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5 Guitar Duo Albums Easily Overlooked



Jazz Guitar Today contributor Joe Barth takes a look at 5 classic guitar duo albums – check them out and let us know what you think.

Two guitars and a rhythm section have been inspirational to jazz guitarists down throughout the years.  In many recordings, it begins as a place where guitar friends take an opportunity to relax and just have fun playing music with one another in casually integrated jam bands or in the studio.  In the late 1920s when music was segregated in America by race, Eddie Lang (aka “Blind Willie Dunn”) and blues guitarist, Lonnie Johnson were some of the earliest recorded guitar duets, who crossed the color line, thanks to record label Okeh. Jimmy Bruno and Joe Beck spent their free time when not teaching at Duquesne University’s guitar workshop jamming together and Concord Records later recorded their Polarity album.  An example of modern masters in a strong relationship duet is Gene Bertoncini and Roni Ben-Hur’s album Smile.  Here I examine five wonderful albums.

Larry Coryell and John McLaughlin;  Spaces  Vanguard Records  VMD 79345;  Larry Coryell and John McLaughlin: guitar; Chick Corea: electric piano; Miroslav Vitous: bass; Billy Cobham: drums  1970

In speaking of Spaces I remember an interview I did with Larry Coryell and he told me that he wanted to make an album with the best musicians in New York City that were available to him.  He had seen John McLaughlin with Tony Williams’ Lifetime and was impressed with the English guitarist.  Coryell remarked, “as soon as I heard John I wanted to do a record with him at some point. I asked Danny Weiss, the producer, to call Miroslav Vitous and Chick Corea and then he suggested Billy Cobham, and then we were…complete and it was fine with me.  Those guys were all the top cats in New York.”

The first song they recorded, Larry Young’s “Tyrone,”, did not go all that well and was dropped from the album.  Larry said about that session, “Not on the first day. I was mad at all of them. I was trying to kind-of-guide the direction that I wanted the music to go in, and everybody else, they were such strong individuals that they just did their own thing. It was hilarious… hilarious!”  Larry told Colin Harper “They were all going into outer space…Almost nothing we played that the first day made the cut: it seems as if we got most of the music (that went on the record) on the second day. It just took a while to get comfortable with each other and the material…”. Larry told me “On the second day, we had learned the music a little better, we tried to some different stuff…” 

The album opens with the title track by Coryell’s then-wife Julie.  A rubato introduction featuring Vitous’ bass followed by Coryell showing off his technique with some almost scientific guitar lines and later McLaughlin plays a fiery, but tasteful solo.  A high point on the album is Rene Thomas’ “Rene’s Theme” with just Larry and John on acoustic guitars, dueling it out between them.  Larry told me “…John and I had actually practiced and rehearsed “Rene’s Theme” prior to going into the studio so that it was ready to go.”  Scott LaFaro’s “Gloria’s Steps” has just Coryell, Vitous, and Cobham as a trio.  Both Coryell and McLaughlin stretch out on Coryell’s “Wrong is Right.” John McLaughlin told me “The recording with Larry was a real pleasure: he’s such a fine musician and guitarist. The session itself was very free-flowing and spontaneous, which is just like Larry himself.”  Chick Corea played his Fender Rhodes on only one track, Julie Coryell’s “Chris.”  The album ends with “New Year’s Day in Los Angeles – 1968” a twenty-second tune with Larry playing solo guitar.

Bill Frisell & Pat Metheny:  The Sound of Summer Running;  Verve 314 539 298-2; Bill Frisell and Pat Metheny: guitars, Marc Johnson: bass, Joey Baron: drums 1997

The quartet performs seven Marc Johnson originals, two Bill Frisell songs, and one from Pat Metheny.   All the songs are wonderful folk-Americana compositions that are destined to become Standards. Marc Johnson got his start in jazz in the Woody Herman Band.  Then one late night he stopped into the Village Vanguard to listen to the Bill Evans trio, was invited to sit in, and the great pianist hired him for what became the final phase of Evans’ career, appearing on six albums including the Grammy Award-winning “We Will Meet Again.”  Johnson later played in a trio with John Abercrombie and recorded two “Bass Desire” albums featuring John Scofield and Bill Frisell.  As of date, this is the first and only time Pat Metheny and Bill Frisell have recorded together. Pat Metheny told me “You know, Bill and John (Scofield) are both four or five years older than me.  This isn’t a big thing now, but back when I was 20 or 21 and in Boston, Bill was in Boston too.  Back in those days, I was still teaching and one day Bill calls me up saying he was this guitar player from Denver, new to town and asked for a lesson.  Here’s this guy, five years older than me coming over for a lesson. Within 5 minutes of hearing him play, I say “Lesson?  You don’t need any lessons.”(laughter)  We just spent the rest of the time playing and we’ve been friends ever since.  Back then he was really into the Jim Hall thing.  He had an ES-175 and very unrecognizable of the Bill we know today, but I saw subtle things in his playing of what he is today.  Down through the years I had suggested Bill for some gigs here in the States and have had a small part in his career here.  Well, ‘Summer Running’ was the first time we’d recorded together… (Summer Running) was (to be) the Bass Desires 3 album and he decided to use me instead of John (Scofield), and for some contractual reasons, he couldn’t use the Bass Desires name.  He asked me if I would be an honorary Bass Desires member and I said sure.  I looked forward to the opportunity to play with Bill because I thought we would play well together and we did.  In fact, it felt like we had played together all our lives.  …I think that Bill and I do sound good together.  It is just a kind of a natural hookup.  I’m sure we will do more playing together.” 

