Guitarist Grant Green Jr’s new album is “Thank You Mr Bacharach” (ZMI Records). Feature by Denny Ilett.
Regardless of the harmonic developments in jazz that began in the early 1940’s and continue to this day, musicians have always strived to maintain a close relationship to melody; whether their own or those of other writers. Melodic-based improvisation, with its emphasis on rhythmic variety, and its demand that the performer reach further within themselves in order to deliver it create challenges for musicians that can often be relieved by a reliance on harmonic devices. In simple terms, it’s a lot harder to do than it sounds!
Wynton Marsalis said that Louis Armstrong’s solo’s weren’t particularly difficult to understand in musical terms but were virtually impossible to replicate due to their emotional intent alongside their subtle rhythmic variations which make them incredibly problematic to transcribe and notate. Without the modern toolbox of harmonic devices to exploit a musician is left only with the melodic line, their ability to tweak a song rhythmically and, hopefully, a level of emotional openness to connect their statement with the listener. Few have truly succeeded. The aforementioned Armstrong, altoist Johnny Hodges and guitarist Grant Green (1935-1979) are three that immediately spring to mind.
Green’s son, Grant Green Jr (b.1955), has recently released an album Thank You Mr. Bacharach on ZMI Records that, despite the stylistic differences, illustrates the true beauty of melody-driven jazz in the same way that Coltrane’s Ballads album did way back in 1963.
Green Jr, like his father, is a fine guitarist. Combined with the timeless melodies of Burt Bacharach, he has produced an album that places the pursuit of melodic truth above that of jazz ‘chops’. Not to suggest that ‘chops’ are missing or lacking; the album is laden with great solos but, and here is the magic, they never disrespect the song and are present only to serve it!
Bacharach’s music has long been interpreted by jazz musicians offering, as it does, a level of melodic attractiveness that places his songs firmly in the lineage of those that compiled the Great American Songbook. Six of his most enduring tunes are present here with The Look Of Love, Anyone Who Had A Heart, Walk On By, Here I Go Again, Wives And Lovers and I’ll Never Fall In Love Again making up the programme of the album.
Green approaches each with tenderness as though handling a delicate object. His father, despite never wanting young Grant to become a musician, would approve – as no doubt would Mr Bacharach himself. Respect for the melody radiates from each and every track.
One is reminded often of those late 1960’s Wes Montgomery albums where the master improvisor proved what a master melodist he was. Those records, regularly dismissed at the time as overly commercial, are finally being reassessed and about time too. Yes, they don’t offer the extended solo space of his earlier works but they more than make up for that with their sheer warmth alongside Wes’ extraordinary ability to play a tune and really mean it!
Green Jr does the same whilst also offering subtle twists in groove and approach to decorate these iconic pop melodies. It’s always going to be great jazz if it has the right rhythmic elements, enhancing the melodic line. According to Dizzy Gillespie, rhythmic impulse should be the primary concern. Diz added notes to the rhythms he felt; not the other way round. Green Jr, along with his stellar team of musicians stick to Dizzy’s philosophy throughout the record whether they were aware of it or not. It provides the album with solid grounding like a strong glue holding everything together.
It’s going to be awfully hard for Grant Green Jr to avoid comparisons to his legendary father especially as, at times, he sounds very much like him! But, why shouldn’t he display that influence? After all, thousands of unrelated jazz guitarists have taken from Grant Green Sr, he was that great! He was an artist that presented his music to people as though it were a personal gift and that is a rare gift in itself. George Benson once said that it was important to him to make his audience feel that he was playing for them, not for himself. Green Sr also did that, and Green Jr follows the exact same path.
Finally released in July this year, Thank You Mr. Bacharach is another of those projects delayed by the Covid pandemic. Recording commenced back in 2019 before being stopped in its tracks for the next two years. What was originally intended as an independent release was eventually signed to ZMI Records when producers Martin Kearns and Cabral Simmons played some tracks to ZMI’s Chad Hagan. It has been worth the wait.
So many jazz musicians these days would be afraid to make an album like this where the song is given precedence and the musicians play to serve and honour it. For that, Grant Green Jr and his group deserve recognition and praise. Thank you Mr Bacharach and Thank you too, Mr Grant Green Jr.
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