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Celebrating the Artistry of Grant Green



One of the most inventive and rhythmic guitarists in jazz history was Grant Green.  Jazz Guitar Today contributor Joe Barth collects the comments from a number of great guitarists.

Born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1931, learning the instrument from his guitarist father, he was playing gospel music professionally by the age of thirteen.  In his teens and twenties, Grant worked with many jazz and R&B groups.  It was only after he recorded with saxophonist Jimmy Forrest in St. Louis that saxophonist Lou Donaldson urged him to move to New York and introduced him to Alfred Lion of Blue Note Records.  Alfred Lion was so impressed with the guitarist that in addition to making him a prominent sideman on Blue Note recordings he arranged for Grant to record an album in 1960 as a leader.  Even though such great musicians as pianist Wynton Kelly, bassist Paul Chambers, and drummers Philly Joe Jones and Billy Higgins were on it, Grant was so nervous about releasing it that the album called ‘First Session’ was held back over forty years and released in 2001, after Grant’s death. As a house guitarist for the Blue Note label, he worked with the Blue Note artists as saxophonists Hank Mobley, Ike Quebec, Stanley Turrentine, and organist Larry Young.  Randy Johnston remembers “Grant was one of a very few people who could hear a piece of music once and be able to play it back to you.  He had a photographic mind.  He was an extremely gifted musician.” Battling a heroin addiction, he died of a heart attack in January 1979.

In this article, a number of great guitarists tell how Grant Green personally influenced them and what made Grant so unique as a world-class performer.

His Sound

(George Benson) “He turned off the bass and treble on his amplifier maximizing the midrange to achieve the punchy biting tone.” 

“I just love the uniqueness of his tone and the sound he gets from the guitar as well as the soulfulness to his playing.”  Corey Christiansen

(Steve Abshire) “He is so logical in everything he does. He always had a sense of happiness and joy in whatever he played.”  

(Steve Khan) “I just loved the way that he played. There is something about the touch of his fingers on the strings. It is so recognizable. He embodies the bluesiness of the organ trio, but with so much jazz in his vocabulary. He rarely plays chords on any of his recordings. He doesn’t employ chords and harmony on the level of a Jim Hall, Kenny Burrell, or Wes Montgomery, but he had his own very unique sense of swing.”

(Russell Malone)  “The thing I like about Grant is first of all his sound.  It is clear and clean and right there.  The sound is the very first thing people hear.  Before your melodic or harmonic ideas, people hear your sound.  It is like listening to a great speaker like Martin Luther King.  Before you receive any of his thoughts, the sound of his voice gets right to you.  That’s how it is with Grant.”  

His Melodic Inventiveness

(Corey Christiansen) “He… was a master at clearly articulating his lines. Grant¹s vocabulary more limited than some other jazz musicians, but he was a genius at developing his ideas throughout a solo.”  

(Henry Johnson) “Grant is a master of taking a melodic motif and change the rhythm on it, changing the placement of the beat, and suddenly give it more drive.  He could play funky and he could play bebop. He had a wonderful sense of harmonic language.”

(Larry Luger) “He was such a master of note placement.  Wow!  He only used one or two positions on the guitar.  He wasn’t the guy to see someone play endless 32nd notes all over the neck.  He uses his ear and has such a delightful touch.  You can tell by his feeling for the backbeat that he came up playing gospel music in church.  He can really swing.  Grant was also a great blues player.”

(Russell Malone) “Grant also knows how to deliver a melody.  George Barnes was also a master at how to play a melody.  Grant didn’t play that much slick stuff harmonically but he did know how to get the message across. He was very simple in playing his message and he made you believe it.”

(Jimmy Ponder) “He had a lot of facility as a player.  This is evident in how he soloed over a vamp.  He was a master constructing a solo over a riff of very few notes.”    

His Ability to Communicate Feeling

He was able to express a lot of feeling in each of his notes.

“I just love the uniqueness of his tone and the sound he gets from the guitar. Grant Green is pure melody. There are no ‘guitar extras’. There are no guitar extras.  There are no patterns that guitar players get hung up on.  It is all melodic stuff that you can sing and he makes it all sound so good on the guitar.  I’m sure that his approach was to sing something first, then find a fingering that works nice on the guitar and then play it with the best time possible. Everything he plays you go “oh yeah!” because it is so good.  You don’t know why it sounds so good, it just does.  I love his tone too. A lot of guitarists try to sound pristine, but Grant has a great touch and then gets a little dirt out of the guitar.” Jonathan Kreisberg

(Yotan Silberstein) “Grant could do everything.  He is one of the guys that inspired me to go into jazz guitar.  Everything is so direct with him.  He uses so little yet says so much.  He has great rhythm and groove.  I love his tone and touch. He is so steeped in the blues.”

