In almost every respect Tal Farlow was a “giant” of jazz. “Tal” was a towering presence with huge hands able to stretch amazing chords beyond the reach of most mere humans. Of even greater stature was his musical intellect, he built lines of incredible musical sophistication, often stretching the beat in the most elastic ways, ignoring conventions like “bar lines” and yet ultimately finding “resolve” in the most inventive, satisfying and informative ways. He was a self-doubtful master and left the New York City jazz scene at the height of his fame. He continued to work as a sign painter and yet insisted that he’d never stopped playing, just preferred to work his local patch. He was later, thankfully, convinced to take his shining talents back onto the world stage where he was passionately received. I was fortunate to witness Talmadge Holt Farlow several times in live performance and I must report that despite the visionary mastery of his work it was eclipsed by one element alone: it’s sheer musical beauty.
How do you quantify the impact a man like “Wes” made in the field of jazz guitar? Wes built melodic lines like other people build skyscrapers, always reaching for the stars but, in his case, never failing to touch them. Known as “the thumb” because he played without a plectrum, Wes’s soulful approach could easily conceal the wealth of genius inventiveness behind his music because he just made it sound so easy. To watch Wes in performance is to watch someone you just feel you’d just like to know. Charming, personable, humble yet grand in his intentions, Wes was not just a great jazz guitarist but a great jazz musician and an artist on a level to which we should all aspire.
Pat Martino doesn’t just play the guitar; he paints life. An early protégé, Pat Martino was fortunate to have the willing support of his family and to be exposed to the work of the greats at the height of the jazz explosion. He has recorded countless, seminal works. At one point in his life he suffered a brain aneurism that left him, virtually, unaware of who he was and his achievements to that date. With great tenacity and dedication and with the help of other jazz masters like George Benson, Pat rebuilt his knowledge, not just to a level of competency but to a level of genius as yet unheard and unwitnessed in the field of jazz guitar. His lines incorporate harmonic stretches and chordal extensions of unprecedented bravery, yet they are delivered with a sense of humour, grit and downright fun which helps them to reach even those people who neither know nor care about jazz music. Like the best exponents of any musical genre, he just does it right.
Although he did sterling work in group and combo settings, Joe Pass was mostly known for his amazing ability as a solo jazz guitarist. Joe could play bass, rhythm and melody parts simultaneously, making his one guitar sound like a whole jazz orchestra. He went on to influence a number of jazz guitarists with his unique style, most notably Britain’s Martin Taylor who took the form to a whole new level. I first saw Joe on British TV when I was in my teens. I thought it was a trick and that it would be impossible to make one guitar sound like so many. Later in life I got asked if I could perform solo in a very fancy restaurant. I said yes but didn’t let on that I only knew three or four tunes in a solo style. Thankfully they didn’t notice and I kept the gig for nearly two years! That opportunity gave me the time and the platform to develop my own solo repertoire. It’s been a useful and lucrative skill for me and I owe so much of it to the mentorship of the great Joe Pass.
Hank didn’t need to play jazz guitar. He had already achieved huge fame as a country and pop performer. He recorded with the greats of country music including Patsy Cline on her landmark “Crazy”. But Hank wanted more. He had heard the likes of Wes Montgomery and Tal Farlow and wanted to investigate the notes “in between”. Despite doubts expressed by those around him who would rather he stuck to a more conventional path, Hank pursued his studies. His fast and clean country picking was a welcome addition to the field of jazz guitar and his album “Jazz Winds from a New Direction” represents an acme in the development of the genre. Hank’s career was unfortunately cut short by a disabling car accident but his talent and willingness to force new boundaries sets a standard for all aspiring jazz guitarists.