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Herb Ellis / Joe Pass: Jazz/Concord

Mark Barnett By

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CD capsule

Two masters of the jazz guitar in a wonderful give-and-take session, listening to each other as they play and playing as one. The emotion is contagious, the songs well chosen, the sound pristine. A perfect union.

Background

Guitarist Herb Ellis had a remarkable talent for connecting musically and emotionally with other musicians. Just listen to the musical bond he establishes with saxophonist Stan Getz in Stan Getz and the Oscar Peterson Trio, another CD in this "Getting Into Jazz" series. Joe Pass was no slouch when it came to rapport, either, and when the two of them played together it was as though one brain was tapping out commands to all twenty of their collective fingers. But there's more than just brain here. Ellis and Pass both play with open emotion, and their feelings seem to reinforce and feed on each other. Although their styles are similar, you'll notice that Ellis' approach is spare, direct, a bit twangy, while Pass is a touch more florid, decorative.

This recording, originally issued as a vinyl LP, dates back to the mid-1970's, yet the sound quality is nothing short of superb—clean and crisp, with the sound of all those plucked strings shimmering in your ears. It's as though Ellis and Pass were sitting next to you. The stereo separation is outstanding, too, clear but without exaggeration. (Note that you'll hear Ellis and bassist Ray Brown on the left, Pass and drummer Jake Hanna on the right.)

This is not the only Ellis/Pass album, but it's arguably the best. By comparison, Seven Come Eleven, a recorded concert performance, lacks the crisp sound and clean stereo separation of this one, and it seems emotionally flattened. Two for the Road, featuring just the two guitars without rhythm section, makes you long for the sound of bass and drums.

Beyond these three recordings, Ellis and Pass made a prodigious number of albums with other musicians over the years (more than 50 for Ellis, nearly a hundred for Pass). But they were at the top of their game in Jazz/Concord. Why? What pushed them to deliver work of this quality for this particular disc? Was it the novelty of playing together? The stimulation of knocking ideas around with a kindred musical spirit? Or maybe it's just that sometimes, on a certain day, in a certain recording studio, things click for no special reason, and the players leave us with music that will lift our souls long after they're gone. That's the magic of jazz.

CD Highlights

Track 7, "Georgia (on My Mind)"

It takes just four words to sum up this song: gorgeous tune, puzzling lyrics. Composer Hoagy Carmichael's melody is so perfect, so distinctive, you'll love it the hundredth time you hear it. Lyricist Stuart Gorrell's words, on the other hand, remain perplexing to this day. If you're unfamiliar with "Georgia," listen to Willie Nelson sing the words in his inimitable down-home style. Then ask yourself: is Georgia is meant to be the State of Georgia or a woman's name? You can make a case either way, and people have been doing so for decades now.

Ellis and Pass embrace the song with such unfettered passion that it doesn't matter whether Georgia is a piece of real estate or a person. With this track, kick back, forget the "thinking" side of your brain and just let the beauty of the music engulf you.

The format is simple. The entire track consists of Ellis and Pass taking turns playing the verse and chorus, each time with increasing passion. But the best part is that they're playing together, feeding off one another, giving and taking ideas as they go. The improvisations are simple, but they're not just decorations on a cake. Notice how they accent the original tune with little bursts of emotional stress.

The track opens with Pass doing the verse, with Ellis and bassist Brown filling the spaces—which really makes this part a string trio. At 1:22, Ellis and Brown play the chorus as a duet. At 1:53, Pass returns, with the other two chording in the background. From 2:25 to 3:29 it's Ellis and Brown again, with Ellis giving us a magnificent solo, the best on this track. At 3:29 Pass solos. From 4:01 to the end, the improvisation and counterpoint increase and then fade away.

Track 2, "The Shadow of Your Smile"

Ellis and Pass treat us to two minutes of pure melody on this track. No rhythm section, no improvisation, just Pass playing the old Johnny Mandel tune as written, with Ellis filling the spaces with lush counterpoint. Save this one for wine and firelight.

Track 1, "Look for the Silver Lining"

This Jerome Kern oldie raises the stakes on give-and-take improvisation and counterpoint. It begins like "Shadow of Your Smile," with Pass doing the melody slowly and Ellis filling in. But it doesn't stop there. At 1:07, listen as they start to swing and chase one another, with bass and drums joining in. From 1:49 to 3:10, a couple of satisfying solos from Ellis and Pass. Then, at 3:10, comes the best part of the track: no rhythm section, just the two guitars playing off each other, in and out, round and round, in a piece of counterpoint that might make Bach smile in his grave. At 3:53 bass and drums bring things back to earth for a satisfying windup.

Track 4, "Honeysuckle Rose"

If you're not familiar with this old Fats Waller song, a jazz standard if there ever was one, you'll find lots to listen to on YouTube. For the best introduction, look for the simple, straightforward Lena Horne rendition recorded at the Waldorf Astoria in 1957.

Ellis and Pass take the tune at a relaxed, "Up a Lazy River" tempo, but the laid back feeling gives way repeatedly to some intricate counterpoint and spot-on improvisation. The track begins with Pass doing the verse, Ellis in the background. At 0:51, there's a nifty bit of double-time counterpoint, after which Ellis does the chorus, then back to Pass for the verse. Listen at 1:46 for a pretty little chase sequence, then at 1:52 for Ellis' satisfying improvisation. They start putting the tune to bed at 2:15, but not before another delightful chase at 2:28.

Track 5, "Happiness is the Concord Jazz Festival"

Happiness is also "Sweet Georgia Brown." If you know Ms. Brown, you'll detect hints of her peeking out as Ellis and Pass run through this up-tempo gem. Notice how they're using their whole toolbag of techniques—the precision, the inventiveness, the split-second interactions—except now it's time for pedal to the metal. Amazingly, nothing's lost: the chases are just as dizzying, the counterpoint just as pristine. I won't give a play-by-play on this one. Just listen a few times and let it all soak in.

Track Listing: Look For The Silver Lining; Shadow Of Your Smile; Good News Blues; Honeysuckle Rose; Happiness Is The Concord Jazz Festival; Stuffy; Georgia; Love For Sale; Bad News Blues.

Personnel: Ray Brown: Bass; Jake Hanna: Drums; Herb Ellis: Guitar; Joe Pass: Guitar

Title: Jazz/Concord | Year Released: 1974 | Record Label: Concord Records

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