Joe Pass: Virtuoso

C. Michael Bailey By

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Joe Pass was born Joseph Anthony Passalaqua, January 13, 1929 in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Pass was born into a blue-collar non-musical family and began to play the guitar when he was 9. The guitarist's father, a steel mill worker, realized early that his son was musically talented and encouraged him to listen to all music and pick out songs by ear. Pass's forward-thinking father also encouraged his son to play pieces not originally written for the guitar and to attend to the basics: practice scales, including whole-tone, chromatic and diminished scales. Finally the elder Mr. Pass instructed his son not to leave any spaces, filling the sonic space between the notes of the melody. These lessons were well learned by the younger Pass.

By his mid-teens, Pass was scoring gigs and soon was playing with name-brand bands directed by Tony Pastor and Charlie Barnet. Here Pass perfected his guitar playing and learned the business of music. He began traveling with small jazz groups and ultimately moved from Pennsylvania to New York City. There Pass's exposure to the drinking and drug use that was part of the New York music culture took him off of the performing map for the better part of the 1950s.

Pass emerged from addiction exile through a two-and-a-half-year stay at the famous Southern California drug rehabilitation program, Synanon Healing. Established by the Svengali-like Charles Dederich in 1958 and discredited in the late 1970s, Synanon famously played host to alto saxophonist Art Pepper and is discussed at length in this autobiography Straight Life. During his time at Synanon, by design, Pass abandoned the guitar completely, and then returned to playing very slowly. Pass emerged to record his first album in 1962, the well-received The Sounds of Synanon (Pacific Records 48, 1962).

Over the next eight years, Pass recorded several fine recordings for World Pacific, Blue Note, Pacific Jazz, Discovery, and BGO. Then in 1973, it was Norman Granz, the producer/impresario (Clef, Norgram, Verve, Pablo), who heard Pass in 1970, immediately signing him to the Pablo imprint. This action served to do two things. It provided Pass with a stable recording environment for the rest of his life and it also placed him in the company of many other musicians of is generation, among others, Benny Carter, Milt Jackson, Herb Ellis, Zoot Sims, but most importantly Ray Brown, Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen and Oscar Peterson. The now famous collaboration with Peterson manifested in two drummerless trios (one with Ray Brown and one with NHØP) that would become the vehicle in which Pass would change the history of hard bop.

Joe Pass recorded well into the 1990s, critically scoring with a move to Telarc (the new Pablo) with My Song (Telarc Jazz 83326, 1993). Pass succumbed to liver cancer in Los Angeles May 23, 1994, leaving the jazz community with a void not seen since the death of Art Tatum in 1956. Like Tatum, Pass was a rarified talent to be considered and not imitated. The convenient fact is that neither can be imitated. That is what is good about being the absolute best and moving on at the top of your game.

The jazz universe afforded Joe Pass a singular artistic distinction. This was his consideration as a peerless solo guitarist, a musician's musician. Pass had a style and technique that has simply not been equaled, either technically or intellectually. Pass's method was characterized by fast single-note runs and progressive chording that was very similar to the expressive playing of Art Tatum. Technically and physically, Pass accomplished his method using a very short plectrum (guitar pick) often snapping regular picks in half and using them. This allowed him to combine single-note runs (or bass lines) with dense chording. Of his 40-plus recordings as a leader and his three-times that many as a sideman, Pass is best represented by his Virtuoso series of recordings. These discs include the original four recordings released in the 1970s and two additional recordings released in the 1990s. If the listener wishes to know Joe Pass; this is where to start.

Joe Pass
Pablo PACD-2310-708-2

As Norman Granz had done with Art Tatum 20 years previously, the impresario allowed Joe Pass to sit down and play his songbook. The result was Virtuoso and Virtuoso #4. Collectively, the two represent 33 standards and original compositions recorded with acoustic and electric guitars. Virtuoso was the recording to announce that Joe Pass had arrived. Pass had accomplished, using standard guitar performance techniques, to play lead melody lines, chords, and bass rhythm simultaneously and at tempo, giving the listener the impression that multiple guitars were being played. With the exception of the closing tunes, Pass restricts himself to the standard vernacular of Tin Pan Alley ("Night and Day, "Stella by Starlight, "Here's That Rainy Day, "My Old Flame ) Be Bop ("How High the Moon, "Cherokee, "'Round Midnight, "All the Things You Are ) and ballads ("Sweet Lorraine, "Have You Met Miss Jones? ). These songs are performed without flaw regardless of tempo, infused with that element of joy Joe Pass brought to jazz a photographic familiarity with the American Popular Canon and a palpable love of expressing that on six strings. If you must have one Joe Pass recording, let it be this one

Track Listing: Night and Day, Stella by Starlight, Here's That Rainy Day, My Old Flame, How High the Moon, Cherokee, Sweet Lorraine, Have You Met Miss Jones?, 'Round Midnight, All the Things You Are, Blues for Alican, The Song Is You

Recorded at MGM Recording Studios in L.A., November 11, 26 & 30, 1973.

