Saturday, April 19, 2014

Joe Pass - Virtuoso

So few can do it well. Solo - no vocals, no bass, no drums, no effects, no other instruments whatsoever, and no rhythm track.  Just one guitar.  Alone.  Without help.  Even fewer guitar soloists can profitably record an album of solos.  One guitar through a clean amplifier, microphone and mixing board to tape, then, mastered and released.

There was one cigar-chomping guitarist, a former heroin addict, a prodigy who became a sideman for Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughan, Johnny Mathis and Ella Fitzgerald, among others. He played with all of the jazz and bebop greats including Oscar Peterson, Zoot Sims, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie and Count Basie.  He died of liver cancer at the age of 65 in 1994, but not before inspiring a generation of improvisational jazz guitarists.  His genius can still be heard on over one hundred albums.  Joe Pass had, and his recordings display, the gifts of a master guitarist.

During his lifetime Joe Pass recorded six special solo albums among his 100+ recordings - Virtuoso, Virtuoso No. 2, Virtuoso No. 3, Virtuoso No. 4, Virtuoso Live! and Virtuoso In New York - with absolutely no accompaniment.  Just Joe and his jazz box, improvising.

The first Virtuoso album was released in 1973 on Columbia's Pablo label.   It only contains one original composition, "Blues for Alican," but offers improvisational guitar wizardry on an additional eleven American songbook standards, including Cole Porter's "Night and Day,"  and Hammerstein and Kerns' "All The Things You Are," and "The Song Is You."  Pass mesmerizes with his ability to simultaneously play, in time, melody lines, chords and bass lines. It is difficult to remember that the sound is coming from only one guitar and one guitarist.

The Oxford Dictionary defines "virtuoso" as "A person highly skilled in music or another artistic pursuit." Joe's Virtuoso is thus an understatement. He was more than a virtuoso, more than a master, more than a mentor to a generation of jazz guitarists - he is, due to these recordings, immortal.  Guitarists still bow to his artistry on their own journeys.  I was fortunate to have seen him and to have taken part in his mass improvisational guitar lessons that he taught at The Great American Music Hall in San Francisco in the early 1980's.  There was, and could only be, one Joe Pass, a Five Star General in the Guitar Army.

- Old School

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