Playing solo jazz guitar is a field not for the weak of stomach or shy of fingers. Pianists, equipped with 88 separate keys and 10 fingers assigned to 10 separate notes, have it all over guitarists when it comes to juggling melody, rhythm and harmony.
Few jazz guitarists have even ventured into going it alone. The king of that very small domain is undeniably Joe Pass, whose legendary self-reliance over the nearly two decades of playing solo has generated one of the most recognizable sounds in jazz.
You can hear Pass, sans sidemen, at Wheeler Hot Springs this Sunday. For a good earful of what he does for a living, check out the latest solo album by Pass, in his prime at 63. "Virtuoso Live!" on Pablo, recorded at Vine Street Bar & Grill last year, is more of the well-rounded musicality we've come to expect.
Another new album, "Finally" (on Emarcy), finds Pass again in close quarters, in a duet concert with bassist Red Mitchell.
Pass plunges into the pool of jazz standards with a seemingly effortless, gravity-defying virtuosity. Occasionally, he takes on a more contemporary tune, such as the jazz-charged version of "Just the Way You Are" on the new solo album.
Mostly, though, Pass' gift is for re-examining and re-harmonizing classic chestnuts. For instance, here he slows "Mack the Knife" down to a graceful snail's pace, transforming it into a reflective midnight stroll instead of its usual swagger.
Born in New Jersey in 1929, Joseph Anthony Passalaqua moved to New York in the '40s and traveled to various spots before landing in Los Angeles in the '60s. But it wasn't until the early '70s that Pass' solo career began to spiral, with the encouragement of Norman Granz, a producer and promoter starting up the Pablo label.
Since then, the late-blooming Pass has won Grammy awards, recorded numerous albums, and has generally secured his spot in the highest echelon of living jazz guitarists.
At present, Pass lives in Chatsworth but spends a lot of time in Hamburg, Germany, where his wife lives and his 24-year-old son goes to school. As part of the gig, he constantly tours the globe, always traveling light.
With Pass, it's have guitar, small amplifier and a headful of ideas, will travel.
How did you get started doing solo guitar concerts?
That was Norman Granz's idea. I was playing with (pianist) Oscar (Peterson) and he sent me out on some duo concerts, piano and guitar only. Oscar would play first.
Then Norman would say, 'Well, you have to go out and play solo.' I said 'I can't play solo. I can play a ballad or two or five, but I can't play more than that.' He said, 'Piano players do it. Segovia does it.' I said 'yeah, but that's classical.' He said 'You belong to the union? You're a musician, aren't you? Then go out and play.'
So he just pushed me out there and I did it by the seat of my pants. It was very difficult, and sometimes it still is, depending on the venue.
You didn't really have much of a precedent. Very few jazz guitarists have braved the solo setting.
No. Guys made solo records and there are a few solo guitar pieces, but nobody went out and played an hour. I did that and I'll tell you, I wouldn't recommend it (laughs).
Don't try this at home, eh?
No, no--at home, you can do anything. But when you get on the stage, that's a different story.
Oh, so you mean 'don't try this on stage?'
At home, you sound marvelous and you say 'boy, I'm going to go out there and do something.' As soon as you play that first note out there, you don't know what you're doing. It's a whole different feeling and ambience. That's part of it.
Your name is synonymous with jazz guitar, but this recent chapter of your career began when you linked up with Norman Granz, didn't it?
I've always played jazz, ever since I was 14. I played with small groups and was always improvising. I always played melodies and took the place of a sax or trumpet player. And then I made eight to 10 records for World Pacific in the '60s.
But I spent a lot of my years just bummin' around--New Orleans, Chicago, New York. Just hanging out in the cracks of society, jamming in clubs. I never pursued a career. I never thought about the notion that I could make money with this or make a living.
Finally, when I got to be about 30 years old, after I went through some bad times, I got to thinking 'wait a minute. People are making a living doing this. I have a little reputation amongst guitarists.'
I came to L.A. and found out that a lot of guys were making a lot of money playing the guitar, and a lot of them couldn't play. So I fell into that life.
I got married and had kids, and fell into doing studio and TV work. But I always played jazz in the clubs, everytime I could. I didn't want to travel around the country with a group. I was happy enough to earn a little living here and just lay around and watch my kids grow up.
Then I linked up with Norman Granz in 1970, and I've been doing that ever since.
Are you always on the lookout for new tunes to add to your repertoire?