10 Hot Jazz Guitar Albums For Late Night Listening

Hot Jazz Guitar

I was very lucky back in 2014 when the great legendary Steely Dan played a concert here in NW Arkansas on what was a pleasant and not too warm summer evening in an amphitheater, and a good friend and I were able to see these titans in person, a first for both of us, and avid fans to boot.

I will never forget one comment the late Walter Becker (RIP) said onstage between songs, that American music was “pretty much all the blues, anyway”, and I had a helluva time getting away from that argument because given my limited knowledge of musical history, although I do certainly try, I could not see where he was wrong on any of it!  But then after blues, albeit a slow start for that most important all encompassing bedrock of America’s original music of the 20th century, ragtime brought syncopated rhythms and is correctly identified as the bridge between the Delta blues and early jazz, the New Orleans Dixieland style primarily of the roaring ’20’s and then Louis Armstrong’s leaving the Crescent City for Chicago and a lot “hotter” solo favoring “hot jazz”, that shared with the blues on parallel tracks with greats like Lonnie Johnson and Eddie Lang who were as versatile at hot jazz and solos as virtuoso blues licks. Between these two guitar as a lead instrument made huge leaps forward, yet only serious blues and jazz fans may be familiar with them.

But for people my age, jazz means the ’70’s fusion, and bebop/hard bop if they go back far enough to dig Grant Green, Kenny Burrell and Wes Montgomery, and many current players keeping jazz alive.  It really does matter the role of Steely Dan because they were so scholarly as college students they were very well versed in jazz and blues, and when they started doing their own music, the style was pretty well set – the perfect blend of such great historical music and the hipness of the ’70’s mindset, especially with both Becker and Fagan’s saucy streetwise lyrics and references to the LA and NY urban lifestyles with more than just a smidgeon of sass and sarcasm along the way, but it was the grooves, man, that hooked us on a warm summer night when “Do It Again” would come on and add a touch of class albeit in a three minute edited form without solos, which sucked, but nonetheless it and so many other songs would be considered THE COOL ALBUMS you had to have if you weren’t a total yutz who didn’t know cool music from a hay bale.

Best of all, they truly opened the door to tons of players who got much more attention, including from me.  My mission here isn’t to make you a sudden jazz expert – an app on your phone or drinking a magic potion will not do it – but these are a handful of albums that are, in my view, easy enough for the non-musician to grasp and hopefully dig, Daddy-O.  Like any form of music, some jazz can get out of reach, but done with just the right touch, it’s wonderful, and like the blues, country and western and bluegrass, 100% original American music.  So put your spats on, make a playlist and see if there’s still an existing honest to Ellington ballroom near you to see what it meant to really get down to Duke Ellington and his band for the princely sum at one show in Hot Springs, AR. of $2.  And bear in mind my taste in jazz is earlier, so I’m not usually big on fusion type stuff although there are obviously exceptions.  The Dixie Dregs were some of the greatest players ever with stellar player Steve Morse, for example.  And speaking of ballrooms, the most famous that is still used for conventions, exhibitions and concerts in the middle part of the country is the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa, just west of Mason City off I-35.

It is here Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and The Big Bopper decided to take a plane rather than drive to the next gig in Fargo, North Dakota.  Fellow Cricket (Buddy called his band Buddy Holly and The Crickets) which influenced another bug named group in Liverpool, Waylon Jennings stayed behind to get caught up on laundry, and the plane crashed shortly after take off at Mason City Airport, killing all aboard.  The Surf Ballroom is a historic site and worth your dropping in if you’re in northern Iowa.

10) So Much Guitar!  Wes Montgomery

Not counting Steely Dan, this was the first all jazz guitar album I bought, after reading about this great man enough to pique my curiosity, and I have been a devotee and tireless promotor of jazz’ greatest guitarist ever.  It belongs here not just because it’s my first of Wes, it’s one of his best to boot.  Wes had enormous hitchhiker thumbs – his friends all said he had huge callouses as he plucked the strings with the side of his thumb, and his long hands helped him not just learn Charlie Christian licks note for note, he quickly learned his own vocabulary and kept growing, including his famous octave picking that would be his trademark.  A normal Montgomery solo would be single string leads, always melody minded but often just blistering, the octave section and a chord section.  This is the most important to me because his chordal knowledge was encyclopedic.  If somebody’s idea of being a good rhythm guitar is only using barre chords, they are sadly mistaken and woefully under informed.  This is how it’s done.

9)  Midnight Blue Kenny Burrell

This is his best known album for the ultra cool title track.  It ranks up with Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” as one of the most swinging hard bop tunes ever. Burrell is still with us, has recorded over 100 albums with a huge roster of greats, including many with Hammond B-3 wizard Jimmy Smith.  His main strength was an amazing ability to mix blues and jazz into one frosty glass of ultra cool playing.  His playing touch has always been classy, and two players you may have heard of, Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Ray Vaughan were big fans. Hendrix loved Burrell’s tone, and Stevie Ray Vaughan covered “Chitlins Con Carne” on his posthumous The Sky Is Crying.  If it’s Burrell it’s great, but since this is kind of a “first time jumping in the deep end” article, start with this album and then you’ll have a good foothold for his other stuff.

