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Country gents turn up the heat

By Greg Cahill

One of my all-time favorite recordings is Chester & Lester, the 1976 guitar summit that united celebrated guitar pickers Chet Atkins and Les Paul. It's a light-hearted jazzy romp, replete with good-natured bantering, through such standards as "Caravan," "Limehouse Blues" and "Birth of the Blues," as well as their dreamy medley of "Moonglow/Theme from Picnic," one of the most sensuous four minutes and thirty-eight seconds ever put on wax. (Forget all that goofy space-age bachelor pad music; if you can't get laid to this soundtrack, you've got ice water running through your veins.)

"The musical fact is that [Atkins and Paul and their ace Nashville rhythm section] are extraordinarily resourceful and play with an almost floating kind of relaxation that cuts most of the session players elsewhere," jazz critic Nat Hentoff wrote in the original liner notes. "It's worth listening a few times through just for the rhythm section."

The same can be said for Back to Back, the 1979 recording by mandolinists Tiny Moore and Jethro Burns that has been newly reissued with an extra CD of recently discovered alternate tracks on David Grisman's Acoustic Disc label. That same light-hearted vibe, the same floating kind of relaxation permeates this stunning set from two of the masters of jazz mandolin. And what a rhythm section.

Guitarist Eldon Shamblin (an alum of Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys) supplies lots of fat Joe Pass jazz chords while backed by the incomparable bassist Ray Brown and drummer Shelly Manne.

It's almost too good to be true: that dream-team rhythm section together with Tiny Moore--whose acoustic and electric five-string mandolins used to fire up all those spectacular Western swing recordings by Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys and Merle Haggard's legendary Strangers--and Jethro Burns, the Great One himself, half of the classic-country duo of Homer & Jethro, who provided decades of red-hot picking on Southern jukeboxes and later dished up corny Kellogg's cereal commercials on the nation's TV sets.

The Back to Back alternate tracks mirror the 13 instrumental tunes on the original recording (but with bits of occasional banter left in) and include splashes of Ellingtonia ("In a Mellotone"), bluegrass (Bill Monroe's "Moonlight Waltz"), hot-club gypsy jazz (the Django Reinhardt/Stephane Grappelli composition "Swing '39") and even bebop (Dizzy Gillespie's "Groovin' High"). There are also the Moore originals "Tiny's Rag" and "Real Laid Back," and Burn's "Flickin' My Pick" and "Jethro's Tune."

Kudos to Grisman, a Petaluma resident and no slouch on the mandolin (he produced the original sessions and pops up on three tracks), for inviting us all back to this pickin' parlor--and for taking the care to release these wonderful Bill Wolf-engineered recordings on high-definition compact disc.

By the way, if you love roots music and want to savor Moore's underrated genius (along with the rest of the phenomenal Playboys, one of the tightest Western swing outfits around), check out his work on the 10-volume Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys: The Tiffany Transcriptions. Produced by Tom Diamante and Jeff Alexson, and released between 1982 and 1990 on the El Cerrito-based Kaleidoscope label (they're now distributed by Rhino Records), these astounding recordings were taken from scratchy 16-inch vinyl albums distributed to radio stations in 1946 and 1947, many of which served displaced Southern servicemen and defense workers living in the Bay Area.

A good place to start: Vol. 3, Basin Street Blues. If there ever was a case for Tiny Moore being one of the fathers of rock 'n' roll, you'll find it on "Crazy Rhythm," which features Moore's blistering electric mandolin peeling off a series of Chuck Berry licks--a full decade before Berry duck-walked his way to fame with his first recording. Simply amazing.



Pick of the Week

Joe Williams, 'Havin' a Good Time' (Hyena)

Veteran record producer, DJ and Hyena Records chief Joel Dorn has come up with another pleasant surprise from his vast vaults. This live date captures jazz vocalist Joe Williams (whose velvety baritone fronted the Count Basie Orchestra in the 1950s) and seasoned tenor sax player Ben Webster (a former Ellington sideman and gritty soloist) while trapped in a small Providence, R.I., nightclub during a blizzard in 1964 (with Junior Mance on piano, no less).

I know, it sounds like the scenario for an episode of The Twilight Zone, but there's nothing spooky about this CD. Legend has it that neither musician knew the other was in town, and it's fortuitous for us that someone had the foresight to hit the record button. The result: two jazz greats making magic.

--G.C.

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From the April 6-12, 2005 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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