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Swinging the Frets


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At the time of his Prestige tenure, Tiny Grimes was already something of a living legend. Largely self-taught, Grimes learned guitar on the job, and not just any jobs, but jam sessions with the likes of Don Byas and Charlie Christian. One of his first extended gigs was as a member of Art Tatum’s trio with Slam Stewart- hardly a setting where a jazz musician would want to be caught with improvisatory drawers down. Grimes rose to the formidable challenge of his employer, impressing Tatum to the extent that the pianist refused to believe he hadn’t had any formal training.

Fertile associations with Charlie Parker and Ike Quebec followed, and Grimes unique voice on four-string guitar became synonymous with the swing of 52nd Street in Harlem. With the decline of that scene in the early 50s, Grimes turned to the more lucrative field of R&B and formed the Rocking Highlanders, a band that also included a young Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, to capitalize on the then nascent sounds of Rock and Roll. Later in the decade he organized a small organ combo to once again try to plug into popular trends. But by early 1958 his was back mining his swing and blues roots, a freshly minted contract with Prestige firmly in hand.

Several talents set Grimes apart from both his contemporaries in the world of jazz guitar. He was a master of pitch and texture, often wielding his instrument’s amplification with as much acumen as the frets themselves. During his solos, which could spool out for minutes, he would frequently bend and torque his strings, creating volume swells and gradations that significantly widened his tonal palette. Rather than simply play a line straight, he would vary the speed and trajectory of his chord voicings, coming at them from sharp angles that could raise tension and momentum in a tune. But perhaps most importantly, he never abandoned a foundational sense of swing. Even his most complicated lines avoided clutter.

For Blues Groove , his Prestige debut, he assembled a Philadelphia-based rhythm section headed up by pianist Ray Bryant. As his frontline partner, he chose arguably the most recognizable proponent of swing-to-bop saxophone on the planet: Coleman Hawkins.

The verbose “Marchin’ Along” that opens the album coalesces into a pleasurable romp rather than a grueling exercise in excess. Built on a steady succession of blues riffs and a basic rhythmic chassis the piece begins with Grimes caught nearly in mid-strum. Spinning off crisp chords over a robust bouncing rhythm the guitarist stretches out for a string of swinging choruses that bring out the best in his finely tuned frets for the better part of five minutes. The length of his solo ends up surpassing that of Hawk, who proves himself no slouch either in the extended extemporization department.

Wailing out of the gate at the eight and half minute mark, the rough-hewn tenor steams full speed ahead. Consuming chorus after chorus in the mighty maw of his horn’s hungry bell his improvisation positively exudes the sort of swaggering bravado that made him the envy of so many peers. After these two stamina-affirming salvos, Bryant’s solo sounds almost perfunctory, but he still manages to kick up a stomping racket on the keys. The players wrap things up with an enthusiastic return to the opening riff.

“A Smooth One” adds Kaleem’s featherweight flute to the party, but again it’s the pairing of Grimes and Hawk that really draws notice. Exercising his leadership privileges, the guitarist solos first, alternating brittle energetic picking with quick stabbing, string dampening accents. Bryant follows and keeps the happy groove moving against the steady walking throb of Wormack’s bass. Hawk has a short, but persuasive say, and then it’s Kaleem’s cool-toned flute for a lithesome clutch of phrases. Grimes slips back in for a quick strummed aside and the band takes the tune out together.

“Blues Wail” belies the promise of its title and is instead a slinky, slow-tempoed affair, steeped in smoky cerulean hues. Grimes elongates his crenellated lines for added emphasis against the sparse backdrop of the rhythm section and even gets in some spooky volume swells in the bargain. Hawk returns the tune back to its titular roots, blowing emphatic legato phrases, thick with chocolaty vibrato while Kaleem and Bryant are assigned the rear.

