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Joe Pass, the most recorded guitarist in jazz history

Joe Pass, the most recorded guitarist in jazz history

He became known for his sensitive accompaniment to the likes of pianists George Shearing and Oscar Peterson and singers Sarah Vaughn and Carmen McRae.

He would later share the spotlight with such legends as Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, and Duke Ellington. A consummate accompanist (“Singers worshiped him ,” wrote Leonard Feather) , Joe Pass really excelled as a soloist. It’s in that role we see him on this video.

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Born Joseph Anthony Passalaqua in New Brunswick, New Jersey in 1929, Pass was a child prodigy on the guitar. Encouraged by a strict father who had him practicing up to six hours a day, Pass was playing in local bands at age 12 in his hometown, Johnstown, Pennsylvania.

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By the time he was 18 he was on the road with Charlie Barnet’s orchestra (Barney Kessel had held the guitar chair in that band prior to Pass). Pass found himself in New York “hanging around the bebop scene” just as that new music was gelling. He was an eager participant in endless jam sessions, but fell prey to a frequent pitfall of the late 194 0s jazz scene, heroin.

Pass spent the 1950s in a twilight zone of drug addiction, playing bebop for strippers (“They didn’t care what you played, as long as the tempo was right”) and wandering from one marginal gig to the next. He served time for possession in Texas and finally straightened himself out in 1961 at California’s Synanon Foundation.

The 1962 Pacific Jazz release, Sounds of Synanon, focused attention on Pass, who earned d o w n beat’s New Star award in 1963. His subsequent albums as frontman and in the company of the likes of Les McCann and Richard ‘Groove’ Holmes were augmented by extensive studio session work in the 1960s.

1974’s Virtuoso album (Pablo 2310 707) was Pass’s break-through. It showcased the solo style seen in this video. “Years ago,” Pass told Jim Ferguson ( Guitar Player, September 1984), “I played the first part of a set alone because I couldn’t find my rhythm section —they were out in the crowd drinking.”

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In time, Pass found he had enough material and facility to play an entire set solo, thanks in part to his development of finger-style technique. “I always used a pick in the past,” he told Ferguson, “but practically everything I do now is finger style.”

In a 1986, Guitar Player cover feature, “One On One with Joe Pass” (August 1986 ), Pass elaborated: “My music is based on a finger style approach,” Pass wrote, “which enables you to play things that are very difficult, if not impossible, to do with a pick. By using your fingers, you can play two different parts at the same time, freely switch between single notes and chords, and have more control over the chord voicings.”

We see what Pass means in a 1974 performance of his “Original Blues in G” at Ronnie Scott’s club in London. He invests the blues structure with exceptional harmonic sophistication.

Like wise, he lends ample bluesiness to Duke Ellington’s “Do Nothin’ Till You Hear from Me,” a 1975 performance for the BBC. It illustrates Pass’s conviction: “When you’re including bass, melody, and chords all at once, things work best w hen the melody is your most import ant consideration. In other words, you should always have a melodic line in m ind w hen moving from chord to chord.”

Few guitarists ever made those moves with such dazzling elegance as Joe Pass. “A lot of guitar players play solos,” observed Pass’s longtime accompanist, guitarist John Pisano, “but for the most part they’re kind of memorized and pretty much worked out with a few variations.

But Joe, every night, whatever the tune might be he would do differently. He’d play in different keys; he’d put himself on the spot. I think that was one of the things that people picked up on. You’d be holding your breath, saying, ‘How’s he going to get out of  this one?’”

The guitar lost its master improviser on May 23, 1994.

Joe Pass — Meditation Solo Guitar [Full Album 2002] Jazz

Recorded live between January 30 and February 1, 1992 in Oakland, CA when Joe was 63, two years before his death in 1994. Although he’ was playing in a calmer, more sedate style than he did on his fiery solo discs of the early 70’s (i.e. Virtuoso), this recording shows that he had lost none of his amazing dexterity or ability to play simultaneous lead and chords.

This is one guy playing one six-string guitar in standard tuning with his fingers (no pick)—even though, at times, you almost think you hear two guitars. Joe Pass set a lofty standard of Jazz guitar virtuosity that will be tough for anyone to surpass.

Regarding Meditation, Jim Ferguson wrote (in JazzTimes): “In Pass’ hands, no tune seemed to elude performance, and he tackled everything–from bebop numbers to waltzes to standards to Latin pieces–with astonishing ease and effectiveness, something that is amply evident throughout this set…highlights include a pensive rubato treatment of “Shadow Waltz,” a slowly grooving “Mood Indigo” and a swinging “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” whose title reflects a sentiment that applies to Pass’ position at the very top of the list of the world’s finest jazz guitarists.”

Track listing

"Meditation (Meditação)" (Antônio Carlos Jobim, Newton Mendonça, Norman Gimbel) – 4:52
"Shadow Waltz" (Al Dubin, Harry Warren) – 2:05
"Mood Indigo" (Duke Ellington, Irving Mills, Barney Bigard) – 3:24
"More Than You Know" (Vincent Youmans, Edward Eliscu, Billy Rose) – 3:52
"When Your Lover Has Gone" (Einar A. Swan) – 6:41
"Everything Happens to Me" (Tom Adair, Matt Dennis) – 4:41
"It's All Right With Me" (Cole Porter) – 4:51
"I'll Never Be The Same" (Matty Malneck, Frank Signorelli, Gus Kahn) – 4:59
"You Stepped Out of a Dream" (Nacio Herb Brown, Gus Kahn) – 3:54
"All the Things You Are" (Oscar Hammerstein II, Jerome Kern) – 4:06
"How Deep Is the Ocean?" (Irving Berlin) – 6:29
"They Can't Take That Away from Me" (George Gershwin, Ira Gershwin) – 2:42