A mere handful of jazz guitarists set the pace in the '40s and '50s -- Charlie Christian, Django Reinhardt, Barney Kessel, Wes Montgomery, a few others. In the heat of the '60s, when avant-garde musicians turned their backs on the niceties of conventional harmony, rhythm and melody, and later when the fusion of rock and jazz idioms grew increasingly popular, guitar styles based on mainstream jazz approaches appeared to some hopelessly passe'.
More and more, that's changing. Even though the new albums by John Scofield and Peter Sprague are hardly likely to appeal to the same audience -- Scofield's album is a logical extension of his recent work with Miles Davis, while Sprague's blends Bach and Cole Porter -- they do suggest that many contemporary guitarists are more willing to honor their musical influences than they once were. Certainly the most conspicuous example of this is Larry Coryell's album "Comin' Home" (Muse 5303), an unabashed tribute to the kind of jazz played by Montgomery in his prime.
If you count yourself among Coryell's fusion fans, the first thing you're likely to notice on this album is the warm, plump guitar tone. Coryell plays a Gibson Super 400, an electric instrument he put away a dozen years ago. With its full and exceptionally attractive tone, the guitar instantly evokes memories of Montgomery and some of his contemporaries.
That image is further reinforced by the way Coryell effortlessly assimilates the styles of these jazz masters on this album. Just as his chordal essays and octave runs are highly reminiscent of Montgomery, his blues phrasing recalls Kenny Burrell. And though it stretches from Charlie Parker's bop anthem, "Confirmation," to Jimmy Webb's moody "Glorielle," the material suggests the kind of carefully considered repertoire Montgomery might have chosen before pop stardom beckoned.
Not surprisingly, all the numbers were recorded on the first or second take, just as they would have been 30 years ago. Perfection wasn't the goal; it's the feeling that counts and the spirit guiding these performances more than compensates for the occasional flaw. It's clear, too, that the rhythm section -- the late pianist Albert Dailey, bassist George Mraz and drummer Billy Hart -- and Coryell's wife, Julie, who lends her poignant voice to the closing ballad, shared the guitarist's enthusiasm for this project. The result is one of Coryell's most enjoyable albums in years.
Scofield's "Electric Outlet" (Gramavision GR 8405) is dedicated to Miles Davis, among others, but it is clearly the electric Miles that inspires him. Played back-to-back with any number of recent Davis recordings, the tunes on "Electric Outlet" would sound right at home; Scofield, like Davis, enjoys setting up a rhythmic groove and then responding to it, often with fragmentary melodies.
On "Electric Outlet," the combination of drums, bass and synthesizers produces the requisite churning backdrop on most of the tracks, but the ensemble's lead voices -- Scofield's fleet single-string runs, David Sanborn's oddly muted alto saxophone and Ray Anderson's occasionally slurred trombone -- are seldom very expressive. Riffs are constantly being introduced, but little, if anything, comes of them.
"King for a Day," however, is an exception. Presumably a tribute to B.B. King, the piece provides Scofield with an all-too-brief chance to display his considerable strengths as a blues guitarist -- in short, to show a little emotion. In that sense, "King for a Day" fleetingly recalls the way Davis emphasized the grassroots appeal of the blues on his album "Star People" a few years ago. Perhaps Scofield should try reaching into the past for inspiration more often.
By contrast, Peter Sprague's "Musica Del Mar" (Concord Jazz CJ 237) is as old-fashioned a collection of mainstream jazz tunes as you could reasonably expect to come from a 30-year-old guitarist. Sprague has studied both classical music and jazz (the latter under Pat Metheny), but his boppish phrasing suggest more than a passing acquaintance with a number of saxophonists and like-minded guitarists of the '50s.
What immediately sets Sprague apart from much of the competition isn't solely his technique, as impressive as it is. Rather, it's his gift for highlighting the melody of each piece. Sometimes he achieves this through graceful and often quite ingenious guitar work, as on the Latin-flavored "My Folks' Home" or Cole Porter's "Just One of Those Things"; other times he achieves much the same result with a felicitous arrangement, as on "I Hear a Rhapsody" or "Chick's Tune." With roots in the past, he's a young musician who bears watching in the future.