Grimes gives “April In Paris” an upbeat blues arrangement as he once again leads the charge and Hawk riffs smoothly behind him. Kaleem’s flute floats by in airy gusts over Wormack’s simple thrumming and then its saxophone and piano in a polite pairing that branches off into thoughtful solos from each. Grimes comes in last with a nimble, if somewhat desultory, circuit through a steady stream of blues variations. The sextet sidles into the concluding confines of the “Soul Station” with plenty of sass and shared confidence left to draw on. Another lazy stroll by the guitarist gives way to more flute before a final signoff from Hawk steeped in sensual vibrato and an effervescent summation from Bryant.

Grimes organized another sextet for his sophomore Prestige date, but altered little in terms of programmatic emphasis. Callin’ the Blues serves up for four more long blowers: three based on Grimes-derived riffs and the last a reshaping of Benny Goodman’s “Air Mail Special,” a favorite blues vehicle for Charlie Christian.

The cast of characters on hand seems tailor-suited toward bringing the most of out the material. Higginbotham, co-leader on the date, was a swing trombone veteran of uncommon chops, and while those skills had slipped a few notches through relative inactivity in the '50s, he sounds energized by the chance swing hard once again. Davis, just on the cusp of his popular partnership with organist Shirley Scott, reaches back to his earlier years with Cootie Williams and Andy Kirk and comes up with a knife-edged tenor sound that keeps things from going soft. Old reliable, Bryant holds down the rhythm section with Marshall and Johnson making effective replacements for the departed Wormack and Teagle.

The band wastes no time in dismantling the title tune, a medium tempo affair with rock overtones. Grimes bright, compacted strumming hints at shades of T-Bone Walker atop a steady rolling pulse laid down by Marshall and Johnson. The horns riff happily behind the leader and then it’s Davis’ turn to consume a few a few choruses, which he does with surprising urbanity and restraint. Only late in his solo does his usual temerity rise to the surface in a rush of reedy honks. Higginbotham works his slide lubriciously, birthing big, fat notes that smear across the rock solid rhythm. But Bryant’s agile sally is the stateliest of the lot, replete with a string of righteous right hand figures.

“Blue Tiny” slows the tempo down to a crawl and Grimes guitar once again takes center stage. Firing off chords like a seasoned gunslinger would rounds; his solo takes on grandiose proportions over a mere three minutes and seems as if it could go on forever without losing focus. Bryant’s lush follow-up juxtaposes nicely with the more gutbucket strains of Higginbotham and Davis, who round out the solo order with lengthy says of their own.

“Grimes Times” seeks to set a land speed record over a marathon distance. To that end, the guitarist’s adroit riffs hit the ground running, completing arpeggiated laps as the rhythm section keeps quick pace. Over the ground covered he delves liberally into his bag of tricks, fingers scampering swiftly up and down the frets. Davis and Higginbotham bide their time, riffing easily, or laying out, until their respective shots at the driver’s seat open up. The former is once again unexpectedly sedate in his initial choruses, but soon rips the cap off with a more galvanizing thrust of phrases that the latter picks up on and elaborates with diving tonal slurs. “Air Mail Special” offers one final snapshot of the band, blown up to billboard size proportions. Each of the principals solos to fine affect, particularly Grimes, who has lost none of his digital dexterity over the session’s duration. But despite a rollicking execution and a ferocious circle of exchanges, the tune ultimately seems like another slice of the same, rather than something appreciably new.

Grimes' final entry in the Prestige catalog, Tiny in Swingville came under the auspices of the label’s eponymous offshoot. Once again there were changes in the roster with Count Basie alum Richardson replacing the Davis and Higginbotham and drummer Taylor taking the place of Johnson. Also different is the prominence placed on traditional tunes and standards along with greater thematic variety. The diversity of Richardson’s horns works as a welcome revolving foil for Grimes’ strings beginning with the opening “Annie Laurie.” The guitarist annexes a long string of choruses at the onset and Bryant is his usual facile self, comping and soloing with methodical aplomb. Richardson’s baritone weighs in for the tune’s second half, guiding things to a busily swinging unison close.

