GUITARIST JOE BECK has been a trendsetter in jazz since the late '60s, when he became Miles Davis' first guitarist. Perhaps it was his association with Davis that set Beck off on the road less traveled. With a career roster that includes Stan Getz, Astrud Gilberto, Duke Ellington, Buddy Rich, Paul Simon, Frank Sinatra, James Brown, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Gloria Gaynor and David Sanborn, it's hard to pin him down to any particular genre. His newest project, a duo with flutist Ali Ryerson, makes pigeon-holing Beck even harder.
The duo's new CD release Alto (DMP) features many innovations, from the instrument Beck plays, to the tightly interwoven arrangements, to the unique Direct Stream Digital technology used to record the CD. Beck plays an unusual custom-built guitar tuned radically differently from the standard configuration. Broken into three pairs of strings, he uses specially made bass strings on the bottom, the highest pitched strings are the middle pair, and the middle pitched strings are in the highest position. This setup allows Beck to play effective bass, chords and melody simultaneously, essentially doing the work of two musicians. Flutist Ali Ryerson sticks to the deeper pitched alto flute, playing with a rich, warm sound that blends sublimely with Beck's guitar.
Ryerson has released 10 jazz albums under her own name to much critical acclaim. Her debut album for the Concord Jazz label was Jazziz Magazine's Critic's Pick for 1995. Her career has put her in combination with a diverse list of artists including Kenny Barron, Stephane Grappelli, Laurindo Almeda, Roy Haynes, Art Farmer, Red Rodney and even Luciano Pavarotti. She is a true rarity in the jazz field, a flutist who commands a velvet tone worthy of Jean-Pierre Rampal, yet improvises informed and swinging lines with the best of them.
On their new CD, the pair are joined by percussionist Steve Davis on seven of the 14 tracks. Davis bypasses the typical drum set, instead reaching for a set of percussive timbres that propel without overpowering. At times it sounds like he may be playing his knee, or perhaps a phone book with brushes. Thanks to the DSD recording technology, the percussive work has stunning clarity and tonal depth. This is the best damn phone book you've ever heard!
There is a long-standing tradition of guitarists in jazz extending their lower range to aid in self-accompaniment. George Van Eps pioneered the seven-string guitar, adding an additional string to play bass notes. Canadian guitar genius Lenny Breau devised several new techniques to make his playing sound like two separate guitars. Most notable is the recent emergence of Charlie Hunter, the young renegade eight-string guitarist that dedicates three of his strings to the bass register, leaving the top five strings for chords and melody. On the local scene is Matt Mitchell, a talented young player whose musical concept exploded when he started to play the seven-string. Beck, however, has upped the ante with his unique tuning system, managing to make six strings sound like a bass, a guitar and a keyboard all at once.
A benefit of playing bass and chords simultaneously is the unified concept that emerges. Like a great pianist, Beck backs himself like no one else could; when he gets behind Ryerson, the sheer conviction of his accompaniment creates a compelling drive that is far greater than the sum of its parts. His subtle use of chorus effect gives the top end of his guitar a pristine, keyboard-like quality that adds to the illusion of a phantom player.
In keeping with the unusual nature of this pairing, the duo's repertoire includes tunes off the well-beaten path of jazz standards. While the popular song has long been a choice for improvisational vehicles, the ditties hammered out by Tin Pan Alley tunesmiths seemed more naturally suited to jazz exploration. Beck and Ryerson choose unlikely targets with songs like "Ode To Billy Joe" and "Scarborough Fair," yet manage to find a foothold on which to build solid arrangements. Beyond their acumen as improvisers, their presentation of material is highly evolved, creating an almost chamber-jazz feeling, the result of an intimate musical bond between the performers. In their live sets, the two draw heavily from the Brazilian repertoire of bossa nova and samba, a natural selection for the instrumentation, and well suited to Beck's particular talents as an accompanist. Those who doubt the ability of a duo to sustain interest over an entire evening need only listen to Joe Beck and Ali Ryerson to get a lesson in the new math, one plus one equals three!