You can tell the guitar players at Charlie's this week. They're the ones jockeying for front-row tables and then concentrating blissfully on Tal Farlow's every astounding move up, down and across the body of a hand carved, electric-acoustic guitar studded with self-designed gadgets like an octave-divider and a sliding pickup for tone variation.
The 59-year-old Farlow is one of those rare birds in jazz whose reputation has been a burden for him. Farlow's incredible dexterity including rapid fire harmonic runs) and be-bop influenced improvisational skills have led to his being described as the "Art Tatum of guitar." His reputation among both jazz and rock guitarists is astounding, given the brevity and distance of his public career and a paucity of records.
Despite a spate of activity from the late '40s through the mid-50s, the North Carolina-born guitarist has conscientiously avoided the limelight for almost a quarter-century. Farlow has recorded and toured infrequently, preferring to work as a commercial artist -- mostly painting signs on boats and trucks -- in his longtime home, Sea Bright, NJ.
Despite that elusiveness, the soft-spoken Farlow has been tagged as one of the most influential guitarists of his generation, a fact that still seems something of an embarassment to him. "I don't feel famous at all," he insists, "but every once in a while I hear my name mentioned. As you go back, it narrows it down. There weren't that many of us around, at least that got to make records."
Farlow started playing guitar as an 8-year-old. Though he grew up in a hotbed of country music, he fell headlong into the jazz life after hearing Benny Goodman broadcasts featuring Charlie Christian, who pioneered both the amplified guitar and its use as a solo instrument.Farlow learned all of Christian's solos from records, note-for-note. "Most of [his generation of guitarists] did that. Sometimes when we get together now we test each other on those old solos," he says, laughing. "When he [Christian] came on the scene with an amplifier for the guitar, it gave the whole thing a hornlike quality that made it worlds apart from what I had heard in North Carolina." As a result, Farlow didn't make his professional debut until the relatively late age of 22.
After World War II, Farlow joined a small group led by pianist and vibe player Dardanelle. The group once headed for Washington, but ended up in Baltimore, and the Charlie's engagement, which extends through Sunday, is Farlow's first here. His best-known alliance was in New York with vibist Red Norvo and bassist Charles Mingus from 1947 to 1953, during which time they became one of the most influential small jazz combos on either coast. Farlow's group also appeared on the first experimental color telecast.
"Unfortunately, there were no color sets," Farlow smiles, almost approvingly. He remained active on the New York club scene until 1958, then retired to concentrate on sign painting, his boat and a few low-key gigs along the shore. "I was never in hiding," he maintains. Jazz historians claim the often grueling demands of the jazz life take their toll, but Farlow points out that he'd "always known what the business was like. I know what they sometimes call the seamy side, but, you know, that's all right." He laughs again. "It's no big drag."
Farlow, who seems genuinely uncomfortable and embarrassed with his unofficial title of "guitar player's guitar player," has actually become more active in the last year, capping his late start and confusing career with a typically casual late comeback by signing with Concord, a small independent jazz label that's a guitar haven for such luminaries as Jim Hall, Kenny Burrell, Barney Kessell and others. He has released three albums, and with typical reticence, confessed he had yet to hear the album that came out three weeks ago reuniting him with Norvo. New Jersey Public Television has completed a 90-minute documentary on Farlow, for which he drew all the titles.
Much of Farlow's time now is taken up with teaching, an outgrowth of young guitarists seeking him out in See Bright. "There's so many of them now," he muses, "and they're good. I have students who do things I can't even approach; they know scales and modes. I just try to show them how I arrive at playing a certain thing at a certain point. It's hard to teach improvising. If they play what I play or what I say, they're not improvising. You know, I have to teach what I can, because I never studied." He pauses for a moment, reflecting on an irony. "I could never teach beginners. I'd probably steer them wrong."