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Six Remarkable Jazz Guitar/Bass Duet Albums



Intimacy, yet with a fullness of sound is a way to describe the pairing of a guitar and the double bass. JGT Contributor Joe Barth looks at six remarkable albums.

There is an airiness to the sound but at the same time, the potential of complex harmonies as these two instruments interact.  The roots of the guitar and bass are in the rhythm section of the band.  Historically they were to establish the musical time, the bass laying down the walking line and guitar comping on the pulse.  Though not the first to do it, guitarist Barney Kessel and bassist Ray Brown explored this melodic richness, while at the same time, retaining the rhythmic intensity of these two instruments in their “Poll Winner” albums with drummer Shelley Mann.  In the years following those albums, guitarists and bassists have taken these complexities to a new level… creating rhythmic satisfaction between the guitar and bass without the use of the drums.  In this article, I explore six examples of excellence in this influential duo format. 

Jim Hall:  Haden & Hall;  Impulse Records 6502;  Jim Hall: guitar, Charlie Haden: bass   1990

Though guitarist Jim Hall and bassist Charlie Haden collaborated in numerous concerts together over the years, in this set (from the 1990 Montreal Jazz Festival) in 1990 Haden and Hall are canny yet intimate, and thoroughly sensitive to one another. You’ll find it nowhere better expressed than in the ballads on this album. On one occasion guitarist Steve Khan and I were listening to this recording and Steve told me, “Miles said that “if you want to play a ballad well, you need to know the lyrics.” Here (listening to “Skylark” on this recording), you can tell that Jim knows every word of the song. You can hear it in his playing. Sometimes, when you hear younger guys playing, they sound like they learned the song from the Real Book, but never listened to someone like Nat “King” Cole singing the tune. The players of Jim’s generation learned these songs by listening to great singers like Nat (King) Cole or Billie Holiday, and you can hear it in their playing.”  This sensitivity to the lyric is also evident in both of their playing on “Body and Soul.”  Here, Charlie plays the melody with Jim gently comping behind him, and the words of the song flatter and resound in every embellishment that Charlie adds to the melody.

In addition to the “Skylark” and “Body and Soul” as well as the two originals that both Haden and Hall contribute, they bring to realization Thelonious Monk’s “Bernsha Swing”, Ornette Coleman’s “Turnaround.”  The high points for this writer are the cadenzas that Hall inserts on both “Body and Soul” and “Skylark.”  He dices up the melody and modulates around so tastefully in both of these improvised cadenzas. This writer also recommends the outstanding guitar-bass albums, Alone Together and Telepathy that Jim Hall did with bassist Ron Carter.

Ralph Towner:  A Closer View  ECM Records;  Ralph Towner: guitar; Gary Peacock: bass  1998

Ralph Tower told me in an interview “…(A) significant duet was A Closer View and the other album, Oracle with bassist Gary Peacock. We did a number of composed and prepared tunes but there are a lot of free improvised tunes on these records as well.  Gary is my favorite bass player after Scott LaFaro.  Gary is so good at playing up high and interacting, breaking things up rather than just being a timekeeper.  His rhythms are so complex yet beautifully satisfying.  We just clicked together.”

Doug Ramsey in his JAZZ TIMES review of this album describes its music so well,

“The news release accompanying the advance CD says that three of the pieces in A Closer View are “off-the-cuff joint compositions.” One can only guess which three. The most attentive and knowledgeable listener will be unable to tell where composition ends and improvisation begins in this music performed by guitarist Towner and bassist Peacock. The most discerning will not consider it an issue. It is more important that, despite its quietness, the richly textured music flows with uncommon harmonic interest and rhythmic strength. No one familiar with Peacock’s and Towner’s many past collaborations will be surprised at their synergy, which may involve ESP. Each is a virtuoso who makes virtuosity servant to the music. Deep intelligence, hard work, and complexity went into the conception and performance of the pieces on this album. The listener hears ease and simplicity. As Red Mitchell famously observed, simple isn’t easy. Hearing Peacock and Towner, you’d never know it.”

