Dave’s Jazz Guitar Heroes

At the peak of my heavy metal teen years I remember once telling my Mum, “I hate jazz!”. A few years later I heard Django Reinhardt and changed my mind. Jazz is the kind of music that takes a while to understand. Those who take the time to explore the genre usually end up loving it. It is such a vast genre though that if you are exposed to the wrong kind of jazz, you may be put off. I think that’s what must’ve happened me. Some jazz is very ego-driven, where endless loud sax solos seem to go on forever without much reference to the tune they are supposed to be playing! I still hate that kind of jazz. There are other kinds of jazz that I love though. Here are some of the jazz guitarists that have inspired me to learn something about the genre. I’m by no means a jazz guitarist, however I’ve learnt a lot from observing these guitarists.
Louis Stewart

One day as a teenager, whilst visiting my Dad’s family home, I browsed through the vinyl collection there and the album cover that stood out was a smartly dressed, moustached gentleman with, what was to me at the time, an unusual looking guitar. It was Louis Stewart’s classic ‘Out on his Own’ solo album. I asked my Aunt Katy about it, she told me it was a jazz album and I immediately lost interest! A few years later I asked her if I could borrow it. I listened and marvelled at the musicality and virtuosity of this Irish guitar genius. That began a lifelong admiration for Louis’ music which led me to see him many times in concert and also attend several masterclasses with him, including two wonderful weeks in 2000 and 2001 at the West Clare Jazz School in Kilbaha. There I got learn from him, and join him and a group of other guitarists on stage as part of a jazz guitar orchestra, playing some of Louis’ beautiful orchestrations. Louis was a legend in his own lifetime, his sense of humour and storytelling were as good as his playing. He had a lifetime of stories from his times playing with legends like Benny Goodman, Ronnie Scott and Stephané Grappelli. Louis should be way more famous, I’ve seen many jazz guitarists over the years, none were as good as Louis at his peak. I was really sad when he passed away in 2016. I miss him, he’s irreplaceable.

Django Reinhardt

Before I listened to Louis’ music I was introduced to the Parisian Swing of Django Reinhardt and Stephané Grappelli by Ciaran Swift. This was the first time I enjoyed any kind of jazz. Ciaran’s enthusiasm for Django led us to jam some Parisian Swing together, such as the beautiful Django composition ‘Nuages’. I got a few Django CDs and learnt to really appreciate his beautiful tone and amazing dexterity. He famously played solos with just two fingers in his fretting hand due to an injury from a fire. He could do with two fingers what most guitarists can’t do with four! Though the style he and Grappelli played is associated with Paris, he was from a Belgian Gypsy family, so the style is also known as Gypsy jazz. ‘Nuages’ is a ballad, but he could really burn the fretboard too. Check out his modernist composition ‘Rhythm Futur’ for proof!

Wes Montgomery

Wes Montgomery was one of the most influential guitarists of all time, a jazz guitar pioneer with a truly unique style. Whilst most guitarists pluck strings either with a plectrum or fingerstyle (with a combination of thumb and fingers), Montgomery played exclusively using the flesh of his thumb. He had a distinctive way of building solos, starting with single notes, then into octaves and ending with the complex art of chordal solos, where single lines give way to chords played quickly one after another. He composed some great tunes, now jazz standards, such as “Four on Six” and “Far Wes”. He had a very diverse output, including recording Beatles songs and an album with classical musicians called ‘Fusion’. 

Antonio Carlos Jobim, with Hélio Delmiro and Oscar Castro-Neves

One of Brazil’s greatest composers, Antonio Carlos Jobim was the most famous ‘Bossa Nova’ composer. His music was a Brazilian style of jazz that became hugely popular in the ’60’s following his hit composition ‘The Girl From Ipanema’. When I discovered this music I got really hooked into the guitar style. The guitar is mainly used as a backing instrument in bossa nova, but the syncopated rhythms and chord changes opened a new world of harmony and rhythm to me. Jobim really hit the big time in 1967 when Frank Sinatra came knocking, resulting in the chill-out album par excellence ‘Francis Albert Sinatra & Antonio Carlos Jobim’. There are occasionally some great electric guitar parts in Jobim’s records, such as those played by Hélio Delmiro on my favourite Bossa Nova album ‘Elis and Tom’, which Jobim recorded with Elis Regina, an extraordinary vocalist who died tragically young. I usually play a few Jobim tunes in solo concerts.

Baden Powell

The bossa nova boom opened the world up to some virtuoso Brazilian guitarists who developed a really intricate hybrid between bossa nova, jazz and classical guitar. The best of these was a genius named Baden Powell. One of Brazil’s greatest ever guitarists, he was also a wonderful composer. I’ve been playing his composition ‘Deve Ser Amor‘ for many years, after first hearing it on an album by classical guitarist Gerald Garcia. He is one of a rare breed of musicians whose music is played by jazz, classical and pop musicians. His song ‘Samba Triste’ was a big hit. His innovative approach to guitar is demonstrated in ‘Berimbau’, an imitation of a brazilian folk instrument and his quirky ‘Choro para Metronome’. As well as playing his own compositions, Powell peppered his albums and shows with jazz standards and classical music by composers like Bach and Albinoni. A one-of-a-kind maverick, Powell inspired the great classical guitarist Roland Dyens.

