There are a lot of great guitarists in the history of jazz. Of the ones I’ve had the pleasure of surveying, Wes Montgomery is probably the greatest, and that’s a not-at-all-uncommon opinion. But the one I find myself turning to again and again, the guitarist who is probably my favorite of all of them, is Grant Green.
Green’s career was fraught with ironies and difficulties. Despite being one of the most recorded guitarists in the history of jazz, most of his work was as a sideman, and quite a lot of his best work as a leader was never released during his lifetime. I’ve read from more than one source that Green was an instant favorite of Alfred Lion, co-founder of Blue Note Records, which is what lead Lion to include Green as a sideman on so many sessions. But, after initially saturating the market with Green’s albums, Lion seemed to have lost interest in advancing Green’s career as a leader. Recording jazz albums, in Blue Note’s heyday, was a relatively inexpensive affair. But issuing and promoting recordings was another matter entirely. None of Green’s many early 1960s albums as a leader caught fire.
But Lion isn’t entirely to blame. Green’s style simply doesn’t appeal to everyone. At its best, his playing has a wonderful groove, a deep blues feeling, and a beautiful, horn-like quality. But it’s also true that he pulls from the same bag of tricks on many tracks. And his minimalism–particularly his frequent use of repetition–can leave you, at times, scratching your head wondering if you’ve just witnessed something profound in its sheer modernity, or if Green just, for a few bars at least, ran out of things to say.
It’s also true, of course, that, when it comes to jazz, horn players, particularly saxophone players, rule the roost. I admit that I spent most of my own life as a jazz fan not caring too much for jazz guitarists. And it was only when I started studying jazz guitar myself that I came to really appreciate them. It’s hard to find meaningful stats, but I’m sure even the mighty Wes Montgomery never moved as many units as John Coltrane. There was a time when jazz was the popular music of the United States, but that time passed long ago. Scan the RIAA’s top 100 albums, and you’ll only find a handful of jazz albums. And once you disqualify the two or three of them that are by Kenny G, there’s not really much left.
Despite coming of age as a jazz musician during a time when popular interest in jazz was on the decline, despite having some of his finest work languish in the Blue Note vaults until after his death, and despite a fairly crippling heroin addiction that surely contributed to his early death, at age forty three, Green was a man of supreme confidence, with a flair for self-promotion bordering on the obnoxious. He wore green suits, drove a green Cadillac, and liked to include his name in the titles of many of his albums and compositions:
- “Grant’s First Stand” from First Session (1961)
- Grant’s First Stand (1961)
- Green Street (1961)
- “No 1 Green Street”, “Grant’s Dimensions”, and “Green With Envy” from Green Street (1961)
- “Grantstand” and “Green’s Greenery” from Grantstand (1961)
- Green is Beautiful (1970)
- Shades of Green (1971)
- “Green Jeans” from Matador (1979)
- “On Green Dolphin Street” from Gooden’s Corner (1980)
To be fair, the last one isn’t a Green composition, but all of the rest are. You get the idea. Green was not unfamiliar with swagger. He didn’t wear hats. But, if he had, I’m sure he would have worn them like Walt Whitman: as he pleased, indoors or out. Whitman, too, it must be remembered, was a shameless self-promotor.
Green’s chutzpah reaches its apex on what is, in my opinion, his best album, Matador. Though recorded in 1964–when Green was at the peak of his creative powers as a hard bop guitarist–Green’s finest album wasn’t released until after his death in 1979, and even then only in Japan. It didn’t see a US release until 1990. Produced by Lion and recorded by Rudy Van Gelder at his Englewood Cliffs, NJ studio, Green’s rhythm section on Matador included McCoy Tyner on piano and Elvin Jones on drums. With half of the John Coltrane quartet on the date, only a man of Green’s hubris would record a cover of “My Favorite Things,” which Coltrane himself had recorded and released on an album of the same title in 1961. I am reminded of Woody Allen’s character’s line from Stardust Memories: “An homage? No, we stole that outright.”
Before you dismiss Green as some arrogant fool, you really have to hear his version of “My Favorite Things.” It is stunningly good. It may even be better than Coltrane’s version. And, good as it is, it is only the second best track on a solid album. The finest track on Matador is the Green-penned eponymous title track. If this album had been released in the 1960s, Green’s reputation would likely be considerably larger than it is, and “Matador” might have become a standard, instead of a relatively obscure track. And that’s a shame, because it’s a beautiful piece of work.
At the end of his recording career, from Carryin’ On (1969) to his final album, Live at the Lighthouse (1972), Green shifts his focus from hard bop to funk. While that part of his career is not without its pleasures, it pales in comparison to the body of work that preceded it. At his best, Green’s seemingly simple lines bristle with rhythmic complexity and infectious groove. Like the best hard bop, his soulful lines bring a bluesy R&B influence into jazz without letting jazz turn into R&B or blues. It’s a balance he maintained for a long time.