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December 14-20, 2005

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Magic Fingers

Six strings sizzle on jazz guitar box set

By Greg Cahill

For casual jazz fans, the history of jazz guitar starts around 1935 when Gypsy jazz great Django Reinhardt—his left hand badly deformed in a childhood fire—teamed up with Parisian violinist Stephane Grappelli to create the influential Quintette du Hot Club de France. But that fortuitous meeting was just a milestone on the musical odyssey that started decades earlier.

Progressions: 100 Years of Jazz Guitar (Sony/BMG), a new four-CD box set, spotlights the long line of jazz magicians who have dazzled audiences with a seemingly bottomless bag of tricks that might amaze even Reinhardt.

Indeed, a baker's dozen of lesser-known jazz-guitar heavyweights are spotlighted in this chronological parade before Reinhardt even makes his appearance.

Accurately billed as the most comprehensive and authoritative guitar anthology ever produced, Progressions features 78 guitar legends and spans a century of material culled from 33 recording labels. A 148-page booklet includes an introduction by jazz guitarist John Scofield, extensive biographical material, an essay in which 25 contemporary guitar players talk about their guitar heroes, photos, information about vintage gear, and a handful of solo transcriptions.

Reinhardt, Charlie Christian, Barney Kessel, Les Paul, Chet Atkins, Jim Hall, Joe Pass, Grant Green, Charlie Byrd, Joao Gilberto, John McLaughlin, Jimi Hendrix, Pat Metheny, Larry Carlton, Jeff Beck, Carlos Santana, Bill Frisell—they're all here, as are a legion of such underrated players as Oscar Aleman, Eddie Lang, Tal Farlow, Eric Gale, Marc Ribot and Mike Stern, to name a few.

It's possible to trace the lineage of these players: Wes Montgomery begat George Benson, begat Earl Klugh, and so on.

The foundation of jazz guitar is illustrated by the disc's opening track, a 1906 recording of banjo player Vess Ossman, a New York native steeped in the ragtime and string-band music of the late 19th century. The subsequent introduction of the open-tuned Hawaiian guitar, held on the lap and played with a steel bar, gave Sam Moore and other early jazz players an important tool for their ragtime- and blues-influenced tunes.

The level of virtuosity on these recordings is nothing short of jaw-dropping; a skill-level that in some cases was driven by the need of vaudeville players to distinguish themselves among their talented onstage competition. Case in point: the amazing Otto "Coco" Heimel, who spent most of his 40-year career as one half of a musical comedy duo squirreled away in Austin, Texas, far from the limelight.

If there is one beef with this set it's that the tracks don't always showcase the guitarist to best effect. For instance, both "Clockwise," with George Benson on guitar, and "Just Friends," featuring Pat Martino, are set in organ combos that give as much space to the saxophonist or keyboardist and leave only minimal time for the respective guitarists. And there are omissions: What, no T-Bone Walker?

But these are minor complaints.

Progressions is an essential anthology for jazz fans. The first disc alone, which brings the listener up through the mid 1940s, is a revelation. Any box set that gathers former Art Tatum sideman Tiny Grimes, soul-jazz legend Grant Green, fusion pioneer Jeff Beck and downtown-scene axe slinger Marc Ribot has got something special goin' on.

Spin du Jour

Patti Smith, 'Horses/Horses' (Columbia/Arista)
Patti Smith's 1975 debut, Horses, was a defiant indictment of mid-'70s musical lethargy. But while Patti Smith helped inspire the punk and new wave movements, her clever blend of Beat poetry and big beats was something quite different from anything else that came out of that era.

As Rolling Stone once noted, Horses still has the power either to entice or offend. Its primitive, street-level, yet highly literate, psycho-sexual imagery holds up remarkably well. This digitally remastered 30th anniversary edition comes with a second CD that captures the recent live performance of the entire album and features guitarist Tom Verlaine, bassist Flea and others. There's no excuse for not owning this punk classic.

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