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JAZZ SPOTLIGHT

Guitarists are all over the plectrum spectrum

June 22, 2003|Don Heckman | Special to The Times

Rock 'n' roll brought the electric guitar into the center of the pop music spotlight, where it has remained for nearly half a century. The instrument's impact on jazz, however, has not been nearly so pervasive. But one could nonetheless make a case that in the post-bop decades since the '70s the guitar has staked out a position shoulder to shoulder with the horns that have dominated the art since its beginnings.

A good part of its appeal resides in its sheer versatility. From pure acoustic sounds to the grab bag of electric guitar timbres to the no-holds-barred possibilities of synthesizer triggering, the instrument can reach from close-up intimacy to orchestral bombast. Here's a look at some new albums reaching across that stretch of musical territory:

John Scofield

"Up All Night" (Verve)

*** 1/2

Given the guitar's central role in rock, the instrument's jazz players may be a bit more aggressive than others in seeking crossover connections. And Scofield has been more successful at it than most. Following the success of his last effort in this genre, "uberjam," he here comes up with an even broader range of selections. The heavy groove tracks will undoubtedly please his pop-oriented fans. But there are a few more creatively intriguing tracks as well, especially the dark "Born in Troubled Times," the surprisingly languorous "Listening" and a lighthearted romp through the 1971 hit by the Dramatics, "Whatcha See Is Whatcha Get."

Kenny Burrell

"Blue Muse" (Concord)

***

Burrell may have made 95 albums before "Blue Muse," but his creative spirit remains undiminished. Despite the title, this is not a collection of blues as such but rather a set of tunes, including four originals, invested with subtle blues sensitivity. Burrell further enhances the set with four rare vocals, including a loving ballad, "Then I Met You," thoughtful versions of "Solitude" and " 'Round Midnight," and a brightly swinging vocal rendering of Kenny Dorham's "Blue Bossa" retitled "It's No Time to Be Blue." His guitar playing, as always, is angular and to the point (especially so in a pensive duet with pianist Tom Ranier on Miles Davis' "Blue In Green"), combining engaging emotional warmth with a smoothly propulsive rhythmic undercurrent. Burrell opens a week's run at Catalina Bar & Grill on July 8.

Pat Metheny

"One Quiet Night" (Warner Bros.)

***

Metheny takes a break from his intensely busy work with the Metheny Band. Using a baritone guitar tuned to allow the bottom strings to be lowered, he offers a selection of mostly meditative numbers, occasionally drifting into the arena of background music. That would be disastrous for most musicians, but not Metheny, who manages to invest his new age-like set with enough gripping passages to prevent one's attention from drifting too far into other directions. Among the better moments: versions of Keith Jarrett's "My Song," Gerry & the Pacemakers' "Ferry Cross the Mersey," and "Don't Know Why" from Norah Jones' debut album.

Doug Wamble

"Country Libations" (Marsalis Music)

***

Fusion? Crossover? This guy eludes even those categories. Wamble seems to have absorbed everything from Robert Johnson to Ornette Coleman and integrated them in highly personal fashion into music that is as fascinating as it is idiosyncratic. Some of the selections, especially those with Wamble's vocals, are particularly compelling as fundamental roots blues. A piece such as "Dim Tangy Tennessee Twang," on the other hand, uses a country swing groove as the takeoff point for startlingly free improvising. Another shift of gears leads to the easygoing lyricism of the Johnny Mercer-like "The Sweet Magnolia Tree." The commercial prospects of "Country Libations" may be negatively affected by its broad eclecticism, but it is an impressive introduction to a guitarists-singer-composer with a bright future.

Garage a Trois

"Emphasizer" (Artemis)

** 1/2

Charlie Hunter was one of the prime movers of contemporary groove jazz, and his eight-string guitar is one of the important voices in this quartet, which also includes vibist Mike Dillon, saxophonist Skerik and drummer Stanton Moore. The music ranges widely, from the groove funk of tunes such as "A-Frame" and the lounge Latin of "Plena for My Grundle" to an off-center reading of Thelonious Monk's "We See." But despite the determined stylistic diversity, Hunter is heard to much better effect with his own current group on his latest album, "Right Now Move."

Jing Chi

"Live!" (Tone Center)

** 1/2

Power fusion from two original Yellowjackets -- guitarist Robben Ford and bassist Jimmy Haslip -- with drummer Vinnie Colaiuta. Ford has always drifted freely across the territories of jazz, fusion and the blues. This time out, he adds some slipping and sliding rock sounds. With one interesting exception -- the provocative "What Goes Around," written by guest pianist Otmaro Ruiz -- the repetitious groove rhythms won't please fans of straight-ahead jazz. But Jing Chi succeeds well in its chosen task: to bring some of the swing of jazz to a collection of tunes designed to please a pop-oriented audience.

Albums are rated on a scale of one star (poor), two stars (fair), three stars (good) and four stars (excellent). The albums are already released unless otherwise noted.

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