The best and the worst thing that has ever happened to guitar music has been “the invention of electricity”. On the plus side, before guitarists could plug in the guitar was, and still is, a very quiet instrument with very limited dynamic range and sustain. On an acoustic guitar, a note struck does not travel far and does not last long and in a group setting it is quickly overpowered by other instruments. In the days before amplification acoustic guitarists were forced to play very hard and as a result the sound coming from the instrument suffered. Even today Blue Grass flat pickers who prefer to play hard and fast without plugging in run the risk of not being heard or ending up with a crappy sound. Electricity changed all of that. From the get go an amplified guitar could now hold its own even in the big bands of the forties. Case in point listen to the recordings of Charlie Christian and the Benny Goodman Orchestra. As instruments and amplification systems improved the guitar came into its own with more volume, more sustain, more dynamic possibilities and with effect pedals more sonic possibilities. The sky was the limit and unfortunately that led to the false conclusion that more volume became equated as more, not necessarily good, music. The possibilities of increased sustain and sonic effects are very useful tools that have often become completely obliterated by the shear power and volume of the modern electric guitar. That has become the down side. The temptation to continually crank up the volume has become hard to resist and it has affected every body. Drummers, bass players, keyboards are now all capable of immense volume and the result, often, is that musicality and nuance have gone out the door. If every body plays super loud there is no musical room to move. Having said all that there are still examples out there of loud electric guitar music well worth listening to. This YouTube of Lee Ritenour and Mike Stern at the Tokyo Blue Note is right up there with great interplay between the two guitarists and with the great supporting musicians in Freeway Jam Band. The band features Simon Phillips on drums (that must be the biggest drum kit on the planet), John Beasley on a mass of keyboards and Melvin Dasin on a gigantic seven string electric bass. This is a long video, over an hour, so grab a beer and kick back for some great “electric” music. Now is it Jazz or is it rock? who cares?
For most of the listening public and despite many albums, awards and studio session both of these musicians are somewhat under the radar. Lee Ritenour was born January 11, 1952 in Los Angeles. At 16, he played on his first recording session, with the Mamas and the Papas, and was given the nickname Captain Fingers for his dexterity. He was a a studio musician in the 1970s, winning Guitar Player magazine’s Best Studio Guitarist award twice. Throughout his career, Ritenour has experimented with different styles of music, incorporating funk, pop, rock, blues, Brazilian , classical and jazz . He has 41 solo albums to his credit and has played as a sideman on many, many hit records including Pink Floyd’s THE WALL. He was also a key member of the groups Fourplay and L.A. Workshop. In 2004 he brought together some of the key musicians of his career for the two disc DVD Overtime. For anybody who takes music seriously this DVD is a must view. Strictly speaking Lee is not specifically a jazz player. He exists in that commercial arena that straddles rock / pop / and studio work. He is a musical chameleon who manages to slip effortlessly into what ever role is required. It is probably the reason he doesn’t figure highly in the DownBeat Jazz Critics and Readers polls. He is probably not a pure enough Jazz player to be considered. It is a bit of a shame really because he has an unbelievably high skill level. Just to demonstrate his Jazz chops check the the two clips below of him in two groups playing Oliver Nelson’s masterpiece Stolen Moments. His 1990 solo album of the same name is one of my all time favorite Jazz Guitar recordings.
On the other hand Mike Stern (born January 10, 1953) has impeccable jazz credentials. Because he has a very non-jazz sound I find the the situation a little ironic and yet despite this he is a six-time Grammy-nominated American jazz guitarist. After playing with Blood Sweat and Tears he landed a gig with drummer Billy Cobham, then with trumpeter Miles Davis from 1981 to 1983 and again in 1985. I guess it takes a Miles Davis imprimatur to be taken seriously as a jazz player. Following that, he launched a solo career, releasing more than a dozen albums. Stern was hailed as the Best Jazz Guitarist of 1993 by Guitar Player Magazine. At the Festival International de Jazz de Montreal in June 2007, Stern was honored with the Miles Davis Award, which was created to recognize internationally acclaimed jazz artists whose work has contributed significantly to the renewal of the genre. In 2009 Stern was listed as one of the 75 best jazz guitarist of all time. He was presented with Guitar Player magazine’s Certified Legend Award on January 21, 2012. He has 16 solo albums to his credit.
I tend not to find solid body electric guitars visually pleasing. To me one Telecaster electric guitar looks much the same as another. However, Mike plays a signature Yamaha Pacifica – Mike Stern Model. Years ago, because he really liked Telecasters so much he had Yamaha make him one to his specifications. It is one beautiful looking guitar.
This is loud music but with lots of good stuff there to hold one’s interests. Of course at the end of the performance the question remains. Is it Rock or is it Jazz? ….. Enjoy