New York, New York
Any Monday Night
It was 46 degrees in the rain, and 9:45p.m. outside the Iridium Jazz Club on Broadway. Yet there was a huge queue for Les Paul, the inventor of the solid body electric guitar, developer of multitracking and, now 93, about to play his third set of the night at Iridium. Paul plays at Iridium every Monday and first played professionally as a boy in 1928, so clearly he has a secret! What is it?
Inside, the new arrivals were being seated. Posters advertising '30s and '40s gigs by jazz greats (for example, Benny Goodman, Earl Hines and Cab Calloway) lined the walls with, in addition, a number of dramatic jazz paintings, the latter perhaps favoring representations of modern jazz. Iridium is probably the best-organized jazz club as far as seating areas are concerned, at least in this writer's experience spacious yet private.
The stage has a large grand piano extending toward the middle from stage right. Paul's barstool was positioned at the crook the piano's soundboard, so that when he arrived on stage, his feet would be resting on a covered box or crate set up in front of the stage. On top of this stand was an effects box, or rather, a long oblong plastic box holding several standard Boss effects pedals and a collection of screw driversthe inventor is clearly never far away, with "Les Paul," moreover, embossed on his equipment. To the left of the piano was space for the bassist, and at far left there was a barstool for the rhythm guitarist.
The lights went dark as the MC announced the arrival of the band: "He's the person who changed the music for all of us.... " The four-piece band walked on in the darkness, Paul saying to the audience "I feel like Ray Charles" as he reached his seat! The musicians began the first number, an easy-swinging jazz standard, the style typical of most of the set. The pianist (today it was someone named Smith) segued into "East of The Sun West Of The Moon" for his solo section. At the end of the tune, the rhythm guitarist, Lou Pallo, went straight into another, singing the lyrics. Paul played a solo in octaves, his slip-on black shoes occasionally pushing at an effects pedal at his feet.
Earl Bostic's "Flamingo" continued the set, Pallo vamping one chord per two beats, as was his custom for the evening. His guitar was, of course, a Gibson Les Paulit was unlikely that there would be any rival Fender guitars here tonight! His amp was a rickety-looking, yet authentic, pile of boxes: a small Crate amp on top of a larger speaker cabinet. Very '50s/'60s.
The band swung immediately into Jimmy McHugh's "On The Sunny Side of The Street." A flash of "Tea For Tea" came along in the bridge passage, with Paul perched on the firm two-layered barstool, tapping his right foot loosely on the stool bar, while his left foot was grounded on the large crate box before the stage- -that also held his effects pedals. Without a pause, the band began "Brazil," Paul using open strings as the sunny tune spread its Latin light through the club.
The next tune was Irving Berlin's "Blue Skies," and it highlighted a classical chamber music aspect of the group, reminiscent of Benny Goodman's famous quartet. The comparison is further emphasized as there is no drummer in the band. There were swift rhythmic changes in the tune, as the band went from the main tune to a fast chordal passage, and then into a smooth series of Les Paul octaves. A fast Benny Goodman Sextet-like passage then led to the piano's solo. The rhythm was of course provided by the piano, bass and rhythm guitar, yet in a way it is primarily the bass, in such a format, that stands out as the rhythmic vehicle- -as in a classical string orchestral setting. The bassist, the attractive and blonde Nikki Parrott, awed audience members who flashed cameras when she first arrived on stage alone, to tune up before the set.
Gershwin's "Embraceable You" followed. Pallo suddenly began singing the words, and Paul pretended to look surprised at this sudden vocalizing. Paul played a strong dominant note in the bass of the guitar throughout the set he occasionally provided high and low contrasts, dropping down to play a piece of melody on the bass strings and then reverting to the top stringsbefore ending the Gershwin classic with a brief reference to Glen Miller's "Moonlight Serenade," a great finish.
It was time for a boogie, and the band began a loping blues in E, similar to the '40s popular Benny Carter hit "Cow Cow Boogie." Paul then played the well-known second section of W.C. Handy's "St Louis Blues," employing a kind of alternate "index finger and pinky" style of note-picking. His pick-up selector stick was on treble for the night. Parrott played a bass solo, drawing admiring glances from Paul: he also appeared to appreciate her eminent musicianship! The latter was soon to be even more illustrated when she sang a couple of numbers.
Paul introduced the pianist, and after an Oscar Peterson-like trio number he talked about some of his earlier days: he said he started out on the piano, but stopped with the instrument when he first heard Art Tatum, after Tatum left his home in Toledo. He continued to tell the audience that, as a little child, Tatum used to stand up next to the piano and reach the keys by raising up and flattening his hand, still playing flat-handed (the correct way): whatever it takes! "He and I became great friends," he said.
Paul made a lot of jokes"When I play I think of my wife's sister." He introduced Parrott as the newest member of the band: "She's a great ass, a great asset!" Then, "I look at her and...I'm a condemned building with a new flag-pole on it." She was about to sing "Evil Gal Blues," but not before Paul inquired about the key: "Bb? Ah, that's six frets up!," he pretended to remind himself, looking thoughtfully at his guitar.
He finished with a few high notes and an unusual arpeggio, and then Parrott sang a great version of "Besame Mucho," Paul accompanying with single notes. She played an interesting solo high on the bass, while Paul smiled, his chin cradled in his left hand. She ended the Latin crowd-pleaser with harmonics on the bass. Cha cha boom! The Latin mood continued with Cole Porter's "Begin The Beguine," Paul commenting on an unexpected effects pedal noise by saying "I've got the Jimi Hendrix pedals down there"so he obviously didn't invent EVERYTHING to do with the electric guitar, contrary to popular belief! He ended with some descending triplets and harmonics.
Paul described his Bing Crosby connectionhis first big hit was a duet with Crosby, and it was a big one, number one all around the world in 1949: "It's Been A Long Long Time." As he told it, one day in 1949 he was "happily working in my garage, recording" and Crosby called about a new song he wanted to recordhe said that Crosby was "the same on and off stage," "so loose and natural." He went to meet Crosby at Paramount studios, where an on-duty workman, who was also a pianist, played the tune to them on the piano (as neither could read the music). They only needed to hear it once, and then they went off to record it at Capitol's studios. One take ["that's all Bing takes"], and "in a couple of weeks it's number one all over the world," said Paul. The band played the tune while Paul told the story.
Pallo sang another standard, "Makin' Whoopie," and Paul played up the lyric with an exaggerated two-note bend figure whenever the word "Whoopie" appeared. One more suggestive bend and it was into Benny Goodman's up-tempo vehicle, "Avalon" ("I don't know if we should do this," said Paul). The reason for his apparent reluctance to play the number was a complicated very fast five-note figure, repeated often in unison with the rhythm guitarist. A great version of Hoagy Carmichael's "Stardust" followed, complete with a Spanish guitar "fast-strummed" ending. The "Tennesee Waltz" was next, Paul finally using his whammy bar during this fast boogie: the country side of Les Paul.
The last number was "Sweet Georgia Brown": "Here's one for you, and then I'll get out of here!" he said. He caused further amusement at one point in the tune by repeatedly strumming the same open note, his arms literally folded over the guitar, while the rhythm guitarist and Parrott had to really concentrate hard on their respective parts.
"Simplicity and order are conducive to high performance," says a respected self-help book. Is that Les Paul's secret? It sounds like it must at least be a part of his formula. That, and of course his gift for invention.