There is an abundance of musical chemistry between Towner and Peacock on this album.

Pat Metheny:  Beyond the Missouri Sky (Short Stories)  Verve Records;  Pat Metheny: guitar and other instruments; Charlie Haden: bass;   1996

This is an album that comes up frequently on music streaming services such as Pandora or Spotify.  Its melodic richness and mellow textures are a gain or win to every listener.  In an interview with Pat Metheny, he told me “Charlie and I have been best friends for over 20 years, since the album 80/81.  In fact, even before that because Charlie was playing in Keith Jarrett’s Quartet (when I was playing with Gary Burton) and we did a lot of concerts opposite of each other.  Charlie and I also grew up in towns that were not too far from each other (back in Missouri) and we knew some of the same people from out there.  Along with that, Charlie played in those early quartets of Ornette and those are some of my favorite albums, so Charlie has been a real influence upon me.  We have played together many times, in different situations – in the trio with Billy (Higgins), with (Michael) Brecker, Ornette in Song X, Abby Lincoln, through various tours, on Japanese records, just lots of really varied things.  We have a very special rapport together.  So, we said to each other that we were going to have to do a duet record sometime soon.

After a while when we were recording in the studio I began to realize that we were doing only ballads and that I hadn’t even touched the electric guitar once.  I said, “Charlie, you know that we are only playing ballads here?”  He said “Yeah.”  I said, “Well, maybe we should pick up the pace here” (Pat’s snapping his fingers) (laughter).  He said “No.  What else do you have?”  I had brought in a lot of my music.  We also did other tunes like Jimmy Webb’s “The Moon is a Hard Mistress” which is a great tune. Before we knew it, we were done.  It was like a two-day session.  Then Charlie said, “I want you to do ‘that thing’ that you do on your Group albums. Now, don’t do it on all of the songs, just some of them.” I knew exactly what he meant, it was overdubbing some extra guitars and adding some orchestrations and so I did it and that was the album.  I really didn’t think that much about it. It was just Charlie and me hanging out and making some music together.  No one was more surprised than me when it became this very successful record.”

I asked Pat about growing up in the heartland of America and was this record a going back to his roots?  He responded “Yeah, the whole conceptual thing about calling the record ‘Beyond the Missouri Sky’ and all… that came up later and we thought ‘Great, that’s perfect, that just what it is.’  The concept, the cover, everything, it just all came together, beautifully.  If I had to pick an album that is a favorite album that I am on, it would be that record.”

When I asked Pat how well has the album sold he said. “Extremely!  It is one of the top-selling 3 or 4 records that I have ever been on, and it continues to do well. Some records do well because there is a tour that supports it.  But this one does well anyway.  There is like a little cult that surrounds it.  Charlie and I haven’t done that many concerts together and occasionally when we do, all the Missouri Sky people are there, (who aren’t necessarily your usual jazz audience), it includes your normal jazz fans, but also includes this whole other group.  The concerts are very intense, you have to listen so very closely because Charlie plays very softly.  They are sometimes really great, and always a challenge.”

Pat went on to tell me how recording this album changed him as a player. “The unique thing about that album for me is that it is the first album where I really play only acoustic guitar.  The album is all about acoustic guitar.  Charlie really showed me something about myself.  The depth of the acoustic guitar is so much greater than the electric guitar in many ways.  You can somehow get so much more information from the acoustic guitar because the sound is going through the microphones rather than a pickup.  You get this much (big gesture) rather than that much (small gesture).  The bandwidth is somehow just greater than it can ever be from a single magnetic pickup. That is especially true in a situation like that where because there are no drums to bleed into the microphone.  You just get a lot of information from us.  That album is very revealing in a good way.

The album went on to win a Grammy for Best Jazz Instrumental Performance in 1998.

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