What's Hot With Jazz Guitar: Tal Farlow

Last week we did Barney Kessel. This week we will tell you about Kessel's contemporary and friend Tal Farlow. Tal Farlow was one of kind, a true be-bop guitarist.

He generally played tunes as very fast tempos (like his the better know horn be-boppers Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker), and did a great many records early in his life. Although his career as a performing and recording artist took a back seat for a number of years when he went back to his original job of graphic artist, he experienced a rebirth in his career later in life.

I have several wonderful CDs by Tal Farlow recorded in the early fifties. Although not as precise and technically fluent as Kessel (however, who else was back than?) he has a very distinct style and plays great lyrical lines with fire and pizzazz at blistering tempos.

Some online info by Peter Watrous (Copyright 1998 The New York Times Company):

Farlow, one of the early be-boppers, was immensely affected by the playing of the pianist Bud Powell. His lines, clean and undistorted, sprang from his guitar; his sense of narrative, the way his ideas swooped and resolved, always sticking closely to the geography of a tune's structure, made his improvisations well worth following. A solo of Farlow's might quote other songs, but it was his swing, an unstoppable forward motion, that gave the solos vitality.

Farlow brought plenty to the guitar vocabulary, perfecting a technique in which he could extract the brilliant sound of a harmonic from any fret of the guitar; a good example is "Isn't It Romantic?," from a Verve album from 1954 titled "Tal." He also tinkered with electronics, devising an instrument that split notes into octaves; one of his early experiments to produce a sweeter-sounding guitar led him to shorten the length of the neck.

Farlow's musical originality was a reflection of his life. His friends included scientists and NASA engineers, and he kept the business side of jazz at a distance.

He was born in Greensboro, N.C., and quickly took up music. His father, who had been an amateur musician, recognized the destructive toll of work in the local mills and factories and urged his son to take up sign painting. That background helped Farlow when the rock-and-roll onslaught of the 1960's deprived many jazz musicians of a steady living.

In the mid-1940's he joined the pianist Dardanelle's group in New York. In 1949 -- he had already dropped out of music once to go back to sign painting -- Farlow joined the clarinetist Buddy DeFranco's small group, as well as Red Norvo's trio, which included a young Charles Mingus on bass.

The recordings the group left behind were striking for their ripping velocity and the accuracy with which the musicians played complex arrangements. And Farlow stands out, his be-bop lines cruising through with cool and power.

He worked a stint with Artie Shaw's Gramercy Five, spent a year working with Norvo again, and in 1954 won his first Down Beat award. Around that time, Farlow began recording under his own name, including a session in 1953 for Blue Note. Then he recorded a series of albums for Verve that included "Tal," "This is Tal Farlow," "Autumn In New York," "The Tal Farlow Album" and more; the albums often included Eddie Costa, a rocking, tough pianist who was his perfect foil.

In 1959 Farlow began retiring from view with greater frequency, moving to Sea Bright, where he read, went boating and taught jazz guitar; a one-hour lesson could turn into a daylong music session.

In the 1970's and 80's he emerged more often, and in the 90's he worked when he wanted, which wasn't often. He recorded through the years for Fantasy Records and Concord Records.

More information on Tal Ffarlow from Andy Sheppard:

Tal Farlow was an exceptionally talented guitarist. Despite the undeniable influence he had on the development of countless younger guitarists he was virtually unknown to jazz fans outside of the jazz guitar "fraternity". This was due to his virtual retirement from the limelight in the late 1950's in search of a quieter life. He returned to his work as a sign painter. In recent years, however, Tal toured extensively in the UK. Tal died on July 25, 1998 at 6.00am at the Memorial Sloane-Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan.

The vast majority of Tal's recordings are impossible to find. Occasionally an early recording is re-released on CD or will appear in the Japanese Import section. Due to popular demand, I have attempted to compile a Tal Farlow discography which may enable you to locate some of Tal's recordings.

From Bob Patterson's site JazzGuitar.com (another great jazz guitar resource site): http://www.jazzguitar.com/features/tal.html

Doc Dosco is a jazz guitarist, composer and audio consultant living in Los Angeles, CA. His website is located at http://www.docdosco.com, where you can find more information on the 'What's Hot in Jazz Guitar' columns, audio clips of Doc's playing, and many additional features. Doc plays Heritage guitars and endorses the new Pignose Valve Tube Amps -- great for jazz (and anything else!)

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