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While old guard guitarists like Kenny Burrell, Jim Hall, Joe Pass, Grant Green and Tal Farlow may have set the standard for playing standards, there’s a new guard of guitarists who are taking up that mantle and putting their own slant on tunes from the Great American Songbook in the process. Perhaps the most audacious of the pack is Brooklyn-based Mike Neer, whose self-released Keepin’ It Real finds him re-imagining tunes from The Real Book through the slightly eccentric prism of lap steel guitar. Accompanying himself on ukulele and 1940 Kay upright bass (overdubbed at his home studio in Brooklyn), Neer carries all of the melodies on a lap steel that once belonged to Hawaiian guitar legend Sol Hoopii, who popularized the instrument in the 1930s. As Neer said, “For lap steel guitarists, Sol is the guy. He’s the Hendrix, the Charlie Christian and Django Reinhardt all wrapped up in one.”
Though the wondrously plaintive cry of Neer’s virtuosic lap steel playing may dominate, Keepin’ It Real also features a host of guest appearances, including vibraphonist Tom Beckham, who is featured on faithful versions of McCoy Tyner’s “Passion Dance” and Horace Silver’s “Nica’s Dream,” accordionist Ron Oswanski, who delivers in poignant fashion alongside Neer’s lap steel on a haunting rendition of Silver’s ballad “Peace,” and guitarist Will Bernard, who doubles the intricate line on Wayne Shorter’s “Witch Hunt.” Other standout tracks on this set of standards include Oliver Nelson’s “Stolen Moments,” Duke Ellington’s ethereal “African Flower” and a spirited Buddy Emmons-styled romp through Wes Montgomery’s “West Coast Blues” with guitarist Chris Crocco.
Canadian guitarist Lorne Lofsky, one of the living masters of pianistic chording on the instrument, is back after a 27-year absence from recording under his own name (his last was 1994’s Bill, Please, his tribute to Bill Evans). On This Song Is New (Modica Music), the former Oscar Peterson sideman and Ed Bickert protege is joined by powerhouse tenor saxophonist Kirk MacDonald and the reliably swinging veteran rhythm tandem of bassist Kieren Overs and drummer Barry Romberg on interpretations of standards like Miles Davis’ “Seven Steps to Heaven” (done in 5/4) and Benny Golson’s“Stablemates” (reimagined as a bossa nova) alongside originals like the harmonically shifting waltz “An Alterior Motif” and the tricky “Evans from Lennie,” a paean to both Bill Evans and Lennie Tristano. And though Lofsky does indeed flaunt his chordal mastery throughout this excellent outing, his fluid single note lines are equally impressive. A must for Ted Greene devotees.
The Brooklyn-based Bay Area native Perry Smith takes an elegant approach to standards on Peace (Smith Tone Records). Accompanied by New York bassist Sam Minaie and Los Angeles drummer Dan Schnelle, the tight, interactive trio explores evergreens like Richard Rodgers’ “This Nearly Was Mine,” Billy Strayhdorn’s “Upper Manhattan Medical Group” and two Jimmy Van Heusen gems in “Darn That Dream” and “Like Someone in Love.” The title track, Horace Silver’s gorgeous ballad “Peace,” is rendered with a touch of reverence by the trio.
Three solo guitar pieces — Thad Jones’ delicate “A Child Is Born,” Victor Scherzinger’s “I Remember You” and Arthur Schwartz’s “Alone Together” — provide an added treat for jazz guitar enthusiasts. Smith’s tone on his Gibson ES-175 is warm and clean while his chordal playing is accomplished and deftly integrated into his brilliant single note lines. Those interested in old school GuitArtistry will definitely want to check this out.
Kansas City-born guitarist and longtime Berklee College of Music educator John Stein has his way with standards on Serendipity (Whaling City Sound). Accompanied by drummer Mike Connors and electric bass guitarist Ed Lucie, who brings a facile Steve Swallow-like quality to the proceedings, this copacetic trio recorded live inside the New Bedford Art Museum in Massachusetts for a live stream concert planned during the pandemic by Whaling City Sound’s Neal Weiss.
The resulting sound is superb and their chemistry sublime on well-known standards like Sonny Rollins’ “Alfie’s Theme,” Thelonious Monk’s “Well, You Needn’t,” Jobim’s “How Insensitive,” Bronislau Kaper’s “On Green Dolphin Street” and the oft-played chestnuts “The Night Has a Thousand Eyes” and “East of the Sun and West of the Moon.” Stein originals like the funky boogaloo “Bing Bang Boom!,” the New Orleans second-line flavored “Happy Hour” and the mid tempo swinger “Elvin!” are icing on this standards cake.
Greg Skaff turns in tasty renditions of “Old Devil Moon,” “Yesterdays” and Duke Ellington’s “Lady of the Lavender Mist,” all accompanied by a regal, octogenarian rhythm tandem of bassist Ron Carter and drummer Albert “Tootie” Heath, along with a poignant solo guitar showcase on Harold Arlen’s “Ill Wind” on Polaris (SMK Jazz).
Maine guitarist Will St. Peter joins Washington state bassist Steve Heffner and Los Angeles drummer Steve Barnes for some beautifully subdued and highly conversational readings of Henry Mancini’s “Days of Wine and Roses,” Sammy Fain’s “I’ll Be Seeing You,” Alec Wilder’s “Blackberry Winter,” Victor Scherzinger’s “Tangerine,” Steve Swallow’s “Falling Grace” and Ornette Coleman’s “Turnaround” on Honestly (OA2 Records).
Sacramento native and former Charles Mingus disciple Henry Robinett plays with a warm, clean tone and a driving sense of swing on Then Again: Jazz Standards, Volume 2 (Nefertiti Records). A spirited quartet session with pianist Joe Gilman handling all the chording and the steady rhythm tandem of bassist Chris Symer and drummer Michael Stephans propelling the session, it features Robinett blowing cascading, Wes-inspired single note solos on swinging uptempo versions of “Yours Is My Heart Alone,” Lerner & Lowe’s “On the Street Where You Live,” Cole Porter’s “I Love You” and Jimmy Van Heusen’s “It Could Happen To You” before settling into sublime standards like “Body and Soul,” “Darn That Dream” and Thelonious Monk’s “Monk’s Mood” with a soulful, sublime touch. An excellent, swinging session for jazz guitar fans to savor.