Over the past 25 years, the electric guitar has become irreversibly linked to rock 'n' roll. Jazz musicians who play the instrument have faced constant economic and musical pressure to move towards rock 'n' roll and related forms.
The economic pressures are obvious enough. George Benson has said he stopped making jazz albums because record buyers "left them on the shelf," and his recent albums of mediocre soul crooning have gone platinum while his older, brilliant instrumental albums are in bargain bins.
The musical pressure also is there. The most innovative and influential electric guitarists of the past two decades -- Jimi Hendrix, Duane Allman, Robbie Robertson, J. J. Cale, B. B. King, Buddy Guy -- have almost all played rock 'n' roll or electric blues.
There have been great electric jazz guitarists, most notably Charlie Christian and Wes Montgomery. But unlike the piano, the drums, the saxophone or trumpet, the guitar has had its most recent pioneers outside of jazz. And several recent records reveal that there are valuable lessons to be learned from electric-blues rock guitar.
Larry Coryell adopted blues and rock styles into his playing earlier and more successfully than other jazz guitarists. His recordings with the Gary Burton Quartet in the late '60s remain splendid models for incorporating the bent strings, sliding notes and choppy chords of blues-rock into jazz. Coryell used the new techniques to broaden his jazz style, not to replace it.
Recently, Coryell has gained approval from two of jazz's biggest giants. His electric guitar was one of the major voices on two of Charles Mingus' last three studio albums; and Coryell is listed as "special guest" on Sonny Rollins' "Don't Ask" (Milestone M9090), probably the tenor saxophonist's best fusion album. Of the two duets between Rollins and Coryell, "The File" is disappointing. Rollins' strong single-note soloing overwhelms Coryell's accoustic 12-string chording. But the old standard, "My Ideal," is dazzling. Coryell plays fast gypsy-swing solos that stem from his recent fascination with Django Reinhardt.
The most spectacular encounters occur on two tunes with an electric band, where the guitarist displays what he's learned from rock 'n' roll. On "Don't Ask," Coryell reels off single notes that blur into a chain in the bravura jazz style. But he saves this style from the emotional aridity of pure technique by using voice-like rock inflections as the dramatic payoffs for the jazz build-ups.
In Coryell's other recent recordings, he leads an acoustic guitar/trio on "Tributaries" (Artista Novus AN 3017). The other guitarists are John Scofield and Joe Beck. Scofield is a fusion player who has recorded with Billy Cobham but also Mingus. Beck played in the earliest Charles Lloyd Quartet and supplies the central electric guitar riff on the title track of Miles Davis' "Circle in the Round."
Thus, "Tributaries" is a series of solo, duo and trio performances on acoustic guitar by players who built their reputation on electric instruments. The result is a tour de force of technique. All three players mix in plenty of American folk guitar tricks -- fingerpicking arpeggios, strolling bass lines and sliding blue notes -- with the usual fast runs and deep harmonies of jazz. But for non-guitarists, the record is an example of the basic flaw of too many jazz guitar efforts: Amid all the spectacular technique, there is little dramatic personality to grap onto. Unlike "Don't Ask," there are no sharply defined characters interacting. There are only players waiting for a solo to show off their skills.
Scofield's own album, "Who's Who" (Artista Novus AN 3018) also suffers from technique without personality. The problem is compounded on four of the six tunes (all by Scofield). A quartet of session musicians plays the anonymous electric beat or "funkzak" that ruins so many fusion albums. The subordinated backing rules out any real musical interaction and leaves Scofield to meander aimlessly on his own.
One of the highlights of Joni Mitchell's concert at the Merriweather Post Pavilion last August was the guitar work of Pat Metheny. Metheny seemed to instinctively echo the fragile, lilting quality of Mitchell's voice with his economical, lyrical phrases between her lines. Though Metheny played with the light touch and harmonic construction of jazz, he also employed the voice-like tones and hypnotic riffs of rock 'n' roll.
These qualities are all present on Metheny's own album, "American Garage" (ECM-1-1155). All five selections feature Metheny's quartet of several years and are co-written by Metheny and keyboardist Lyle Mays (who also played on Mitchell's tour). Each number is built around a strong guitar riff or keyboard phrase just as an Allman Brothers or Steely Dan tune would be.
"[Cross the] Heartland" pits a spare, rising-and-falling Metheny phrase against a dense, repeating electric keyboard riff. "Airstream" is built around a Mays melody strongly reminiscent of Joe Zawinul in his acoustic, pre-Weather Report days. "The Search" matches Metheny playing a Byrds-like 12-string arpeggio with Mays playing a Weather-Report-like church organ. "American Garage" is almost a dance tune with its strong unison passages.
Except for the 13 minute "The Epic," each number develops a strong momentum that carries the listener's interest through the jazz variations. This is no rock 'n' roll album, for Metheny's graceful triplets and Mays' modulated chords provide a subtlety that most rock foregoes for other goals. Yet the accessibility and forward thrust make many jazz sessions seem like academic exercises by comparison.