On the slow blues “Homesick” Grimes tunes his strings high and tight, coaxing a clean resounding twang from their surfaces that sometimes turns grainy with subtle distortion. Bryant’s smooth, steady elaboration on the theme contrasts with the leader’s more pungent picking and creates a soothing mix of hot and cool. Marshall and Taylor are models of supportive sensitivity, draping the pianist’s right hand arpeggios in a smoky rhythmic haze. Grimes returns with more swaggering chords that recline regally on the beat, and drops in curled single notes to further vary the chromatic canvas. Richardson’s rich throaty baritone, laced with a slight trail of studio reverb, keeps the mood sultry through a loose spate of choruses before Grimes sums things up.

“Frank and Johnnie” and Grimes’ own “Durn Tootin’” are speakeasy-ready miniatures, perfect for jukebox play. The latter shirks any melancholy inherent to the original folk ballad and shows the guitarist’s substantial expertise with harmony. Grimes comments on both Richardson and Bryant’s respective statements before weaving his own through a succession of brightly ringing riffs. Tight interplay also factors into the action on the latter were Richardson’s tenor shadows Grimes strumming line. The lengthy, laidback “Down with It” features gossamer flute and even a spot for the anchoring Marshall to moving beyond his usual walking role and into a solo stance that showcases his round mahogany tone. Grimes also assures that there’s plenty of room for his own fingers and makes particularly strong use of a single notes and resonating strums in the opening minutes. But it’s Bryant’s logically structured improvisation on the blues theme that truly steals the spotlight. A sweetly rendered take on Fats Waller’s “Ain’t Misbehavin’” completes the program’s have dozen in high style and gives generous voice to Richardson’s humming tenor.

Grimes’ time in the studio for Prestige marked his final extended recording run. Subsequent dates for Muse, Sonet and Classic Jazz in the Seventies gave way to trail turned largely cold. Still, even with the ensuing silence, the guitarist’s place in jazz history was set in stone. While lacking the innovative artistry of his youthful sides with Tatum and Parker, Grimes’ Prestige trilogy presents hard swinging jam-centered music from an earlier age. With the added technological edge of Hi-Fi sound and the long-playing record the albums offer an aperture into what was probably a nightly par for the course on the 52 Street of the 1940s. More important than any armchair hypothesizing, this is music that is just plain fun to listen to. Freed from the need to experiment or advance, it’s quite simply top flight jazzmen creating in the moment and doing what they love to do.

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Blues Groove

Tracks: Marchin’ Along (17:37)/ A Smooth One (5:55)/ Blues Wail (6:465)/ April in Paris (6:40)/ Soul Station (7:48).

Players: Tiny Grimes- guitar; Coleman Hawkins- tenor saxophone; Musa Kaleem- flute; Ray Bryant- piano; Earl Wormack- bass; Teagle Fleming, Jr.- drums. Recorded: February 28, 1958, Hackensack, NJ.

Callin’ the Blues

Tracks: Callin’ the Blues (8:42)/ Blue Tiny (11:34)/ Grimes’ Times (11:20)/ Air Mail Special (7:33).

Players: Tiny Grimes- guitar; J.C. Higginbotham- trombone; Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis- tenor saxophone; Ray Bryant- piano; Wendell Marshall- bass; Osie Johnson- drums. Recorded: July 18, 1958.

Tiny in Swingville

Tracks: Annie Laurie (6:55)/ Homesick (8:51)/ Frankie and Johnnie (3:47)/ Down With It (8:56)/ Ain’t Misbehavin’ (7:03)/ Durn Tootin’ (4:27).

Players: Tiny Grimes- guitar; Jerome Richardson- flute, tenor & baritone saxophones; Ray Bryant- piano; Wendell Marshall- bass; Arthur Taylor- drums. Recorded: August 13, 1959, Englewood Cliffs, NJ.

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