He turns 89 today, but guitarist Les Paul still presides over one of the brightest, hippest and most vigorous ongoing shows in youth-obsessed Manhattan.
Every Monday night, Paul draws a widely diverse audience to a jazz club called Iridium, located in a commodious basement a few blocks up Broadway from Times Square. The two shows, inevitably sold out, feature Paul and a tight, urgently assertive band of young musicians, most of whom were born at least a half-century after he was.
Paul is likely best known for the electric guitar that bears his name -- the Gibson Les Paul, a model first issued in 1952 and later championed by Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Keith Richards. Listeners of a certain age may recall the many hit records Paul made with his late wife, Mary Ford. More recently he has won a cult following among experimental musicians who acknowledge his pioneering work with overdubbing and consider him a wild, true visionary in the seemingly anarchic but in fact fiercely controlled manner of Spike Jones.
But this may just be Paul's finest moment. His first set on Monday included not only a smattering of his own hits ("Brazil" and "Tennessee Waltz" were standouts) but versions of other people's classics ("I'm Getting Sentimental Over You," "All of Me" and "Over the Rainbow"), reconstituted and made new by Paul's gravelly voice and the flinty twang of his guitar.
He is not a virtuoso. Far from it; Paul has suffered from arthritis for decades; his right hand has been bluntly but accurately described as a "stiff claw," and he retains mobility in only a couple of the fingers on his left hand. Playing is obviously difficult for him. And yet Paul has turned his physical limitations into a musical asset: Every note he plays seems pure, necessary, even inevitable, as if he has considered every possibility available to him and come up with exactly the right one. The results are very beautiful indeed -- a soulful outpouring of melody, sifted through the wisdom of a long and active life. It is impossible to imagine him playing a thoughtless or unmusical phrase.
In this regard, he reminds me of the late pianist Mieczyslaw Horszowski, who was still playing raptly and gently at Carnegie Hall when he was in his late nineties. By that time, Horszowski's repertory consisted mostly of technically unchallenging but deeply introspective works by romantic-era composers. His frailties were obvious -- it took him an agonizingly long time to walk from the wings to the keyboard, and there were times when it seemed he wouldn't make it. But once he sat down and started to play, the years fell away. I remember those late Horszowski concerts as though they were dreams; Monday night's show had many of the same qualities.
"It ain't no fun being 89, I'll tell you," Paul said during one break. Still, when he was served a little birthday cake toward the end of the show, replete with a single candle, he beamed. "You don't know how wonderful it is to be here -- on Earth!" he said. I suspect a lot of us were thinking the same thing right about then.