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October 27, 2011
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Review: CDs that show the jazzier side of the guitar

When I think of jazz, I think of the trumpet (Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis), the saxophone (John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins), the piano (Herbie Hancock, Brad Mehldau). But circumstances - that is, a pile of CDs landing on my desk - have forced me to think of the guitar as a jazz instrument these days.Here's that the six-stringers have added to jazz recently.

produced by Lee Townsend (Savoy Jazz)Several years ago, Bill Frisell had a London gig booked, and thought it would be a neat idea to do an all-Beatles set, which he called "Imagine." It wasn't what the audience expected; Frisell hadn't played much Beatles material since he was a kid growing up in Denver. And it had an unexpected effect on Frisell, who allowed his childhood affection for rock 'n' roll to seep into his already wide-ranging style.Frisell was already in my upper echelon of musicians, and thanks to my daughter's evolving warmth for all things Beatles (she especially likes "Let It Be," and the story, possibly apocryphal, that Paul would sometimes kick Ringo off the drum set and play the drum parts himself), I've been on a Beatles jag meself. But "All We Are Saying ...," featuring all John compositions, is even beyond what I could have hoped for. Playing with his exceptional avant-jazz ensemble - steel guitarist Greg Leisz, violinist Jenny Scheinman, bassist Tony Scherr and drummer Kenny Wollesen, plus producer Lee Townsend - Frisell makes these songs sound as glorious and alive as the first time you heard them.Frisell's touch is ever inventive and restless, so there's no way to categorize the approach here, other than to say it is Frisell-esque: leaning toward minimalism; a spacious, ringing tone to his guitar; loose and spontaneous; impossibly gorgeous. "Across the Universe," which opens the album, is spare, a little countrified, hushed. "Revolution" is raunchy and jubilant, bringing out Frisell's inner rocker; "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away" begins with intense introspection before blossoming into something more expressive, and the transition is lovely. "In My Life" is arranged like a string quartet, and magnificent. The range of material - covering early Beatles ("Please, Please Me," "Nowhere Man"), solo Lennon ("Mother," "Beautiful Boy"), the quieter John ("Imagine") and the edgier John ("Come Together") - is as wide as the sonic range.

produced by Metheny (Nonesuch)For his 2003 album "One Quiet Night," Pat Metheny retreated into his basement, picked up his baritone guitar, tuned it to the country-ish "Nashville" tuning, and created an absorbing solo recording of original material - no overdubs, nothing electronic.Finally, Metheny returns to the solo baritone setting, though "What's It All About" isn't exactly a companion to "One Quiet Night." This one feels more considered; the material is all other people's tunes - a first for Metheny - all songs he knew as a child: Paul Simon's "The Sound of Silence," Burt Bacharach's "Alfie," the Association's soft-pop classic "Cherish." Like Frisell, Metheny can't avoid the Beatles, so the album closes with a solemn take on "And I Love Her." Interestingly, there is a version of the Stylistics' 1972 r&b hit "Betcha By Golly, Wow," which was also featured on another jazz guitar classic - Grant Green's 1972 "Live at the Lighthouse." But Metheny is in his own territory here, doing splendidly intricate, quiet things with the acoustic baritone guitar.

produced by Scofield (Emarcy)Sco' has moved away from traditional jazz in recent years - two albums with groove trio Medeski, Martin & Wood; some jamming recordings with his electric band; the Ray Charles tribute "That's What I Say"; the 2009 blues-gospel record "Piety Street." But he hasn't lost his affection or touch for the ballad standard. "A Moment's Peace" has Sco - leading a solid quartet of keyboardist Larry Goldings, bassist Scott Colley and drummer Brian Blade - taking it down a notch in volume and tempo. There are five original tunes to go with "Gee Baby Ain't I Good to You" and Gershwin's "I Loves You Porgy" (and the obligatory Beatles number, "I Will"), and Scofield shows he can interpret such material with inventiveness, and some clever touches, while staying in ballad mode.

produced by John Burk (Concord)Benson is in his usual pop-jazz mode here, and what makes it worthwhile is his focus on the songs themselves - he picks good ones ("My One and Only Love," "Paper Moon," "Danny Boy") and, a few impressive solos notwithstanding, lets them speak for themselves. He gets funky on "Tequila," does a nice turn on Norah Jones' "Don't Know Why," and gives a thoughtful impression of Coltrane's "Naima." The Guitar Man also becomes the Vocals Guy on the two final tracks: the ballad "Since I Fell for You," and the uptempo, moderately cheesy pop tune "Fingerlero."Oh yes, the Beatles tune: a lush, strings-filled version of "I Want to Hold Your Hand."

produced by Al Pryor and Jordan (Mack Avenue)Stanley Jordan isn't afraid of a little competition here. Or a lot. His "Friends" includes fellow guitarists Russell Malone, Charlie Hunter, Mike Stern and 80-something Bucky Pizzarelli (as well as violinist Regina Carter, bassist Christian McBride, saxophonist Kenny Garrett and trumpeter Nicholas Payton - a genuine all-star team). The album reeks of skill, but I found a lack of unifying vision as Jordan jumps from post-bop to funky blues to a piano-and-violin take (with Jordan on piano) on the Romantic Intermezzo from Bartk's Concerto for Orchestra.Also lacking: a Beatles tune. Instead, there is an interpretation of Katy Perry's "I Kissed a Girl."

For me, the unknown quantity of the bunch. Leading a quartet that features saxophonist Mark Turner, the Israeli-born, New York-based 28-year-old Hekselman proves himself worthy of attention, playing post-bop music marked by fluidity, freedom and self-assurance. Hekselman, who seems to have been listening to Frisell, and his quartet seem wide open to all musical possibilities here, from the atmospheric "Will You Let It?" to the flowing "Understanding" to the impressive, Latin-tinged "Hazelnut Eyes."No Beatles. Too original for that.stewart@aspentimes.com


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The Aspen Times Updated Oct 28, 2011 06:14AM Published Oct 27, 2011 06:17PM Copyright 2011 The Aspen Times. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.