“I just love the uniqueness of his tone and the sound he gets from the guitar, as well “Grant was such a huge influence upon me.  I listened to him over and over.  His feel is so deep.  The first thing you notice about a guitar player is their sound and then it is their feel.  Grant and his feel or heart and then he speaks to the head.  The way you connect with people is through their heart and then you get to their head.  What he… (did is) not that dazzling of technique but his feel is so great in how he states the melody.” Dave Stryker

(Mark Whitfield)  “He is right in the pocket just like an arrow.  His tone is very centered. He is very lyrical, playing the melody with great attention to detail. It’s Grant Green. George Benson tells a story of going up to hear Grant play with Wes Montgomery and Kenny Burrell and they each took turns sitting in. All four of them were playing great but George said whenever Grant played, everybody in the club was immediately locked into what he was playing. Every foot was taping in the place during Grant’s solos.  That is a man that connects with his audience.”

His Rhythmic Energy

(Bruce Forman) “It is Grant’s unbelievable sense of moving the music rhythmically.  I loved his sense of the “pocket” and his sense of shaping lines.  Now here’s a guy who isn’t the most harmonically inventive or technically proficient but he has an uncanny ability to play “time” and swing.  He had what Bird, Coltrane, and Cannonball all had it in terms of swing.” 

(John Abercrombie) “He was also a very rhythmic player.  He wasn’t afraid to repeat things, like what he is doing here, developing an idea, and carry it through.  He reminds me of a really good trumpet player, not a guitar player who is trying to squeeze everything in.”  

“The album, Matador, is one of my favorites.  I just love the directness of his feel and what he puts across. I didn’t come to know Grant’s playing until later.  Then I had to go back and immerse myself in him to internalize his feel.”  Sheryl Bailey

(Joshua Breakstone) “I love the rhythmic element of his playing.  That is his most identifiable trait as a guitarist. He is another one who hasn’t fallen into a guitaristic approach to playing.  Whatever your instrument, you want to develop your own voice that transcends your instrument.  I work very hard at finding my own voice that will communicate with my audience.  I want my listeners to discover what I find beautiful, or interesting, funny, or compelling about a song.  Grant is someone who, during most of his career, communicates all those things whenever he plays.”

(Rodney Jones). “Grant is the master of swing.  Grant is also a master of the blues, great feel, of economy, and everything else… when it comes to groove and swing, Grant is tops. There is so much gold in what Grant does.  Grant is a direct descendent of Charlie Christian but updated for his era.”

(Mark Whitfield)  “Grant was a hard swinger who came from the school of “simple was best.”  George Benson also said to me that he asked Grant once what he thought of Wes’ (Montgomery) playing, Grant said, “Yeah, Wes can sure play, but he needs to get off his thumb and get a pick.”  It never made sense to Grant to do things the hard way.  Grant always played with just three left-hand fingers because he didn’t think that his pinky had as strong of a sound as the other three.  He didn’t play lots of big chords and rarely played the low E and A strings.  He was a lover of Charlie Parker’s playing, as you can hear, but also took the most natural and simplest approach to playing.  Every note he played he felt and he wanted everyone else to feel it as well.  He was not thought of as a virtuoso because he didn’t always resort to guitar fireworks… (but) there was no limit to what he could play. What he heard was simpler.  He played what felt good to him and what he liked.”

His Phrasing

(Roni Ben-Hur) “He didn’t have all these fast runs or intricate chords.  You could hear how to make a lot of music without playing a lot of notes.  You can see in his lines what it takes to make a great phrase. You can easily see that it takes a strong rhythm, a great sound, a foundation in the blues, and a beautiful melody to come up with an interesting line.  That’s all you need.”

How He Thought the Guitar Fit into an Ensemble

Grant viewed the guitar as a front-line instrument, like a saxophone or a trumpet.  

