Joe Pass - guitar; Mario Suraci - bass; Glenn Cronkhite - drums
One of the most gifted virtuosos in the history of jazz guitar, Joe Pass put his stamp on the art of unaccompanied guitar with his stunning 1974 recording, the aptly-titled Virtuoso. For this Great American Music Hall performance, which came a few months after that critically acclaimed release, Pass delivered his six-string magic on a collection of well-crafted, unaccompanied extrapolations on familiar jazz standards. This set stands as a virtual clinic for aspiring jazz guitarists while also appealing to jazz fans who are more taken by melody than technique. Pass expertly straddled that great divide in concert, offering music that impressed on the highest possible technical level but also engaged listeners on a purely melodic level.
Pass opens his set with an unaccompanied medley that showcases the full scope of his genius—a stunning extrapolation of the jazz standard "Darn That Dream" that segues neatly to a gorgeous reading of the sublime ballad "What Are You Doing The Rest Of Your Life." Through his remarkable method of walking bass lines while simultaneously playing sophisticated chord voicings and scales along with fast bop-informed single note fills, Pass is indeed a one-man band on the GAMH stage. Next is a similarly breathtaking feat of juggling chords, melodic counterpoint and walking bass lines—an unaccompanied version of Duke Ellington's "Do Nothing 'Til You Hear From Me" (recorded on Portraits of Duke Ellington, just a month after the maestro's death on May 24, 1974), which Pass imbues with uncanny finesse and feeling.
Following a freeform intro, Pass launches into a daring extrapolation on Stevie Wonder's "You Are the Sunshine of My Life" in which he nonchalantly changes up the rhythm and harmony while adding impromptu filigrees throughout the course of this stunning improvisation. Pass then invites two Bay Area players, bassist Mario Suraci and drummer Glenn Cronkhite, on stage for a bossa nova rendition of the oft-covered Michel Legrand composition "Watch What Happens" and a sublime reading of the Vernon Duke-Ira Gershwin standard "I Can't Get Started" (a tune introduced by Bob Hope in the Broadway musical production of Ziegfeld Follies of 1936 which was subsequently covered by everyone in the jazz world from trumpeters Bunny Berigan, Dizzy Gillespie, and Chet Baker to saxophonists Lester Young and Sonny Rollins to vocalists Billie Holiday and Carmen McRae, among countless others). With the presence of bassist Suraci, Pass is naturally freed up to experiment more freely with chord voicings and substitutions while also engaging in spiraling melodic improvisations, as he does so nonchalantly on "I Can't Get Started."
Suraci and Cronkhite remain on stage for a spirited rendition of the Swing era jam vehicle "Stompin' at the Savoy," a vibrant number originally written for the Chick Webb Orchestra and which also became a theme of sorts for the Benny Goodman Orchestra. Cronkhite engages in some impromptu call-and-response phrases with Pass near the end of this blues-tinged romp. They continue with a blazing up-tempo rendition of "Secret Love," a tune introduced by Doris Day as a heart-wrenching ballad in the 1953 film Calamity Jane and turned into a boppish barn-burner by Pass and his local Bay Area rhythm tandem. They close this GAMH set with a swinging mid-tempo rendition of W.C. Handy's "St. Louis Blues," a perfect vehicle to showcase the guitarist's inherent bluesy quality and urge to swing.
Born on January 13, 1929 in New Brunswick, New Jersey (his given name is actually Joseph Anthony Jacobi Passalacqua) charted a new path for guitar and had a profound influence on generations of players over the years. The son of a Sicilian-born steel mill worker, he was raised in Johnstown, Pennsylvania and began to dabble on a $17 beginner's guitar at age nine after see the singing cowboy Gene Autry on TV. He almost immediately began picking up tunes by ear and developed quickly. As a teenager, Pass honed his skills in bands led by Tony Pastor and Charlie Barnet. He began traveling with small jazz groups and eventually moved to New York City, where he got swept up in the plague of heroin. Following a two-and-a-half year stay in Synanon House, the Santa Monica, California drug rehabilitation center, Pass emerged in 1962, at age 33, and began recording for Dick Bock's Pacific Jazz label as both a sideman (to the likes of Les McCann, Bud Shank, Richard "Groove Holmes," and Gerald Wilson) and as a leader. One of his early Pacific Jazz recordings, 1964's For Django, is still regarded as a six-string classic. In 1965, Pass toured with George Shearing and also kept busy on the Los Angeles studio scene, appearing as a sideman on countless TV and record sessions.
In the early '70s, Pass began appearing with fellow guitarist Herb Ellis at the intimate Los Angeles jazz club Donte's. Their chemistry together was documented on 1973's Jazz/Concord, the very first album recorded by Carl Jefferson for his Concord Jazz label. They recorded together again the following year at the first annual Concord Summer Festival, which was released in 1974 as Seven, Come Eleven. Meanwhile, Pass had also signed to Norman Granz's new Pablo Records label and in 1974 released his landmark solo album Virtuoso to wild acclaim in the guitar community. That same remarkably productive year, Pass also released The Trio featuring Oscar Peterson and Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen. Pass recorded prolifically through the '70s for Pablo, both as a leader and as a sideman on small group sessions featuring the likes of Benny Carter, Milt Jackson, Herb Ellis, Zoot Sims, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Ella Fitzgerald, and Count Basie. Pass and Ella Fitzgerald established a particularly wonderful duo chemistry, which led to four superb albums together on Pablo—1973's Take Love Easy, 1976's Fitzgerald and Pass...Again, 1983's Speak Love and 1986's Easy Living.
In September, 1991, Pass recorded Virtuoso Live! at the Vine Street Bar & Grill in Hollywood. He continued performing concerts, both solo and small group performances, through his final years (many of which were released posthumously on the Pablo label). Pass died from liver cancer on May 23, 1994 at the age of 65. (Milkowski)