Mention “the ’60s,” and the sounds that invariably spring to mind (along with images of the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights movement, and the moon landing) are psychedelia and the British Invasion – maybe surf music, and Motown. But another institution essential to the soundtrack of that decade was the “Guitar Album” – wherein a studio jazzbeaux attempted, with varying degrees of success, to keep up with times and appeal to “the kids.” These ubiquitous platters ran the gamut from Joe Pass’ stab at the Rolling Stones songbook to Chet Atkins LPs that were more pop than country, from Al Caiola’s Tuff Guitar (and its followup, Tuff Guitar English Style) to the countless theme albums by producer Snuff Garrett’s 50 Guitars (50 Guitars Go Country, 50 Guitars Go Italiano, 50 Guitars Go South of the Border, 50 Guitars Go to Hell – nearly all of them featuring Tommy Tedesco).
And then there was Howard Roberts.
Having already cemented his jazz credentials with an amazingly ambitious solo debut, 1957’s Mr. Roberts Plays Guitar, and logging a telephone book’s worth of sessions in the L.A. studio mill, Roberts moved to Capitol Records in ’63 and quickly proved that 1.) a jazzer could remain contemporary without dumbing down or marching hopelessly out of step, and 2.) in the right hands, hip could be commercial and vice versa.
His first two Capitol outtings, This Is Howard Roberts – Color Him Funky and H.R. Is a Dirty Guitar Player (both recorded in ’63), are arguably his best from this period, and have been reissued as a double set, Dirty ‘N’ Funky, on Guitarchives. But Howard continued to crank out marvelously listenable gems at an astounding clip, and Euphoria Jazz (the shades-and-beret wing of the ’60s saviours at Sundazed) has released three single-CD two-fers of Roberts albums from the mid ’60s – a sumptuous spread for guitar lovers (thank God for independent labels – finally bringing to CD what Capitol didn’t see fit to reissue from its own vaults).
Usually rounded out by drums, bass, and organ, Roberts’ quartet is augmented by a seven-piece brass section and additional percussion on Something’s Cookin’ (’65). Howard and his partner-in-swing, Jack Marshall, provide the arrangements, along with Shorty Rogers, and they’re obviously having a blast with the material. Toots Thielmans’ “Bluesette” (usually a waltz) becomes an uptempo 4/4 bossa nova, and H.R. throws a Chuck Berry shuffle rhythm into his solo on “A Hard Day’s Night” before executing some extremely angular, sophisticated single-note lines – and dig the lightning-quick cadenza at the very end. On Goodies (also ’65, rounding out the first CD in the series), “Fly Me to the Moon” virtually defines swing, and then Roberts ups his own ante with “Summer Wind” – kicking up plenty of dust on the solo, a la Barney Kessel. The highlight, though, is “Chim Chim Cher-ee” (yes, the Mary Poppins tune), which illustrates just how wide a stylistic spectrum he can filter through his guitar – with ease.
With 11 or 12 songs per album (making a couple dozen neatly fit onto a CD), Roberts managed to pack a tremendous amount of punch into each, usually in under three minutes. This means less expansive improvisation, of course, but the get in/get out m.o. is actually quite refreshing (you’ll never find yourself midway through the ninth solo chorus wondering, “What song am I listening to?”), and H.R.’s red-light acumen no doubt served him well. Another trait that is especially welcome is Howard’s best-of-all-worlds tone, which is round and bright by jazz standards – closer to, say, early-’60s Chet Atkins than present-day Jim Hall or Kenny Burrell.
Whatever’s Fair and All-Time Great Instrumental Hits (both from ’66) comprise a second CD, and on the former the “Howard Roberts Quartet” is actually a quintet, with Bill Pittman on rhythm guitar throughout. On a tempo-shifting “Manha de Carnaval,” Roberts charges into his solo like a racehorse bursting out of the gate, and on the title track he displays a command of the blues on a par with Grant Green. In fact, although his name doesn’t seem to garner the same cachet with today’s aficianados, Roberts’ work (particularly in the organ/guitar vein) is more consistent and inventive than Green’s (of whom I’m also a big fan). The repertoire on Instrumental Hits leans more toward standards (not a Beatles song in the lot), although that doesn’t stop the guitarist from transforming Benny Goodman’s “Soft Winds” into a greasy funk workout – another area in which he could go toe to toe with Green, Burrell or anyone. The price-of-admission keeper here, though, is “Autumn Leaves;” in fact, just the dazzling, unaccompanied 30-second intro. Also, check out the uptempo arrangement of (believe it or not) “Theme From ‘A Summer Place.'”
The third (but hopefully not final) CD in the series couples Jaunty-Jolly with Guilty, both from ’67 (the fact he was churning out two LPs per year at such a high level is mind-boggling!). Inevitably, some of these instrumental adaptations of period hits sound a bit dated today, such as Jolly‘s “So Nice (Summer Samba),” which would suit a frug sequence on Laugh In. But, again, Howard’s solo overcomes the corny surroundings. And on “A Man and a Woman,” the syrupy movie theme is altered into a cookin’ launch pad for some nice interplay between H.R. and organist Dave Grusin. Guilty‘s version of “Ode to Billy Joe” is appropriately funky – it wouldn’t sound out of place in Muscle Shoals – while Jobim’s “Triste,” with vocal accompaniment by Claudio Miranda, is as balmy as an ocean breeze.
The latter’s joke album cover, showing Roberts on the courthouse steps, declared guilty of being a “…dirty, funky, swamp, bossa nova guitar player,” is an accurate but incomplete description. He was also one of the greatest jazz guitarists of all-time and one of the defining sounds of the ’60s.
This review originally appeared in VG‘s Aug. ’01 issue.