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Concert Review: Tribute to Les Paul, 08/17/09 At Iridium Jazz Club, New York City, NY

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“Fairy tales can come true, be an icon or two, if you’re young at heart.”
Nicki Parrot, Bassist with the Les Paul Trio

It was American Standards. It was smooth jazz. It was full-bodied blues. It was both homage and farewell. 

On Aug. 17, 2009, the intimate underground world of Times Square’s Iridium Jazz Club welcomed Les Paul's friends, fans, contemporaries and collaborators to pay tribute to perhaps the most important music man of the last century.

Les Paul Memorial Outside Iridium Jazz ClubThe night was full of memories and the sweet sounds of classic American melodies and improved originals from masters who have all been touched by the man whom Joe Satriani calls “the original guitar hero.”

Iridium was Paul’s home away from home for the last 12 years. Every Monday he would take the stage and jam with his trio to rapt audiences. It was only fitting that four short days after his passing, Iridium hosted a fantastic farewell to one of their own. 

“Les just wanted to play,” Ron Sturm, Iridium Jazz Club owner, told the audience. “He was happier here playing to 200 people than he was in sold-out stadiums. Les was an every man. He knew just who he was.”

Paul was a true guitar virtuoso and was surrounded by outstanding talent. The evening was led by guitar Lou Pallo, with jazz pianist John Colianni and bassist Nicki Parrott rounding out the trio. Each shared their love for Paul and their joy for having shared the stage with him through their memories and the heart and soul they put into playing songs he loved. 

They reminded me of the extent of skill it takes to truly master an instrument. Popular music today is full of standard chord progressions and simple melodies, whereas the intricacies of playing jazz – and playing it well – are often forgotten. These musicians brought it all back for me amid fond memories of my high school band director who led us not with a conductor’s wand, but with a Gibson Les Paul guitar (One day I hope Lou Pallo and Joseph Lilore get to jam; they are very much alike). 

Steve Miller also took the stage in tribute to his godfather. The voice responsible for classic rock tunes like “Fly Like an Eagle,” “Let Airliner,” and “Abracadabra” was surprisingly smooth as silk crooning Eden Ahbez’s “Nature Boy,” another of Paul’s favorites.

The evening’s special guest star was Bucky Pizzarelli, a guitarist as gifted and whose past is as storied as Paul’s himself. To honor his long-time friend’s memory, Pizzarelli banged out two sets of virtuoso fingerpicking that ran from driving upbeat classics to slow, mournful ballads that only a jazz guitar in the hands of a master could produce.

The second set of the evening was opened by Tommy Doyle, who had been Paul’s sound engineer for more than 20 years. Paul’s influence is heavy in Doyle’s mesmerizing style. When Doyle takes the stage, all he needs is a Gibson Les Paul guitar to give the audience the experience of hearing a full band.

The night closed with a variety of special guests who lent their own special style and talents to say goodbye to the man they knew and loved. Guests included Sonya Hensley and Joey Moran (to name a few),  and each paid tribute in their own unique styles — from soulful voice, to inspired softshoe, to hard-knocks harmonica, to jazzy sax and more. 

Sturm said that though Les Paul is gone, he will never be forgotten at Iridium. Monday nights at the club will continue to honor his legacy by featuring the Les Paul Trio and many special guests. Larry Coryell and Jose Feliciano will join Pizzarelli in the coming weeks. A scholarship to help young people study jazz and blues and a memorial wall dedicated to Paul are also in the works.

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About Robin Kavanagh