I love the sound of a jazz guitar. But what I enjoy most aren't the melody lines, although who can deny the joy of a great guitar solo. Instead, I'm a nut for the sound of swinging guitar chords and harmonic voicings. The thicker and meatier the chords played the better, and the more of them the merrier. If you share my passion for this full guitar sound, an album that will knock you out is Barney Kessel's Soaring.
Recorded in 1976 for Concord, Soaring features Kessel on guitar, Monty Budwig on bass and Jake Hanna on drums. Kessel was among the most prolific jazz guitarists, recording on more than 500 known jazz sessions. This staggering career number does not even include all of his many credit-less studio dates for pop and rock singles and albums, or his relentless TV and movie soundtrack work.
A large chunk of Kessel's jazz recordings in the 1950s featured him as a tasty accompanist or as a leader surrounded by other West Coast giants. In the 1960s, Kessel frequently recorded jazzy pop albums that required a heavy dose of melody work to illustrate the Broadway or movie themes being covered. By contrast, on Soaring, Kessel was freed from such distractions and conformity, allowing him to stretch out as he pleased.
On Soaring, Kessel chose to place an emphasis on his chord technique for the six standards and two originals. Think block-chord piano marvel Milt Buckner--but on guitar--and you get the picture here. Kessel here is at the absolute top of his game. There are no studio gimmicks or commercial trappings, just gorgeous, hard-swinging jazz-chord playing. The result is an album that dismisses all notions that Kessel was merely a sugary studio genius who lacked a burning drive. Here, it's all drive.
The tracks You Go to My Head and Get Out of Town are taken at an uptempo pace and raise hairs. Not only is Kessel's chord technique magnificent, his taste and ability to hear what he wanted seconds before he delivered it on the guitar fretboard is amazing.
Star Eyes and I Love You are rollicking swingers that showcase Kessel's ability to keep sensational time, develop innovative musical knots and escape from them deftly. He seems to go out of his way on both tracks to throw himself into musical trouble and resolve tricky passages with beautiful escape chords.
The other two standards, Someone in Love and Beautiful Love, are gentle, mid-tempo renditions that express sensitivity through waves of caressing chords.
The two originals on the album are soft, introspective pieces. Seagull is the album's only pure ballad. But a slower pace only means more time to absorb Kessel's technique in slow motion. You're the One for Me is a delicate bossa nova that features the nimble Jake Hanna on brushes.
This is one of those perfect recordings, with daring chords and spirited melody-line bursts that only lead back to more Kessel chords. Which is how we jazz guitar lovers like it. This album is a must-own.
JazzWax tracks: Barney Kessel's Soaring is out of print but can be found as a download at eMusic here (samples are available) or as an inexpensive CD from independent sellers here.
JazzWax clip: To give you a sense of Barney Kessel's enormous taste in chord voicings and harmonies, here's the guitarist playing Here's That Rainy Day...
I was first exposed to jazz circa 1973, when I met a fellow who ran Kappy's Record Store over near 10th Ave., on 42nd St. in NYC. We really clicked and when I told him I played piano and went to Music & Art HS, and had just started at City College of NY as a music major, he asked if I liked jazz...I said yes but I didn't know much about it, but that I did have sheet music for many popular 1920's through 1940's tunes by noted composers (Porter; Gershwins; Irving Berlin; Rodgers & Hammerstein/Hart; Jerome Kern; Lerner & Loewe; etc.) that my mother had sung beautifully starting in the 1940's including tons of famous show tunes, and I played many of those songs already
I was first exposed to jazz circa 1973, when I met a fellow who ran Kappy's Record Store over near 10th Ave., on 42nd St. in NYC. We really clicked and when I told him I played piano and went to Music & Art HS, and had just started at City College of NY as a music major, he asked if I liked jazz...I said yes but I didn't know much about it, but that I did have sheet music for many popular 1920's through 1940's tunes by noted composers (Porter; Gershwins; Irving Berlin; Rodgers & Hammerstein/Hart; Jerome Kern; Lerner & Loewe; etc.) that my mother had sung beautifully starting in the 1940's including tons of famous show tunes, and I played many of those songs already. SOOOO... he started me off LP's by Oscar Peterson, Art Tatum, Bud Powell, Errol Garner, Bill Evans, Monty Alexander, Charlie Byrd, and Dave Brubeck... does it get any better than that? ...No, it doesn't. I was hooked!!
I met and had a master class with the late music giant John Lewis, leader of the Modern Jazz Quartet! This was at CCNY in 1977. I was blessed! It was an incredible class... how could it have been anything else?!?!
The first jazz record I bought was...I bought numerous records from my friend at the record store, as mentioned above. He introduced me to nothing but music giants/legends! I think The Dave Brubeck Quartet, Greatest Hits, was actually the first one.
My advice to new listeners... study first--understand the rudiments--solfeggio, keys, scales, and basic chords. Read a book or take a class that includes the study of chord progressions, especially in jazz. It should ideally be a piano class so you can play multiple notes together. Have a good EAR or else it's not really worth it in my view...to become a musician, a good EAR for music is about as fundamental as breathing! Learn to read chord charts--i.e., lead sheets - wherein you play various voicings of the chords--major, minor, dominant 7th (alterations of these, you can learn over time - the basic chords are most important for starters), plus the melody, on the piano or keyboard. If you have to read the exact notes, then it's not the same as actually internalizing it & getting it all into your head. If you can do this, I think you're ready not only for listening to jazz, but understanding many concepts of it! Of course...anyone can listen to jazz... but I think it's so good to also have a grasp of it.