Les Paul: Jazz Guitarist


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Perhaps the greatest revelation of Chasing Sound, the DVD based on the recent Public Broadcasting Service telecast of the career of Les Paul, is that the icon is still a conscious, thinking human being and performing musician. After that dubious birthday album American Made/World Played (EMI, 2005), which trumpeted the return of the inventor of the electric guitar to the recording studio for the first time in 27 years, then covered up his playing with present-day rock-star guitarists, a listener could be forgiven for suspecting the 90-year-old (now 92) phenomenon was all illusion, more Wizard of Oz than Wizard of Waukesha.

Rest assured that, from the evidence on the latest DVD, Paul is no—at least not yet—taxidermized totem. Far from a carefully preserved specimen wheeled out on stage in a rocker, he maintains his balance precariously perched on a high stool while serving as ringmaster for the Monday night festivities at the Iridium Night Club in Manhattan. Of course, he's surrounded by (and admittedly largely carried by) some ace New York musicians, who enable the featured attraction to bask, deservedly, in the spotlight, evading anything remotely resembling breakneck virtuosity on the instrument.

Les Paul
Chasing Sound
Koch Vision Music

The DVD is essential viewing for the 90-minute history alone—but there's also 90 minutes worth of extras, such as the Iridium set. The audio fidelity and production values are first rate, whether the music is vintage Paul or his more recent musical activities which, for the most part, have indeed gone unrecorded if not unnoticed for the past three decades. The extras include "honest" musical exchanges with Keith Richards and a rare opportunity to see and hear a latter-day Kay Starr, no worse for wear than the legendary guitarist, singing "Exactly Like You." Then there's Merle Haggard and Paul doing "Pennies From Heaven," both treating the tune's simple melody with the utmost reverence. And there's a delightful duet with Chet Atkins circa 1995 on "Avalon," during which Paul, the supposedly "intuitive" musician, reveals that he knows keys! Rather than holding one finger down to signal one flat, he mouths "F" to the pianist for the modulation preceding his solo turn.

During the interview Paul makes it clear who his primary heroes and influences were—trumpeter Louis Armstrong, saxophonist Coleman Hawkins, pianist Art Tatum, guitarist Django Reinhardt—and that rather than follow his heart's desire to play jazz he was forced by economic realities to broadcast country music under the alias "Rhubarb Red." Nonetheless, the music with which he made a living was not the music for which he lived. With conspicuous pride he talks about his show-stealing musical exchange with America's favorite jazz pianist at the time, Nat King Cole, and reminisces about his own jazz trio which, like that of Cole, Tatum and early Oscar Peterson, excluded a drummer. One wonders how many of the guitarists on the American Made/World Played release have discovered the pre-1948 Les Paul recordings, which reveal a player who, while no harmonic-melodic genius, was a superb technician and high-spirited yet tasteful musician in the Django Reinhardt tradition.

Les Paul Trio
Jazz Collector Edition

Les Paul as an artist whose trios approached the meticulous mastery of the Cole or Benny Goodman trios is in evidence on The Les Paul Trio: The Jazz Collector Edition, which features no fewer than 21 dazzling performances by the "Wizard of Waukesha," supporting his claim that an early formative influence was Art Tatum. Within each of these 2-3 minute miniature masterpieces Paul manages to impress as a solo guitarist as well as an expressive musician and ensemble player of the first order. There's no electronic trickery on these recordings from 1947—simply a level of artistry and flawless execution that's all the more striking because of the limited space given each player to say his piece. The programming includes a couple of lyrical ballads and medium tempos along with the predominantly up-tempo tunes.

No less impressive than the solos is the inventiveness of the arrangements and the glittering tightness of the ensemble playing. Much of the time the leader is heard playing blazingly fast melodic lines in harmony with a nameless piano virtuoso who is on the same level as the guitarist if not even more fluent and imaginative. In fact, the single downside of this collection is the absence of dates, musicians' names, and other potentially useful information about the recordings (some research suggests that the pianist is Paul Smith).