Pat Metheny

In the late 80’s a satellite channel called ‘Super Channel’ became available on Irish cable TV. By the early 90’s it was showing an eclectic programme called ‘Talkin’ Jazz’. It was like MTV for jazz and became regular late night viewing for me. One of the musicians often featured on it was jazz fusion maestro Pat Metheny. His brand of jazz was, to me at least, as unusual as his hair! His band featured synthesizers, Latin percussion, scat singing and his own unique guitar style, which included occasional use of a guitar synthesizer. When I first heard it I couldn’t figure out whether I liked it or thought it was a bit naff. Eventually though Metheny won me over when I borrowed a couple of tapes from the library called ‘Works’ and ‘Letter from Home’. ‘Works’ opens with the gorgeous, hypnotic track ‘Sueno Con Mexico’ which shows Metheny’s melodic gifts at their best. To me this is a perfect example of how a jazz musician can create a great piece of original music without resorting to epic pyrotechnical solos. Metheny can shred with the best of them though, as demonstrated on the kaleidoscopic ‘Have You Heard’.  I picked the track ‘It’s For You’ as it’s one of the best examples I know of how Metheny manages to straddle the line between naff-ness and genius! On first listen I found the combination of folky guitar strums and new-agey synth sounds a bit cheesy, however as the track developed I couldn’t help but be drawn into it. My musical taste-buds tell me I shouldn’t like it, but once the guitar solo kicks in after 4 minutes I can’t resist! Outside of his jazz fusion Metheny has the street-cred of collaborating with musicians as diverse as Brad Meldhau, Joni Mitchell,  Steve Reich and David Bowie, with whom he wrote the classic hit ‘This is Not America. Metheny’s keyboardist Lyle Mays, who was a vital part of Metheny’s sound, sadly passed away earlier this year. RIP.

Paco DeLucia, Larry Coryell, Al DiMeola and John McLaughlin

Another ‘Talkin’ Jazz’ staple was live performances from a guitar trio called ‘The Meeting of the Spirits’ featuring flamenco legend Paco DeLucia alongside jazz axemen Larry Coryell and John McLaughlin. Their performances, from a 1980 concert, showed me a new side of jazz that was a guitar extravaganza. Al DiMeola replaced Coryell in the trio soon after that concert. He is on the trio’s first album ‘Friday Night in San Francisco’. The title track of their 1983 album ‘Passion, Grace and Fire’ is a high point in flamenco/jazz fusion. Ciaran Swift and I spent many’s the hour jamming out ‘Mediterranean Sundance’, trying desperately to match the lightning speed of this extraordinary trio. We both had a preference for Paco DeLucia, whose flamenco roots gave the trio a distinctive Spanish take on jazz. Lately though I’ve come to really enjoy Larry Coryell’s playing and tone. Coryell and DeLucia passed away in recent years.

Tuck Andress

Perhaps the only jazz guitarist to make it onto MTV playing solo guitar, Tuck Andress made a name for himself in the late 80’s/early 90’s in a duo alongside his wife, vocalist Patti Cathcart. They followed Miles Davis’ inclination to turn pop songs of the 80’s into jazz standards, like Cyndi Lauper’s ‘Time After Time’. Andress had solo success with his percussive cover of Michael Jackson’s ‘Man in the Mirror’. No one played guitar like Andress back then, so he featured often in guitar magazines and on TV. Nowadays there are tons of guitarists imitating his percussive style, yet few of them are in his league, still it’s easy to forget how innovative he was when he came out. I got a transcription of his version of ‘Man in the Mirror’ from a magazine back then and had a go at learning it. I can’t remember it anymore, but it was fun to learn.

Hugh Buckley

Not long after the ‘Talkin’ Jazz’ days I left school to go to the famous ‘Rock School’ in Ballyfermot. Though we were all supposed to be there to learn how to be rock stars I ended up learning more about jazz thanks to the guitar teacher there, Hugh Buckley. Hugh is probably Ireland’s finest living jazz guitarist, ever since Louis Stewart passed away. He’s forged a diverse career, in the process playing with legends like Van Morrison and The Dubliners’ Ronnie Drew (He produced Ronnie’s final album, of jazz standards). Hugh gave me my first lessons in jazz and really helped expand my knowledge of harmony and guitar chords. I’ve played with him a few times, most notably in the Cosmopolitan Guitar Quartet and the 2008 Trad Connections Tour, which also included Ciaran Swift. Hugh is such a jazz master I leave the jazz solos to him whenever we play together! I’ve always enjoyed Hugh’s compositions too, especially ‘When Wes Was’, ‘Miro, Miro on the Wall’ and ‘J.W.’, dedicated to the memory of brilliant drummer John Wadham. I used to regularly go to jazz gigs at JJ Smyths bar in Dublin’s Aungier St. Hugh had a residency there in a great band with Wadham, pianist Myles Drennan, bassist Dave Fleming and Hugh’s cousin Richie on sax. JJ’s was where my real jazz education took place. It was going there that helped me gain an understanding of the genre as a listener. I’m still trying to understand how to play it!

