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A Gamut of Jazz Guitar: Grant Green, Mark Elf & Joe Morris

By Benson Knickerbocker

Jazz guitarists during the age of the millennium all seem to possess a certain style or flare that sets them apart from their peers. Guitarists like Pat Metheny, Sonny Sharrock, and James "Blood" Ulmer are all made names for themselves through the development of unique jazz guitar styles. In the following pages, we will visit three guitarists that put their mark on modern jazz guitar playing.

One of the classic guitarists who created a distinct style was Grant Green. Green, although labeled with Wes Montgomery & George Benson, possesed a very distinct linear style and was synonymous the music of the jazz trio combination. During his brief career, he played with some of the finest Hammond B-3 organists and drummers available. These two Green recordings, which may only be separated by three years, are actually separated by fifteen Grant Green albums as leader and over 20 albums that he played on as a session man. This fact shows both Green’s love of music and respect from his peers. It may also relate to the fact that, although he was in demand, he may not have been making that money. The appropriately titled Grant’s First Stand (Blue Note Records), with organist "Baby Face" Willette and drummer Ben Dixon, was Green’s first effort as a leader for Blue Note. Willette, who was self- taught, is hard to find on disk and Grant’s First Stand is a very rare recorded appearance. As for Ben Dixon, he was the master of the soul jazz trio as he worked with organist Big John Patton and Grant Green on many instances.

Right from the beginning, Green established his own distinctive style, which is devoid of chords. Instead Green puts the emphasis on the individual note which in turn produced an extremely clean sound. It is through this style that Green’s playing is often described as being horn-like. Just as trumpet or saxophone do not produce cluttered combinations of notes, so did Green’s guitar work. This is evident on blues numbers like his own "Moss Ann’s Tempo", "Blues for Willarene" and "A Wee Bit O’ Green".

In 1964, Green showed up for the recording of Talkin’ About (Blue Note Records) a date with organist Larry Young and drummer Elvin Jones. Green was deeply influenced by the work of John Coltrane so it must have been an honor to play with drummer Elvin Jones(who played with Coltrane throughout the 1960s). In turn, Jones must have been excited to play some good old funky jazz instead of the more spiritual free-bop excursions of Coltrane. Like Coltrane, organist Larry Young would revolutionize the way that his instrument could be heard but for this date he stays true to the soul-jazz approach similar to that of Jimmy Smith and Baby "Face" Willette. The Coltrane connection is carried even further with album’s opener, Young’s "Talkin’ About J.C.". Young also contributes "Luny Tune" and the there is an absence of a Green original but not his guitar playing as he makes his Gibson sing on all five tunes.

What does seem to be missing from modern day jazz guitar is a sense of tradition. The 3 Fs - fusion, free and funk – have transformed the guitar into a entity that has lost touch with its roots. With guitarist Mark Elf recording albums at a breakneck speed of one a year, the jazz guitar tradition is alive and well. The New York City native Elf schooled at Boston’s Berklee School and than went off to play with bands of great legends such as Dizzy Gillepsie, Lionel Hampton and Clark Terry. Elf was the perfect guitarist for these bands as he is an accomplished bop player who follows the playing of guitarists like Jimmy Raney, Jim Hall, Joe Pass, Barney Kessel and Tal Farlow. Through six originals and six covers such as Cole Porter’s "Love for Sale", Harold Arlen’s "Stormy Weather" and Billy Strayhorn’s "Lush Life", Elf shows the art of soft tones, and the interplay between fast paced finger runs and rhythmic chord changes is not gone and forgotten. Elf also shows that high tech wizardry like delays, distortions and loops and little boxes with lots of knobs and dials are not necessary to make accomplished and pleasing music. For this recordings, which is dedicated to small jazz stations across the nation, Elf is joined by Ralph Peterson and Jay Leonhart. The three pay respect to radio stations such as LA’s KLON and Rochester’s WGMC, which are radio stations that are responsible for Elf ‘s records getting on the Gavin jazz charts. Without the small radios, Elf’s recordings may never had made the Gavin charts. With this recording, Elf has one of the most creative and appreciative methods of saying "thank you". Mark Elf will be a featured act at this year’s Bell Atlantic Jazz Festival – he will be playing at Cambridge’s Ryles Jazz Club on Thursday, May 18th. Check out more about Mark Elf at http://www.jenbayjazz.com.

If guitarist Mark Elf represents the traditional side of the jazz guitar, then Joe Morris is on the other end of spectrum. For Many Rings (Knitting Factory), Bostonian Morris is joined by a more than interesting band of Karen Borca (bassoon), Rob Brown (alto saxophone) and Andrea Parkins (accordion, sampler). There are most likely not too many bands around today that can boast a similar lineup. In general, to find a jazz quartet without a drummer, bassist or pianist is pretty rare and, without being too stereotypical, a jazz band usually has at least one of these instruments. Perhaps its is the non-traditional lineup that is directly responsible for the non-traditional sounding songs. Many Rings is a perfect example of why "free music" is far from lacking structure. After a cursory glance, the eight songs on Many Rings sound like cacophonous confusion similar to Cecil Taylor or Mathew Shipp. After a few listens and an abandonment of preconceived musical notions, the true value of Many Rings arises. For one, there is the compositional value of the songs – Morris is a gifted writer who draws on every influence from American blues to 20th Century European classical music. While appearing at first to be disorganized, his songs are in reality, very articulate and concise. Another great aspect of this album is the musicians. By having four completely obscure instruments (Morris’ Gibson Les Paul may not be obscure but Morris’ technique definitely is unique).there is no room for an instrument to get lost with another. Each instrument stands alone and is given ample opportunity to be heard. Once again, the disorganized sound is given instant credibility upon hearing the skill employed to create that sound. Many Rings is not for the timid. It is not for the dinner guests. It is not for mom and dad. It is for the head. For more about Joe Morris and the Knitting Factory sound, head over to www.knittingfactory.com.