Born To Be Blue: Grant Green (1935 – 1979)

The last couple of weeks I’ve been listening to a lot of Grant Green. There are three tunes in particular that I keep returning to. They are “Blues In Maude’s Flat”, “Cool Blues” and “It Ain’t Necessarily So”. As a musician who’s been working on the integrating his blues guitar vocabulary with jazz guitar vocabulary, I find Grant Green’s playing particularly instructive.
His playing has a soulful quality that I find lacking in many other jazz guitarists. He played with a sharp percussive attack that made his notes pop and would sometimes sound more at home at Chess Records than Blue Note, the classic jazz label he is most associated with. His lines were uncluttered and lacked the technical flash of other jazz guitarists but which I find is a good part of the appeal: the directness of his playing.
For many years (and even now), Grant Green was given a bad rap because many of his later recordings were of a more “commercial” nature. I can’t help but think that part of that is the typical jazz nerd’s aversion to anything populist. But you can argue that it’s was his later “funk” records that raised his profile which in turn led to the reevaluation and appreciation of his earlier straight ahead jazz records. Green played on more Blue Note sessions during the label’s heyday than almost anyone else, as both sideman and a leader. I doubt that musicians of the caliber of Elvin Jones, McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Smith and Art Blakey would waste their time playing with someone who wasn’t up to snuff. I am focusing on these three recordings because I love their bluesy nature while quite ably demonstrating why he’s worth serious investigation from musicians. If you’re a blues oriented guitarist looking to get inspiration (and cop some lines) from jazz players, Grant Green would be a great place to start.

With “Blues In Maude’s Flat”, you have your classic jazz organ combo of Hammond B-3 organ, tenor sax, guitar and drums. The cut has a great “after hours” vibe and the soloists (Yusef Lateef on tenor sax, Jack McDuff on organ) have plenty of space to stretch out.  There is a measured quality to everyone’s playing that sustains the mood of the whole tune for 15 minutes. Another nice touch: for each soloist, the organ and drums (the excellent Al Harewood) lay back for two choruses before kicking into a swing groove. This simple arrangement touch adds a bit of drama to the tune and gives it some dynamic variety.
Green stated that his two biggest influences were Charlie Christian (early jazz guitar pioneer) and Charlie Parker (seminal jazz figure) and you can hear both of them in this solo. There some Charlie Christian riffing early on but by the sixth chorus Green is channeling some serious Parker stuff, adapting Bird’s alto sax lines to the guitar. There are times during the solo that Green’s lines have a floating melodic quality while being rhythmically in the pocket, very reminiscent of Bird.  

Grant Green – Blues In Maude’s Flat

 

“Cool Blues” (what a great title!) is a Charlie Parker tune and like the previous tune, is a 12 bar jazz blues. It’s a great little bebop riff tune. If you check out Charlie Parker live recordings, you can hear him drop this riff into different solos often and it’s been quoted by numerable musicians ever since. The personal is Ike Quebec – tenor sax, Sonny Clark – piano, Sam Jones – bass and Louis Hayes – drums joining Green’s guitar. Here, Grant is wearing his Bird feathers proudly. As I said earlier, a great place to get some bebop into your blues guitar. To help facilitate that, you can check out a transcription of Green’s solo here (special thanks to Jason Shadrick): http://www.jasonshadrick.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/09/GrantCoolBlues.pdf

Grant Green – Cool Blues

 

With similar personal to “Cool Blues” (replace Louis Hayes with the legendary Art Blakey on drums and lose the sax), this is is Grant Green’s take on the Gershwin tune “It Ain’t Necessarily So” (from Porgy & Bess). Don’t expect a faithful rendition of the original melody and harmony, Green pretty much remakes the tune in his own image, only hinting at the original Gershwin melody. In addition, he restructures the harmony into alternating vamp like sections, one featuring a descending scale line and the other a cycle of fifths sequence.
First off, Blakey is amazing here. This thing has a groove that just won’t quit. You can actually hear Art cheering on the the other players and feel the infectious energy. I especially love it at the 3:37 mark when Green repeatably plays a six note figure of sixteenth notes over the entire chorus. By superimposing the six notes pattern over a sixteen note matrix, the beginning of the pattern shifts throughout the chorus. It also creates tension in the solo that is released when he breaks off the pattern and begins the next chorus. Things like this demonstrate the rhythmic sophistication of Green’s playing. I believe one of the reason why Green’s later jazz funk recordings hold up so well can be attributed to the advanced rhythmic sense in his playing.

Grant Green – It Ain’t Necessarily So

There is a fair amount of Grant Green that you can listen to over You Tube, both from his straight jazz and the jazz funk phases of his career.  Check him out. It will definitely be worth your attention.

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Posted in Blues, Jazz, Music Appreciation and Analysis

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