No one influenced the way jazz has been played on the guitar for the last 40 years more profoundly than Jimi Hendrix, who wasn’t a jazz musician in any way but nevertheless exerted an influence as profound as that of Charlie Parker or John Coltrane on saxophone players.
Hendrix’s example granted guitarists a licence to exploit the variations in tone and attack made possible by their electronic equipment, to break away from the restrained approach of earlier giants, from Charlie Christian to Wes Montgomery, and to spend more time exploring colour and texture in sound. A list of those players whose conception was touched by his influence to a greater or lesser degree might include such figures as Larry Coryell, Sonny Sharrock, John McLaughlin, Terje Rypdal, David Torn, Vernon Reid, Bill Frisell, Pat Metheny and the man we saw in London last week, Marc Ribot.
So it makes a nice change to listen to a young guitarist whose playing, while thoroughly modern, shows no traces whatsoever of a similar inclination. Romain Pilon was born in Grenoble, spent four years studying at Berklee, lived in New York for a year and is now based in Paris. The Whirlwind label released his first album, by a trio, last year, and now comes its successor, called Colorfield. This one features a quartet in which Pilon is joined by three Americans: the tenor saxophonist Walter Smith III, the double bassist Michael Janisch and the drummer Jamire Williams. Recorded in London, the album contains seven of Pilon’s absorbing compositions plus Horace Silver’s lovely ballad “Lonely Woman” (not to be confused with Ornette Coleman’s oft-performed piece of the same title).
Here is an hour of music in which substance triumphs over style. The tunes are attractive and varied but never flamboyant, and they inspire solos which have no ambition beyond a thorough exploration of their themes and structures. Pilon plays with a small, rounded, soft-edged tone reminiscent of the great Jim Hall, and uses absolutely no effects other than his great ear for harmonically acute, melodically elegant, rhythmically fluid improvisation. His colleagues are equally outstanding, particularly Smith, who confirms the impression he made last year on the trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire’s much praised debut album — he’s another unshowy player, avoiding the customary influences in favour of an approach that might be what you’d get if you blended Warne Marsh with Sam Rivers and added a dash of Joe Henderson.
Janisch and Williams play a full part in these outstanding conversations, in which everyone has something worth saying and no one tries to shout anyone down. If you want a lesson in how to swing very hard indeed without raising the voice above a civilised murmur, listen to the final track, “7th Hour”. All in all, highly recommended.
John Abercrombie is a guitarist of an earlier generation, similarly unflashy and always worth hearing. His 39 Steps caught my eye before it caught my ear. It’s on ECM, whose releases are noted for the quality of the photography adorning their covers. But where there’s usually a moody land- or sea- or cityscape, with this one there’s an aerial picture of part of a football pitch: just the mown grass and the whitewash of the halfway line, the centre circle, the penalty area and the D. No players, however. In this context the image has more to do with geometry than sport; it seems to have no relationship to the music, which is by the American guitarist’s quartet, including Marc Copeland on piano, Drew Gress on double bass and Joey Baron on drums. Or, indeed, to the album’s title, which is reflected in several tunes named after other films by Alfred Hitchcock.
This is an even quieter album than Pilon’s. With six compositions from Abercrombie and two from Copeland, plus the standard “Melancholy Baby” and one short collective improvisation, it barely disturbs the air in the room. A form of chamber music, certainly, but of a very high order when the four men are exploring the nuances of tunes as elegantly appealing as the guitarist’s “Vertigo” or the pianist’s “Spellbound”. Copeland occasionally inserts a hint of astringency that I suppose you could call noir-ish, but no violence is committed. For those prepared to listen closely, the relatively circumscribed emotional range will be no barrier to enjoyment of another exceptional album.
* The drawing is from the cover of Colorfield. It is uncredited.