8) Moonlight In Vermont – Johnny Smith

For some reason, Johnny Smith, not to be confused with Jimmy Smith, the organist, has not broken through into the big leagues name recognition wise, or at least outside jazz guitar circles, and that is a shame because he was absolutely stunning, and being in the early ’50’s for his start, he was just at bebop’s beginnings, but had a style that not only could threaten to burn down the fretboard, but had exceedingly great taste as well.  On this album, he teamed up with saxophone great Stan Getz, and the two of them play a “hot potato” version of jazz that is jaw dropping in speed and accuracy. In tandem, or trading solos, it’s an album that should have made him one of the most famous of the early ultra speedsters like Tal Farlow, and now it’s a bit difficult finding his music, with most of my albums being Japanese imports. But this man was as tender and tasteful as pyromanic, and like Montgomery a huge expert on chordal structures as well.

7)  Live At Yoshi’s Pat Martino

Pat was a hard bop upstart with his first album El Hombre coming in 1968, and he has been going at it ever since.  But you’d be hard pressed to hear this genius play with more incredible energy than with the heir to the Hammond B-3 organ legend Joey DeFrancesco.  This is a live solo tradeoff nirvana, and both players are incredible, especially with a reading of “So What” from Miles Davis.  Martino might appeal a bit to rockers on El Hombre, as that album actually does rock quite easily, and even more so here.  Not to be confused with Pat Metheny, by the way.

6)  Tal Farlow

I can’t pick out just one CD because his work has primarily been as part of sets of three or four albums for the same price as a single, which is sad considering how much I’d have to pay for something truly better for tossing my cookies than listen to when this amazing genius, as most are, has to sell cut rate.  Farlow had some of the longest fingers of any player ever, and it enabled him to rip up and down the fretboard with incredible speed.  So what?  says your obnoxious nephew who thinks only music after 2000 matters and it better be ultra noisy.  Well, kid, this man and Johnny Smith could play with all the speed of the shredders and then some.  But they did it within real songs, with advanced chord technique and clean tones that didn’t allow them to make a bunch of noise and call it metal.  It’s an important point  –  on Johnny Smith’s album Walk Don’t Run he apparently was so against being dishonest on record he made liner notes that one song had a single overdub.  It’s this dedication to craft and taste that make all the difference.  Now, I love metal, but I know there are great lead players  and a lot of metalcore or deathcore  players that are abysmal.  If they’re even played by humans.

5)  Blow By Blow Jeff Beck

Yes, yes, Beck fans know how great his first jazz fusion album is and the impact he had on other players.  But many don’t, and like Steely Dan, Beck introduced a lot of people to jazz, after proving he was every bit as good and heavy as Zeppelin.  Jeff is a total master – he can and does play old Cliff Gallup style rock and roll, blues, heavy rock, jazz, industrial and can be incredibly beautiful.  If a single player can cover convincingly more musical territory and do it better, I don’t know who that would be, unless it was:

4)  After The Riot At Newport Chet Atkins

In 1960 Chet and his band were invited to play at the annual Newport Jazz Festival, and he and his Nashville Cats tore it up!!!  We know some of his more recent jazzy CD’s are great, but a bit more sedate. Of course Chet did that type of mellow beauty better than just about everybody, too. But this set, part of a second boxed set of eight albums and along with the first, is as essential as it gets.  Had I not put the CD in myself, I would have been truly shocked to learn that Chet and his Nashville Cats went to snooty ol’ Newport and blew the lid off that staid town.  The CD’s are  Chet Atkins, Eight Essential Albums Vol. 1 and 2.

3)  Triple Play Russell Malone

This great player has worked with a plethora of great musicians, and does solo work as well, including this album that features him and a bass and drums.  Normally working with a pianist, Malone writes in his liner notes he didn’t feel confident about doing a three piece album, but he needn’t have worried. Malone is as dextrous as every great player, but has a warm silky tone that will melt your ice cream cone before you can sit down. Put it in a bowl for this amazingly tasteful music. All Malone’s albums are top notch, but this one really lets you hear him up close.

2) Matador – Grant Green

This hard bop player did many sides for Blue Note records and solo, and recorded up to 1979, when a lifelong addiction to heroin finally caught up to him.  Grant’s style was to usually play primarily lead work and sit back while others did the chord work and soloed, but he could do fine chord work when the song called for it.  His work was always tasteful, and he started early jazz funk in the early ’70’s that some don’t care for, but I like it just fine.  This album was recorded in the sixties during his heyday, but for some reason not released until the year of his death in 1979.  His mellow tone is just perfect for a winters’ evening, watching it snow (hopefully not too heavy to lose power) quietly and relaxing.

1)  Relentless Danny Gatton

If I mention Gatton frequently it’s because he was so good, second only to Chet Atkins in my book as greatest guitarist ever because both men, and I think I better add Jeff Beck while I’m at it, with Chet on top and the others side by side.  Gatton would tragically commit suicide in 1994 but he did one last studio album, a jazz album that rocked like crazy with Joey DeFrancesca.  Relentless is aptly titled.  The two titans go after it with incredible gusto and on a level of musicianship that would drop anybody’s jaws.  As an album that would be great for a “gateway” album, this one has it all. Some blues, furious picking that Gatton fans know only he could pull off, incredible organ, and energy to light up an entire city.  “Gearheads” will blow your gaskets.  Gatton has touches of jazz in everything he did, and is as complete and well rounded as a guitarist can possibly get.

10 Hot Jazz Guitar Albums For Late Night Listening article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2021

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