Joe Pass
Virtuoso #2
Pablo PACD-2310-788-2

For the second installment of his Virtuoso series, Pass chose pieces of a more contemporary nature than present on Virtuoso. Pass mixes things up here with the ground zero of Hard Bop ("Giant Steps, "Grooveyard, and "Joy Spring) new jazz standards ("On Green Dolphin Street ) and the contemporary (David Gate's "If and Morris Albert's "Feelings ). Pass tosses us a couple of old bones on this disc with "Misty and "Limehouse Blues to keep the whole affair honest. All the while, the guitarist is illustrating his brilliant command of the entire American Song Book, while at the same time proving a keen intellect when choosing song vehicles for his playing. Pass's performance of "Giant Steps treats the forward-thinking piece as played on stride piano. He simplifies the harmonically complex Coltrane composition, not by dumbing down that master's intention, but by increasing the song's transparency. So it is with all of the selections here.

Track Listing: Giant Steps, Five Hundred Miles High, Grooveyard, Misty, Joy Spring, Blues for O.P., On Green Dolphin Street, Windows, Blues for Basie, Feelings, If, Limehouse Blues

Recorded at RCA Studios in L.A., September 14 & October 26, 1976.

Joe Pass
Virtuoso #3
OJCCD-684-2 (Pablo 2310-805)

If perfection can be weak, then Virtuoso #3 is the weakest link in the series. That is unfortunate, because it is the only disc in the series comprised only of Pass original compositions. That is okay. Like Bud Powell, even bad Joe Pass is superior to the next musician. Pass plays simlier harmonic structures and more open chords in his compositions here than anywhere else. He writes, not clichés, but astute observations on styles of jazz (the Caribbean "Trinidad" and the Brazilian "Passanova." He proceeds almost into the realm of the abstract classical with his "Dissonance" compositions and "Sevenths" and "Ninths" pieces. These are largely ideas thrown off with the cavalier glee of Lord Byron writing Don Juan.

Track Listing: Offbeat, Trinidad, Nina's Blues, Sevenths, Ninths, Dissonance #1, Minor Detail, Paco de Lucia, Sultry, Passanova, Pasta Blues, Dissonance #2

Recorded at Group lV Recording Studios in Hollywood, May 27 & June 1,1977.

Joe Pass
Virtuoso #4
Pablo 2PACD-2640-102-2

Ditto Virtuoso. The distinction for Virtuoso #4 is that the majority (save one piece, "Indian Summer ) were recorded using an acoustic guitar. Pass solidifies his dense command of the popular song and jazz standard. While most critical centers consider Virtuoso #4 inferior to Virtuoso , I say they came from the same place and we are lucky to have then on disc. Leftovers? Not!

Track Listing: Lush Life, Indian Summer, Autumn Leaves, Yesterday, Come Sunday; Lover Man, Oh Where Can You Be; Come Rain or Come Shine, My Shining Hour, I'll Remember April, Someday My Prince Will Come, Acoustic Blues, I Can't Get Started, It's a Wonderful World, Now's the Time, The Man I Love, The Nearness of You, Limehouse Blues, Easy Living, plus CD bonus tracks Weaselocity, Blues for Pete, What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?

Recorded at MGM Recording Studios in L.A., November 11, 26 & 30, 1973 with bonus tracks: Weaselocity, Blues For Pete, What Are You Doing The Rest Of Your Life?

Joe Pass
Virtuoso Live!
Pablo PACD-2310-948-2

Fast forward through the '70s and '80s. I am sure that the powers that be titled this disc Virtuoso Live! in order to ride the coattails of the critical success of the original four releases. That is just fine. A lesser artist may not have pulled it off. But Joe Pass operated at such a high level that it is quite justifiable that Pablo title this archival release as such. Pass is captured in his solo element on stage in the intimate confines of a small bar in Hollywood. He crosses the full expanse of time and style by including the '20s ("Indiana"), '30s ("Love for Sale"), '40s ("What's New"), '50s ("Mack the Knife"), and '70s ("Just the Way You Are"). Pass makes no attempt to complicate these pieces. He tries nothing cute or progressive. Instead, he explores the harmony and melody of these songs with the care of a surgeon and the reverence of a priest. He is older, wiser, and more apt to distill his experience and music to the essentials. While the popular culture is enamored with the likes of Al DiMeola, John McLaughlin, and Michael Stern, Joe Pass continues to nurse the flame of the real and substantial.

Track Listing: Stompin' at the Savoy, Just the Way You Are, Eric's Smoozie Blues, Beautiful Love, Daquilo Que Eu Sei, (In the) Wee Small Hours (of the Morning), Love for Sale, Mack the Knife, So What's New, Indiana

Recorded at Vine Street Bar And Grill in Hollywood, September 13-15, 1991.

Joe Pass
Virtuoso In New York
Pablo PACD-2310-979-2

The last of this series (until Concord/Fantasy releases more gold from their mines), Virtuoso In New York finds the dean of jazz guitarists turning his attention to the Hard Bop he help, in large part, to define. Again, an effort for Fantasy Jazz to further cultivate their unreleased library of Pass Material. This is no criticism. It is fortunate to us as listeners that there have been musicians of the stature of Joe Pass, Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson to draw upon commercially. Que up "(I Don't Stand) A Ghost of a Chance (with You)" and tell me that Joe Pass possessed a mind less than that of art Tatum's with regards to the American Songbook. All of these recordings offer the greates soundtrack to whatever one has planned...a party, a Sunday morning, or a night of making love. Honor Joe Pass.

Track Listing: I Never Knew (That Roses Grew), (I Don't Stand) A Ghost of a Chance (with You), We'll Be Together Again, Blues for Alagarn, The Way You Look Tonight, How Long Has This Been Going On?, Moritat, When Your Lover Has Gone, Blues for Alagarn (take 1)

Recorded on June 5-6, 1975, New York.

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