“Grant almost never played chords.  You usually hear him in a context with an organ or a piano.  He was really like a trumpet or saxophone player.  He could play chords but I never heard him play them.  He was a real single-line jazz player.  His lines sound very guitaristic but very influenced by saxophonists.  Wes (Montgomery) was very similar.  Other players like Tal (Farlow) or Jimmy Raney won’t have this feel.  There will be a lot more notes.  Grant was a very pure jazz player from the 50’s and 60’s period.  He is just singing through his guitar.  His ideas are very clear.  In fact, one of the clearest players in the world, but not a chord player.  I sometimes wonder why he never did play chords, but this was just what he enjoyed doing.  On his Standards, which is a trio album, he plays “’Round Midnight” and all these amazingly harmonic tunes but never a chord.”  John Abercrombie

(Marty Ashby) “Grant wasn’t afraid to have just a bass and drums with him playing a single line melody.  He rarely plays chords, no chord melody. It could be a bassoon. (laughter) His approach was just to state the melody then blow over the changes, swinging and being greasy, and then restate the melody again. There was a lot of economy in his playing.  It is so sparse and raw and pure.”

(Roni Ben-Hur) “What I love about Grant was that his guitar was right there with the horns whether they are a saxophone or trumpet or whatever.  His guitar is not softer and behind the horn.  He is a front-line guy.  He was always swinging.  He didn’t play a lot of notes.  He would sometimes repeat himself in a lick but with Grant, you didn’t mind because his sound was always attractive and swinging and soaked with the blues.”  

(Randy Johnston) “Grant’s influence upon me was huge.  I had a guitar teacher in Richmond, VA who had a box of jazz guitar records that he would loan to his serious students.  The box had a lot of Johnny Smith, Barney Kessel, and lots of Django and many others.  He asked me what record I liked the most and I said Grant Green’s Green Street, a trio album where I think he only plays about two chords on the whole album.  My teacher said I could have that because he didn’t really like it.  I still love that album.”

(Frank Potenza)  “Sometimes he does unique renditions of tunes.  They are very well done and very interesting concepts for arranging the tune.  For example, his version of the Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand” is very interesting.  He had a huge impact on players.  His bluesy sound certainly connected with a lot of players coming from other styles”

“In his album Standards, he never plays a chord.  And you don’t miss it.  It is all there.” Rodney Jones

(Dave Stryker) “The way he played through changes helped me to learn to play through changes.  Unlike Benson and Martino he was accessible to me as a younger player.  I love the rhythm section he has with him on records like I Want to Hold Your Hand and he did a few other albums with that rhythm section of Elvin Jones, Larry Young, and Hank Mobley on sax.  Grant had such a beautiful hookup with Elvin Jones.  Elvin influenced everyone he played with. Larry had a different direction than some of the other organists.  Grant plays magically over these musicians.”

His Bluesy Feel

(Sheryl Bailey) “I have all my students transcribe Grant’s Matador because he swings, he’s soulful, and he’s bluesy.  They do the song “Green Jeans” because it is harmonically like “So What” and then maybe “Bedouin”.  Students need to get that 1/8th note feel that he is so good at.  Grant is not all that harmonically complex and I say that in a good way and so he is accessible to students. Guitarists with a bluesy background get Grant right away.  You don’t have to be a jazz aficionado to get him. Grant doesn’t waste anything.  He gets right to the point.  There is something to learn from that.”

As these great guitarists attest to, Grant was a master of swing, rhythmic energy, but especially connecting with his audiences.

In all of Grant’s greatness, sometimes his record label’s desire to “get an album out” did not produce one of Grant’s best efforts.  Steve Khan shares this interesting account of recording with Grant.  

“I recorded with Grant, as the rhythm guitarist, on his CTI album, The Main Attraction. Creed Taylor had lost George Benson to Warner Bros., and he wanted someone to replace George, so he signed Grant Green. Creed put together three other musicians, under the direction of arranger David Matthews, great players like Don Grolnick on keyboards, Will Lee on electric bass, and Andy Newmark on drums. Of the four of us, I was the only one who was familiar with Grant’s body of work. We were in the old A&R Studio on West 48th St., and there was Grant in a sport coat and tie in the isolation booth, and the four of us in scruffy jeans and long hair trying to come up with grooves for Grant to play over. We went through some ideas, and out of our boredom at the disorganization, Don began to mess around with a funk version of the chords associated with the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction,” and Creed and Dave suddenly told Grant to play over what we were playing. In the end, we left several other spots open for soloists who would be added later. Eventually, he brought in Mike Brecker to play a sax solo, and this tongue-in-cheek “Satisfaction”-related vamp became a twenty-minute song called, “The Main Attraction!” (laughter) If a jazz purist had witnessed this process, he would have arrested all of us. So yes, I recorded with Grant Green, but it was probably one of the worst records he ever made. I felt so terrible for him because he had so little control over what was happening. To see a hero of mine treated this way was very disappointing.”

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