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A Gathering of Guitar Slingers

In the right hands, a guitar is like a piano in that its combined harmonic and melodic possibilities can render a sound that is larger than life. From the 12-string to the kind of hybrid models that give players like Charlie Hunter the ability to play bass lines in tandem with their chords and lead lines, the guitar continues to be one of the most versatile instruments in jazz, a fact to be gleaned by merely sampling our modest survey of some new releases by a handful of string artists.

As hinted at previously, Charlie Hunter has developed his own signature voice via the use of an 8-string guitar and the addition of electronics that often have him emulating a Hammond B3. With an already sizable and likable Blue Note catalog under his belt, Hunter’s latest project is Songs From the Analog Playground (Blue Note 33550). His current quartet features tenor saxophonist John Ellis, drummer Stephen Chopek, and percussionist Chris Lovejoy. Nothing all that revelatory really occurs, as Hunter continues to mine the funky backbeat grooves that mark his best work, yet Ellis kicks in with some great wails on more than one occasion. Even less interesting are the eight cuts that feature vocals from the likes of Mos Def, Theryl De’Clouet, Norah Jones, and Kurt Elling (two tunes apiece). Overall, it’s a mixed bag that will provide some jollies to the hardcore fans, but will probably be too much of the same for those who’ve already sampled Hunter at length.

Another modern guitarist from the Blue Note stable, Rodney Jones goes for an agreeable mix of funkified grooves on Soul Manifesto (Blue Note 30499). Like with Hunter, you aren’t going to find anything here that hasn’t already been done (hey, Lou Donaldson had things cookin’ on Alligator Boogaloo way back in the late ‘60s), but that doesn’t mean you can’t dance while marveling at Jones’ flavorsome licks. It’s a brute force band that’s been assembled too, with organist Dr. Lonnie Smith, saxophonists Maceo Parker and Arthur Blythe, and drummer Idris Muhammad on board. Tunes with names like "One Turnip Green" and "Soupbone" should point you in the right direction. Chitlins anyone?

Decidedly more mainstream, Roni Ben-Hur is a self-assured artist in the tradition of Jim Hall and Tal Farlow who first arrived in New York to study with Barry Harris from his native Tel Aviv in 1985. Anna's Dance (Reservoir 167) is Ben-Hur’s debut set for Reservoir and among the few things he has committed to tape. The imposing cast brought together includes pianist Harris, bassist Walter Booker, drummer Leroy Williams, and saxophonist Charles Davis. On seven cuts, including two Barry Harris originals, Ben-Hur and his cohorts speak in conversational tones only breaking the medium tempo groove on a brisk "Minor Fable." Davis, who is largely remembered when he’s remembered at all as a husky baritone saxophonist, transmits that brusque tone to the tenor horn and his work here alone is worth the price of admission.

We head south of the border for the latest from one of the world’s leading guitarists in the Latin music arena, Carlos Barbosa-Lima. A collection of 20 performances ranging from solo pieces to small group cuts, Mambo No.5 (Khaeon 200103) is a strong showcase for the acoustic guitarist as he interprets standards by Ernesto Lecuona, Ary Barroso, Rafael Hernandez, and many more. Eddie Gomez is on bass for a few tracks as is the up-and-coming drum wizard Dafnis Prieto. Sunny and warm, these smart performances are sure to please those with a taste for world music or even those who occasionally dip into the new age pool.

Coming out of an era blessed with such contemporary innovators as Wes Montgomery, Kenny Burrell, and Grant Green, guitarist George Benson contributed a novel approach that is only slightly paled by his commercial excesses of the past 20 years. It was with producer John Hammond and Columbia Records that Benson would first debut, producing two classics that remain favorites among scores of present day practitioners. It's Uptown With the George Benson Quartet (Columbia/Legacy 66052) comes from 1966 and features organist Dr. Lonnie Smith, baritone saxophonist Ronnie Cuber, and drummer Jimmy Lovelace. On 16 swinging titles, Benson and crew cook their way through a mix of originals and standards and even an early vocal from George on "Summertime." Newly remastered, this latest edition also includes five bonus tracks, two of them coming from Lonnie Smith’s Columbia album of the same era, FINGER LICKIN’ GOOD (come on guys, why don’t you just reissue that album in it’s entirety?).

As good a debut as It's Uptown was, things really seem to coalesce on The George Benson Cookbook (Columbia/Legacy 66054). Maybe it’s because the tunes seem to be more substantial or possibly that trombonist Bennie Green adds a swing era joie de vive on a few cuts that is irresistible. "The Cooker" and "The Borgia Stick" are especially choice examples of Benson at his best and since you can’t have too much of a good thing this disc is rounded out by four bonus tracks, with "Let Them Talk" containing a never before heard Benson vocal.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Various Artists
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