santana and even Jimi Hendrix.

These are just a couple of the unexpected selections and approaches that help make this set so unique. Each is fully justifiable. Put simply, Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys played country or western swing. You know, swing, as in swing music, a traditional jazz sound. While Carlos Santana is best known for his Latin-influenced rock, he’s got more than a couple albums that fit comfortably in the jazz idiom. And while many might scoff at the concept of Hendrix appearing in a jazz guitar collection, the focus of the set is the evolution and growth of jazz guitar. Hendrix was revolutionizing the electric guitar in the years following the development of free jazz. And even if Hendrix’s solos and playing weren’t impacted by that movement, no one can contest the influence Hendrix had on the electric guitarists to come, including many who now stand at the forefront of modern jazz guitar.

Yet the history is here also. The set opens with a 1906 recording of banjoist Vess Ossman, beautifully demonstrating that ragtime music stretched beyond the piano. That first CD basically covers the period from then through World War II. It includes a 1934 recording of Sam Koki, a Hawaiian guitarist, purported to be the first amplified jazz guitar solo on record. Similarly, it has a 1938 recording by Eddie Durham, reported to have been one of the first jazz guitarists to use an electric pick-up. And, as noted, there are innovative approaches. Several tracks demonstrate the influence of Hawaiian-style guitar on jazz guitar. The role of jazz in country swing is shown with the Texas Playboys. And, of course, this timeframe also includes Django and Christian, guitarists whose names still routinely appear as among the most influential and important jazz performers.

The second disc generally traces developments from 1946 through the early 1960s. It not only shows the influence of the guitarists on the first disc, but how their ideas were amplified and helped bring new expressions to the field. The disc features such notables as Les Paul, Tal Farlow, Jim Hall, Wes Montgomery, Joe Pass and Laurindo Almeida, each with their own inimitable styles. It also provides an opportunity to hear of guitarists who might otherwise have escaped our attention, such as Hank Garland, a Nashville studio musician with superb jazz skills.

Disc 3 takes us into the late 1960s and early 1970s, an evolution that borders on revolution. While some cuts were actually recorded later, those are ones that are representative of the free jazz movement that spread into jazz guitar in this time frame. Here is also where we begin to really hear the incorporation of the rock idiom into jazz guitar, the full development of fusion and the origins of so-called “smooth jazz”. Thus, not only does Hendrix make an appearance, but so does Lenny Breau, Pat Metheny, John McLaughlin, George Benson and Ralph Towner, to name a few. Once again, the scope is impressive.

Disc 4 attempts to cover roughly the last 30 years, again reflecting the influence of rock (artists like Santana and Jeff Beck), the growth of fusion (Lee Ritenour and Larry Coryell, not to mention Mike Stern performing with Miles Davis) and those who again sought to push and expand the boundaries of jazz guitar, whether it is James “Blood” Ulmer’s free jazz or a jazz-funk performance by Scofield backed by the trio Medeski, Martin and Wood.

It is always easy to pick nits with collections like this. For example, you might wonder if one area — fusion or free jazz, for example — received more attention than due and other areas — such as the blues — are underrepresented. Likewise, most anyone could think of artists they believe should have been included and weren’t (Stanley Jordan and Ed Bickert come to my mind, as do a number of today’s so-called “new age” guitarists). But the fact is that if the purpose truly is to cover the full range and history of jazz guitar and its varied expressions, you would be hard-pressed to find fatal flaws with Progressions. Thus, for almost any artist someone might contend was wrongfully omitted, you can point to a performer on the compilation of the same or similar style or idiom.

There’s plenty of icing on this cake, too. This is a beautifully packaged set. It includes a 160-page booklet with photos of every artist in the compilation as well as biographical entries of each and their place in the history of jazz guitar. If that weren’t enough, the booklet also contains the responses of 25 guitarists asked to identify their jazz guitar heroes. Yet again the decision on who to ask to make these selections wasn’t made with blinders. Granted, jazz guitarists, including some in the compilation, tend to predominate. But we also see the selections of such guitarists as blues legend B.B. King (Lonnie Johnson), Dickey Betts of the Allman Brothers (Django Reinhardt/Charlie Christian), pop sensation John Mayer (Charlie Hunter) and Trey Anastasio of Phish (Jimi Hendrix). Not only does this tend to intrigue the average listener, it helps demonstrate the impact of the jazz guitar on so much of modern music. As if this weren’t enough, for those who are really, really, really into guitar, the booklet concludes with excerpts from and analyses of transcriptions of eight solos from the compilation. Throughout, the booklet is illustrated with photos of guitar and amplifier models, memorabilia and old advertisements.

Whether for those who find jazz guitar a welcome diversion or the hardcore aficionado, Progressions is a one-of-a-kind offering that actually lives up to its billing. It may, in fact, do for jazz guitar what the Smithsonian Collection of Jazz Piano did for its subject.

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About Tim Gebhart

Tim Gebhart is a book addict living in Sioux Falls, S.D., where he practices law to provide shelter for his family, books and dogs.