If Mosaic’s compilations haven’t yet appeared on your radar screen, let me enlighten you. Mosaic issues stunningly beautiful and often sprawling tributes to legendary jazz performers like Charlie Parker, Sonny Stitt, Hank Mobley, J.J. Johnson and, more to the point, important guitarists like Johnny Smith, Joe Pass, Django Reinhardt and Eddie Lang. Their newest offering is an absolute must-have for music fans of every persuasion.
The Complete Verve Tal Farlow Sessions documents the great jazz guitarist’s work in his most illustrious and productive period, 1952-’59. On seven CDs spanning seven years, this definitive collection gathers 99 tracks from Tal’s early sideman dates to his ascendance as a leader and the most formidable jazz picker of the era. The program presents all the Norgran and Verve recordings in chronological order plus previously unissued alternate takes and breakdowns and false starts. As usual, the packaging is gorgeously rendered in elegant black and white, and includes a lavish booklet featuring Tal’s biography, photos, session notes, discography, commentary from notables like Johnny Smith, Jimmy Bruno, Jack Wilkins, and Jimmy Wyble, and illuminating liner notes by Howard Alden. I cannot overstate my appreciation for the latter element. It’s a treat, and invaluable to have a knowledgeable guitarist the caliber of Alden sharing his insights and guiding us through Tal’s music.
Tal Farlow’s legacy is part and parcel of guitar lore. His approach influenced contemporaries Howard Roberts, Joe Pass, and Hank Garland, as well as today’s jazz guitarists, fusion players John McLaughlin and Larry Coryell, and even discerning rockers like Alvin Lee and Steve Howe. The story of how and why Tal made such an enduring and far-reaching impression is told eloquently with the Verve sessions. Bebop was new and the idea was to burn. And burn Tal did. In his conception, this meant channeling prodigious technique and powerful drive into guitar statements of such awe-inspiring import that the art form would never again be the same. In this sense, Tal is the granddaddy of all shredders. Modeling his impassioned lines on precedents set by Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, he moved past his Charlie Christian-based roots and elevated meaningful technical playing – chops – to unimagined heights.
Representative tracks in this set yield an embarrassment of riches and include the dazzling uptempo performances of “Love Nest,” “Everything I’ve Got,” “Cherokee,” “Fascinating Rhythm,” “Just One of Those Things,” “Stompin’ at the Savoy,” “Tea for Two,” “The Way You Look Tonight,” “Anything Goes,” “Yesterdays,” “Lean on Me,” and “‘Deed I Do.” Even a cursory listen leaves no room for doubt about how and why Tal set standards in the genre.
In a similar vein are Tal’s flowing double-timed lines; akin to the complex, crammed phrases of bebop saxophonists, executed with as much bravura and agility on the guitar. Double-timing is an approach cultivated by jazz wind players in which long strings of 16th notes or the equivalent are woven into the soloist’s improvisations, generating tremendous forward motion, strong dramatic contrast, and sheer excitement. At this, Tal was a pioneer and master. Those fortunate enough to see him walked away mesmerized and confounded by his Olympian stretches and remarkably adroit and seemingly effortless navigation of the fingerboard.
Tal earned an appropriate nickname – the Octopus – for his prowess. This aspect of his mythos and musicianship is reflected in this set. Check out his solos in “Lessons in Love,” “Hit the Road to Dreamland,” “Out of Nowhere,” “Manhattan,” “Wonder Why,” and “Tal’s Blues.”
While many listeners were initially drawn to Tal’s mindboggling chops, those who stayed and explored his music further were rewarded with a wealth of sounds, approaches, and textures. Tal was an innovator who experimented with an unorthodox tuning (the fifth string dropped an octave) to expand the guitar’s range in the beautiful chord solos of “Autumn in New York,” “Little Girl Blue,” and “Autumn Leaves.” And speaking of chord-melody moments, Tal developed a harmonically advanced style inspired by pianists, and facilitated by his large hands and equally large ears; epitomized in cuts like “My Old Flame,” “This is Always,” “We’ll Be Together Again” and “Like Someone in Love.”
Tal incorporated numerous colorful effects into his playing. Chief among these are the intriguing harmonics (artificial and natural) worked into arrangements of “Isn’t it Romantic,” “I Remember You,” “Skylark,” “Little Girl Blue,” “How Deep is the Ocean,” and “This is Always.” Along similar lines is the percussive timbre Tal exploited for his muted ostinato behind Red Norvo in “Tenderly.” And Tal gave us a preview of the Wes Montgomery tone with thumbplucking in “Lullaby of the Leaves,” “We’ll Be Together Again,” “Walkin’,” “Blues in the Night,” and “Blue Funk.”
Speed and sonics aside, Mosaic’s set teems with examples of Tal’s driving feel and sense of swing. He excels at medium uptempo grooves, as evidenced in “If There is Someone Lovelier Than You,” “Gibson Boy,” “Have You Met Miss Jones,” “I Remember You,” “It’s You or No One,” “Lorinesque,” “Swingin’ ‘Til the Girls Come Home,” “The More I See You,” and others. Tal also played the blues with a unique spirit, as revealed in “Tal’s Blues,” “Blues in the Closet,” and “Telefunky.”
As innovative and distinctive as Tal was, he didn’t operate in a vacuum. He joined the cultural milieu as bebop reached fruition, reflected the great ’50s jazz epoch, and shared the scene with stellar guitarists like Barney Kessel, Jimmy Raney and Johnny Smith. He worked in numerous settings, from a vibes/guitar/bass trio to traditional combos with piano and rhythm guitar as well as drummerless trios (a favorite setting) and cool-toned chamber-jazz ensembles.
Despite his enormous talent, Tal valued some things over a life in the music business. In 1958 he went into semi-retirement to resurface only occasionally for recordings and sporadic appearances. His withdrawal from the scene coincided with a shift in music and represented a closing of a circle; making the sounds on this collection of classics even more precious and iconic.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s Oct. ’04 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.