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February 22nd, 2012 12:01 am BRETT CAMPBELL | Music Stories

Here’s Where the Strings Come In

A survey of jazz guitar from Django to the Portland Jazz Festival.

music_jazz_3816Clockwise from top left: Charlie Christian, Django Reinhardt, Jim Hall, Wes Montgomery, Dan Balmer, Charlie Hunter and Bill Frisell. - Photo of Dan Balmer by Greg Aiello, photo of Bill Frisell by Jimmy Katz
There’s no official theme for this year’s Portland Jazz Festival. That’s fine: They’re often contrived anyway. Still, the presence of Seattle’s Bill Frisell and Berkeleyite-turned-Brooklynite Charlie Hunter, along with several shows by Portland’s fretboard master, Dan Balmer, puts the guitar front and center at this year’s fest. We asked Balmer, who’s given private lessons to some of the city’s finest young guitarists—at Lincoln High School and Lewis & Clark College—for a quick overview of his instrument’s jazz legacy, beginning with the founding fathers and wrapping up with artists playing this year’s jazz festival.

Charlie Christian and Django Reinhardt
“Those are the pillars that contemporary jazz guitar is built on,” Balmer says. In less than three years between the time he joined Benny Goodman’s sextet and his death at age 25 in 1942, Christian made the electric guitar into a powerful jazz instrument and influenced practically everyone who played it after him, whether they know it or not. Around the same time, the incomparable Belgian gypsy Reinhardt was developing the swinging “le jazz hot” with his partner, violinist Stephane Grappelli. Reinhardt is the deity most subsequent guitar heroes worship.

Wes Montgomery
The next generation brought two more tremendously influential voices. “One major school came out of Wes Montgomery, including his contemporary, Grant Green, George Benson, Pat Martino” and dozens more, Balmer says, praising Montgomery’s “playing of octaves, his swingingness, his advanced harmonic level, his chord-soloing ability, the logic with which he played.”

Jim Hall
“Guys like Pat Metheny down to Kurt Rosenwinkel came out of his approach—exploratory, less bluesy, less traditional, more surprising, more abstract,” Balmer says. “He influenced a lot of people that then themselves became influential, including a lot of the hip guys in New York.”

Bill Frisell
“I’ll be introducing him at his concert Saturday,” Balmer says, noting that Frisell’s heady days in New York City’s famed avant-garde music scene of the 1970s through the ’90s gave him the credibility to attract fans when he started playing music that had a country or folk feel, almost a pedal steel sound.

“From New York avant-garde to country and bluegrass to very pastoral folk stuff—that’s a pretty heavy body of accomplishment,” Balmer says. “What makes Frisell important is that he’s not only a great, prolific composer, but he also has his own immediately recognizable sound, and he’s managed to reach a wide audience with both.”

Charlie Hunter
Balmer acknowledges that the generation-younger Hunter hasn’t yet reached Frisell’s level of achievement, but with his eight- or seven-string guitar-plus-bass setup, “He’s come up with this completely crazy idea, something unique, new and different, which is hard,” Balmer says. “And it’s something people like to hear, which is even harder.” Despite covering everyone—from Marley to Monk to Nirvana—and flirting with jam-band, hip-hop and neo-soul scenes, Hunter “has developed it and adapted it all completely to his own recognizable voice,” Balmer says.

Dan Balmer

His week at the jazz festival demonstrates Balmer’s stylistic range. Last Saturday, he played his own mainstream music with his trio, then on Sunday joined New York’s avant-garde Jazz Passengers. You can hear his harder-rocking, drum-and-bass-influenced Go By Train trio, and Balmer plays still another style every week in Mel Brown’s band at Jimmy Mak’s.

“I’m influenced by everyone on a daily basis,” he says with a chuckle. “My greatest strength and my greatest weakness is that I’m susceptible to anything. I’m big on Frisell, [John] Scofield, Metheny, [John] McLaughlin—there’s something to learn from all of them.”


SEE IT: Dan Balmer’s Go By Train plays Rogue Distillery and Public House, 1339 NW Flanders St., on Thursday, Feb. 23. 9 pm. Free. 21+. Bill Frisell plays the Crystal Ballroom, 1332 W Burnside St., on Friday, Feb. 24. 9:30 pm. $25-$45. All ages. Frisell plays the Newmark Theater, 1111 SW Broadway, on Saturday, Feb. 25, with the 858 Quartet. 7 pm. $28-$58. All ages. Charlie Hunter plays the Crystal Ballroom on Saturday, Feb. 25. 9:30 pm. $25. All ages. For more Portland Jazz Festival events, see pdxjazz.com. 

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