Admittedly, the guitarist frequently resorts to "canned licks" rather than risking extemporaneous improvisation on the chords (the pianist is usually given the more adventurous role). Nevertheless, this is challenging, exhilarating music, full of surprises and played to perfection.

Nat King Cole and Les Paul
Jazz At The Philharmonic: "Body And Soul"
Jasmine Music

Paul himself singles out this session as the highlight of his career: an encounter between the guitarist and Nat Cole in 1944 during the very first Jazz At The Philharmonic tour, the annual jazz all-star cavalcade sponsored by Norman Granz, jazz impresario and record producer extraordinaire (Clef, Verve, Pablo). The event, which is documented on Czech-manufactured Jasmine Records as Jazz At The Philharmonic featuring Nat King Cole & Les Paul: "Body And Soul", is as much a technological as a musical marvel. Despite the three-minute limitation of the 78-rpm recordings of the day, the producers of this session used 16-inch acetate discs running at 33 1/3 rpm, allowing up to 15 minutes of recording time. As a result, the listener can hear Paul stretch out as on no other recording.

In terms of guitar artistry, again there's no reliance on electronic gadgetry here—in fact, relatively few of Paul's patented, sometimes corny, licks are in evidence. The guitarist is extemporaneous, reactive, and fully "in the moment" on this occasion. His musical conversation with Cole on "Blues, Part 2" has to be heard to be appreciated, but he and the pianist go after each other in 4 and 2-bar "copy-cat" exchanges that testify to the finely tuned ears and formidable technique of both soloists. And the crowd is audibly responsive to each imaginative melodic twist and turn. "Body And Soul," at almost 11 minutes, brings more of the same, though here Cole follows Paul's engaging, expressive guitar solo with a block-chorded, quote-loaded clever piano solo that few musicians on any instrument could match.

Besides Nat Cole and Les Paul, it's fascinating to hear trombonist J. J. Johnson on so early a session. Rhythmically, he's very much in the swing era, though his attack and articulations definitely anticipate his imminent emergence as the father of the instrument within modern jazz. The audio quality is admittedly erratic but far better overall than a listener might dare hope for. In sum, for anyone who wishes to hear Les Paul the guitarist (and jazz musician) as opposed to Paul the electronics wizard, or Paul the mythic nonagenarian exploited by marketing executives, the evidence is still available to those willing to seek it out.

Tracks and Personnel

Chasing Sound

90-minute feature documentary plus extras, including clips from Iridium Night Club, television show and commercials with Mary Ford. Featuring guest artists B. B. King, Tony Bennett, Merle Haggard, The Beatles, The Who, The Rolling Stones, Kay Starr. In 4:3 black and white and 16:9 color. Stereo and Dolby 5.1 digital sound.

Jazz Collector Edition

Tracks: Lazy River; Short Circuit; Wasted Tears; Melodic Meal; Swanee River; Hand Picked; Danger, Men At Work; Embraceable You; I Can't Believe That You're In Love With Me; Indeed I Do; (Back Home Again In) Indiana; Dance Of The Kordies; Stardust; My Melancholy Baby; At Sundown; I Found A New Baby; Subterfuge; For You; Stompin' At The Savoy; Coquette; Honeysuckle Rose.

Personnel: Les Paul: guitar; Paul Smith: piano; uncredited: bass.

Jazz At The Philharmonic: "Body And Soul"

Tracks: Lester Leaps In; Blues, Pt. 1; Blues, Pt. 2; Body & Soul; Rosetta; Bugle Call Rag; I've Found A New Baby; Tea For Two.

Personnel: Les Paul: guitar; Nat King Cole: piano; Illinois Jacquet: tenor saxophone; J.J. Johnson: trombone; Jack McVea: tenor saxophone and vocal; Johnny Miller: bass; Lee Young: drums; Red Callender: bass; Shorty Sherock: trumpet.

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