Bill Frisell says about the session “That was such a cool project in the studio.  Both Pat and I agree that recording that record almost felt like (we were two peers) it was back when we were these two unknown high school guitarists, before we were soloists with established careers, just having fun and playing together.  The feeling was like we were just strumming on some chords and it blended together so well. It felt just so good. We just felt like two guitar players strumming away. I loved playing with Pat as he played these amazing solos.”

Concerning Marc Johnson’s delightfully quirky “Ding-Dong Day” Bill Frisell told me “On that tune, I would be playing and I couldn’t tell if it was me or Pat playing.  That is the best feeling one can have.  It was so great having that Ventures feel, yet all those sudden modulations that are in that tune.”  Pat told me “It is so totally Ventures.….  We had so much fun with it.  It’s great.”

Jim Hall and Jimmy Raney;  Two Jims and a Zoot;  Mainstream Records S6013; Jim Hall and Jimmy Raney: guitar; Zoot Sims: tenor saxophone; Steve Swallow: bass; Osie Johnson: drums  1964

Jimmy Raney was born in 1927 in Louisville, Kentucky, and Jim Hall in 1930 in Buffalo, New York.  Raney is known for his work with saxophonist Stan Getz and Jim Hall for his work with Paul Desmond.  Bassist Steve Swallow worked with Jim Hall for a while in Art Farmer’s band.  Saxophonist John Haley “Zoot” Sims was born in 1925 in Los Angeles.  Kenny Baker’s band had nonsense words hanging on each music stand and as a fifteen-year-old sax player in the band, Sims played behind the stand with the word “Zoot” hanging on it and the name stuck.

The album features ten originals, a few from Brazilian composers, and a couple from Jim Hall. The best-known tune is Luiz Bonfa’s “Black Orpheus” but done in a swing rather than a bossa nova feel.  It is an album of Zoot Sims interestingly interacting with the two guitarists with all three on an equal par.  Bassist Steve Swallow and drummer Osie Johnson give solid but subtle support. On the album is Jim Hall’s tune “All Across the City” which has become one of Jim’s most recorded tunes.  He and Paul Desmond used it on Desmond’s Glad to Be Unhappy album, Jim and Bill Evans used it on their duo album Intermodulation and Jim used it as a title track for his 1989 Concord album. The album ends with an up-tempo rendition of Leo Feist’s “How About You.”  The best example of this fiery interplay between the three musicians is “A Primera Vez.”

Herb Ellis & Joe Pass:  Jazz/ Concord; Pablo Records;  Herb Ellis and Joe Pass: guitar; Ray Brown: bass; Jake Hanna: drums. 1973

Jazz/Concord is the first of two albums where Herb and Joe play with the rhythm section of Ray Brown on bass and drummer Jake Hanna.  A third album was recorded just as a duet. Both Ellis and Pass are bebop masters and on this collection of standards push one another to new highs in improvised guitar. High points on the album are Fats Waller’s “Honeysuckle Rose” and Hoagy Carmichael’s “Georgia on My Mind” both as moderate swing numbers but with such deep pockets and Cole Porter’s “Love for Sale” with a little Latin feel to it. 

Both Joe Pass and Herb Ellis have a rich history in jazz guitar.  Joe Pass was born in 1929 in New Jersey and then his family moved to Pennsylvania. The Pass family filled their lives with music, and Joe started playing guitar at age nine.  At family gatherings his relatives would encourage Joe to “fill it up,” that is to ‘fill the empty musical space with his improvising’.  By age fourteen he was playing gigs.  Sadly, much of Joe’s twenties were “lost” to drugs, crime, and prison.  In his early thirties, he entered a two-and-a-half-year drug rehab program for musicians at Synanon in California.  At the end of that program, he made the recording Sounds of Synanon that introduced the Joe Pass we know today to the jazz community.

Mitchell Herb Ellis was born in Farmersville, Texas, and grew up in the suburbs of Dallas.  His parents bought him a banjo at age six but he wanted to play the guitar.  He took his older brother‘s guitar and quickly showed him how to tune and play the instrument. Herb Ellis graduated from North Texas State College in 1941 and started playing professionally.  In 1953 he took Barney Kessel’s place in the Oscar Peterson Trio and stayed with the pianist for many years. Herb Ellis and Joe Pass remained friends and musical partners until Pass’s death in 1994.  In later life, Herb Ellis suffered from Alzheimer’s disease and died in 2010.

This Is New, Concord Records CCD 4414;  Ed Bickert and Lorne Lofsky: guitar; Jerry Fuller: drums; Neil Swainson: bass;  1990 

This album begins with a fiery rendition of the title track.  Both Ed’s and Lorne’s tone and approach complement each other.  The beautiful waltz “Elsa” (first released in 1961 by the Bill Evans Trio) follows with the same deep dark tones.  Wes Montgomery would have loved their take on “Twisted Blues.”  Ed’s rich voicings shine in the ballad “Maybe You’ll Be There.”  Charlie Parker wrote “Ah-Leu-Cha” and I love the interweaving counterpoint between Ed and Lorne’s guitar lines as they elegantly burn through those rhythm changes.  All in all, there are twelve north-of-the-border gems performed by this Canadian all-star group.

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