Nov 9, 2014
Shall we tick off the names of the great jazz guitarists who plied their art before the advent of the rock era? The names always begin with Charlie Christian, Django Reinhardt and Freddie Green. Then we move to Kenny Burrell, Herb Ellis, Barney Kessel, Jimmy Raney - and don't forget about Tal Farlow.
Farlow helped pioneer a be-bop approach to the guitar, playing small clusters of notes, often in rapid succession. His improvisations were highly angular, rather than merely playing the changes of shifting chords. He debuted in1943, and then cut his teeth in bands led by Marjorie Hyams, and especially vibes player Red Norvo.. His huge hands, which earned him the nickname "Octopus", and his keen sense of time made him one of the top guitarists of the era. After six months with Artie Shaw's Gramercy Five in 1953, Farlow put together his own group, which for a time included pianist Eddie Costa, and for five years they were at the top of their craft. Check out The Swinging Guitar of Tal Farlow on Verve Records to listen and learn. Truly, it never got better than this.
In 1958, Farlow retired from full-time performing and worked with the Gibson guitar company (producing the “Tal Farlow model” in 1962), local groups and other pursuits. It wasn’t until the late Seventies that Tal would return to full-time jazz performance and recording, mostly with Concord Records. He died in 1998 at the age of 77 of esophageal cancer.
Since his death, Tal’s legacy has been kept alive by guitar players across the world. The latest tribute to the great man will come with the publication of Tal Farlow – A Life in Jazz Guitar, by Jean-Luc Katchoura and Muchele Hyk-Farlow (Tal’s widow). Full of previously unpublished photos from the guitarist’s private collection, the illustrated biography should do much to reestablish Farlow as a true six-string legend.
To celebrate the release, a number of top guitarists will come together on November 13th to honor Tal Farlow at New York’s Zinc Bar (82 West 3rd Street). Playing that night will be five of today’s finest stylists – Gene Bertoncini, Vic Juris, Ron Affif, Paul Bollenback and Jack Wilkins.
Wilkins, who celebrated his 70th birthday this past summer, knew Farlow, and speaks warmly about his old friend in Podcast 454. A veteran of bands and session work with the likes of Bob Brookmeyer, Stanley Turrentine, Jimmy Heath, Ray Charles, and Tony Bennett, Wilkins’ versatile playing is still in fine shape. Our conversation includes his take on what made Tal great, how the various electronic devices guitarists can use have changed - or not changed - their approach, and what he tells his students about being a musician. Musical selections from Tal Farlow include “Fascinating Rhythm”, “Skylark (with the Red Norvo) and “Autumn in New York”, and Jack Wilkins tunes include “Awakened Sound” and “No Smokin’” from his trio album Bluesin’, backed by Steve Wood on organ and Tony Dawson on drums.