Tal Farlow - guitar
Johnny Knapp - piano
Junie Booth - bass
Mousie Alexander - drums
With the physical advantage of having extremely large hands (earning him the nickname "Octopus"), Talmadge Farlow created a new modernized approach jazz guitar playing during the 1950s. Following in the wake of such beboppers as Barney Kessel, Billy Bauer, and Bill DeArango, Farlow came out with an aggressive, driving style that suited the hard bop attitude of the '50s while also expanding the harmonic palette of the guitar with the unusual chord voicings he was able to concoct with larger stretches on his fretting hand and also through his use of ringing false harmonics on the fretboard.
A native of Greensboro, North Carolina (born June 7, 1921), Farlow landed in New York in 1944 at the height of the bebop craze on 52nd Street. He began playing in a trio led by pianist/vibraphonist/singer Dardanelle Breckenridge. During their six-month engagement at the Copa Lounge, Tal would go down to 52nd Street after his gig to catch the new sounds of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Art Tatum, and Bud Powell. By 1946, he began working in a drum-less quartet led by clarinetist Buddy De Franco (with John Levy on bass and Milt Jackson on vibes). That gig put greater demands on the guitarist to produce the rhythm of the band, which accounted for his driving style. By 1948, Farlow replaced guitarist Mundell Lowe in vibist Marjorie Hyams' trio. They had a lengthy engagement at The Three Dueces on 52nd Street, which also allowed Farlow to soak up the sounds of bebop on a nightly basis.
Farlow would make his biggest waves on the jazz scene after joining vibist Red Norvo's innovative trio in 1949 (which included a young Charles Mingus on bass). Norvo was famous for playing at impossibly fast tempos, and Farlow fit the bill with his speedy, agile lines and pristine articulation on the guitar. (Tunes like "Move" and "Zing Went the Strings of My Heart" from 1950's Red Norvo Trio are prime examples of Farlow's virtuosity at blazing tempos.) Farlow's aggressive yet clean attack and serpentine lines influenced a whole line of disciples, including Billy Bean, John Pisano, Hank Garland, Jimmy Wyble, and Jack Wilkins.
Following his four-year tenure in Red Norvo's trio, Farlow worked briefly in trumpeter Howard McGhee's bop quintet before joining Artie Shaw's Gramercy Park Five for six months in 1953. He subsequently played on sessions for Oscar Pettiford's Sextet, a group led by Clark Terry and several West Coast artists, including Shorty Rogers, Jimmy Giuffre, and Chico Hamilton before getting his own first recording date as a leader for Blue Note in 1954. Promoter Norman Granz then signed Farlow to his Norgran label (a predecessor of Verve) and documented the great guitarist through the '50s on a string of excellent recordings, most notably 1956's Tal and 1957's The Swinging Guitar (both drum-less trio sessions with pianist Eddie Costa and bassist Vinnie Burke), and 1958's This is Tal Farlow (a quintet date with pianist Hank Jones, cellist Oscar Pettiford, bassist Ray Brown, and drummer Louis Bellson).
In 1959, at the peak of his powers, Farlow settled into semi-retirement in Sea Bright, New Jersey, returning to a career as a sign painter. He emerged 10 years later with 1969's The Return of Tal Farlow on the Prestige label and continued to record through the '70s and '80s for the Concord label (including 1982's excellent Cookin' on All Burners). He was the honoree of a 1989 tribute concert at Los Angeles' Wiltern Theatre, which included guitarists Larry Coryell, Larry Carlton, John Abercrombie, and John Scofield (documented on the Verve/Jazzvisions video and CD, All Strings Attached). Several guitar greats also paid tribute to Farlow at the 1996 JVC Jazz Festival in celebration of his 75th birthday. The guitar great died of cancer two years later on July 25, 1998, at the age of 77. He is profiled in the definitive 1981 documentary Talmage Farlow.
This 1968 Newport performance, coming right on the cusp of Farlow's return to the scene, shows that his chops are indeed in fine shape in spite of his lengthy layoff. The quartet opens with a driving take on George Gershwin's "Summertime." We first hear pianist Johnny Knapp setting a gentle mood with a spacious solo intro before bassist Junie Booth and drummer Mousie Alexander jump on the driving uptempo theme. Farlow finally enters the fray at the 1:38 mark and they're off to the races. Holding nothing back, he spins endlessly inventive lines coming out of the gate as Alexander drives the quartet with his aggressive swing factor. At the 3:28 mark, Tal kicks on an octave pedal (a new toy he undoubtedly picked up during his semi-retirement) and proceeds to play with the effect through his solo. Behind Knapp's piano solo, Farlow alternately comps chords and taps his strings percussively to get a conga effect. The guitarist and pianist then engage in some heated call-and-response exchanges before returning to the familiar head and taking the tune out.
Farlow's chordal mastery and contrapuntal use of basslines against melody are next showcased on his extended solo intro to Richard Rodgers-Lorenz Hart ballad "My Romance." (Note the odd pedaling tone he keeps up on the high E string while simultaneously chording after the band comes in… a near-impossible physical feat that elicits applause from this crowd). Farlow also engages in some signature false harmonics playing on the melody here.
Next up, the quartet offers some "blues with an Eastern flavor," in Tal's words. With Booth bowing his bass and Knapp droning on piano, Farlow bends notes and executes shimmering runs on this bit of modal exotica. The quartet then deals in some jaunty swing on a spirited run through Horace Silver's gospel-tinged "The Preacher" before closing out their set with a blazing rendition of "Fascinating Rhythm," the title track of the guitarist's 1955 Norgran album. Farlow's first-ever appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival was indeed a triumph and served as a warm welcome back to the scene. (Milkowski)