John Wheatcroft looks at one of the most admired, the most imitated and most sampled guitarists ever in jazz and popular music.
John Wheatcroft uncovers the harmonic delights of American jazz legend, Grant Green.
Grant Green arrived in New York in the late 1950s, and for the next two decades, until his premature death in 1979, was one of the most prolific and influential jazz players on the scene. Green’s style brought energy, soul and sophistication to countless gigs and recording sessions, both as a leader and sideman. He spent many years as the Blue Note Records house guitarist, with a style that was at all times authentic, original, innovative, creative, funky, soulful and constantly evolving. Both Wes Montgomery and George Benson were huge fans, with Benson stating that Grant was his personal favourite guitar player.
Green contributed to over 100 albums and at least 30 as leader. His music found a new audience after his death, as hip-hop producers were drawn to his grooving later-era rhythm and blues inspired sound, and his back catalogue has been sampled heavily.
Grant’s playing had both swing and groove. There was directness to his singlenote lines and at times his sound could be primal and raw. You can clearly hear his two big jazz influences, guitarist Charlie Christian and alto saxophone genius Charlie Parker, but he also loved James Brown and this came out in his music loud and clear, particularly in the later period. There was also a strong blues and gospel feeling to his playing, with tons of Pentatonic action and he favoured single notes peppered with the occasional doublestop, rather than use octaves like Wes, or chord fragments like George.
There are eight concise but complete musical examples for you to learn, loosely following the evolution of Green’s style through the years. Naturally, the intention is to learn each example complete as written in its entirety. Once you’ve done this, however, there is a great deal to be learnt from breaking each example down into smaller pieces, identifying any particularly appealing short musical fragments and aim to incorporate these tiny pieces of language into your playing style, combining things in real time to create longer and more personal musical statements.
One of the biggest misconceptions about improvisation is that repetition should be avoided at all costs. In reality, quite the opposite can be the case, allowing the performer to establish an idea and take the listener on a musical journey through each repetition by making very slight adjustments as they go. Needless to say, repetition formed a big part of Grant’s style, so make sure you go to the source and see if you can hear when he employs anything similar to the ideas you see before you and cherry pick those that you like best. And, as always, enjoy.
NEXT MONTH John introduces the brilliant bluesy jazz licks of the wonderful Kenny Burrell
He could leave out two or three notes and you wouldn’t know it, because you could feel the rest of the notes
Grant Green, here playing a gorgeous Epiphone Emperor
Green used a selection of guitars throughout his career, including Gibson and Epiphone, and notably a D’Aquisto New Yorker that after Grant’s death was owned by George Benson. According to George, a big part of Green’s tone came from his amp settings, with the bass and treble turned low and the mids extremely high, so we’d suggest selecting the neck pickup and do the same to get some of that trademark clarity and bite.