Lage Lund

New York is the world’s jazz hotspot. The first time I was going there, in 1998, I asked Hugh for tips of where to find good jazz. He told me to go to ‘Smalls’, an aptly named underground jazz club in Greenwich Village. Back then it wasn’t even a bar, just a music club. You could go to the nearby off-licence and bring in a few bottles instead. I’ll never forget my first night in Smalls where I got to hear some of New York’s best upcoming talent jamming away til the early hours. That year I saw a group of young musicians led by sax player Mark Turner and guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel.  Barely known back then, nowadays they are jazz superstars. On a more recent trip to New York, perhaps 2009 or 2010, I went into Smalls to see the Norwegian guitarist Lage Lund on the recommendation of a jazz-loving friend. Lund is at the forefront of ‘Nordic Jazz’ and he is the most distinctive musician I’ve heard among the younger generation of jazz musicians. When I saw him in Smalls he stood out from the testosterone fuelled musicians who were occupying the stage with him that night. He has a really interesting approach to harmony and an angular soloing style that is always tasteful.

I was sad to see Smalls had changed a lot in just over 10 years though. It now had a bar and, Lund aside, the spirit had changed from co-operative jamming to competitive soloing. I didn’t like the vibe so much there anymore and last time I went along, in 2014, there was an obnoxious door-man and an exorbitant cover charge, so I didn’t bother going in. Back in ’98 it was just $5 and a nice relaxed attitude at the door! Luckily my Irish Memory Orchestra colleague Neil Yates had alerted me to a place just down the road called ‘Fat Cats’ where it was $5 entry and there is a vibe not unlike the vibe Smalls had in the 90’s. If you’re ever in New York looking for some great jazz in a relaxed setting, go to Fat Cats!

These are the main jazz guitarists I’ve listened to over the years, there’s lots more to recommend,  people I should listen to more myself! Here’s a few of them – Joe Pass, Charlie Byrd, George Benson, Jim Hall, Lenny Breau, Charlie Christian, Lee Retinour, Pat Martino, Kenny Burrell, Grant Green, Barney Kessel, Martin Taylor, Freddie Green & Ireland’s Mike Nielsen.

Addendum 1 – Women in jazz guitar

There’s no denying the fact that jazz guitar is a very male dominated domain. Guitar playing in general has always been male-dominated. Whilst there is a growing number of world-class female classical guitarists, jazz guitar seems to remain almost completely male dominated. Things might be different if it weren’t for the tragic death of Emily Remler.  She seems largely forgotten now, however In the ’80’s she was a really emerging jazz talent who recorded with Larry Coryell and bossa nova legend Astrud Gilberto among others. Her style was heavily influenced by Wes Montgomery which she acknowledged in this wonderful quote. “I may look like a nice Jewish girl from New Jersey, but inside I’m a 50-year-old, heavy-set black man with a big thumb, like Wes Montgomery!” Things were really looking up for her by 1985 when she won guitarist of the year in the Down Beat magazine poll. Tragically she died of heart failure in 1990 whilst on tour in Australia, aged just 32. Like many jazz legends before her, she was a victim of a heroin addiction. I only heard of her very recently, so I can’t say she is a guitar hero of mine, but I imagine she could very well be had she lived long enough to build on the international acclaim she was accumulating by the time of her passing.

Prior to Emily Remler, the most notable female jazz guitarist was Mary Ford, duo partner to the legendary Les Paul. Their recordings together in the 1950’s were really groundbreaking for their use of overdubbed guitars and vocals. Whilst Ford mainly played rhythm guitar to her husband’s virtuoso lead, Ford’s place in jazz history is assured as a fine guitarist and wonderful vocalist. A real pioneer in music.

Other female jazz guitarists of note include Mary Osborne, Mimi Fox, Sheryl Bailey, Brazilian singer Joyce and Leni Stern, who I saw on my first visit to New York in 1998.

Addendum 2 – Dave’s jazz forays

I don’t consider myself a jazz musician at all, however I have written some jazzy songs and compositions, which jazz musicians have played with me. Examples include the songs ‘Woodlands’ and ‘Harvest Do’, (as recorded by D.F.F.) and ‘Kilbaha Jazz’, a jazz meets Irish trad piece that is part of ‘The Clare Concerto’. Kilbaha Jazz is dedicated to Louis Stewart and I’m glad I got the chance to tell him I wrote a tune in his honour before he passed away. My album ‘Winter Variations’ is also somewhat in the realms of jazz, seeing as it is an hour-long improvisation around the chord A Major 9!